Fish keeping experience
The fish keeping hobby spans all age groups and whilst experience certainly does come with age, too many older fish keepers distrust the younger generation when it comes to giving out advice. Quite often, it is the younger fish keepers who are able to give the most accurate and up to date information, as well as understanding all the ins and outs of newer technology. They may not have the encyclopaedic knowledge of a lifetime fish keeper, or know all the scientific names of the fish they sell, but these can be easily looked up in a good fish identification book. Nothing beats an experienced hobbyist who has kept up to date with the advances as they arrive, but there are also many fish keepers who may be still 'stuck in the past' and giving out advice that does not apply to today's tank bred species or filtration technology. Therefore, when you look at the staff in a retailer, you cannot tell simply by age who will give the best advice and simply because someone has kept fish for thirty years, does not mean they are a good fish keeper.
Fish keeping advice
As well as being able to give the customer good advice, a good shop will have plenty of information for you to take away in the form of leaflets or information sheets. These may be the shops own, or from an aquatics manufacturer, but providing these is a good sign that the shop is as interested in helping you understand the hobby, as it is in your wallet. A good shop will also know that providing accurate, helpful, and free advice is the best way to keep your custom. Some shops obviously prefer to make a bit of money, and may recommend you purchase books to help you with your hobby rather than giving out free information. This is fine, since most books contain fairly good info, and are written by experts, so a shop willing to let you read up about your hobby is unlikely to dig a hole for themselves by contradicting the books with bad advice later on. A word of warning though - whilst most information leaflets provided by manufacturers (rather than the actual shop) do have some good info, they are designed to sell that manufacturers products, so there will be numerous references to specific products when other brands may do just as good a job, and sometimes better.
Health of fish and livestock
Obviously the health of a shops livestock is a very good indicator of whether it is a good store or not, but we should also be a little giving with this subject. Fish inevitably become ill on occasion simply through the rigours of transportation, changes of environment and close proximity to other species in an aquatic store. Even the best shops will therefore have one or two species that are ill at any one time, and will lose occasional fish. On a busy weekend a shop may not have time to constantly check all their aquaria so if you spot a dead fish in one of the tanks, it should not always reflect badly on the shop. Take a good look at all the other fish in the store and make an overall assessment. If a large majority of fish are looking thin, listless, and unresponsive, it might be time to go elsewhere but if the majority are active, alert, and with no obvious signs of illness then one or two exceptions should be allowed. A good store will take any ill fish off sale and place a suitable notice on the sales tank. In fact, a store with a few tanks of fish or fish species taken off sale is probably a better bet than a store with all its fish on sale.
Type of livestock
Without wanting to cause a debate about livestock care, there are some fish that are quite simply unsuitable for the general public to house in aquariums such as fish that grow to huge sizes including Pacu's, Red-tail catfish, and Arowanas. Any shop that actively sells these fish to the general public should be avoided. Not all fish keepers agree on the ethics of artificial hybrids such as freshwater parrotfish, and a shop that avoids these types of fish should be commended for good ethical grounds. All shops should provide correct details of maximum sizes for each fish and warn you if a fish you intend to purchase will grow large.
A few 'tests' to check if your shop is a good or bad egg
The above information should give you some ideas to compare your local shops, but how do you really know if they are any good? If you are a new fish keeper, it is very hard to work out if the advice a shop gives is good or bad, since you may be starting of with zero knowledge yourself. Here are a two 'tester' questions which you can use to see what answers you get from your shop, if your shop gets these completely wrong, go elsewhere till you find a place which gets them right. A bit of leg work at the start will bring massive dividends later on. On a rare occasion, you may visit a good shop, but end up speaking to a trainee or new staff member, so if you are in doubt, you can try asking the questions again to another member of staff!
Q1) Ask how soon you can add fish to your new tank
The ideal answer to this is no sooner than 5 days to a week, this is enough time for water conditions to settle. One company does make a product that allows you to introduce after 24 hours, and this is acceptable as an option. Any shop that says within 24 hours should be avoided, the chances of you loosing fish within this period is greatly increased.
Q2) Ask how many fish you can add to your new tank and how often
Unless you have a huge aquarium, you can really only add up to seven fish at a time, leaving at least 5-7 days between each introduction. The rules are slightly different for well-established tanks, but any shop willing to sell you large quantities of fish for a new tank should be avoided.
The list check
With this check we can test some obvious compatibility problems and see if your shop picks them up, or happily lets you carry on regardless. Say you have a 30x15x15" tank and make a list of fish you 'intend' to keep and ask your shop if there are any problems with mixing any of the fish together:
2 Rummy nose tetras
2 Silver sharks
6 Tiger Barbs
2 Algae / sucking loaches
1 Red tailed black shark
The obvious problems, which any half decent shop will pick up on are: The tiger barbs will fin-nip the guppies, the rummy-nose tetras need to be kept in groups, and the silver sharks will outgrow the tank. If they pass that test, they are not terrible, but not great, a shop which is really on the ball will also pick up on the red tailed black shark and algae loaches which may become aggressive and will fight with each other (a single ruby shark would be a good alternative). If a shop passes the list check with flying colours, it is a good bet they will look after you well in the long run.
Dealing with your local fish shop
Once you have found a good shop, it is a good idea to try and build up a good relationship, and there are a few things that you can do to become a good customer. At Think Fish, we have spent many years working in retail, so we know what it is like from 'both sides of the fence', and a good customer is much more likely to get good service.
Know what you want
A wide range of dry goods is very useful, and good stores will carry all the essential items for common uses. A shops range however, is largely dictated by the shops size, and not its quality. Most shops have some items hidden from view, either because of a high value or lack of display space so always ask if you don't see what you need. Many shops get their goods from a few large wholesalers so they should be able to order in most standard items within a week. Whenever you visit a shop for an item, do make sure as much as possible that you know what it is you want, what you may think is a standard item, such as a filter sponge, may in fact come in hundreds of brands, shapes and sizes. Shop staff are all too familiar with the conversation "I need a new sponge for my filter", "certainly, which filter do you have", "I don't know", which leaves both you and the staff to go down the long route of working out exactly what size, shape, and colour your filter sponge was. For replacement products, if you are not sure, bring in the old packaging or ring the shop beforehand to check.
The phrase 'the customer is always right' is quite often entirely untrue in aquatics, so before you head into a shop all guns blazing, have a think about exactly what it is you have cause to complain about, and give the shop a good chance to sort the problem out first. In the long run this will help you to discover which shops are willing to help, and which couldn't give a monkeys about your difficulties. If your problems are with new fish or existing livestock health, ring the shop first as they may wish to see a sample of your tanks water for testing.
How to behave
Bad behaviour from customers is a staff's worst pet peeve, especially when it affects the welfare of the livestock that the staff looks after. Most of the time the customers do not know they are behaving badly, but a few things you should never do are:
Tapping on the glass - This can cause harm to some fish, since they are very sensitive to vibrations, so never, ever, tap or touch the glass, and fish following your fingers may seem amusing to you, it is not amusing to the staff who have to clean the glass every day.
Letting your kids run around - Not only is a aquarium shop full of expensive equipment, glass, and sharp corners, but fish become very distressed by objects (i.e. people) suddenly appearing, and do not appreciate the excitement of children. Make sure you explain to your children that they must not run or touch the glass, if you cannot control your children, do not take them in the shop.
Using a flash camera - Many people like to take pictures of the fish, apart from the fact it is simply rude to do this without asking, flashes can distress some fish. If you have legitimate reasons for taking pictures, simply ask the staff first.
Bringing fish in - Never turn up to the shop, for whatever reason, with live fish, without asking the shop first. There are many reasons why a shop may not be able to take fish in, and they may even refuse to take them, leaving the fish distressed and homeless.
Wait your turn - A good shop will spend time with their customers giving advice if required, even when other customers are waiting. Since there will be times when you need to discuss problems with your shop, be patient if the staff are busy and wait your turn rather than getting upset and leaving. Once you have a good relationship with the staff, you can politely tell them when you are ready to be seen, then go off and look at the fish, and they will find you when they are free.
Vote with your feet
Shops vary in quality a great deal both in local areas and throughout the country, so make sure you visit several stores nearby, and if required travel further for a good store. By doing this you can work out which shop gives you the best service, and reward them with your custom. Not all people feel comfortable with complaining or kicking up a fuss, but if you do see any unethical activity such as unsuitable species being sold or fish kept in small containers (such as Siamese fighters) do try and politely mention the problem to the store. If nobody says anything they will simply carry on regardless. If you've had a bad experience with a shop, why not mention it in our opinions section for other members to read, and especially mention any extra good service you have had, since a good shop should be rewarded. As a final note, remember that the staff in a good store do work hard, and that in general, despite their knowledge and experience, they do not get paid a lot for their troubles.