We all know that, with the exception of buying from dedicated breeders and reputable importers, an LFS (Local Fish Store) is one of the best places to purchase livestock. Find a good LFS in your area, and you'll reap the rewards of knowledgeable sales people, healthy livestock, and overall a healthy aquarium and appreciation of the hobby. Nothing is more discouraging to someone new to the hobby or to a particular species than having their livestock die due to poor advice, or just plain poor health of the animal from the start. As someone who just celebrated their 10th year anniversary both in the hobby and in the business, I decided to sit down and make a list of the Do's and Don'ts of shopping at your LFS. I see a lot of people come through my doors every day, and I see trends and patterns of behavior that, if slowly and gently corrected, will benefit everyone involved, most importantly your fish. They never asked to be put into an aquarium, so it behooves us to give them the best care possible!
Finding a good LFS
The first step is in finding a good local fish store, and this can sometimes be a daunting task depending on where you live in the country. Some places are absolutely rife with independent shops, while others have nothing at all and a small road trip to the nearest store is required. It becomes even more imperative in both of these extremes to be picky and choose the proper shop; in the first example, there's a higher chance of inadvertently using a bad LFS, and in the second you want to maximize your time. Driving an hour to get fish at a shop that knows little and does nothing to help their customers is a recipe for disaster.
How do you find a reputable LFS? Here's a few things to look for:
- Are the tanks clean and well maintained? Clean tanks signify that the store cares about the appearance of their displays, as well as the well-being of the livestock. This is the first thing I look for when visiting a new store.
- Does it smell? This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. Every LFS has a smell; it's a universal amalgamation of water, fish, food, and everything else in there. It should be earthy and maybe slightly wet smelling. What you don't want to smell is dead and rotting livestock/food, and that's a very different and easily identified smell.
- How does the rest of the store look? Are products displayed clearly and logically on the shelves? Or are they thrown on there just to get them out of the box they arrived in? Is everything clean? I like to ask random employees where I can find the heaters/filters/food/lighting supplies, to see if they immediately know where everything is. Don't discount them if it takes them a moment; they may be new. But if they tell you 'I don't know' and make no attempt to help you find it, use caution in purchasing livestock. If they can't be arsed to help you find the heaters, then they likely can't be arsed to learn about the animals they sell.
- Are the employees friendly and outgoing? They don't have to give you a hot chocolate and a foot rub, but it's always a good sign to be greeted when you walk through the door, or when you enter a defined section of the store. Do you see smiles (both on the employees and on the customers)? That's a sign that they're happy to be there, which means they're more likely to give you dedicated attention, and dedicated attention to the livestock as well.
- Have you stopped at the Austin Hair Care Salon Tire Center and Aquarium Extravaganza Emporium? Shopping at a local pet store that also sells fish is fine, but try to avoid buying fish at a location that also sells a majority of items that have no relevance to the aquarium hobby. I have seen a scant few stores like this that actually have good livestock and knowledgeable employees, but I've also seen gobs of them that do not.
- Ask some random questions! How big does this fish get? What does this fish eat? Can I be successful breeding this fish? Pick the brains of the employees; this can be an excellent way to test their knowledge. Trust me, we know when someone is asking questions to test our knowledge, and we don't mind. We enjoy proving that we know our stuff!
- Is the store busy? I realize that (especially in this economic environment) a store may not be bustling constantly, but during peak hours (evenings and weekends) there should be a constant flow of consumer traffic through the store, whether it's slow or fast. A lack of customers can mean many, many things, but it can also signify that the store has a reputation for being unreliable or lacks knowledge.
- And most importantly: How does the livestock look? This is very, very important. Everything else can be in order, but if the stock tanks are full of dead/dying/emaciated/sick fish, then avoid the place like it's full of the plague. Good stores will quickly remove what fish die (there's a certain amount of inevitable loss, no matter the quality of care) and make sure that any problems, like ich etc., are taken care of in a timely manner. Fish are our business, and fish are our livelihood, and displaying poor quality livestock is a surefire way to lose business. If that particular store is showing off poor livestock...find someplace else to spend your money, even if it's a longer drive. It will pay off in the long-run.
Now you've found the perfect LFS! The employees are helpful, the fish look great, they have all the products you could possible need and then some. Great! Now what? How do you go about purchasing things and getting the greatest bang for your buck and time? Here's a few pointers that will help maximize your time spent there, and foster a healthy, friendly relationship between you and your LFS sales people.
Know what you want.
You don't need to know the exact fish you want, or even the exact species, but at least have a general idea what you came into the store for. Do you want a livebearer? Tetra? Something a little more showy? Aggressive? A red color? Having a good general idea of what you want will help you focus on what you need, and allow you to avoid those things that have no relevance to your aquarium.
Know your tank.
We don't care how many pieces of gravel your aquarium has, but we may ask you what filter you have on it, or what size filter or light. We may ask you what your pH is typically at, as well as what you currently have for fish in there at the moment. What temperature is your aquarium kept at? How big is it? All of this information may seem like a lot to remember, but trust me, it's easy to keep it on a mental note card. Knowing about your aquarium helps us help you, and will get you the detailed care and information you require.
Bring an ID book with you (if you don't have one, get one! 'What Fish?
' is an excellent, basic ID book. It's small, and gives concise information. If you'd like something a little more in-depth and with more species/techniques, pick up the Encyclopedia of Aquarium Fish
. Look for The PocketExpert Guide to Marine Fishes
if you're shopping for marine fish. Do you have a long trip? Is the weather outside particularly hot or cold? Bring a cooler! You may think you'd look odd walking into a pet store with a cooler, but trust me, we understand completely. Are you the type of person to take notes? Bring a small notepad and pen to do so.
Go straight home with your fish.
No shopping! Make your purchase the last thing you need to do before heading home; fish only have a certain amount of time in their bags, and the less stress you can put them through the better.
Listen to the employees.
Typically without exception, the employees in an LFS are there because they enjoy the hobby and have a good amount of knowledge about it and the things involved. Even the most seasoned old-timer can learn new things in the hobby if they take the time to listen.
Be respectful of existing customers. We typically try to give our current customer our undivided attention, and being interrupted by another customer with a bevy of questions throws us off, and is just generally rude. Most employees don't mind answering a quick question (Where are the platies?), but be respectful of the person who was there first and wait your turn or find another employee if you have a more detailed question/problem.
Get to know the employees.
You don't need to know about their formulative years at Yale, but it's always a good idea to get to know the people who are helping you, especially
if you're going to be shopping there often. Get to know our names; offer us yours! We're always more than happy to converse with you on a personal level, rather than a business level. We'll still sell you fish, but conversations are easier when both people are more comfortable with each other. You don't have to invite them over for dinner, but make an attempt to become professional friends.
Never hesitate to ask a question that you don't know the answer to. We're there to teach first, sell fish second, and any good LFS employee worth his salt
will be more than willing to answer any questions you might have. We can't answer them if you don't ask, though, so ask away! David Lass delivered fish to my store yesterday, and a customer asked him for help. He couldn't get fish for them, but he was absolutely willing to answer any of their questions. That's the mark of a good hobbyist!
Be willing to learn!
This goes hand in hand with 'listen to the employees'. Keep an open mind and respect the fact that you do not know everything there is to know about the aquarium hobby, and we'll do the same. There's plenty we can teach you, and just as much that you
can teach us
, as long as we're both willing to let it happen.
Be rude or otherwise obnoxious.
We realize you have a busy schedule, but we're dedicated to helping every single customer to the best of our abilities, and we will not
sacrifice the care of one customer to satisfy the impatient nature of another. If all available employees are busy, wait patiently for one to become free. Take that time to read up on interesting fish you encounter, or observe the livestock. Don't be obnoxious; it's counterintuitive to us helping you. Don't knock on the tanks, sigh, tap your foot impatiently, talk loudly on your cell phone, or otherwise annoy us and the other customers. If your children are not well-behaved, perhaps leave them at home. We love seeing children come in and light up when they see the fish, and one of my biggest joys is introducing a child to the hobby and seeing them be successful at it, but I'm not a babysitter, and if your child is running wild and sticking their hands into tanks, I will not balk at sternly telling them to knock it off and go find their parent.
Openly disregard opinions/info.
We hate this, with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Don't ask us 'will this fish be compatible with what I have in my aquarium?' or 'willt his out-grow my aquarium?' or other similar questions, allow us to go through the whole explanation, and then do it anyway when we tell you it's not a good idea because it's not the response you wanted. We are nothing if not honest, and we will tell you in polite terms that what you're planning is a bad idea. Please respect that.
As the saying goes, 'Time is money'. Don't waste the time of other customers or the employees. We are more than happy to help you, but be respectful of the fact that you're often times not the only person in a store. Being greedy in regards to the time of an employee is rude, and not fair to anyone else involved. Do not ask an employee to get you a fish, and then not know what you want; this is one of my biggest pet peeves. You don't have to know the exact fish in a tank that you want, but at least know that you want gold dust mollies, or glow tetras. Don't expect us to pick a fish for you, either. We'll pick the healthiest fish out of a group for you, but asking us to choose a tetra or livebearer for you, or a type of rainbow, without giving us information on your aquarium, is a bad idea. We don't know your tastes; choosing a fish should be a personal decision, not one made by an arbitrary employee in an LFS.
Ask for THAT FISH. THAT ONE RIGHT THERE. NO, BEHIND THE OTHER 400 FISH THAT LOOK EXACTLY LIKE IT.
After 10 years, I'd roughly calculate that I've netted around 200,000 fish. I'd say that, at this point, I'm damn good at it; I can snag a neon tetra out of a moving group in under 5 seconds. However, not everyone is as good at catching fish as I am. Asking for that one molly in a group of ten is more than reasonable, but asking for that single neon out of a group of fifty is not. We have no problem catching specific fish for you, so long as it's within reason.
If you can follow these guidelines, and use common sense, your shopping experience in an LFS can be very, very rewarding. You might even make a friend or two along the way. As David Lass says, your LFS is the Heart of the Hobby; support them and you'll reap the benefits!
Edited 1/24/2011: Added a link to another freshwater