aqbannrm.gif - 4.02 K Aquarium
Priced to Sell:
Retail pricing of Aquarium Fish

Next to healthy stock and great display techniques, the best way to actually "merchandize" aquarium fish is to develop a sound pricing strategy. This doesn't mean slashing prices until they're the lowest in town - in fact, in some cases it means just the opposite. A solid pricing strategy takes into account a variety of factors, including cost and demand, to determine the best price for each fish, then displays that price with effective labeling and signage.

What a fish costs. The invoice price isn't the final word in your total cost for a fish. Shipping cannot easily be ignored, especially on larger specimens packed only a few per box. If you're paying $30 total for freight and box charge, it adds a dime to your landed cost of each of 300 Head and Tail Light Tetras, or $5 each if the box contains just half a dozen six-inch Iridescent Sharks. Once the fish are in your tanks, costs can continue to mount with feeding, maintenance and yes, losses. These added costs are not uniform from fish to fish, and are not fully capable of being calculated, but they still should be taken into consideration when determining the retail price.

Cost is only the starting point. Even with dry goods, it's generally foolish to pick a magic mark-up percentage and just apply it across the board. Some items will always allow better margins than others as a result of supply and demand, competition and consumer awareness. With "wet stock", it is even a bigger mistake to stick to a standard markup, since there are many other factors to consider. A rare fish or an exceptional specimen should most often allow a better markup than one which is easily replaced in next week's shipment. If you are always selling a certain species faster than you can restock, it's time to consider a little upward adjustment in price. If a fish is a nuisance, eating up valuable tank space and/or tankmates, it's time to think about a reduction.

Look first, then price. It's tempting and convenient to price fish sight-unseen directly from the wholesaler's invoice - sometimes even before the fish have landed at the airport. But unless you have some remarkably consistent sources, you'll certainly be under-pricing some items while overdoing it on others. This is most readily demonstrated with saltwater specimens: in a batch of three Flame Angels, one might be larger and more colorful than the other two, and could easily sell quickly at a somewhat higher price. Pricing all three identically is a missed opportunity on one, which is bad enough, but it's also commonly used as a bargaining point by customers looking at the other two. If you need to make $180 on the three, it makes more sense to price them at $55, $55 and $70 than all at $60.

Many freshwater species vary considerably as well, although more from batch to batch than within a given shipment. For example, one shipment of Rosy Barbs might be a lot rosier than the next, or a shipment of Red Velvet Swordtails might be a lot "swordier". Squeaking a little extra profit from the exceptional lots gives a little room to reduce the price on the less-than-stellar specimens. Some fish, like the Rainbow Dace, even have seasonal considerations, looking like olive green bass minnows ten months of the year, then blooming into an attractive blue-and-orange (the males, anyway) knockout in the Spring. Pricing these the same year round pretty much guarantees you'll have a tankfull of drab baitfish taking up space for months on end.

Sexual discrimination is OK - at least when it comes to pricing certain fish. In many freshwater species, for exanple Dwarf Gouramis, Rosy Barbs, most Rainbow fish and fancy Guppies, males are far more colorful and attractive than their female counterparts. Even though you might pay the same price per fish for each sex, there's nothing wrong with charging considerably more for the fish everybody wants (or less for the less popular fish, if you prefer to think of it that way).

"Lots" of fish and "lots of fish". Many dealers quickly find that an effective way to increase fish sales is to offer quantity discounts. A species that normally sells for $2 each might be offered as a lot of 4 for $6-$7. If done wisely, this can be a win/win/win situation: the seller benefits from increased sales with less labor and materials cost per fish, the buyer gets a bit of a price break, and the fish get kept in appropriate numbers in the home aquarium. How many fish should be offered in the lot varies by species, and here are some guidelines:

Schools. Many small schooling fish like tetras and barbs look, act and get along better if kept in groups of at least four, and ideally a lot more. Offering a lot price, and maybe a mega-lot price for some of the extra popular species like neon and cardinal tetras, boosts sales while encouraging your customers to create a more attractive display of well-adjusted fish.

Mixed lots. Some fish, like juvenile African Cichlids from Lake Malawi, and just about made to be sold in mixed lots, and are often offered that way even at the wholesale level. This allows the hobbyist to purchase a group of young fish that are similar enough to be compatible, but dramatically different in color or pattern. A side benefit to the seller might be that he can simply label the tank, "Mixed African Cichlids" and not worry about whether or not all their Latin names have become obsolete since last month. Since all the fish in the tank will be the same price, there's also no worry that an employee will mistake a $50 Tropheus duboisi for a $3 Pseudotropheus zebra. This technique also works for more community-minded species that have color morphs.like swordtails, platies, mollies and danios.

Trios. Many species of aquarium fish are easily marketed and safely kept in trios, most often one male and two females of the species. This is a near-perfect price structure for most livebearers like swordtails, mollies and guppies, as well as some of the more easily "sexed" barbs and rainbows. Having a couple of females to pursue often keeps the male in prime health and vigor without wearing out the objects of his affection. This strategy also keeps your tanks from becoming All Girls Schools after all the more colorful, attractive males are sold from each batch.

Pseudo-Pairs. Many novice aquarists have a sentimental idea that fish need to be kept in pairs to provide companionship for one another. However, with many, if not most species, attempting to keep two conspecifics in a confined space results in one healthy robust specimen that constantly harasses and intimidates his "pal". With more assertive fish like Gouramis (including the Kissing Gourami that everybody wants to see do their thing), Barbs and Danios, a "pair" too often ends up becoming a bully and his victim. Since there's little marketing advantage and even less practical advantage to selling fish in "pairs", I'd limit this pricing structure to the few genuine pairs as described below.

Genuine Pairs. Known mated pairs of monogamous cichlids, including Angelfish, Jack Dempseys, Kribensis and the like are a marketable commodity - and are usually more valuable than two single fish of the same species. Watch for pairs to bond in stock tanks of adult fish, and move them out to other tanks when available.

Solo Acts. A few varieties of tropical fish aren't particularly pleased to see others of their own kind in the vicinity. Hence there is little reason to promote multiple quantities with group pricing. Inarguably the most famous of these loners is the Siamese Fighting fish, Betta splendens. While a few Betta enthusiasts might take advantage of a 3-for or 4-for price break, most of your clientele will rarely have a use for more than one - and offering a lot price might even confuse a few beginners into thinking they can be kept together. Many saltwater species, including most tangs, angelfish and butterflies, fall into the same category. Except in rare instances when "mated" pairs can be obtained or the buyer has a huge aquarium that can accommodate a sizeable school, there's little point in offering a group price break.

Labels. Once you've determined a good price structure for your living inventory, the next step is to pass it along to your staff and customers. A number of techniques are commonly used in identification and pricing of aquarium fish, and most can be effective. The keys are to make sure the labeling is clean, neat and legible - yet not so large or distracting as to hide or detract from the fish themselves. In addition, they should be kept current, meaning every fish in every tank should be represented by a label - and no labels should linger on after the last associated fish, like Elvis, has left the building. Finally, old, worn or damaged labels should be promptly replaced.

Marker directly on glass. Markers, paint pens or grease pencils can be used to write the various fish names and prices right on the front aquarium glass. On plus to this technique is that the spaces around the letters and numbers remain clear, so overall fish viewing isn't obscured. The big minus is that it's difficult to do neatly and still have the letters legible against the transparent background. If you've got the finesse for this job, it can give an acceptable look, but if your output ends up looking like caveman writings, try something else.

Handwritten Office labels. Available in a great selection of sizes, shapes and colors, standard sticky office labels can give nice results. They give a nice uniform look to your aquariums, and can be prepared at a desk where care can be taken to be legible. Select the appropriate size that you or a staff member can comfortably inscribe the information without wallpapering the front of your aquariums.

Printed or embossed labels. Whether produced by your office computer or a special label-making machine, these labels can look great no matter what your penmanship skills. On the negative side, they can cost quite a bit more and it's somewhat of a nuisance to get everything ready and print only a handful of labels.

What the labels should say. Labels should obviously state the fish name and pricing structure at the very least, but they can also contain some tidbits of other information. Some retailers assign a code phrase or color that signifies the species' community tank status, which is certainly valuable information for prospective buyers and less-experienced employees. Unusual needs or characteristics, such as special dietary requirements, maximum adult size or tendency to destroy live plants, might also be briefly mentioned in the labeling.

SIDEBAR: Signs, Signs…

While you work on getting that 70's rock "classic" out of your head, now's a good time to consider which fish or tanks might deserve a more detailed description than can be practically included on a label. A real aquarium enthusiast could probably write a paragraph or two on most species, but for a fair-sized fish room, that could easily end up being too much of a good thing. Unlike labels, which serve primarily to pass along fairly uniform basic information, signs are best used to highlight a few select items. In fact, keep the word "highlight" in mind when thinking about signage: highlighting a few passages in a book serves great purpose, but if you highlight every word in the entire volume, it has precisely the same effect as not highlighting anything at all.

Signs can of course be used to promote fish specials, and such signs might be little more than an expanded, more colorful version of the standard label. Signs might also denote exceptionally colorful or large specimens, rare or unusual items, or point out a selling feature that might not be apparent when simply viewing the fish. For example, a sign for a tank full of two-inch Haplochromis ahli might explain that the males of this species turn from their current silver-grey coloration to a brilliant electric blue with a white-edged dorsal fin (including a color photo would be a huge plus if practical). It could add that females remain silver, so buy a group of youngsters to increase your odds of getting at least one male. Finally, it could point out that these are less aggressive than most popular African cichlids, and can often be safely kept with other larger, active fish in an aquarium of 50 gallons or larger.


This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magaz
Pet Age Magazine

Copyright © 2004 James M. Kostich
All rights reserved.