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Nutritional products for aquatic species are staple sales items for local fish stores, and food products continue to outperform, along with livestock sales. Where some dry goods products have been difficult to find due to the pandemic, in the current environment, most stores have consistently been able to find dietary products and fish to sell.

Retailers are seeing business continue to expand as more new customers enter the aquarium hobby.

“How we’ve been able to weather this pandemic [as an industry] is such a blessing,” said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. “I probably hired eight new employees since the pandemic began. I feel really guilty even talking about it because so many people are hurting and so many people are out of work and so many restaurants and food businesses are fighting to survive. And here we are, basking in glory.”

This trend has impacted fish food sales especially, because of fish food’s status as a staple repeat-sales item that every hobbyist requires.

“It appears that consumers are using their aquatic pets as a respite from COVID-19 stress,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “As they spend more time with their fish, they tend to feed them more, which has translated into some spectacular sales increases. We also know from our consumer support team that the number of new aquarium keepers appear to be rising at a pace not seen in years, or maybe even decades.”

This trend of new hobbyists is good news for specialty retailers, he added.

“Fish foods are something consumers need on a regular basis,” Clevers said. “It makes them ideal items for purchase at a local fish store.”

Livestock sales are also strong and are generally in line with fish food sales increases, industry insiders reported.

“Fish [livestock sales] are holding their own,” said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. “Other [pet segments] have definitely gone down considerably in terms of sales.”

In general, hobbyists are better educated and focused on providing appropriate nutrition to their aquatic pets, which is further supporting food sales.

“As the consumer learns more about nutrition, they provide better nutrition for their pets, which means they want fresher food and better ingredients,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of Dr. Tim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. “We see this more frequently in the aquatics segment. Independent stores can rotate stock fast and provide a wide variety of frozen and live foods to help coax customers to come back often.”

Offering a variety of dietary options is effective in keeping customers engaged and helps ensure they are providing the best dietary support to their pets.

“We have also seen the trend of increased sales and strong demand for aquatics products,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. “With increasing demand and the possibility of attracting new customers, retailers should offer a good variety of products. … It is important to offer quality products, when it comes to fish food, especially at this point, where more beginners are coming into local fish stores.”

The Cold Set Heats Up

The aquarium hobby has seen a shift toward premium dietary products, and many retailers report increased demand for frozen and refrigerated foods.

“[In the past year], everybody’s had this surge in sales, so frozen and refrigerated foods are by far the two items that are selling best, with strong increases in volume,” Donston said. “Refrigerated foods are selling well. I think we have to do an order every week. When it comes to frozen food, even before the pandemic, frozen food was up something like 57 percent for us, year over year. Based on conversations I’ve had with several other retailers, they’re seeing the same trend.”

Typically, frozen foods appeal more to saltwater and reef hobbyists.

“I would say about 20 to 25 percent of our customers purchase saltwater products,” Schneider said. “Frozen fish food sales [as a percentage of total fish food sales] track pretty closely with that percentage, meaning that the people buying frozen foods tend to be saltwater hobbyists.”

This dynamic may be shifting, however.

“I think more freshwater hobbyists are going for refrigerated diets, but they are increasingly going for more frozen diets as well,” Donston said. “It’s noteworthy that frozen and refrigerated foods are performing so strongly in general.”

Local fish stores that focus heavily in saltwater sales do tend to see a higher percentage of sales taken up by frozen fish food offerings.

“Frozen tends to sell best,” said Scott Eliason, owner of Artistic Oceans in Las Vegas. “Some people don’t like frozen foods, so some customers chose to stick to flake. I would say frozen foods probably make up 75 percent of our [fish food] sales.”

Quality is always a concern for customers, and both retailers and manufacturers are taking note.

“Consumers are asking for natural, preservative-free fish food more frequently, just as in the dog and cat segments,” Dr. Hovanec pointed out. “Overall, spending a little more for quality is a win-win. Customers get better looking, healthier fish and spend less time cleaning their tank.”

Price point is always a consideration, but consumers appear to be accepting of paying a higher price for what they perceive to be quality products.

“Consumers are striving for quality and especially sustainable products,” Frenken said. “Demand is going towards quality products at slightly higher price points. Nowadays, there is a trend towards natural and sustainable products.”

While there will always be tension between price point and quality, many industry experts are finding that more customers are open to trying foods at higher price points.

“There seems to be a migration toward higher-quality products that leave the tank in better condition and reduce maintenance as well,” Clevers noted. “You’re always going to have roughly 15 percent of your customers who want the cheapest food they can get for their aquatic pets. That leaves 85 percent open to suggestion, provided you have your pitch dialed in and ready to go. Retailers should remember that nobody ever complained about being sold something that performed better than they expected.”

On the Market

Easy Does It

Manufacturers have responded to the increase in demand for diets for pet fish and are offering several new products to meet consumer needs.

Hikari recently introduced Spirulina Mysis Shrimp, part of its Bio-Pure frozen food line, said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. The product consists of frozen mysis with added spirulina in a cube pack format designed for ease of use.

“Any consumer looking to provide their fishy friends the outstanding nutrition of mysis shrimp can now offer color enhancement too,” Clevers said. “We are also about to bring a baby size of Vibra Bites to market, which has been a request that we’ve heard from many smaller-fish keepers.”

The trend toward smaller, nano-sized aquariums continues, and this impacts the types of foods customers are seeking. Nutritional items appropriate for species most often kept in nano aquariums are increasingly available and popular.

“We have launched a new line of Betta and Shrimp Treats and food that are doing well,” said Dr. Timothy Hovanec, owner and president of Dr. Tim’s Aquatics in Moorpark, Calif. “These aquatic animals are usually kept in smaller tanks, and the treats help promote interaction between fish keepers and their animals.”

Aquatics hobbyists tend to be more aware of conservation issues, especially as these relate to wild aquatic organisms. This stretches to their concern for food quality and sustainability.

“Our goal is sustainability, through and through,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America in Montgomeryville, Pa. “In the last few months, we transitioned all our foods to a ‘Nature’ version. That means none of our foods contain any dyes and preservatives, and we only use natural and sustainable ingredients. The natural ingredients are sourced sustainably as well, and the whole production process is designed to be sustainable.”

Products marketed for more advanced applications, such as reef keeping and difficult-to-feed species, are increasingly popular.

“I carry a couple of brands, such as PE Mysis, Rod’s Reef, LRS,” said Scott Eliason, owner of Artistic Oceans in Las Vegas. “These have been doing well for us.”

Flake food is still in high demand, however. Many retailers offer a variety to meet different customers’ needs.

“Frozen brine shrimp and bloodworms are staples,” said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. “We’re pretty focused on Omega One and flake food sales, and we also sell Hikari and San Francisco Bay Brand frozen foods.”

Some retailers have taken novel approaches to meeting market demand, and one option is to offer private labeled foods.

“In 2020, we released our own private-labeled flake food,” said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. “There are a number of fish food manufacturers that will do this for [retailers]. What I like about it is, I’m able to control the ingredients and the foods that I want to sell. But I’m not really quite sold on the idea that it’s been a moneymaker at this point. ... It’s very labor intensive because, of course, I have to package it and label it. However, because we private labeled our own food, which we’re excited about, it’s put a little bit of a crunch on the other dry foods we sell.”

Merchandising

Showing Them the Door

Most specialty retailers stock flake and pellet fish foods on store shelves while relying on refrigerators and freezers located in prominent areas to help drive frozen and refrigerated food sales.

“I use a glass-door freezer to display my frozen foods,” said Scott Eliason, owner of Artistic Oceans in Las Vegas. “That way, customers can easily see what they’re looking for. We also have banners and stickers to show what we offer.”

Glass-fronted freezers are a very popular option when it comes to displaying frozen foods, but they carry increased costs that some retailers prefer to avoid.

“We don’t have a glass-door freezer right now,” said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. “We did for a long time, but we didn’t reinvest when it went down. Now we use a standup, but it’s well signed so customers can tell what we have. My customers know what’s in there. We had an art student paint our freezer to create signage, and it’s pretty eye-catching.”

Because store visits have become both more frequent and more logistically difficult considering the need for social distancing, it’s a good time for retailers to focus on streamlining their marketing and merchandising tactics.

“Lots of educational opportunities may be difficult to implement during the pandemic,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif. “I like silent sales tactics, such as signs, shelf talkers, tanks stickers or any other way you can give people an idea to try something new. Also, if you are using products in the store, tell your customers. This is the easiest way to get them to buy into a product you want to promote or feel is superior. Given folks may be less receptive to long store visits these days, be sure staff is trained and polished on two or three of the sales pitches you want them to try to use on each customer type. Spend some training time during down hours to help them rehearse their lines and have them interact with each other to practice.”