In the second week of March, a state of emergency was declared in my state and non essential businesses like clothing stores, salons, and craft stores were temporarily closed. Essential businesses remained open but with limited service and a growing set of regulations to keep people safe.
The Local Fish Store (LFS ) was classified as an essential business stayed open for fish food or salt. One of my LFS’s, Absolutely Fish, started delivering dry goods, and allowed curbside pickup. A couple of weeks ago I made a 1+ hour drive to another LFS, ReefCo NJ, to get zoas that I really didn’t “need”. I waited for a short time outside but I went home oddly satisfied, with a lighter wallet and a lot happier than when I went in.
Online businesses have seen a sharp increase in sales and since I could get my pet supplies online too, I didn’t have to expose myself to the possibility of an infection. So, I wanted to know – what has the pandemic really done to LFS business? Weren’t LFS’s already struggling trying to compete with online retailers? Would the pandemic shut down the brick and mortar LFS for good?
I have known Scott Crowe for several years. He is the gregarious, supercharged owner of Ocean State Aquatics, in Coventry, RI. He started in 2012 with just his truck cleaning dirty aquariums and opened the OSA retail store in 2015. Five years later, he closed his doors to open a NEW store during this pandemic! What?! I reached out to Scott to find out if he had lost his marbles for good this time. What Scott told me during our chat was incredibly refreshing.
“An LFS will always be the heart of the entire industry. It’s actually what makes the industry. Yes, we hear over and over again that the LFS is on its way out. It’s not. The LFS just has to evolve, we have to change.”
He had my attention. I asked Scott how worried he was for the opening of the new store – whether he could open on time, open at all, or did he think he wasn’t going to be able to go through with it?
Yes, he was worried. Right after FFM (Frag Farmers Market) the country was shut down. Rhode Island is between Boston and New York and the borders were closed, the National Guard was called in. If you lived out of state you couldn’t go to RI to work. At the store, he had duct tape everywhere to mark 6ft intervals, masks, and social distancing measures. But you could only allow a small number people in the store at one time per state regulations. He realized that the amount of money the store needed to make to keep everything running didn’t make sense.
“I did not know what was going to happen. I had already invested all this money into buying a building, while continuing to rent the building that has the coral farm and also the existing store. With the mortgage on the new building, I was facing three massive payments, never mind the electrical bill that comes with having an LFS. So now at this point I was just stuck thinking, what am I going to do? Do I close my store, I have no income coming in. I hadn’t moved a retail store before and there were many expenses I had not planned for. On top of that we lost a ton of services at the same time. Service for us was hit pretty hard. We do quite a bit of assisted living homes and hospitals and we couldn’t go inside.”
And yet he went ahead with it anyway. He closed his retail store and went all in at the new location. That couldn’t have been an easy choice. He figured that he had already committed, and if he didn’t, it was all over anyways. Scott knew what he had to do but said that it could not have been done without his team. They put everything into it 100%. While the store was being moved, Scott delivered corals and dry goods to customers’ homes, and shipped out dry goods. The store used social media to communicate with everybody. “For us that is key – the personal connection.”
Opening the store didn’t go as planned either. While OSA has a large freshwater section, they are known for their corals. The store was open and they had no corals! It took a while to get their tanks cycled and they were wise not to rush it.
“Kris Kaz, the Bandsaw Bandit himself, is very meticulous about how things are, so he’s at the coral farm, prepping all the corals, he wants to make sure they go into the best conditions. Meanwhile Ali and Joe are working at the new store making sure everything is perfect. We started getting corals in finally, and surprisingly we have started getting a lot of new people in.”
That surprised Scott, because he figured it would only be the customers that he already had. People are bored and stuck at home, there are more people making money on unemployment right now than they were making at their everyday job. “So people right now have money to spend and they want to spend it now! They’re going into your store and they want that fish right now, that instant gratification. Yes you can buy things online but you’ve to wait and humans don’t like the wait. Especially with Amazon Prime being over a week back in deliveries, this is giving the LFS the best opportunity, right now. But they also have to be smart about it. They can’t price something that’s $45 online and then sell it for $65 because I’ll wait to save that 20 bucks – it’s within $5, okay I’ll buy it now.”
OSA is a full-service company that does aquarium service and maintenance, installation, and consulting, and in addition they have a retail store and a coral farm. As far as impact on the business went with services being hit really hard, Scott says that it’s also what got them through. He was able to continue servicing larger customers and it is what is getting his operation through this. While the retail side of his business may be just starting to come back, the issue the store is running into is that the price of livestock has gone through the roof and they are not able to get some livestock because of imports dwindling. Scott is thankful that people do understand that it’s the case for everyone. “They’re still supporting us so you’ve got to be absolutely grateful for that.”
“What we did differently at this store is that we made it for everyone – if you like aquariums, if you have a passion for this hobby – Salt, fresh, brackish you can come in here and you get the whole experience. I want people to think of an aquarium as a piece of furniture in their living room, not in some basement, I want it to be immaculate and something they are proud of. I was fortunate to be able to travel a lot and saw what worked for people and what didn’t and I was able to use that experience for OSA.”
So, what’s the plan?
Scott is moving forward by getting newer people into the hobby. People are not taking a vacation right now and they are spending that money on hobbies. I agreed with him that the LFS has a huge opportunity right now, it’s go-time. Remember he said that the LFS is the heart of the business? I asked him what possible edge a LFS has over an online retailer?
“I feel like I have the same edge as online retailers like Marine Depot and BRS because they put out content, information, and videos and the customers come to the store more aware. What we sell them is an experience that they just can’t get online. They ask us about livestock, plumbing, and equipment that they see online. We are able to guide them, solve problems for them, show them the fish and corals that they will take home. The best thing we can do right now for anyone is to solve problems, give them the most valuable thing you can give, which is your time.”
Scott is right, you can order livestock online but imagine going home that day with the fish you always wanted. He may not be making the margins he would like for dry goods but the specialty of a LFS is the personal attention that a customer can get. That’s what he focuses on along with giving people the right advice, saving them money, and keeping it realistic.
His advice to other LFS is pretty spot on too – sell glass. He has devoted a large part of his store to display aquariums. I remember driving a long way a couple of years ago just to see what a particular tank that I was interested in looked like and being able to talk to someone about their experience with it. Scott wholeheartedly believes that selling an aquarium is the most important thing for a store. “You’re literally selling a shopping cart. People need that aquarium before they can get anything else. By concentrating on livestock, you’re only reaching the customers that already have a tank.”
At the end of our chat I didn’t need any more convincing about the value of a LFS during this pandemic or otherwise. Scott is absolutely right when he says that the experience of going into a LFS just can’t be had with online shopping. He’s very humble about a lot of things and is just grateful that he still gets to do what he loves, everyday. He eats, sleeps, breathes reefs and feels that at the end of the day, for him, this is a privilege, not a right.
What are your thoughts?
I reached out to a few women in reefing on Instagram with the question: What is the value of a LFS to them, during this time?
Caffeinated_reefer: A safe getaway for a slice of normal. Everything in our world has changed but stepping in there it feels like everything is the way it was. Sure, we wear masks if we want to. He’s only allowing one person at a time but there’s no plexiglass hanging, no tape on the floor to mark your waiting area. Plus with exception of fish and coral, it’s the only store I know will have exactly what I need without worry. There isn’t exactly a run on filter socks or coral food. It just feels normal there.
C0ralista: It is an escape to my happy place and keeps my mind engaged on something positive when there is so much fear and uncertainty in the world
Reefgal2401: My LFS is my happy place..A place that I can go when I’ve had a bad day, a place I forget about the chaotic world around me and escape to a world of colorful and amazing creatures that bring nothing but peace to my mind and my soul. Creatures that remind me how precious our planet is.
Bombshell creations: My LFS is so important to us here because they’re the only one in the entire state. The guy who owns it is this super down to earth guy who opened it because he loves the hobby. And when you talk to him about fish or corals, he just explodes with excitement. Especially with being in Alaska, he has built this incredible shop and keeps it fairly well stocked with both freshwater and saltwater. He is in it because his passion drives him to be and I love that so much. He’s created this amazing community up here, that I’m so proud to be a part of. Much love for the LFS’s.
Salty Ali: I work at OSA, so it’s sort of a different perspective but I know just how important LFS’s are and to me, this place is my home. The people I work with, the people I help every day, all are so important to me on such an emotional level and don’t know where I’d be without them.
My_saltwater_chronicals: My LFS is my life!!! Not only did I buy my tank from them but they answer every question I’ve ever had. They know me and my parents by name every time we walk in. I feel like they are a part of my family!! They always have the perfect advice and stock EVERYTHING I need for any reason. 90% of my fish and coral are from them, they have all the food and meds I’ve ever needed for the tank. They never let me waste money on anything; if something dies they tell me what happened and even help with replacements. They have been open for me during this time for all of my needs and it’s crazy amazing!! I’ve even bought new fish from them during qt!! I bought my tank in January, and It’s amazing that I’ve never had to settle for anything for my tank during this quarantine.
If you haven’t already, take a trip down to your LFS, support a small business, observe regulations, and stay safe.