By Felicia McCaulley
Your Local Fish Store is in trouble, and you might be stealing from them without realizing it.
This is an opinion piece. My opinions may not reflect the opinions of Reefs.com or my previous employers. My opinions may offend you. If you disagree with me, I encourage you first read and digest the article in its entirety before leaving a comment.
When it comes to the imminent downfall of the LFS, there are a lot of fingers to point. These are threats that can not be easily addressed by you or your LFS owner. This article does not focus on these issues.
-Big online stores are given deals on products that allow them to sell products at retail price to you, the consumer, for less than the manufacturer can sell it at wholesale price to the LFS.
-Unlicensed, uninsured individuals with no overhead taking maintenance accounts from legitimate aquarium maintenance businesses and offering lower prices.
-Wholesale and manufacturers not enforcing Minimum Advertised Pricing.
-Livestock wholesale selling direct to wealthy clients without retail license.
Why Do We Need LFS Anyway?
In 2012, I was working at a Philadelphia area LFS when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast and left many of my customers without electricity for up to two weeks. No one had time to prepare. I will never forget frantically packing up some 25 year old fish at a customer-turned-friend’s house to take back to my own house because I still had electricity. I remember taking lunch to my boss who had been at work for three straight days, waking every four hours to put gas in the generators and to check on the fish while his coral troughs were bursting with locals’ rescued livestock. Battery backups and pumps he’d had the foresight to order flew off the shelves. Everyone felt the overwhelming sense of community and we all – customers, employees, local club members – helped each other out. Our hobby brought us together, and our base of operation during this emergency was our LFS.
A couple years ago at this same LFS, a customer we didn’t recognized stumbled into our doors first thing in the morning looking frantic and sleep-deprived. He said his 150 gallon aquarium had literally burst in the middle of the night. The noise woke him and he found his fish all over his living room floor. He’d been working all night to try to save them. He had half a dozen five gallon buckets with barely enough water, each contained one or two fish six inches or larger. He’d had them for almost ten years and considered them to be pets. He said they had nowhere else to go, no friends with aquariums large enough to hold them. My boss, being the bleeding heart that he is, housed the stranger’s fish until he could fix his living room and set up a new aquarium. Luckily, I had experience acclimating fish with ammonia and nitrite poisoning and we were able to save the fish.
It was always such a pleasure to see my regular customers at this LFS. I knew who to expect on each day of the week and what their needs would be. I loved seeing the looks of wonderment and joy on their faces when they spied some new, interesting coral or fish. They’d bring their kids, and I’d entertain them and let them feed the display tanks. Our LFS was our hangout, our refuge from day-to-day stress, as one customer called it – his “happy place.” Our brick and mortar LFS are in danger of disappearing, and someday you’ll miss out on these unique interactions. The only livestock you’ll have to choose from will be swimming in a video on a screen in front of your face.
There is a threat to the LFS that is still taboo to talk about – the bad customer. “The customer is always right.” This sentence has been rammed down the throats of every consumer and retail worker throughout history. This sentence taught us not only how to behave as a customer service representative, but as a customer. This sentence tells us that as a customer, you have the right to behave however you see fit in order to get what you want and more than you deserve and not feel sorry about it. This sentence is a lie, and it is hurting everyone. Our “survival of the fittest attitude” is condensing and eating up small stores and entire markets until only a few giant monopolies will be left. Will they still have competitive pricing then? It is not inconceivable that the LFS as we know it could disappear and go the way of Blockbuster video and locally owned bookstores.
I hear so many people blaming the LFS owner for struggling. Customers are saying his prices are too high, he’s not adaptive enough, his employees give bad advice and customer service.
I don’t know any LFS owner or employee who makes a lot of money. Most are driving rusty cars and living in small, cold apartments. Your LFS owner is not making much money on the products he sells you. His fish are not overpriced. He is making just enough to keep his family fed and the store going, if he is lucky. Many more LFS are tens of thousands of dollars in debt to wholesalers, the government for taxes, utility companies, landlords, and employees who don’t receive regular paychecks. Many LFS sell their aquariums and other staple products at or near cost, hoping to win your loyalty.
“It’s cheaper online than what I’m allowed to purchase it for.” – Jim Walters, MACNA 2014 presentation
The LFS owner knows he can’t compete with online retail. He can’t come close to the volume that monster-sized online stores do, and the manufacturers and wholesalers can’t give him the same discounts. He doesn’t have a marketing research team or an accounting department. He has to adapt and find a niche that works for a small fish in a big pond.
The LFS can focus on livestock, but it is very risky to put all your earning potential into a delicate, perishable product. Live animals are expensive and time consuming to maintain and feed. Expensive, experienced employees are needed to handle and care for the fish. Shipping stress and disease can devastate an entire fish order and leave a store nearly empty on an important Saturday.
The LFS used to be able compete with online retail by focusing on new hobbyists. Someone who has never seen a live coral before may be overwhelmed by the jargon and multitude of pages and information they find online. Unfortunately, because of the bad economy, it has increasingly become more and more difficult to convert the customer who wants a feeder goldfish in a bowl to a customer with a full-blown reef. The customer who asks for a feeder goldfish or a Betta can end up costing a store money. This is the customer who needs a lot of help, but spends the least money. I’ve seen very few of these people over the last couple years make the leap to bigger, better, more expensive aquariums. In my experience, fewer people are setting up first aquariums, daunted by the initial start up cost, while LFS now mostly rely on regular, established customers.
The LFS can hope to compete with online retail by having exemplary customer service. If you buy a product from your LFS, chances are, they can help you assemble it, find parts for it, return it to the manufacturer for you, troubleshoot it, answer any and every question you have about it.
You can not take the shiny new protein skimmer you bought online back to where you got it and ask for help when it came from a warehouse and was packed up by someone who doesn’t know what a protein skimmer is. What you may overlook is the fact that when you take the protein skimmer you bought online to your local fish store for help, it is theft. When you go to your LFS and waste an hour of an employee’s time asking questions about the newest LED light and playing with the remote so you can see all the new features, but you later buy it online, it is theft. When you ask your LFS to test your water weekly because you don’t want to spend money on test kits, it is theft. When you ask your LFS to put together a quote for a new tank build, and you buy all the products he recommended online, it is theft. Your LFS is not a showroom or customer service department for the online store you buy your products and livestock from. When you use these services inappropriately, you are stealing from your LFS, and it is wrong. Your LFS puts up with this behavior in the hopes that you will continue to shop there. Voting with your feet means nothing anymore. Just showing up isn’t enough, and if you don’t also vote with your dollars, you will lose this resource you’ve been exploiting.
The Myth of Bad Customer Service
Sometimes bad customer service happens. When it does happen, we talk about it, and it feels like it happens a lot more often than it truly does. “The customer is always right” syndrome further skews this perception of pervasive bad customer service. Working in retail most of my life, I have witnessed exponentially more excellent customer service situations than bad ones. If customers use common sense and have realistic expectations, they can avoid many of their bad customer service experiences.
Let me introduce you to two typical LFS employees:
Sam is a 16 year old high school student who has an aquarium with oscars and a shovelnose catfish. He is an unskilled worker who makes minimum wage at his first job, a LFS, on weekends and in the summer scrubbing tanks and bagging fish. He can often be found wandering the store texting. He may think he can answer questions about reef aquarium chemistry, but he probably can’t. If a customer decides to trust a 16 year old to answer complex chemistry questions and something goes wrong, it’s the customer’s fault, not the employee or store owner’s fault. It’s not acceptable to later write a bad online review about the LFS claiming bad customer service when it involves a minor or unskilled worker.
Jim is a skilled worker. He’s between the ages of 25 and 40 and makes about 1.5x minimum wage. He cleans up after Sam and finishes the work he didn’t get to. He has a family to support but works long hours because of staff cutbacks. Customers scoff at the algae building up in the tanks, but Jim hasn’t had a meal break yet because he is the only person working today and has had a steady flow of patrons wasting his time showrooming, complaining about prices, and using the store’s free services like water testing and asking advice. He doesn’t have health insurance but is constantly exposed to mold, broken glass, hazardous chemicals, toxins and venoms from exotic corals and fish, heavy lifting, and fall hazards. FMLA laws designed to protect workers like him don’t apply to him because he works for a company with fewer than 50 employees. He works overtime but isn’t paid overtime wages. He is often told he has an easy job or a dream job. This is the person who takes the brunt of the complaints and requests from bad customers.
Roy is the LFS owner. He’s been running a maintenance business for over 25 years and the brick and mortar store for over ten years. He has two boys under the age of five and a beautiful wife he never gets to eat dinner with. Roy works 15 or more hours a day seven days a week. The majority of customers want Roy to personally interact with them. He has a modest lifestyle. He’s doing his best to stay afloat in the ever changing digital world while struggling to keep up with every-day tasks and expenses.
The anonymity of the internet has allowed bad customers to bully small businesses. it used to be considered improper for a small business owner to reply to a bad Yelp or other online review with anything but an apology. Very recently, though, a new trend on social media has seen small business owners standing up for themselves and their policies and telling their side of the story. I think this is a refreshing and positive change in trend. Writing a bad review won’t guarantee you’ll get free stuff anymore.
If you see someone online badmouthing your local store, whether about pricing or some perceived slight, link to this article. Teach them how to be understanding and supportive of their LFS owner instead of blaming him for things that are out of his control.
There are so many ways customers can waste LFS resources. It may not seem like it could be impactful enough to really harm the small business, but these problems and behaviors are so common they add up and do significant damage. Some examples of damaging customer behavior are showrooming, asking for excessive, frequent discounts and online price matching, cancelling special orders, asking employees to assemble products you didn’t buy there, and outright fraud like returning used bulbs or dead fish outside of warranty.
True Stories of Bad Customers I’ve Encountered Recently
A man recently came to the high-end store where I worked asking if we had one feeder goldfish for his kid’s fish bowl. We were a saltwater-focused store and did not stock goldfish or feeder goldfish. I informed him of that and told him I’d be happy to special order him a fancy goldfish, but it would likely cost around fifteen dollars. He told me to order it for him. I knew it would take time and be an inconvenience, but customer service is very important to the owner of this LFS. Since most of our distributors were saltwater only, I had to spend time finding a distributor who carried both goldfish and saltwater fish to make the order economical. Being a small order, we payed more to have it delivered directly to the store instead of driving to the airport to pick it up. A few days later, I called him to tell him his goldfish had arrived. The goldfish ended up being less expensive than I quoted him – nine dollars instead of fifteen – but he loudly complained about the price in a store full of customers, vowing to never return to spend money at our store. We all saw him leave the store and drive off in his Porsche.
A couple that frequents the LFS where I used to work were wealthy, but notorious for always trying to get more than they deserved. They would come in and split up, engaging two different employees or badgering the owner into giving them discounts or free stuff. Their behavior bordered on theft and fraud. We had replaced thousands of dollars worth of corals before discovering they had used copper plumbing to build their reef tank’s filtration system. On one particular busy Saturday, the wife asked me to bag a fish for her. I didn’t see her husband, who was in another room having my coworker wrap over $150 worth of frozen food for him. When we got to the register, the bag of frozen food was on the counter and the coworker who bagged it was already helping another customer. The wife asked if that was her bag, I told her no and pointed out the bag containing her fish. I assumed the unattended bag was another customer’s bag, as this happens often. After collecting the payment for the fish, the couple stayed at the register and continued a conversation with a third employee, complaining about a fish they’d bought from him the week before. I bid them goodbye and continued assisting other customers. That evening, we realized the couple did not pay for their frozen food, and it was missing and no employees returned it to the freezer. I called the couple to ask the husband if he had picked up the food my coworker packed for him. He told me no. We decided to watch the cameras to find out what happened to the food. After I had walked away from the cash register, the husband nonchalantly picked up the bag of frozen food and carried it out of the store while his wife carried the fish. I called him back to tell him he must have picked up the frozen food and forgotten, and he better get it in the freezer before it thaws. I told him not to worry, I would put it on his account and he could pay for it the next time he came in. We figured even if he never came back to pay for it, at least we wouldn’t have to waste time on him anymore.
I really don’t mind if people who don’t have aquariums or plan to buy one come in to browse the store. Maybe they or their children will be inspired and it will create a lifelong love of our hobby. What bothers me is when parents treating our store like a free public aquarium waste employee’s time by encouraging their children to ask an unreasonable amount of questions or otherwise engage in conversation not related to purchasing aquariums, taking time away from customers who are spending money or important fish husbandry tasks. Last year while I was pregnant, a mother brought five sneezy, coughing children to the store. She constantly interrupted a conversation I was having with a paying customer to ask questions. I bent down to hear one of her children’s questions when he sneezed directly into my face. I came down with whooping cough and was sick for two months. I couldn’t take any medication because I was pregnant. (I was always surprised at how people treated me while I was pregnant and working, but I won’t get into how grown men asked me to carry full buckets of water to their cars, climb ladders, or bend to reach products near the floor for them.)
My favorite time wasters are the real hobbyists who don’t have any money to spend in our store, but love to look and make conversation with the employees. One man came in several times a week and would sometimes buy a single freshwater plant. He would spend an hour or two asking questions and saying he was thinking about buying something. He didn’t seem to have many friends or family and immensely enjoyed sharing his hobby with us. He was very intelligent and knowledgeable. However, an hour or two out of a ten hour work day is a huge amount of time to spend being completely unproductive. We did our best to be short with him while still being courteous, but he was good at coming up with ways to engage us in conversation and waste our time.
Simply stepping into the role of customer does not give anyone the right to behave like a spoiled brat. If you have a “bad customer” story, feel free to vent in the comments section below. (If you are a customer who is tempted to tell a “bad LFS employee” story, please refer to the paragraph describing the low-income, teenaged worker or consider the option that you might be a bad customer. If neither of those conditions apply, feel free to add your two cents, though they are off-topic.)