During the last forty years things have changed dramatically, and with the pandemic things changed even more. In terms of the hobby, from the pandemic until now have been the best of times and the worst of times, for virtually every aspect of the hobby. More people got into the hobby during that time due to being stuck at home, but at the same time, less wild livestock was available due to limited flights to where corals and fish come from. As a result, the captive production of corals and even the breeding of rarer species of fish occurred.
Local fish shops came back into prominence as they were deemed vital, and a fair number of them regained some of the market share that they lost to online shoppers. When I started keeping reef tanks almost forty years ago, there were seven local fish shops carrying saltwater fish and supplies, and over the years all of them started carrying corals and reef supplies. Unfortunately, during the last ten years this number has dwindled to four and to be honest only one of them carries anything that I would put into my tanks.
There are a number of factors as to why this has happened, and it has occurred not only in my area but pretty much everywhere, but the main reason is due to the internet. Because of this sea change in how things are now done and goods and fish purchased, it has become necessary to differentiate how to decide who to purchase fish, corals, and goods in terms of whether it is from the local fish shop or online. Each has pros and cons, and it is necessary to understand these differences, especially when starting out in the hobby.
While there are many aspects to setting up a successful reef tank, there is probably none as important as choosing the right store, whether it’s the LFS or online to buy from. The reasons why this is important will be discussed below. In the past when life was simpler, when you decided to set up a reef tank, you would simply walk into the LFS, discuss your plans and they would advise you all along the way and you were good to go. And if you were fortunate there would be several shops to not only provide you with information but also from which to choose fish and equipment. Sadly, in my opinion, it is much more difficult today as not only are there fewer shops, but there is also now so much information available that it can be overwhelming. But hopefully, I can help make some sense of all of it.
When starting out, and even once established, in my opinion, it is always good to have an LFS that you use and can rely on. But finding a good one is key, as is finding owners or employees who are knowledgeable and not simply trying to sell you everything in the store. Before going on, please understand that an LFS is a business, and it needs to sell things and make a profit in order to remain in business. If you go into a shop for advice and information, then at the very least you have a moral obligation to buy from them. But by the same token, they should not try to sell you unnecessary things simply because you are new to the hobby. Sadly, I see this rule broken on both sides and this is further hurting the hobby.
When choosing a LFS there are a number of factors to look for. The shop should be clean and well-maintained with the tanks also being clean and the fish and corals in them active and colorful. The owner should be knowledgeable and willing to share this knowledge as should the employees. However, it should be noted that not all employees are into this as much as others nor are all owners, so you need to seek out individuals who are not only into the hobby, but also happy to help and enthusiastic. You can ask some basic questions to determine this, like how long they have been into the hobby, what they enjoy about it, how long the shop has been open, what they do to maintain their tanks, etc. Their responses and their enthusiasm for answering should provide a good idea if they are worth having as the LFS you depend on.
Once you have determined that this will be your shop, then you can decide how much you want to use them. Will it just be for a tank, or include all of the equipment, and will it be your live rock livestock provider? The great thing about buying from a LFS is that you get to see exactly what you are purchasing. While this may not seem crucial for equipment, it can be a godsend when a problem arises to have a local resource to speak to and help troubleshoot a problem. Or when something breaks, when they have spare replacement parts that allow you to repair it quickly.
Even more importantly being able to see firsthand the fish and corals you are buying, determine if they are feeding in the case of fish, or their health and coloration in the case of corals all make shopping at a LFS a fun part of the hobby. Seeing that a fish is eating in a shop has shown to be a good determinant of the likelihood of a fish doing well once it is brought home. So having a shop show that a fish is eating and even better what it is eating is another good reason to shop there. Having a LFS to go to also provides an opportunity to meet other hobbyists and to get other opinions and points of view on things.
Lastly, and this is my opinion, I have found that a good LFS can be a source of inspiration when they have a show tank that provides insight into their level of knowledge and also what can be accomplished in the hobby. I have been to several hundred LFS around the country over the years and have seen some that inspired me to be better with my own tanks. These are the shops I would seek out if I were starting again. They may not all be close by, but when you find one it is well worth a road trip.
While there are many benefits to having an LFS to buy from, the internet has become an option that many of us rely on as well. Again, as with local shops, it is good to look around and find sources that provide what they claim and provide some value above just providing livestock or dry goods. When choosing a source for products or livestock look at the reviews of the site, these usually provide at least some idea as to whether a site is reliable or not. While dry goods are dry goods there are sometimes differences between vendors.
While price is often the main consideration, some other factors to look at are shipping charges and is the item in stock. Do they carry multiple brands or just one, etc? Any new equipment purchased should come in sealed boxes and be brand new. And lastly, it is also a good idea to see if there is a problem with a product, will they help you with it, or do you need to contact the manufacturer?
More importantly, than with dry goods, if you purchase livestock online you make sure that the vendor is reliable. Again, read their reviews and see what others have experienced. In my opinion, the first thing I look at when buying livestock from an online vendor is to make sure that the livestock I receive looks exactly like the livestock in the picture I have purchased from. Unfortunately, some vendors use our desire to have the most outrageously colored corals as a means to get us to buy from them, by providing oversaturated pictures as the pictures from which we buy. New individuals in the hobby are especially susceptible to this ploy and then once they get a coral home wonder why these corals never match the colors of the pictures of the corals they bought.
After having corals match their pictures the next critical aspect of choosing an online vendor is seeing how they ship their fish and corals. Some vendors are meticulous in not only the packing of the fish and corals to make sure temperature extremes do not stress them but also in every aspect of shipping. By this I mean each individual bag is labeled, and with the best vendors, there is not only the name but also the level of light the coral prefers as well as the temperature, pH, and alkalinity from the tank from which it was taken. I have found that these last three factors are important in determining how long I take to acclimate new corals if these parameters are significantly different from the parameters in my tanks.
There are dozens if not hundreds of online vendors from which to choose and you will probably use more than one of them as not every vendor has every fish and coral that you want. Before placing huge orders with any of them I strongly suggest you place a few small orders with different vendors to determine how well they meet your needs. This is a kind of pre-insurance to make sure that you are getting what you want.
Finding a vendor or vendors to supply your needs when starting can be fun or can be a nightmare if the proper choice is not made. As with everything in the hobby, take your time and do your homework to find the best vendors. The advent of the internet and online shopping for fish and corals has allowed hobbyists to have tanks even when no local shops are anywhere near them, and this has been a blessing to the hobby and has really helped it expand. As with everything having choices provides an opportunity to get the best, but also to make mistakes when rushed or done improperly. When possible, I strongly suggest that you use both local shops and online vendors as resources from which to pick. The hobby should be fun, but if either of these makes you feel less so, then find other vendors.