Online coral shopping can be tricky; if you’re looking for a fair price, healthy livestock and straight-forward deals. To make matters worse, everywhere you look on social media and online forums, there is a flash sale with some unknown vendor either offering unbelievable prices, or what they claim is rare livestock. Many of these vendors have little more than a Facebook profile or forum avatar, and use the excitement of a quick sale and good price to entice buyers. Concern about these vendors has led many aquarists to only shop at well-established aquaculture facilities. Even then, it’s a buyer beware world for coral shoppers. Certain vendors use a host of practices to pass most of the financial risk associated with buying a live animal online, over to the aquarist.
Buying a coral online, shipping it out overnight via UPS or Fed Ex, these things come with inherent risks, to both aquarists and vendors. Corals aren’t cheap, and it’s easy for a medium sized coral order to cost in upwards of 1,000 dollars or more. When we make purchases of this size, say a home computer or television, we expect some sort of assurance the product will arrive, in working condition. It’s a lot of money, and aquarists depend on some form of guarantee to make it feasible. What happens if there is a delay with UPS? What happens if animals arrive dead? What happens if animals live a few hours, or days within the aquarist’s tank, only to suddenly die?
Guarantees are one area that buyers must be very aware of when shopping online. Live Aquaria and their diver’s den, offer what should be the industry standard guarantee, with little questions asked and complete refunds. In this case, if your animal is delayed in shipping, or doesn’t arrive alive, you can rest assured you’ll get your money back, or a replacement. In the case of Live Aquaria, both fish and corals are covered by their two-week guarantee, and over the years I’ve had several Live Aquaria orders get delayed, or lost livestock within several days of it arriving. In all cases Live Aquaria quickly, easily and without hassle returned my money. They may ask for a picture, or a breakdown of water quality, but overall it’s a hassle free, up-front guarantee policy-perhaps the best online and a program that more outlets should model.
From there, things get rather dicey. Some outlets use a subtle way of placing most of the shipping risk on the aquarist. They offer a live arrival guarantee, but they must be notified of any dead or ailing livestock within two hours of receipt. This means from the time UPS logs the package as delivered, to the time you report a problem, only two hours may have passed. It’s a major squeeze to unpack a box full of corals, arrange them in an acclimation container, acclimate them completely and then judge their health and condition, all within two hours. Some corals arrive stressed and closed up, and it can take days within the aquarium before their condition and vitality can be measured. Such a strict policy means if the aquarist wastes any time before reporting a problem, chances are their money is lost. If a coral looks stressed, or is a bit slimy and you decide to wait and see if it looks better in the morning, chances are if it doesn’t pull through, you just lost your money on something that was beyond saving the minute it arrived at your door. If you ordered a TV and went to turn in on the morning after it arrived, and it didn’t turn on, it’s unlikely the vendor would say, “You should have notified us within two-hours of the TV arriving.” I can certainly understand that it would be difficult for vendors to offer refunds all the time, damaging their profit margin and raising questions to the integrity of dead or dying livestock reports. In the same breath, it can be difficult for aquarists to accept ordering something online that can easily be killed by shipping, while also accepting that they may lose their money if it arrives dead or unhealthy, unless they follow a very strict and unrealistic protocol. If you’re going to sell livestock online, then as a vendor you need to prepare for the reality that losses may occur. What’s further questionable is if these shipments are covered by any type of insurance. UPS allows those shipping products to ensure packages, in the event the package is delayed, or the contents lost. Why do vendors with such strict shipping policies not implement UPS insurance, even at the buyer’s expense. Furthermore, is there no insurance in the industry which can protect both vendor and customer from losses due to shipping, etc? Vendors are in the unique position of having been paid in full for a coral order, before the aquarist has the order in hand. This is unlike other retail services, where an item is paid for at checkout, after you’ve picked it up and inspected the packaging, etc. This puts vendors in a position over the aquarist, as they’ve been paid, even in the event something goes horribly wrong.
Other guarantee policies fall somewhere in the middle. Some use a common sense guarantee policy, as in if it appears like variables during shipment likely led to an animal’s demise or poor health, and that poor health results in a loss within a reasonable period of time, they will refund with store credit. Store credit is a two-way street, and it potentially forces aquarists to place another order with an outlet they are unsatisfied with. If you order animals, and you find when they arrive they were poorly packaged, or customer service was not up to par, receiving store credit forces you to possibly undergo the same experience again.
As an online coral consumer, it’s very important to read everything about an outlet’s guarantee policy, and some specify that once UPS or Fed Ex picks a box up at their shop, all liability is on the aquarist. I recommend aquarists not shop at outlets with this policy, as you’re essentially asking for a major loss, sooner or later.
Read the entire policy, and if you’re hazy about something, call and clarify it with the outlet. Ensure you write down the date, time and name of the person you talked with, along with a general breakdown of what you were told. It’s not uncommon for some outlets to attempt to talk their way out of issuing a refund. Print the policy off, and highlight or underline specific parts of it, so that you understand with clarity how it works. That way, if the outlet tries to wiggle out of offering a refund, you have plenty of ammunition at your fingertips. If you’re the skeptical, overly cautious type, get the information for the Better Business Bureau (BBB) office in the outlet’s area. If you find yourself getting a raw deal, contacting the BBB can spark an investigation, which can lead to arbitration to ensure customer satisfaction per the outlets advertised policies, not policies they make up on a whim. Also, every state’s Office of the Attorney General has a Consumer Protection Division. If you feel like a vendor has really treated you unfairly and outside the guidelines of commerce law, it’s worth calling such a division. Often, you can file a report and it may spark an inquiry. Often vendors have had to obtain permits from the Attorney General’s office to do business, and if it’s found they broke any commerce code or law for their state, those permits can be revoked, or heavy fines imposed.
It’s important as an aquarist, you understand the risk associated with adding new livestock to your reef. One, the livestock could be carrying hitchhikers, such as red planaria, or it could be home to aiptasia anemones. If a newly arrived coral is misplaced, it may sting your other animals and cause serious damage. Also, adding corals changes the uptake of calcium, carbonate hardness and magnesium, meaning that it’s possible you will need to begin testing for these, and re-adjusting dosing.
Often vendors have sales (just like regular retail stores) when it’s necessary to weed out old livestock, or they want to replenish their stock. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing, but it’s vital to pay attention to timing. You shouldn’t order coral, just because there is a sale, especially if there is something amiss in your tank. Say you’re struggling to balance calcium and alkalinity; or a few of your animals aren’t opening up. It’s better to skip a sale, and make sure your tank is healthy, rather than get in new livestock and assume all associated risks, while trying to balance your aquarium. Remember that there is always a reason something is on sale, and that reason isn’t always fully disclosed to buyers.
Many reef aquarists (especially beginners) lose countless amounts of money ordering livestock when their tank just isn’t ready for it. Often they spot a sale online, and jump at the opportunity to get reduced cost corals. Sadly, if the aquarium cannot support those corals, even though you saved on individual pieces’; chances are, all will be lost in the end.
A good coral vendor should be able to clarify any claim, and shouldn’t be frustrated if you have questions. Some coral vendors promise that their corals are ethically sourced, or come from specific areas. There is nothing wrong for asking for some proof, and most vendors already offer this information on their website, as they like to share their experiences in the trade. If a claim seems too good to be true and cannot be backed up, then chances are, it is.
Shipping policies and cost:
Ask about packaging and shipping procedures. How are the corals packaged? What are the shipping costs? The reality is that shipping corals is very expensive, as often the boxes are heavy and require overnight shipping. Some vendors have absolute free shipping, meaning that they are in some way absorbing the shipping cost. These vendors don’t charge you for a box, packaging or shipping and the price you get when checking out, is the price you pay. Other vendors implement a plethora of shipping “rewards.” Personally, I am wary of these. Sometimes these reward include a box fee, so while you’re not being charged for shipping, you’re paying nearly as much for shipping in a box fee. Other rewards credit you toward additional livestock, but again, with each livestock item the aquarist is potentially assuming risk and you shouldn’t be forced to accept livestock you don’t want, in lieu of free shipping. Other shipping rewards offer reduced cost shipping on orders over a certain amount, and there are lots of systems in between. In my experience, the cleanest way to handle shipping is to offer free shipping on orders above a certain amount. I’ve found that vendors that do this often don’t hide costs, and are upfront about shipping livestock, free of charge.
Be sure to inquire if your corals will ship the same day, or the following day and ask what the vendors protocol is for when they arrive. Many vendors require someone to be there and pick the corals up, so if Fed Ex or UPS reports the box was left on the porch, they may not honor your live arrival guarantee.
It’s all about the weather:
If you’re like me, you live in a climate where it gets cold. Anyone with a brain can understand that shipping coral in -32 degree F weather is risky, and likely the animals will die. However, some outlets will suspend their guarantee policy entirely, if the weather is anything but perfect. This is especially true in the winter months, when there is added risk to both aquarist and vendor. Yes, I think we all should be very mindful of the weather when shipping corals, but if one outlet suspends a guarantee policy for average winter weather and another ships their animals with full guarantee, it’s clear who is more confident in their packaging and shipping procedures and whom you should buy corals from.
When online coral retailers start finding a never-ending list of excuses to suspend or dishonor a guarantee, as a prudent consumer, you should consider going elsewhere.
Your worth as a customer:
Often when things go wrong, or pricing and promotions cause confusion, we aquarists learn our worth as a customer. Is the vendor willing to take a loss, to fully honor a guarantee policy or make sure we feel treated right? Or is squeezing every red cent and covering their backsides more important than customer service? Don’t think that because you are a long time customer of a coral vendor, that they will honor every promotion as advertised and perceived, and also don’t think that years of repeat business means the best working relationship in the event things go south. In the same breath, don’t think that being a new customer at a vendor means they won’t give you 110% in the realm of service.
Shop around and take notes:
There are a host of online coral vendors, and often they are all selling roughly the same thing. Many are really honorable outlets, that will follow through with a steadfast guarantee, and help you out if things go south with your order. You do however need to research the outlets you are shopping with. Read reviews, talk with other aquarists who’ve shopped there and understand the vendor’s policies. There are some slippery operators (despite reputation) in the world of online coral sales, and you need to be smart when making a purchase. If it seems like the terms of a guarantee or promotion seem unrealistic or unfair, chances are that is just what they are, and it’s time to try somewhere else.
As an aquarist, you are taking a lot of risk accepting corals from an online outlet and paying a lot of hard earned money to do so. Considering it’s we aquarists that support these outlets, we should be treated fairly, with appreciation and not subject to anything that is foggy, tricky or not entirely honest. Though in life, any time you are opening your wallet in exchange for goods and services, it’s best to be skeptical and wise, rather than impatient and carefree.