The LFS problem and ways to fix it..

I don't know if it's the time of year, my mindset. or what, but my mind is heavily focused of late on the business side of things. That's good, but not always entertaining for those of you looking for my usual dives into obscure hobby topics or rants on "stuff" I think about. And, I do receive a fair amount of correspondence from hobbyists and vendors alike about the business side of the hobby, along with requests to touch on it a bit more- so this is as good a time as any to write this!

As you know from my previous writings, I am a HUGE proponent of the local, brick-and-mortar fish store. It's a vital institution in the hobby and culture of fish keeping. It's where I got my start- it's where thousands of kids and adults start their journeys into the amazing hobby we love. I've sung the praises of the "institution" of the LFS repeatedly over the years, and will continue to do so! In fact, even though I have chosen to operate in the online sector, I make it a point to purchase much of my personal fish supplies and many of my fish at my local stores. I am a very vocal supporter of this special place in the hobby.

However, a few days ago, I went to one of my local stores and just had a pretty bad experience. Actually, it wasn't the first time. It's been a gradual, but perceptible trend at this particular store. It wasn't any one thing; no rude sales person, dirty tank, or clutter. Rather, it was sort of a combination of these- and other factors. Seeing a dead fish or two, or a dirty tank once in a while is just sort of "par for the course" with a fish store. There's a lot going on. However, when you see dozens of dirty tanks, lots and lots of sick and dying fishes, things blatantly mislabeled, overall clutter, and disinterested, apathetic, "busy" employees- that's a sign of a problem, IMHO.

It felt bad. I felt bad.

(Unpleasant, right?)

In my opinion, the best part of a fish store is that it can provide an almost "immersive" experience- giving the visitor a real taste of the hobby and the excitement and enjoyment that there is to be had in it. So, when you see a store that's become a mere shadow of itself- sloppy, poorly managed, uninspiring displays, filed with dead and sick fishes, cheap merchandise instead of the quality goods they once carried- your experience is not so good. It's sad, actually. I actually had a chance to chat briefly with the owner, who, to his credit- mentioned that he felt his store was "having issues." It takes courage to acknowledge that. However, during our chat, he started falling back on one thing that, as a business person, I despise: Blaming "stuff" for the poor state of his store. 

Mainly, it was the "online vendors" that underpriced him, or had "all of the cool stuff that I can't stock."  Then it was Amazon, because they have "free shipping and cheap prices."  And then it was the fact that  "__________ has all of this stuff in a nicer display." His frustrations were palatable, but they reeked of bad excuses. I've heard these from many brick-and-mortar, and an increasingly larger number of online tropical fish-related businesses as well.  In fact, you hear it in other retail business sectors, too. The good businesses figure out the solution for these issues. The bad ones...well...

Okay, before I get too deep in this- I'll clarify again: I'm not trying to indict the institution of the brick and mortar store here. I'm an unabashed fan. I believe I've already made that point. Yet, every time I touch on a business subject like this, I get "hate mail" from some LFS or online business owner who tells me I'm just piling on the hate, or out of touch, don't know what I'm talking about...or whatever.  Of course I don't think that's correct. I'm bringing subject matter that is near and dear to me; which I have firsthand experience with. If you take this as me "having an attitude" or "chip on the shoulder" or whatever, you're completely off-base.  And I'll go on record as saying that I'd be equally disappointed in an online business that has similar issues. What I don't like are excuses and offering customers a second-rate experience because of "________________." It's not necessary. The LFS is way better than that. And, since I hate the idea of just talking without offering some value, I'll at least touch on a few ways that he can be better.

Look, as an online vendor, I understand that don't have the same overhead and issues associated with a brick-and-mortar store. I get that. However, online businesses have plenty of challenges, too- namely, standing out in a crowded marketplace, offering good products, good customer experiences, prices, service, etc. Pretty much all of the same merchandising and marketing issues as the LFS, with the addition of shipping and some other uncertainties. Everyone has their challenges. I certainly know some things that we need to work on at Tannin in 2017!

I was, however, distressed at the way the owner reacted to the problems he was having. It was just doing something without thinking through the whole problem...not seeing the forest for the trees, as they say. It was so unecessary.

His immediate "solution" was to bring in more and more merchandise; much of it, I'm sad to say, sub-par stuff- "knock-offs" of the well-known products- and a lot of it still sits on the shelf (he complained about that, too...). It was his way to counter the higher-priced, yet superior quality items that the competition offered. I can almost understand his thinking, but it's not just about "having stuff" on the shelves. I understand that the brick-and-mortar store can't stock multiple high-end LED lighting systems, a range of expensive protein skimmers, 5 different lines of low-iron-glass tanks, and every trendy food that you see online. However, there are plenty of ways to combat the impact of competition, online or otherwise, that don't involve taking out a small business loan and carrying huge volumes of high-end merchandise. You don't need to have every item you see everywhere to be successful. My friend just didn't perceive that.

We're not going to solve the problems every business faces in this blog. (I charge pretty good money for that kind of consulting, lol) But we can at least look (at a very superficial level) at his excuses and what he could do to address them. And of course, I don't have all of the answers...I'm not some "guru." I simply am another business owner hoping to give a bit of value to other business owners based on my experiences, and perhaps to give hobbyists a few bits of knowledge to enlighten them somewhat about this side of the hobby. My hope is to open up discussion where we can all talk about the industry, online, brick-and-mortar, and in between, and how to make it better.)

It starts with NOT  blaming everyone else for your problems. Not always easy to do, but it's a must, IMHO. Sure, competition takes a bite, but the best businesses accept it as a reality, and look for "Blue Ocean"- uncontested market space- to reduce its impact, or even render it irrelevant entirely. And it's sad that many aquarium businesses spend tremendous capital, effort, and time trying to be "all things to all people." Taking a stand for what is important to you, yet, at the same time, listening to your loyal, ravenous customer base is important. Offering the products and services that they want-so long as it doesn't take you off course. So many businesses of all kinds fail to take care of the 20% of the people that comprise 80% of the customer base that it's astounding. 

Look, we could carry every type of plant food, medication, etc., that fish geeks want, but doing so would be decidedly "off message", capital-intensive, and essentially catastrophic for us. Rather, we offer some products that you're likely to find elsewhere, mainly as a convenience. That was a conscious decision when we started, but we didn't want to get too deep into that. Part of it was to help in establishing online "search-ability" for Tannin. The other part of the decision was to offer some items/brands that customers were familiar with when they visited our site. Yet, we also were careful into to stock every product by manufacturers we work with. There are tons of places to purchase every filter media on the market-with better selection, inventory, and pricing than we have. However, the ones we offer-and will offer- are products that work in the context of what we do.  (key takeaway here). We're not about trying to be a "one-stop shop" for all of your aquarium needs. We can't be. In fact, in 2017, look for a fair number of mass-market products to leave our inventory, to be replaced by an even more focused selection.

Not everyone can or wants to do things that way. I understand. "Leaving money on the table", as they say, is a scary proposition in the bloody war for your business. It's part of a long-term strategy that I've chosen to embrace-forgoing the immediate sale for the long-term customer relationship-and not everyone sees value in doing that. Stuff like putting out free content every day, supporting clubs, and maintaining a social presence is not attractive or comfortable to a lot of businesses trying to build a following, when there are quicker ways to go and bills coming in.

Charting a different course than what everyone else does, or what's viewed as "standard" for an industry is scary. Many businesses, run by incredibly smart people- fail trying. It's a sad reality. The aquatics business is really tough, as anyone involved with it will tell you. Yet, it's really rewarding. It takes ingenuity, creativity, effort, and time to make it work.

And the staff needs to be on board. In today's global job market, just having employment is pretty cool. Pride in work, especially in something most of the employees are passionate about, shouldn't be difficult to encourage. Employees more interested in talking amongst themselves instead of doing their job need to be re-educated..or replaced. An LFS can't survive if the customer-facing employees constitute the weakest link in the organization. Just having warm bodies on the sales floor isn't enough in this business. Get rid of the lousy ones before they end you.

With regards to the "cool merchandise?" A brick-and-mortar can do something no online store can: It can show the items in operation; give customers the "touch/feel" experience. Incorporating the equipment, etc. into displays creates a "real world" experience that no website can really achieve. A lot of stores do this, yet many fail to capitalize on this. You'll often hear that a customer comes into the LFS to see the item in person, then buys it online. I get it. But there are ways to counter this. Turn the model inside-out...think like an online store for a minute!

And you don't have to have 5 pieces of the full line from every manufacturer. You have one or two of them. You can order them in as needed. Trust me, if the pricing is competitive, customers are accustomed to a wait of a few days to get their items. Yes, stuff like brine shrimp, a can of food, flakes, medications, replacement parts should always be in stock. But for most stores, having several $4,000 "turnkey", high-end reef tanks in stock simply ties up capital.  Rather, have one, and use it like a "menu" that customers can order from.

Ever been to a Tesla "store" in a mall? Do you think they have every model in stock to drive home today, and lose customers because they don't? Why do you have to? Because it's always been done that way?  Because you've been in business for the last 19 years and it used to work? Because you've "payed your dues?"  NOTE: The market doesn't moves without you- and will run right over you if you don't adapt, change, and dare. Tough love, but it's true...and I think you know that. Don't hate on the messenger here; I don't make the rules up ("ass-kick" part over). A serious customer will be happy to come back in a few days to pick up exactly what he or she wanted. And, for them to pick it up in person at the store is a slight "inconvenience" that most fish geeks will happily endure, particularly if your store is clean, fun to go to, has nice people, and has cool stuff to see! The opportunity for "upselling" or adding "value-added" services is very real.

And "disrupting" the market is cool! 

You've got this.

I can go on and on and on, but the real point of this article is not to show what a visionary I am, or to blabber on and on about ways to "fix" stuff. As stated previously, I don't have all the answers. This is just an opening discussion. A "primer." A catalyst for deeper contemplation. I can tell you from my personal experience that there are ways to get out of tough spots, and there are ways to build a unique, lasting business in a tough niche like the aquarium world. The best aquarium businesses figure them out. They're scary, often unfamiliar. They will challenge your patience, your nerves, your determination, and your economics. But they can work. They work if you pursue them.

Don't quit. Don't be afraid. Be pissed off for like 5 minutes, then roll up your sleeves and do what you know how to do with a fresh attitude. 

The industry needs you. The hobby needs you. I need you! 

Stay determined. Stay innovative. Stay creative.

And above all.

Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

November 30, 2016

Hey Phill,

Spot-on in your assessment. I think that many stores existed without competition for many years, and when the online “vendors” and “big box” pet warehouses started showing up, there was a certain “complacency” that set in. When Amazon and E-Bay and tons of “garage vendors” got thrown into the mix, it was the proverbial last straw for many brick-and-mortar stores. The key is, and always has been, adapting to a changing market, and differentiating yourself with over-the-top service, an area of specialization, or just flat-out doing a better job. Ideas like the pre-colonized filter media are great- they should be part of EVERY store’s arsenal of unique stuff, right along with live foods, etc. Value-added,TIME-SAVING, innovative features- and personalized service- will make a huge difference in the new market. And it does, as you suggest, start by cultivating successful long-term customers! Thanks for the feedback!


November 29, 2016

Good article. I think that many LFS are not rising to the challenge in a tough environment, perhaps there are too many of them for the available market. I have long been surprised that it is a vanishingly small number of retail outlets that offer new tank startup customers, mature media to seed their filtration system. Every experienced aquarist knows how easy it is to set up a new tank using existing mature media. However the new fish keeper frequently abandons the hobby when they encounter a nitrite spike that kills their fish. An easier introduction to the vagaries of the hobby would ensure more longterm customers (I think).

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