Aquatics Unlimited: Articles: Treat Yourself to Happy Fish and Healthy Sales.
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Treat Yourself... to Happy Fish and Healthy Sales.

Selling aquarium fish treats is a win/win/win scenario.

Good for fish. While a good quality "staple" flake or pellet food will be scientifically formulated to meet the dietary requirements of a typical mix of tropical fish, many hobbyists find that including a few treats on a regular basis results in a healthier, more colorful collection. There are many possible reasons for this. In some cases, the fish might be so different in dietary needs from the average that staple foods are actually shortchanging them in some important nutrient. For other fish, standard flake or pellet foods might be too unnatural to trigger an active feeding response, and they simply will eat greater quantities if offered alternatives. Finally, I'm no fish psychologist (tried it once, but the Oscar kept flopping off the couch), but many fish appear to simply be "happier" when feasting greedily on a sheet of dried algae or chunk of frozen brine shrimp.

Unlike those marketed to us Homo sapiens, fish treats are not just deep-fried empty calories chock full of artificial flavors and colors. Most are nutritious, delicious foods that just happen to entice aquarium fish into a state of gluttony. Some contain natural color enhancers, and others like frozen mysid shrimp have very high levels of healthful HUFA (Highly Unsaturated Fatty Acids) which seem to play a large part in the survival of some difficult species like seahorses.

Good for fishkeepers. If the fish are happy, their owners usually are too. Even most casual aquarium keepers love to watch their charges eat with gusto, and providing a special treat on occasion can turn an ordinary mealtime into a feeding frenzy. Others who consider their aquarium fish to be true "pets" are just as likely to purchase treats for them as they would for a dog, cat or budgie. More serious hobbyists also enjoy watching at chow time, but also feed treats in an effort to raise the biggest, healthiest, prettiest fish they can.

Good for fishsellers. Anything that gets a customer to make a special trip to your store is of course great for the ornamental fish dealer. Fish treats come in a seemingly endless variety of forms, shapes, sizes, textures, and brands - and it seems like each and every one of them is the favorite of one of your customers. This is an area where the dealer's inventory should be quite wide, but not necessarily very deep (no mother-in-law jokes, please...). Dedicated fishkeepers will drive across town to purchase their favorite type, size and brand of fish treat instead of driving two blocks for a reasonable substitute, so it pays to have a few each of many types. In addition, many mass merchandisers tend to stock huge lots of only a few SKUs, so your price competition should be much less than it is for a best-selling staple food, leaving room for a little better profit margin.

While fish treats have probably been around as long as the aquarium hobby has, their selection and availability has increased dramatically in recent years.

Flakes and more flakes. It wasn't that long ago that serious aquarists debated about whether or not flaked fish foods (versus granular foods) were of any value at all, with some claiming that fish ate them so readily only because they were starving from getting so little food per swallow. As time went on, flake foods became almost unanimously accepted, and are today the standard fare for most smaller aquarium fish. In addition to complete balanced-diet flakes, several specialty treat flakes are available that combine the fun of feeding something a little different with the convenience of storing and feeding a dried food.

Pellets, tablets and granules. Some fish are too large to bother with measly little flakes, and others feed primarily off the bottom - if the food ever gets there. Many treat foods are available in gulp-sized floating pellets or quick-sinking tablets or granules in order to satisfy their need for a quick snack. These are again quite convenient to store and feed.

Freeze-dried foods. Many small aquatic organisms, such as daphnia, brine shrimp, mosquito larvae, "blood worms" and the old-timer's favorite tubifex worms are collected, cleaned and quickly freeze-dried to be used as treats for aquarium fish. The freeze-drying process retains much of the nutrient value, and often the character of the organism as well. The result is a treat that looks and often smells like "real food" to the fish, yet is convenient and quite reasonably priced on a pound-to-pound basis.

Frozen Foods. Many of the same used in freeze-dried foods organisms (and other more unusual entrees like algae, squid, fish and beef heart) are also available frozen in thin blocks of ice, not unlike "The Thing" in the classic horror/science fiction film. Fortunately, when thawed, they generally don't come back to life and go on a rampage, but they do look awful tasty to most aquarium fish. They are consumed with relish (not literally) by even most of the pickiest eaters. Since they need to be stored frozen, they are a bit less convenient than dried or freeze-dried foods, and the price per pound of actual food (rather than water) is quite high. In addition, their less-processed nature that keeps them so appealing to fish also increases the risk of introducing pathogens or pests into the aquarium. At least one major brand irradiates its foods to reduce such risk.

Live foods. For many fish, this is about as good as it gets: real food just like mom used to make - or at least eat. The movement and just plain natural appearance of these foods make them almost irresistible for all but the fussiest feeders. Brine shrimp, "black worms", and "blood worms" are the most commonly fed to smaller fish, while meal worms, crickets, ghost shrimp and earthworms can be sold to be fed to larger specimens. These are less convenient and more expensive then even frozen foods, but well worth it in the eyes of many hobbyists and their fishes. Since they are basically unprocessed, they retain almost all of their food value, but also have a higher risk of transferring unwanted guests. To minimize this risk, some hobbyists like to feed saltwater critters to freshwater fish, and vice versa. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not that is nutritionally sound, but there's no debate that fish simply feast upon them.

Feeder fish. Speaking of ongoing debates, some hobbyists feel it's unethical or worse to feed live fish to other fish. Others feel it's a fish eat fish world out there, and that it's both natural and acceptable to do so. If this isn't a matter of conscience for you or your customers, live fish like guppies, rosy red minnows and goldfish take live foods a step further, offering solid nutrition, but an even greater risk of unwanted guests. Some also feel that feeding them makes fish more aggressive.

Merchandising. Most aquarium keepers would probably enjoy giving their fish a special treat, but many may not think of it without a little help. So, as with any merchandise, an attractive display can work wonders. Smaller cans or jars of dried or freeze-dried foods make great impulse or add-on sales, so a little pyramid of them near each cash register is a great start. This wouldn't be practical for frozen foods of course, but some manufacturers offer posters and other signage to catch your customers' attention. Tanks, cages or boxes of live foods can also be strategically places in high traffic areas to generate comments like "what's that", or at least "yuck".

Another great sales technique is to actually feed treats to your stock tanks while customers are in the store. I used to routinely feed a small tablet food, one tablet per tank, to a section of fish during the busy part of the day. After a few moments all the fish in each tank would be tightly crowded around their pellet, nipping and pecking away. We almost always had customers ask what we were feeding them, and very often sold a can or two before the fish had polished off their snack.


This article originally appeared in
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Pet Age Magazine

Copyright © 2002 James M. Kostich
All rights reserved.

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