Sustainable Aquatics, a Jefferson City, Tenn.-based marine ornamental fish hatchery, has a decade of experience in breeding a variety of aquatic species for the pet industry. Throughout its history, the company has focused primarily on supporting brick-and-mortar independent pet stores. It even operates a retail aquarium shop in nearby Knoxville as a “learning-lab” for the hatchery business. Pet Business caught up with Matthew J. Carberry, president of Sustainable Aquatics, to get his perspective on the latest trends within the aquatic livestock trade and how retailers can achieve success in this vibrant category.
Pet Business: How can carrying livestock help independent pet retailers compete with other players in the pet channel?
Matthew J. Carberry: Although most retailers report that they make the majority of their margins selling dry goods—in particular, feeds—an independent retailer who has a close relationship with responsible breeders of the animals themselves will be at an advantage. Starting with this, and continuing to nurture and care for these animals to show them at their best will attract more traffic. This also lends strong credibility when making a wide variety of needed recommendations (especially feeds) or assisting in problem solving with customers.
Strengthening the human-animal bond is central to sustaining and building our trade, while also serving our customers’ best needs. Providing expert advice on the care and nutrition of these animals along with healthy, well-adjusted livestock is key.
PB: What are some of the most important livestock trends right now? How should retailers be responding to these trends?
Carberry: In terms of fish, the demand for freshwater fish is currently higher than could be supported by wild collection alone. The result is that many of these fish are produced on farms. In the future, demand for marine ornamentals will follow this trend, regardless of regulation.
There is a major trend in the saltwater trade toward smaller reef aquariums. These can be easily stocked with a diverse selection of responsibly chosen marine life to make for beautiful and easily maintained displays.
What is happening now with dogs and cats in retail could happen in the near future with marine ornamentals if we are not aware and responsive.
PB: What are some of the most important regulatory issues facing the aquatic livestock trade? How can retailers make their voices heard in regards to these issues?
Carberry: There are initiatives constantly coming our way to list various species as endangered or threatened. In some of these cases, the argument is as broad and non-specific as global warming. A listing of a species as “endangered” would force a hatchery like Sustainable Aquatics to cease production efforts for those animals and destroy breeder fish and inventory. PIJAC [Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council] is the central organization fighting this battle now. All of us with a stake in the industry, trade and hobby should join this organization through the marine subcommittee.
Hatchery operations cannot grow and invest in expanding the breeding of new species without commercial support from the market. Purchasing hatchery-bred products when available will support this needed ongoing development should it become the only source of marine ornamentals to the trade.
PB: What are some common mistakes that retailers make when selling livestock? How can they avoid/overcome these mistakes?
Carberry: In terms of fish, many of the animals offered by retailers are juveniles and require frequent feeding; the largest mistake made by retailers in this regard is failure to assure that their fish are receiving adequate nutrition. Making a special effort to inform the hobbyist in optimal care and feeding is also important. We believe that most losses in the supply chain, including retail, can be prevented with proper attention to feeding. The majority of fish species sold in the aquarium trade are not able to store excess energy and have short digestive systems, so it can be damaging to these animals to be without good nutrition for long periods.
PB: How would you recommend retailers build a well-rounded selection of livestock that will appeal to differing customer preferences and pricing sensitivities?
Carberry: We find that it helps to maintain a selection of affordable choices that make good starters and help keep the displays interesting—these might include invertebrates such as shrimps, crabs, snails and hardy soft corals, as well as small reef fish such as clownfish, gobies, and blennies. There are many types of clown fish, dottybacks, gobies cardinals and blennies that will round out a nice community tank and are available as tank-bred animals. Although some of the so-called “designer” clownfish may have a higher price-point, they are a relatively low-risk purchase for a retail shop, due to their high survival rates.
Customers also seem to be eager to support ecologically responsible suppliers. Stocking a small but rotating selection of high-end fish and corals in display aquariums makes the shopping experience interesting and provides a way to make those animals available for those who are looking for something different.
PB: How should retailers utilize display tanks to showcase their livestock selection?
Carberry: The best retail stores have many display tanks, some of which are for sale. A variety of healthy displays populated with fish and corals can be a good way to illustrate to customers the possibilities and potential for their own aquariums. A large show tank or lagoon with larger animals can also be an attractor and conversation-starter. It can noticeably increase sales when all displays are well stocked with interesting animals. This encourages purchases and reduces the effects of the somewhat self-fulfilling prophesy of the “slow” summer season.