Live fish and coral sales are pivotal for
independent pet retailer success.
BY E THAN D. MIZER
Tough competition and a tight marketplace dictate that local fish stores have to focus on their strengths. And, increasingly, the aspects of their business most
insulated from other retailers are livestock sales and superior customer service.
Livestock sales are a vital component of local fish
store business models.
“All livestock sales do well for us,” said Anise Jamal,
owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas. “We go
with market demand and rotate our stock accordingly,
and pretty much everything becomes a bread-and-but-
ter offering at some point.”
Increasingly, Jamal notices customers looking for
new species that are appropriate for more technical
types of aquarium setups.
“People are venturing into the nano tanks and plant-
ed tanks, which makes them brave enough to get into
saltwater,” he said. “There’s a mixed push into nano
planted tanks and saltwater.”
Jamal said he sees demand growing for unique salt-
water fish, such as soldierfish and hybrid yellow tangs,
and smaller freshwater fish suitable for nano aquariums,
such as celestial pearl danios and jellybean tetras.
In general, retailers report that livestock sales are up
and the aquarium business is doing well.
“You can’t rely on dry goods,” said Shane Billmyre,
owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland, Ore. “Our business has grown by 100 percent or better since last year.”
Billmyre has also noticed demand for saltwater species and nano-sized freshwater fish. When it comes to
corals, he said he does best with hardier varieties.
“We sell a lot of the polyps, such as the large polyp
stony corals,” Billmyre said. “We don’t sell a ton of the
more fragile small polyp stony corals, because they re-
quire a little bit more stable conditions.”
Carrying a wide variety is key to growing sales and
keeping customers coming back for more.
“When customers walk in, they know we’re going to
have everything that they are going to need and every-
thing they want to see,” said Steven Bayes, owner of Top
Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. “We carry all types of
corals, so it’s hard to really pinpoint one species or type
that sells best.”
Clownfish are probably Bayes’ No. 1 sellers, followed
by cardinals, as well as tangs and wrasses, he said.
“We’re specialized in aquaculture, and big-box stores
don’t have this stuff,” Bayes said. “We have thousands
of corals, literally thousands sitting on display along
with thousands of fish.”
The ember tetra was recently introduced to the hobby and is great for nano tanks.
NEW IN LIVESTOCK
FRESHWATER AND SALTWATER INTRODUCTIONS
Several freshwater and saltwater fish and coral species
have become available in the aquatics market in recent
“Some exciting new freshwater species have recently
come into the trade,” said Laura “Peach” Reid, president
and CEO of Fish Mart, a livestock distributor in West Haven,
Conn. “One bottom feeder is the sharp-looking dwarf
flash plecostomus, a nonaggressive fish that needs some
wood in its tank. Another is the very colorful orange seam
plecostomus, a catfish with an orange rim on the end of its
For customers interested in nano tanks, the ember tetra
is a small reddish-orange fish recently introduced to the
hobby, Reid added. It is a peaceful, schooling fish best kept in
groups of six or more.
Novel saltwater species are also appearing on the
“Over the past six months, we have imported many new
and exciting species, as well as species that have not been
seen in the industry in years,” said Cynthia DeLillo, media
manager for Quality Marine and Aquatropic in Los Angeles.
“Recently, we received our first Dr. Seuss fish and tiger
angelfish, just to name a couple.”
Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums, a distributor headquartered
in Fort Pierce, Fla., expects to see another species of
epaulette shark become available very soon.
“We have a specific type of aquarist in mind for these
animals,” said Jordan Noe, director of sales. “Aquarists rarely
have the option of aquacultured animals to choose from.
Elsewhere in the industry, small releases of captive-bred
angelfish and wrasses will continue to be announced.”
New coral species introductions face a few hurdles,
“It’s always difficult to predict because weather can
really affect what will be available, as can bans and things of
that nature,” said Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest
Farms, a tropical and marine fish wholesale company in
Gibsonton, Fla. “What we’re seeing trending is anything that’s
tank raised or line bred—including zoanthid morphs, albino
morphs, calico morphs—are in high demand. Of course, I’d
say the tank-raised species, especially with marine angelfish
and some of the more semi-reef-safe to fully reef-safe
GIVING BUSINESSES AN EDGE
Livestock offers a substantial edge for pet specialty retailers,
as they can focus on quality, price and customer service to
ensure clients are getting what they pay for. Additionally, no
competitor can yet match local fish stores for direct sales of
livestock to hobbyists.
“Carrying livestock is a huge competitive advantage,”
said Shane Billmyre, owner of Caye’s Aquarium in Portland,
Ore. “Livestock sales make up 90 percent of my sales overall.
For dry goods, the bread-and-butter stuff does fine, but all of
the high-end stuff is normally bought online. Whoever does
livestock and does it well, or whoever focuses on customer
In terms of his business model, Billmyre focuses on three
things: keeping overhead low, offering the best livestock and
providing top-notch customer service.
“If you had those three things, you’re going to win,” he
said. “If you don’t, or if you’re missing one of them, you’ll
Business is good, retailers reported, and, as a result,
several are expanding their livestock housing and in-house
“Currently we have a 2,000-square-foot coral farm,” said
Steven Bayes, owner of Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla.
“We just purchased a 6,000-square-foot warehouse for a new
farm. We’re culturing 80 percent of our corals ourselves.”
Keeping pace with demand is something local fish store
owners might need to focus on if they want to grow their
businesses, particularly when it comes to livestock.
“We’re actually building out a new 7,000-square-foot
facility where we’re going to keep a lot of fish,” said Anise
Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring, Texas. “We
decided to expand to meet market demand. We hit our cap with
our ROI on the square footage that we have in the retail store.”
Specialization and offering high-end livestock seem to be
the ticket to growing business quickly. When it comes to online
sales, livestock is one of the few places where local fish stores
appear to have an outright advantage.
“Fish stores are being forced to become more
specialized,” Bayes said. “When I travel the country and I see
other fish stores, the really good, successful stores are the
ones that aren’t complaining about the internet. Things are
changing with time. We have an entire online department. We
employ four people online full time.”
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Because independent aquatics retailers are positioned to be so nimble,
many of them report great success promoting new livestock directly to
“I want to be innovating in our market with a new type of aquarium
store,” said Anise Jamal, owner of That Aquarium Place in Spring,
Texas. “We’re going all electronic, so everything’s going to be modern
and have touch screens, with no prices on the tanks. [Customers] can
just tap on an iPad, pull up a tank number, and it will tell you where that
Customers want fish right away, Jamal added, and would rather
spend $50 or $60 locally on fish than waste that same amount shipping
fish. He said he uses Facebook and other platforms to post pictures of
recently arrived livestock, with great success.
Instagram can also work wonders for retailers seeking to reach
“Instagram is a great place for store owners to connect with their
audience with cheap and easy marketing,” said Jordan Noe, director
of sales for Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla. “Being
active and engaging with the pictures allows a local store to suddenly
become more nationally acknowledged and bring in new business that
they hadn’t considered possible before.”
Even direct messaging seems to work, according to retailers.
“We do a text program once a week,” said Steven Bayes, owner of
Top Shelf Aquatics in Winter Park, Fla. “If we’re getting new livestock,
we send out a text. It goes to the cellphones of every customer who
Customers are more informed now, and retailers who recognize
this and make sure to offer the best in livestock selection, health and
customer service will come out on top.
“Hobbyists have become more educated in many aspects, and
retailers must be able to fit their needs,” said Ryan Voth, manager of
the sales department for Quality Marine and Aquatropic in Los Angeles.
“It’s an exciting time in the saltwater aquarium hobby because the
playing field is changing quickly, and retailers must adapt in order to be
At the end of the day, however, what keeps customers coming back
to their local fish stores is seeing novel, new and colorful species.
“Customers want to go to the pet store because it’s exciting,” said
Shelby Bush, brand ambassador for Segrest Farms, a tropical and
marine fish wholesale company in Gibsonton, Fla. “They want to see
fish in person. Livestock sales are huge because then you have all the
add-on sales too. It’s paramount for stores to have livestock to ensure