Oh man, it’s been a while since I’ve mouthed off and attempted to foist my limited world view on the aquatics community, and acted as a wannabe spokesperson on behalf of the greater industry- maybe 24 hours; something like that?
In dealing with customers in the aquatics biz, you discover a few "truisms" about business, the hobby and the culture that surrounds it all. Some of these things are good, some are not so pretty, but most of them are things that sort of fall in to definable patterns. I was chatting with a fellow vendor the other day, and our discussion got me thinking ( a dangerous proposition, you know…).
I don’t really act as a spokesperson for the industry, so I’m speaking mainly from my experience, and experiences of some of the other awesome vendors in this industry, who have shared with me their thoughts on stuff from time to time, but I felt there would be some value in letting you know what some vendors think about topics related to the aquatics business. Having owned both a well-regarded aquatic livestock business (Unique Corals) and a “dry goods” vendor (tannin Aquatics), I have accumulated both some experience and opinions that might be of interest to you, so I figured I’d share it here!
I’m calling this “Things that your aquatics vendor would like to tell you”, and I think the title alone says a lot. I think it could maybe “clear the air” a bit on the way e-commerce works in our industry. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, nor do I intend to use this as a place to “bitch and moan” about our business. Rather, it’s about opening a dialogue. So, without further intro, let’s delve into some things that the good guys and gals who market aquarium stuff on line would like you to know (from my point of view, of course…spank me if I’m off base):
“We really make the effort to take accurate pictures that show the color, shape, and size of the stuff that you’ll be purchasing from us.”- There are generally no malevolent intentions among the quality vendors out there. Typically, they’re just stoked, honest fish geeks who turned their passion into career and try to do their best every day. Some people are great photographers, others are not. Look, we understand that it’s important to get an accurate pic of the item you’re forking out your money for, and everyone wants to see the fish, coral, plant, botanical, gear, etc. at its best. Sometimes, the photographer may take a lousy pic and attempt to bring back the washed out colors caused by too tight a focus, external sources, etc.- and that’s where trouble happens…this is really prevalent in the livestock trade- I saw it a lot on the coral side of things.
Legitimate livestock vendors don’t take liberty with editing. Why? Because it only takes one time to lose a consumer’s confidence. If you receive a fish, plant or coral who's colors vary significantly from what you saw on the vendor’s website, it sucks. However, I implore you to refrain and not unleash a “scorched-earth” social media tirade trashing the guy…pick up the phone and ask what happened. Knowing my fellow vendors like I do, I’ll wager that 99% of the time, it was just an honest mistake- a human error- and that they’ll bend over backwards to work out an equitable solution. But you’ll never know if you open the dialogue by lashing out at the vendor in a public forum before giving them an opportunity to make things right. I’ve seen these train wrecks play out on vendor feedback forums before, and it’s not entertaining when an honest guy is getting whacked because an angry customer didin’t try to contact them first.
“Even though we inspect every fish, plant, or coral we sell thoroughly before shipping, we highly recommend some sort of prophylactic dipping, inspection, and yes- quarantine procedure after you receive the livestock.”- Yeah, believe it or not, even an experienced aquatics vendor occasionally misses something, and a sick fish, a snail on a plant, flatworm, red bug, nudibranch, or other nasty hitchhiker will get through. This is every legitimate livestock vendor’s nightmare, believe me. NO ONE in this industry wants to send you aquatic life with disease or pestilence on it. Nonetheless, stuff gets through on rare occasions. There is a certain responsibility that we as customers need to take for the animals we purchase.
It is absolutely not unreasonable to expect a perfectly healthy animal, or plant, but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibilities of being a conscientious aquarist. Inspection, acclimation, and quarantine of EVERY fish, plant, coral, or invert we purchase is the ONLY way to assure that you are adding a healthy animal to your system. The initial responsibility lies with the vendor to sell you a healthy animal-no getting around that. The ultimate responsibility lies with the customer, who needs to exercise basic aquarium-keeping protocols for newly received animals. This is not unreasonable either. In our business (Tannin), it extends towards the customer reading our website information on prep and taking the time to properly prepare and use our botanicals in their aquatic features. Not using something the way it was intended or recommended can often lead towards unhappy outcomes…
Bad analogy- When you buy a car, you can expect a safe, well-engineered vehicle. But it’s not BMW’s responsibility to fasten your seat belts when you drive off. Same for aquatic livestock.
“We package your order as carefully as possible. Sometimes, circumstances beyond our control conspire to damage the packaging or items within it.”- Believe it or not, Fed Ex, UPS, and USPS really couldn’t care less that the box says “Live Tropical Fish- Keep Warm” on the side. Oh sure, that may keep them from leaving the package on the porch during the next “Polar Vortex” incident, but that’s about it. To these people, it’s a package, and they handle thousands per day, so to think that occasionally a shipper doesn’t just toss the box containing your Rilli Shrimp, Betta albimarginata, coral, or Bucephalandra into a cargo container along with packages of cosmetics, juicing machines, and car parts is fantasy. As much as we’d like to think that our boxes are handled lovingly by the shippers with care by skilled personnel with lab coats, that’s typically not true. Not to say anything negative on the thousands of hardworking people in the shipping industry, but it’s unreasonable to think that our packages are always treated perfectly.
Expect that the box will get beaten up a bit. Expect for a botanical to get a bit “worn” on occasion. Expect a piece of SPS coral to occasionally have branch knocked off. Except fishes to not be in “show coloration” when you unbox it. It sucks, and it is no fun, but it happens…And it’s not you vendor’s fault, really. Most make tremendous efforts to pack your stuff as carefully as possible. Nonetheless, things get damaged. Again, if you receive a damaged shipment, take a few minutes to asses the situation, acclimate the fishes, corals, or other products, and call your vendor to discuss. Believe it or not, many fishes do remarkably well after a rough ride. Plants typically recover fine. Botanicals can still impart tannins into the water if they’re a bit misshapen. And corals take this “fragging by shipper” thing pretty well, and can recover nicely. You should definitely discuss with your vendor, of course- and many will offer credit or replacement for damaged stuff with little hesitation. But please, please- don’t just toss the box in the trash and call your vendor for replacement. Make the effort- and the call.
We appreciate your PM, email, or phone call when there is a question or a problem, but we can’t always grab the message or return the email immediately, or pick up the call on the first try, or even the second. It doesn’t mean we won’t help you.”- I hear about this and read about this all the time. Believe it or not, much as we’d like to believe, most aquatics vendors are pretty small guys, with one or two employees- or maybe even none. When you call, you’re not gonna get Zappos, with banks of CSR’s in a call center, with scripted responses to every question. More likely, you’re going to get the owner of the company, who will apologize for the delay in getting back to you because he’s busy trying to ship out 14 orders. And dealing with customers worldwide in different time zones has an impact, too. Yeah, you could make the argument that “she should be staffed up properly if he wants my money”, but understand that most of these guys are pretty darned good at what they do, and are doing the best they can to take care of all of their customers.
As you may realize, growing a business is a tough proposition, and it’s hard to find good people, so a lot of smaller vendors do it all themselves as long as they can. Obviously, service should not suffer- not one bit. It’s part of running a business, and everyone who builds one has to face it- “if you can’t stand the heat”, etc. However, please understand that most of these guys are fish geeks just like you, and will typically bend over backwards to help you- as soon as humanly possible. The key take-aways here- “..fish geeks just like you” and “…as soon as humanly possible.” They truly care- at least, the good ones that I know do. It’s a bit different than dealing with your cable company, for example. So please cut some of these people a little slack before you go out and whack ‘em on Twitter and such. #myaquaticsvendordoesntloveme.
“XYZ Aquarium Company wouldn’t take take the WYSIWY Cyprichromis microlepidotus off his website and hold it for me until next week when I get paid. And I’ve ordered from him once before last year..What a jerk.”- Honestly, I’ve heard people tell me this about other vendors, and I cringe. Let;’s be real. Even though the aquarium livestock biz isn’t like every other business- it’s still a business. You can’t just expect someone who earns their livelihood by selling things to remove items from inventory on your promise that you’re going to buy the fish or coral “next week”, or whenever. You can’t believe how many times he’s probably done this before, only to have the person making the offer disappear on him.
The lifeblood of a sales business is- you guessed it- sales! So, when you ask a vendor to take a fish, plant, or piece of coral off of his site to hold it without paying for it, you’re really asking him to hold off earning an income until you’re ready to pay for the item. The reality is, he’d love to be the nice guy and do that for you, but this isn’t “Its a Wonderful Life”, with George Bailey behind the counter of the Building and Loan (IMBD the movie if you can’t get the reference). It’s a guy who needs to cover his overhead, pay his employees, and earn money to take care of his family. He’s not your personal aquarium consignment shop. It’s just not reasonable to expect that of any business. Don’t believe me? Try asking most airlines to hold an airfare for you for a week without paying something now days! At the very least, if you want to ask this, make an offer to put down a deposit and see if that is something the vendor would entertain.
Oh sure, I can go on and on, and probably sound a bit whiny in the process. I hope I’m not sounding that way, but it might be unavoidable! This was certainly not the intent of this piece today. Really, what I was trying to do is convey to you the things that concern the people on the other side of the “electronic counter” when you purchase your livestock and other fish stuff, and how they think. I’m not speaking for everyone in the industry. I am conveying things that are discussed when fellow vendors sit around at conferences and “talk shop”, as they say.
I thought that perhaps it might be a bit interesting to you…
Most everyone I know in this industry has good intentions, are very nice people, and decent business practices. However, there are definitely slimy, low-down, rotten vendors out there who’s sole purpose is profit without any conscience. Yeah, they exist. Most aquatics industry vendors will bend over backwards for their clients, because they are what you and I are- fish geeks. If there are some solid takeaways from this piece, it’s that you should a)always voice any concerns you have with a vendor, b)offer him or her a reasonable amount of time to respond, c)attempt to work with him or her to resolve your problem before publicly attacking them, and d)remember that the aquarium hobby involves a certain amount of personal responsibility.
And, I think that you’ll find most everyone who is in this game takes it very personally, and will go out of their way to create great experiences and offer the best stuff they can for you. No matter how large the business. If the “core values” are good, you’re almost always guaranteed to have a good outcome, despite the challenges or issues that arise.
If we look at the aquatics vendor/aquarist relationship as more of a “partnership”, I think we can all work together to create an even more responsible, sustainable, consumer-based industry that makes everyone happy.
If you're a vendor or a customer, I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on both the topics mentioned, and on others that were not covered. Getting this stuff out and discussing it will only foster better understanding between vendors and customers, build more solid relationships, and a better industry to serve the aquarium keeping community!
As always, stay engaged, keep learning and sharing…
Stay positive. Stay communicative. Stay vigilant. Stay open-minded.
And stay wet.