The mom and pop grocery store, the local hardware store, the corner Five-and-Dime are all stores that have for the most part vanished from our lives due to big box stores replacing them. Unfortunately the same thing is happening more and more to our beloved local fish stores (LFS). In my own area at least six shops have closed over the last few years, much to my dismay.
And this is not just a local phenomenon as in my travels I have seen at least ten other large stores close around the country that I used to frequent when I traveled to their cities. This is surprising and a bit frustrating considering that there are probably more people in the hobby now than there have ever been and as a result there is also more money in the hobby now, so you would think it would be easier for a shop to be successful.
So the question is why are so many small shops going out of business and more importantly, what can they do to stay in business?
The reasons for the demise of these shops is as varied as the shops themselves. Some blame the rise of the big box stores, but the reality is these have been around for over 10 years And while the big box and chain stores may siphon off some of the beginner hobbyists, they may also help to get more people into the hobby – so if they do become serious hobbyists they will seek out more advanced stores so their effect on the LFSs should be minimal.
Another reason may be that a lot of these stores were owned and run by people in my age range and older, and when they died or reached retirement age, their children did not want to take up the family business. Since many of these stores are now open seven days a week and 10-12 hours per day is it any wonder that the kids did not want to follow in their parents footsteps?
By the same token, it has also gotten more and more expensive to set up and run a brick and mortar fish store considering things like the high cost of utilities, insurance, and benefits for employees just to name a few things. However, all of these things are considered small potatoes by the shop owners I have spoken to who are seeing their sales drop and most cite the same reason they are worried or are out of business: The Internet.
Many LFS feel that their competition for the most part is no longer the shop in the next town over, or the big box store down the road, but rather that their customers now do a lot of their aquarium shopping online. Also, many feel that they are now getting hit with a one-two punch that is difficult for them to compete with.
The first of these is the competition from the people who sell fish and corals online from their garage or basement and thus have less overhead and expenses relative to what the brick and mortar stores have. As a result, the LFS owners feel that these shops have an unfair advantage over them. However in my opinion this is only partially true as these individuals have to deal more with the whims and costs of shipping and the all to frequent losses of entire shipments due to weather or unexplained lost shipments by the freight companies.
Also most of these individuals do not have anywhere near the space that a LFS possesses so they are limited in the selection they can deliver. So if the LFS do their job properly, these fly-by-nighters should not hold the competitive advantage that they worry about. While these individuals may take away some business from the LFSs they all have come to realize that their biggest threat is now posed by the 800-pound gorilla of the internet: Amazon.
This relative newcomer to pet and aquarium retailing is indeed a worrisome competitor. I won’t go into details as to why it is such a threat other than to say most shops make the majority of their profits from dry goods, as dry goods don’t die, and this internet company along with some of the other big online pet companies are taking away a significant portion of their dry goods business in many instances.
So considering what the competition is and that it is not going to go away any time soon, what can a LFS do to stay in business and be successful? As the old cliché from the 60’s and 70’s said “If you can’t beat em, join em”. And no I’m not suggesting that LFS pack things up move to a garage and become an internet business, but rather like the internet based competition they take advantage of the competitive advantages that they possess, while at the same time use all of the technology that is now available.
First and foremost they need to realize that they cannot continue to do business like they have for the past 20 years and expect to remain viable. The market has changed dramatically especially in the last ten years and if they don’t keep up they will be out of business. So they need to have and develop a presence on the internet and in social media.
Many of the brick and mortar LFSs that continue to be successful have a presence in these avenues, far in excess of the size of the shops themselves. If I had not visited the shops and had only seen their webpage, gotten their emails and seen their Facebook page, I would have thought that they were physically much bigger than they actually are.
Even so, their use of these media had me excited to visit their shops long before I actually made it to them. When used properly, a LFS makes the customer want to visit the shop. They can use it to announce promotions, sales, workshops, speakers etc. But they can also use it to announce the new arrival of just about anything. They should use it to announce that they are getting in a new piece of equipment or light and want to demonstrate it to their customers.
Or an LFS can announce the arrival of a new batch of fish, corals or plants and thus get their customers excited to be there when they arrive. I know this may sound trivial, but I still recall vividly how excited I was when I knew new corals were arriving and I would be the first one at a local shop to go through them. I’m assuming I’m not alone in anticipating this so shops should take advantage of this in order to compete. But this will only be successful if they also get in more than just the common stuff to draw customers in.
Using this philosophy, these shops really need to take advantage of one other unique thing they possess: unlike many retail establishments a LFS is a destination. Like going to a good restaurant or designer store, there is usually some planning and thought before one decides to take a drive to the LFS. Unfortunately most shops don’t take advantage of this.
So how can the LFS take advantage of this and also make it beneficial for us its customers? First and foremost make visiting your shop a pleasant experience. The shop should be clean and organized and the staff friendly and knowledgeable, but not overbearing, so being in the shop is fun. In a similar vein the tanks should also be clean and organized and enjoyable to view (and some decent music doesn’t hurt either).
Considering that 80-90% of the people in the hobby are beginners or intermediate hobbyists, this is the market that should be catered to, but where many shops fail. They fail in that not enough of them show their customers what can be accomplished and that they are willing to explain how it can be done and that they can help them through the process.
In order to do this they should have various display tanks to show what is possible using the equipment they sell and have on hand. Unfortunately I rarely see this happen in a shop, even worse when a customer asks why the price of one piece of equipment is different from another and what justifies the price difference often times the people in the shop have no idea. As a result the customer checks online to see the reason and then buys the equipment online as a result.
To take this one step further when a shop has a great display tank they can use it as a money maker by also selling frags from the corals in the tank. While I don’t advocate constantly taking frags from the display tank as this detracts from its beauty, it is rather easy to set up a frag tank to hold frags of the rare corals in the display tank. This makes it easier for hobbyists that want to replicate the tank to do so, and it also allows rare corals to be distributed to multiple hobbyists rather than just one lucky one.
Another reason why people go to the LFS is when something breaks in their tank. Usually when something goes wrong we need to fix or replace that piece of equipment immediately. So if a shop wants to establish and keep a loyal customer it should stock replacement parts for most of the equipment it sells.
Nothing is more frustrating than going into a shop where you bought a piece of equipment that broke and when you need a replacement part they tell you it will be a week in order for them to get it, when we all know we can go online and get something in at worst two days or even overnight if it is a big emergency. While we know that they can’t stock everything, there are certain parts that break with enough regularity that they should keep these in stock, because if they have the part we will go there and get it.
By the same token we also have a good idea what things cost. So when we need a part or piece of equipment and the shop tells us the price of it is 50% or more than what we can get it for online they should not be upset if we get it online instead. A 10-20% price difference seems justifiable to cover the cost of their having to stock it, but above that feels excessive to me.
Another thing that a successful shop has to take advantage of: when we are in the shop if they have something we want, we will buy it. Most of us are impulse shoppers, at least when we are in a LFS and see a fish or coral or piece of equipment that we just have to have. So in this regard if LFSs are going to survive they need to bring in things that we want and as a result feel we need.
If we don’t see them then we don’t think we need them. If you are like me and are in a shop with the sole purpose of just buying frozen food and see a nice piece of coral or an interesting fish most of us will buy it. And while shops may survive selling yellow tangs and domino damsels they will only thrive if they bring in more than these to drive us, the impulse shopper to buy.
So why should we, the people who love this hobby care if all the LFSs go out of business or not? First, most people who have shops are or were passionate hobbyists like ourselves who wanted to make their hobby into a business and many of us share that secret desire. And most of us also still pull for the small guy so it is in our nature to want them to succeed.
Second it gives us a place to hang out while our spouses or significant other shop nearby and it also gives us something to look forward to visiting when we are traveling or on vacation. Having the LFS survive also provides competition, and while the cost of the hobby today is high, imagine how much higher it would be if only a few entities provided all the fish or equipment.
Lastly the LFS is also the first place where many hobbyists get started in the hobby, I doubt if many individuals got their start because of a tank they saw online. As nice as they can be they just don’t provide the experience that seeing a great tank in person provides. I still fondly recall walking into a local shop as a kid called Frank’s Aquarium. It was a typical LFS of the day and its big draw was a 120 gallon show tank that was full of 100s of cardinal tetras, and Vallisneria plants with black gravel and was lit with purplish fluorescent tubes.
That tank is what started my love for the hobby and I won’t even get into when I saw my first pair of Percula clowns or seahorses. Sadly Frank’s is gone, but every now and then, when I walk into a shop for the first time and see a really spectacular tank, that same feeling still comes over me and I’m sure it is the same for many others as well.
It would be a pity if our local fish stores continued to decline in number. Hopefully this will not be the case.