I recently had a frustrating experience at a major chain pet store in my area. I watched as the aquarium department salesperson sold a type of butterflyfish that has a very specialized diet to a self-identified newbie, and he didn’t bother to tell this customer anything about it. The fish probably isn’t going to live very long for that person, so now I regret that I didn’t speak up at the time. Everyone says we hobbyists need to do prior research on all the animals we buy, but it seems to me the salesperson owed it to the customer to at least explain the fish’s feeding habits. What’s your take on this?” – Submitted by Veronica
Thanks for your question, Veronica! I’m afraid there’s no easy solution to this problem—or at least not one I’ve been able to brainstorm. While it is absolutely true that hobbyists should thoroughly research all of their livestock acquisitions, in my opinion, there’s a significant information gap for novices that’s extremely difficult to bridge. Why?
Many (though certainly not all) hobby newcomers are blissfully unaware that there’s a very steep learning curve to marine aquarium keeping and that the dropout rate is extremely high for beginners who don’t come into it with their eyes and ears wide open. In other words, as CC and I are fond of saying, “They don’t know that they don’t know.” Even if they do make an effort at prior research, they generally have no idea what information sources they can trust and which aren’t worth their salt.
As your question highlights, a very common mistake novice hobbyists make is assuming that their local fish store or big-box retailer’s aquarium department wouldn’t steer them wrong and that certain industry safeguards are in place to protect them from making a bad purchase. To steal a line from Dave Matthews, they assume “everything is all taken care of by those qualified to take care of it all.”
When you think about it, this isn’t all that illogical. Caveat emptor is great advice any time one is in the market for goods or services, but is it really so unreasonable for a newbie to assume the local fish store wouldn’t try to sell an animal that can’t possibly be fed in captivity and is essentially doomed to die?
If you go to pick out a dog at your local animal shelter, you certainly have to be concerned whether a particular breed or individual will be a good fit for you and your family with respect to its temperament, energy level, etc., but should you really need to ask, “By the way, does this one eat food?” You assume that’s a given.
Nonetheless, you and I both know that’s not always the case when it comes to livestock in the marine aquarium trade. Like it or not, many animals that appear routinely on the market really aren’t appropriate for beginners, and a fair amount aren’t even suitable for experts. But how do we get newcomers—especially those who are prone to impulse purchases—to understand this before they head for their local fish store? I’m not sure we can.
I agree that the salesperson in question owed that customer more than a fish in a water-filled bag. He should have been forthcoming with some basic husbandry information as well—particularly the bit about the fish being a specialized feeder. In fact, part of the solution to this problem might be somehow getting more point-of-purchase educational materials into the hands of aquarium retailers and their staffers so they can display them in their stores or hand them out to customers with livestock purchases. But then how would such a campaign be coordinated?
Of course, many local fish stores out there are already doing an exceptional job of educating their customers and are very conscientious about getting beginners off on the right foot. After all, a beginner who succeeds is a lifelong customer. However, as with any industry, there are less conscientious folks out there too, and coupling one of these individuals with an impulsive novice who doesn’t do his or her homework is a recipe for certain livestock losses and the aspiring hobbyist’s ultimate failure.
I only wish I could figure out a way to get vital hobby information into the hands of novice hobbyists—or at least those who “don’t know that they don’t know”—before they make that first ill-considered purchase or husbandry decision. But so far I’ve drawn a blank. Fellow salties, do any of you have thoughts on the subject? If so, please share them in the comment section below.