In the aquatics hobby, flake and pellet diets have long been considered the foundation and default option when it comes to feeding fish, but for many local fish stores, frozen diets now represent their primary source of sales in the category.
"In my store, frozen is probably literally more than 99 percent of food sales," said Joe Genero, co-owner of Fish World in Midlothian, Va. "We carry very few [non-frozen foods]."
Growth in the segment continues to be strong among independent aquatics retailers, but stores with a reputation for robust sales in marine and reef species reported that the segment is exploding in sales.
"Bar none, our fastest-growing department is the frozen food sector, over the last three years," said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. "I believe I’m up somewhere around 33 percent in the segment from last year. It’s growing faster than anything else. We’re selling more of these types of diets and lines of frozen foods."
Aquatics retailers with a broader customer base, including freshwater and beginner customers, still report growth in frozen offerings, but not at the pace saltwater specialty stores observe.
"We see increased use of frozen diets, but it isn’t anything substantial," said Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets, a pet store in Lansing, Mich. "Most customers are still going for the staple diets that they traditionally use. However, what have made a more substantial impression on the market are the complete food diets, whether they’re for saltwater or freshwater systems. These are the all-in-one, smorgasbord-type diets. We’re certainly encouraging customers to use frozen foods more than in the past. … We recommend customers offer the dry, staple or condensed foods and blend in frozen offerings."
Traditionally, freshwater hobbyists have not focused on offering their fish frozen diets, but that is starting to change.
"The biggest trend we see is that the sales of frozen foods continue to grow in both the marine and freshwater categories," said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, a manufacturer based in Newark, Calif. "The trends are in line with what is happening in the companion animal market with a shift towards clean label and natural ingredients, which frozen foods have always been. We set the trend over 50 years ago, and we didn’t even know it."
The broad trend in the pet world to humanize pets isn’t always as strong among aquatic species as it is in other pet categories, but it does impact the aquarium industry. This especially applies to dietary health considerations.
"Aquarists are following trends we see in other pet categories, such as dog and cat," said Kyle Thaman, inside sales manager for Cobalt Aquatics, a Rock Hill, S.C.-based manufacturer.
These trends include an increased consumer demand for healthful and high-quality foods.
"Quality frozen foods are washed and sterilized, providing a low-risk alternative to live foods," Thaman said. "Live feeders such as bloodworms and goldfish have a chance of introducing fungi, mold, parasites and other unwanted organisms into a tank. Frozen foods that have been properly cleaned and sterilized effectively eliminate this possibility while maintaining a nutritional profile that is almost identical to that of live organisms."
Ultimately, the trend toward frozen reflects the wider human trend toward health-conscious diets, which has turned these food offerings into the staple choice for many independent aquatics retailers.
"People are very conscious about choosing dog food, and that trend has definitely come over to fish," said Jan Genero, co-owner of Fish World. "They want the best-quality food, and they want great variety. Customers are looking at labels more on fish food. They’re asking a lot more questions, and they’re searching out better foods."
There are several unique advantages that frozen diet sales offer to independent retailers, industry insiders reported.
"These diets offer a great way to create increased customer traffic," said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a manufacturer in Hayward, Calif. "Frozen food customers visit the store a minimum of six times more often than flake or pellet food customers. They also increase food diversity. When frozen foods are used as a treat with a proper formulated food as the basis of a well-rounded feeding plan, these diets offer the fish greater variety without the probability of disrupting the nutritional balance of formulated foods."
Frozen diets have been especially effective in the marine side of the hobby because they have made it possible to sustain more difficult-to-keep species.
"Frozen diets allow retailers to keep a larger variety of livestock that wasn’t always available before," Thaman said. "Foods such as frozen copepods, oyster flesh and sponge matter are invaluable for raising difficult species. Before these frozen diets were readily available, fish such as Moorish idols and larvatus butterflies were considered impossible to keep. Now we are seeing them reared successfully on frozen diets, further expanding on what fish stores can offer to the consumer."
Stories of once-difficult species now being easy to keep with currently available frozen diets abound in the hobby.
"Look at Anthias back in the 1990s," Donston said. "We had maybe a 15 to 20 percent survival rate with them beyond 30 days. That’s not the case today. Anthias do extremely well, and I totally believe it’s because the foods are better. They’re getting better-quality, higher-protein meals with more omega fatty acids, which helps their metabolism. As a result, they live in captivity better."
Offering a variety of frozen options, from premium to entry-level SKUs, makes sense for every marine specialty retailer.
"The quality of frozen foods has gone up to the point where it’s just a no brainer to use it," Donston added. "Just having a good selection of frozen foods in the shop brings people in the door. What more do you want?"
It is possible to order frozen diets online, or to stop in at big-box stores for them. But independent local retailers have the advantage in the category because they can offer greater variety and specialty knowledge, and also compete effectively on price.
"It’s expensive to ship small amounts of frozen food, which makes it cost prohibitive for most aquarists to order them online," Oneppo said. "Customers who use frozen foods return to the store, on average, 11 times per year."
Keeping customers coming back and being able to offer value above online retailers are both huge incentives for retailers to focus on frozen dietary sales.
"You can buy frozen online," Donston said. "But we still have the advantage because nobody wants to send frozen food through the mail. … Generally it’s just cheaper to come to [a local fish store] and buy frozen foods. They just don’t have a price advantage on us. That’s the difference. With [other products], the competition can beat us on price. Someday, somebody will probably end up getting us on frozen food prices. But at this moment, that hasn’t happened."
While frozen foods have come to represent a strong category for independent pet retailers, it still makes sense for them to offer these diets alongside other choices, insiders reported.
"Retailers are becoming very comfortable recommending and selling frozen foods as an add-on to any fish food or fish sale," Clevers said. "Given that frozen foods offer a great hiding place from online sales competition, retailers can gain an advantage pushing these products while improving their customer repeat visits."
However, Clevers did add one caveat to consider.
"Retailers have to be careful here," Clevers said. "They have to be sure customers are using a formulated food as their base diet alongside frozen diets. Frozen foods alone cannot provide enough balanced nutrition to keep aquatic life healthy over a longer time horizon. … Be sure that every customer is using a pellet or flake as a base. Retailers who take this approach do themselves and their customers a great service."
Some specialty retailers still rely on traditional open-top or stand-up freezers with standard stainless steel or plastic doors in which to stock their frozen fish food assortments. To maximize sales and profits, however, many industry experts recommended making the investment in glass-door freezers.
"Freezers should always have glass doors," said Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish, a tropical fish store in Clifton, N.J. "It’s the best investment you can make. And it works in so many ways."
Many retailers concur that glass-fronted freezer displays produce a return on investment rapidly.
"We have two double-door freezers, plus a single-door fridge," said Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets, a pet store in Lansing, Mich. "Essentially, we have four glass doors of frozen food. These are well-illuminated, relatively new freezers. It’s worth it financially to invest in a quality freezer, rather than limping along with an old or used freezer. Also, manufacturers tend to really help in that respect, offsetting costs by offering free frozen products, for example."
Manufacturer support creates a win-win situation for retailers, who see increased sales as a result of investing in these displays. Many manufacturers also offer special incentives with their freezer programs.
"Cobalt provides the first frozen stock up of the freezer complimentary with the freezer purchase," said Kyle Thaman, inside sales manager for Cobalt Aquatics, a Rock Hill, S.C.-based manufacturer. "Glass-front freezers are imperative for selling frozen foods, as consumers want to be able to easily see which foods are available."
The incentives differ between frozen food manufacturers and frequently change depending on a store’s needs.
"We offer freezer programs, freezer trays, and we have POS/POP [point-of-sale/point-of-purchase] merchandising," said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, a manufacturer based in Newark, Calif. "We also offer promotions when stores want to have an anniversary sale and other similar in-store promotions."
Glass-door displays help drive demand in frozen foods so that generating sales becomes much easier.
"Just having a glass-front freezer helps a ton," said Joe Genero, co-owner of Fish World, a fish store in Midlothian, Va. "The food almost sells itself. Customers can see what we have, and they’re able to shop more easily."
Manufacturer support and educational materials are also invaluable when it comes to driving sales.
"Years ago, a lot of retailers didn’t have glass-front freezers," said Jan Genero, co-owner of Fish World. "We work a lot more with the manufacturers as far as wanting information from them. We display that information either on posters or trays."
Freezer displays increase the chance for add-on sales, as well, and frozen diets are especially well suited for this purpose.
"The add-on sale potential of frozen food is exceptional," said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a manufacturer in Hayward, Calif. "It is one of the easiest add-on sales given the fact that most visitors to an aquatic store can use some. … Most glass-door freezers are colorful and well lit, making them a beacon of sales potential. Store owners who are working out of a solid-door freezer can see sales increases of up to 400 percent by moving to a glass-door freezer. It’s a silent salesperson for a very profitable category for most stores and makes self service much easier."