Not every fishkeeper is content with a 20 gallon tank with a school of neon tetras and zebra danios. For some folks, a fish is hardly a fish unless it's a foot long and eats pellet food out of their hand. As large aquariums and their accessories have become more affordable and commonplace, the demand for large fishes of twelve or more inches has increased steadily.
To stock any number of good-sized aquarium fish, the dealer will need to provide a substantial number of good-sized tanks. A modest setup could include a 120 to 180 gallon aquarium to display some of the more attractive animals, and half a dozen or more 40 to 50 gallon tanks for the overstocks and incompatible species. Each tank should be at least 36 inches long and 18 inches from front to back, to allow room for a foot long fish to swim and turn around without difficulty.
Once the lunker section is ready, you'll need to locate some fish to put in them. Your regional aquatic wholesaler or ornamental fish farm may do an excellent job of supplying swordtails, tetras, barbs and all the smaller, bread-and-butter species and even young fish of species that eventually get large. But in general it's not practical for them to devote space, food and maintenance resources for the many months it might take to grow fish to a substantial size. In addition, shipping and handling fees can easily inflate the landed cost of large specimens to the point that they will be difficult to sell profitably. Air freight and packing charges totaling $20 add only a few cents to each of 400 zebra danios in a box, but mean that a $10 twelve-inch Oscar shipped all by itself really cost the dealer $30.
A much more cost-effective source for larger fish is one that you see in your shop every day: your clientele. Many hobbyists purchase small fish that quickly outgrow their aquariums, or tire of the amount of food and maintenance that a tank full of these brutes can entail. Rather than dump their pets in the local lagoon (a practice which is environmentally unsound and possibly unlawful) or otherwise dispose of them, they'd be happy to bring them to their favorite fish store in the hope of finding good homes. Properly handled, this can be a win/win situation, with the hobbyist finding an outlet for his outcasts, and the dealer finding an affordable source for large, quality fish.
There's often a hidden benefit to accepting trade-ins on large or aggressive fish: the sale of a whole tankful of new fish. Many aquarium keepers end up with a tank devoted to a single specimen that has outgrown or vanquished its previous tankmates. Having a good home available to this solo act opens up the tank for new and exciting uses.
Negotiating a purchase price may take a little practice at first. It is very important for the dealer to consider all the after-purchase expenses he will encounter, and to leave a healthy profit margin to cover them. Large fish continue to eat and produce waste in abundance in the retailer's fish room, just as they did for the home aquarist. In addition, there should be room to mark down for clearance, in case you suddenly find yourself with a dozen full grown oscars or plecostomus, or five tanks each holding a single murderous snakehead or red devil. Payment will probably be in the range of 20% to 50% of the intended selling price, preferably (from the dealer's point of view) paid as store credit for other merchandise.
Payment price should reflect much more than just the gross weight of the animal; other factors such as condition, rarity, popularity and current stock levels also help determine value. An exceptional specimen of an unusual variety might be worth paying a bit extra for, as could an average specimen of a type that has sold quickly in the past. On the other hand, if you find yourself with an overabundance of a given variety, it's a sign that it's time to start paying somewhat less on that species. Most individuals will have a few fin tears and missing scales from being handled, and probably a few battle scars as well. These are quite unavoidable and shouldn't affect the pricing very much. Deformed, damaged or unhealthy fish might be purchased at a greatly reduced price, but unless there is an unlimited number of aquariums available, they are best taken as donations or not accepted at all.
Once word gets out that your shop accepts trade-ins of larger aquarium fish, it can be quite a draw for both buyers and sellers. In fact, it is entirely possible that some of your competitors with more limited space or less interest in these species will actually refer customers to your shop. This is perhaps the ultimate in "advertising that you just can't buy".
New fish should optimally be quarantined, but that's not always practical. At the very least, they should be closely monitored for compatibility and any signs of illness after handling. In an ideal setup, the receiving tanks should be near the checkout counter, or in some other highly visible place where employees will notice any major skirmishes.
Since there aren't any wholesale guidelines to work with, setting a retail price can be a rather arbitrary process at first, to be modified as the seller gains more experience. Since the supply of most larger fish will be very limited, don't be afraid to price a little higher if you believe there will be a demand. Prices can always be dropped on slow movers, but can never be raised on fish that are already out the door.
In addition to pricing, there are a few other issues that are particularly important when selling large fish. Compatibility is a major concern: assembling a collection of small, relatively peaceful tetras and barbs may be an art form, but creating a harmonious mix of these big brutes is more like playing a slot machine in Vegas. Most of these fish, and especially the cichlids, will be adult, territorial bad boys who basically don't want any other fish that looks or acts the same to be in plain sight. Sometimes the newer fish are tough enough to hold their own immediately after be added to the established group, but more often they really take a beating. If the customer already has a few larger fish in his tank, he needs to be advised to watch closely for signs of injury, and be ready to remove fish if necessary. Unless a new fish is tough enough to hold its own or smart enough to take cover, it can be battered almost beyond recognition in twenty minutes, and killed within a few hours.
Chemistry is another concern; just because a fish is big and tough doesn't mean that it's invulnerable. Tanks stocked with larger fish frequently have problems with what I like to call "Old Tank Syndrome", caused by inadequate water changes and evidenced by very high nitrate and crashing pH levels. As fish waste products build up over months or years, existing fish have a chance to slowly acclimate to the terrible water quality, but new fish may go into immediate shock upon be placed in such tanks. And if the chemistry doesn't kill the new additions on its own, the older existing fish often attack the stressed and weakened newcomers with great enthusiasm.
Brand new tanks pose a similar threat. Again, fish that look and act tough are just as vulnerable to the high ammonia and nitrite levels of a tank going through its "break-in" cycle as most other fish. Newly set up tanks should still be broken in with other, hardier fish and/or large quantities of gravel and decorations from an existing tank. Ammonia and nitrite levels should be monitored until both have risen and then disappeared before adding any but the hardiest of fish.
The store's replacement policies should reflect the higher risk of mixing big or aggressive fish, and customers should be forewarned of potential problems before making a purchase. This is no place for a 72-hour "no questions asked" guarantee, as many fish can be in fine shape when they leave the shop yet dead within a few hours in the wrong aquarium. Incompatible specimens that are returned within a few days in good condition should be accepted for store credit - for the fish's sake as well as customer service. There's no sure way to determine in advance which species - or even specimens - will get along, and what seems like an identical collection will work just fine one time and fail miserably the next. It's the dealer's job to help the customer make a wise choice (see side bar), but ultimately only the customer can watch new arrivals, and separate those that aren't working before severe damage is done.
Stocking and selling large aquarium fish can be both fun and profitable. It wouldn't be advisable to give up on the guppies and mollies just yet, but once in a while it pays to think big.
Pet Age Magazine
Copyright © 2000 James M. Kostich