Aquatics Unlimited: Articles: Fish Replacement Policies
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Fish Replacement Policies

It happens every day in tropical fish stores and fish departments around the country, and the experienced can feel it coming. A customer comes in the door, and beelines for the counter instead of checking out the stock tanks. Several employees suddenly find something important to do - elsewhere - as the nearest one greets the new arrival. Then, without further warning, the hobbyist produces a rolled-up plastic baggie® containing the wet, colorful remains of the wet, colorful pets he'd purchased a few days ago, and gets right to the heart of the matter:

"They died."

Where things go from that point says a lot about the character of the store, and may well be one of the more important indicators of its future success. As such, Fish Replacement Policies deserve plenty of careful thought and attention.

From one extreme... As competitive merchants of all types have focused on customer service as well as price, the "Unconditional Guarantee" has become common in retailing lower-priced items. The basic premise is that the good will generated by a very liberal return policy produces enough profit to more than cover the losses due to returns. From a strictly financial point of view, this philosophy may be mutually beneficial to both buyers and sellers. But there's a third "party" when an ornamental fish is sold - the fish itself - and its interests may not be well served by making replacements too easy. Most hobbyists will undoubtedly take their fish purchasing seriously, but as many pet shops find, some take a generous return policy as a green light to gamble on fish that they are unable to accommodate. If those fish get sick, mangled or die, the buyer gets more fish, the retailer gets a steady "customer", but the fish of course pay the price.

...to the other. Some aquarium stores or aquarium departments take the opposite approach and declare all fish sales to be final with no returns or refunds whatsoever. This protects the fish somewhat from overzealous buyers, but doesn't do much for customer relations. In addition, it's patently unfair in cases where unhealthy fish are sold or bad advice is given. In a worst case scenario, the store or sales staff might even become just as guilty of carelessly gambling with their fishes' lives to make the sale.

Somewhere in the middle is the time-limited guarantee, wherein fish can be returned somewhat unconditionally for up to a given number of hours or days from purchase. Some stores even prorate the credit, so that a fish lost the first day is "worth" more than one lost a few days later. Limiting the time places some boundaries on both overzealous buyers and sellers, but still misses the mark when it comes to fairness: fish that are in poor health when sold might survive beyond the cutoff point, while healthy fish can be lost in a matter of hours if heavily stressed.

A progressive policy. Finding these very basic policies a bit lacking, many stores find that a more progressive policy of determining the cause of loss before issuing replacements suits them best. This may seem a bit awkward at first, since the store has a financial stake in finding the buyer at fault. However, most stores quickly learn the value of being gracious with some replacements even when the customer made some mistake. In fact, the dealer has the opportunity to turn a stressful situation into a positive learning experience and building a successful long-term customer in the process.

When a customer reports a problem by phone or in person, it's important to shift the initial focus to "what went wrong" instead of "who's gonna pay?". The employee that fields the complaint should be able to work with the customer, asking questions such as how long the tank was set up, what the temperature was, what other fish were involved and so on, in order to narrow down possible causes. Quite often, red flags will pop up in the initial conversation that will indicate whether or not the matter is urgent (if other fish are at risk), or can wait until a more convenient time.

The main purpose of a progressive replacement policy isn't to assign blame or dodge responsibility; it's to find out where things went wrong, and to help both consumer and retailer avoid future problems. While the customer shouldn't have to jump through flaming hoops to request a replacement, there should be at least three basic requirements in place:

  1. The fish. A dead, diseased or disassembled fish has no resale value of course, but it does show that there was indeed a loss, and may give clues as to how that loss came about. It may seem a bit awkward to ask customers to prove the loss, but it is still a sound business practice. Even a mega-super store wouldn't typically replace a light bulb, for example, without actually getting the defective bulb back - even though a dud bulb probably has no value to the store. But more important than evidence of loss are the clues that can help determine the cause of loss. If the fish has missing fins and scales, aggression by other fishes is a likely cause of death; if it's exceptionally thin and floats like a cork, it probably jumped out of the tank and dried up on the floor; if it's heavily infected, it's, well, heavily infected. These clues can not only help resolve what happened to this fish, but might bring the safety of the aquarist's remaining fish into question as well. If it's not practical for the customer to bring the fish promptly, it can be frozen in a plastic bag and at least still used to confirm the loss.
  2. The sales receipt. Requiring proof of purchase is again a sound business practice that serves the same two purposes as the returned fish: reducing undeserved replacements and giving clues that might help future transactions. The receipt shows the customer actually bought fish, from your store, on the date in question, and establishes the price paid if there's any question. While most customers are no doubt honest and trustworthy, there will always be a few that attempt to return fish they picked up form a local competitor, or worse, on a dumpster-diving expedition. The sales receipt might also help identify the staff member who helped the customer, either directly or indirectly by establishing the time of sale. That employee might be able to offer additional information about any suggestions or promises made, which might shed some light on whether either the customer or employee might need some additional training.
  3. A water sample from the home aquarium. Fish that are lost quickly enough to qualify for replacement often failed to acclimate to drastically different environmental conditions between the store and home aquariums. A few simple water tests can bring those differences to light in order to head off future disasters. The high ammonia or nitrite levels of new, cycling aquariums are a major problem for new additions, as are the high nitrate levels and low pH of older, neglected tanks. Some fish find it difficult to suddenly acclimate to water that is either substantially harder or softer than what they have become accustomed to. Ideally, the customer's water chemistry and temperature should be similar to that of the store's stock tanks, so that acclimation shock is greatly diminished. Be sure to specify water from the aquarium; a sample that tests out like tap water (no ammonia, nitrite or nitrate) provides no useful evidence of anything except perhaps the buyer's honesty.

After reviewing the "evidence", the dealer can offer full, partial or no replacement for the loss, but again the focus should be more on education, not punishment. There should be enough markup in most fish sales to be somewhat generous with replacements when the customer appears willing to address the problem. Even when there is clearly a problem in the home aquarium, offering to split the loss should be an affordable option that builds a stronger relationship between client and salesman. Total denial of replacements is probably best reserved for repeat offenders that appear to have no interest in correcting the problem before adding more fish.

There will also be times when a replacement is completely deserved, such as when weak or sickly fish were sold, or bad advice given without suitable disclaimer (for example, "yes, that cichlid will get along with your cichlid"). In addition to inspecting the returned fish, the tank from which it was purchased should be scrutinized as well. The replacement process often is educational for the store, revealing shortcomings in stock, staff or procedures. In fact, if replacing fish - deserved or not - becomes a financial burden for the store, it's probably safe to say there are some serious deficiencies that need to be addressed.

Time Limits. Even a progressive Replacement Policy can't really cover a fish until it dies of old age, so some reasonable time limits should be in place. Something in the range of a five to ten days should suffice.

These requirements aren't set in stone and can be somewhat flexible as needed. For example, a single $2 fish lost out of a dozen might just be handling shock or just bad luck, and the buyer might not be aware of the need for a water sample. It might be simplest and best to just replace the fish on the spot and ask the customer to stop in with a water sample at his convenience, just to make sure his tank is not at further risk. Likewise a regular customer that routinely has his chemistry checked at your store could probably skip the water sample this time, or perhaps bypass the receipt if his regular salesman recalls the sale. The established time limit might also be waived in cases where the remaining stock in the store developed problems after some were sold.

Buyer's Risk. Some species of fish are known to be higher risk or require special care or environmental conditions. These fish are not "for everybody" - and may in fact may not even be for every store. Stores willing to offer their advanced customers these more challenging species may wish to designate these species as "buyer's risk", and offer no replacement in the event of problems. Some stores may decide to designate entire sections, such as saltwater specimens, to be at buyer's risk. Special labeling should be used to indicate these species, so as to discourage unqualified buyers and advise advanced buyers of the policy. In lieu of replacement on these species, the store might offer an extended "lay away" plan, where a deposit is paid, and fish are reserved for a few days or weeks before pickup. This helps assure that the specimen was acclimated, strong and healthy at the time of purchase.

Since Replacement Policies will vary from store to store, it's wise to make them readily available to customers as they make a purchase, rather than after they encounter trouble. An abbreviated version might be posted at the checkout points, handed out with the receipt, or even printed on fish bags. A more detailed policy sheet could be available on request.

In a perfect world, the customer with the baggie® brought his copy along.

SIDE BAR: The Legal Angle

This article deals with a practical Fish Replacement Policy, and should not be construed as legal advice. On very rare occasions, lawsuits have arisen over whether or not fish losses should be covered by various warranty laws. If you have concerns over any legal implications of any of your policies, it's best to discuss them with an attorney.


This article originally appeared in
Pet Age Logo
Pet Age Magazine

Copyright © 2005 James M. Kostich
All rights reserved.

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