Most of the livestock within my aquarium came from an online vendor. Actually, with the exception of a few fish, everything for my aquariums was ordered online and delivered to my door. The competition for online ordering of fish and corals couldn’t be higher. There are small basement vendors, which I’ve consistently criticized for offering extraordinarily high prices. For example, I saw a 6” rainbow chalice (one of many names randomly applied to coral) for sale on a Facebook post earlier today. The seller wanted $650 for the coral, saying they were very firm on that price. I have the exact same coral in my aquarium. I paid $79 for 3” of chalice years ago, and now it’s well in excess of 7”. If I were to sell the colony, I would probably ask around $200 for it, or less. Basement vendors often lead the charge when it comes to over-hyping coral; manipulating species in photo editing software and making otherwise ordinary pieces appear rare or exotic. Then you have large aquaculture outlets; usually well run facilities that are constantly sparring for the consumer dollar, with offers like free shipping or reduced cost. All this leads to the topic of guarantee policy.
Most aquarists who shop online know the golden rule; Live Aquaria offers by far the best guarantee policy in the industry. In fact, it’s too good to be true. Purchase a fish or coral and it dies within 14 days, you either get a store credit or money back, the total cost of the livestock minus shipping, which is usually free. It’s hard to beat, and aquarists have wondered if this policy didn’t lead the Wisconsin based company to end up on the auction block, eventually getting swallowed up by Petco Inc. There are a variety of guarantee policies in the middle, some seven days, some several hours and a few vendors offer nothing, not even live arrival.
Whenever you ship something alive or perishable, there has to be some sort of guarantee policy. On top of that, livestock can be packaged to survive in a variety of shipping conditions, even arriving healthy after a delay. I’ve ordered from enough online vendors to know which ones can package their livestock, and which ones cannot. So if the vendor is doing their job, your livestock should arrive in good condition, even if it’s delayed 24 hours, right?
There are circumstances that a vendor cannot control, when a package is whisked away by UPS or Fed Ex. Was the specimen handled roughly, was it left out during in climatic weather, or forgotten on a truck? All of these aren’t the vendors fault, but they aren’t the aquarists either. Hence the guarantee. I’ve had both corals and fish arrive to my door, dead and stinky. It wasn’t my fault, as the fish had not even seen my tank’s water, it may not have been the vendors, but playing a blame game accomplishes nothing. The fact remains a livestock item arrived dead, and the vendor has already accepted full payment for it.
A trend has been taking place in the online market place that is alarming for aquarists. Guarantee policies are becoming ever so strict. I recently had an online vendor tell me that in order to process a credit for livestock that arrives dead; a photo must be emailed within two hours of the package receipt. The same vendor has acclimation guidelines that suggest a full acclimation for seemingly dead livestock, and waiting several hours before making a decision as to the animal’s fate. Pulling the specimen out of the water for a photo op, within a mere two hours of arrival totally goes against the vendor’s own acclimation instructions.
Another vendor told me they needed at least five photos, and a water sample to process a credit. I reminded them the species arrived dead, it never saw my aquarium water. Doesn’t matter, want a credit – send the sample. It seems horribly unfair, but is there another side to the coin?
I’ve sold quite a few corals and fish via the internet. I know firsthand that shipping costs for the vendor are much higher than those reflected to the aquarist. While a consumer may pay a flat $ 35 shipping rate, the vendor is often paying in excess of $ 100. That cost is partially worked into livestock cost, but it’s become so high in recent years, that other methods of offsetting it have become commonplace. Likely the “better than free shipping” offers you see from a variety of vendors, is an attempt to make shipping somewhat financially feasible for both parties. Since my service acquires fish for aquarists and conditions them at our facility, sometimes shipping costs on one specimen exceed $ 350. The $ 35 charge that is withheld when given a credit is pale in comparison to the $ 170 the vendor may have paid for shipping. To make matters worse, as long as the package arrived (delayed or not) both UPS and Fed Ex are shy about issuing an insurance claim.
Another important point to consider is that once a coral or fish arrives at an aquarist’s door, any number of things can happen. Was water quality sub-par? Did the aquarist properly acclimate? Was the animal placed with incompatible species? Could the 200 gallon tank the consumer claimed they had when buying a grouper be more like 55 gallons? It seems at face value like vendors may be getting away with highway robbery, when on the other side it appears like selling something alive, that requires delicate conditions for survival, is an impossible way to generate profit.
Is there a solution? First, it’s very important that aquarists are always honest with their vendors. I’ve had aquarists fib the size and condition of their aquariums, along with their current stocking list, all in hopes of getting their hands on a rare specimen, which they think by a stroke of luck will survive in their tank. It’s crucial to know your tank’s parameters when ordering, and share those with the vendor, along with your goals for the aquarium along with a current stocking list. Most vendors are expert aquarists and the advice they can offer is far more valuable than the livestock you’re ordering.
Second, be pro-active in tracking your shipment. If you see what looks like problems (the package appears stuck at a terminal) start making phone calls. Often shipping companies are willing to let you pick a package up at the sort facility, or individual drivers will meet you. Form a relationship with your UPS or Fed Ex driver. The UPS driver that delivers my livestock gave me his personal cell phone number, and anytime I have something live coming, I keep in touch making sure it’s not on the truck for long. Have a conversation with your driver about what you’re having delivered, as I’ve found most drivers are sympathetic once they learn that these are living animals they are carrying. Invest in a proper acclimation system, and do some research into acclimating species which have been shipped.
If you order from a vendor, and are not impressed with their packaging, don’t do business with them again. I’ve found that most vendors, who don’t package their livestock well, make a consistent habit of doing so. Ironically enough vendors who ship poorly packaged livestock are often the first to dodge issuing any type of refund or credit, in the event of a dead on arrival. Once you find an online livestock vendor you are satisfied with and trust, stick with them. Most of these vendors can get in nearly any species, and will work with a good customer.
Shipping delays, poor packaging and rushing fish from the ocean to retail cost many, many marine species their lives each year, and create a web of disappointed aquarists. When we receive livestock that is DOA, our first instinct is often to point fingers. It’s vital to remember the amount of logistics that goes into bringing an animal from a reef on the other side of the world, right to your doorstep. Finally, don’t abuse those vendors that offer a liberal guarantee policy. If you have a livestock item that dies, even within the guarantee period, and you’re 99% sure it wasn’t the fault of the vendor or shipper, don’t rush to claim your credit. Abusing these policies simply ensures that in the future, they will no longer be offered.