A few days ago, we published an article on Choosing an LFS. After that article was published, @Mr Fishface asked if we could do a follow-up article on choosing an online vendor. Well, here it is.


For inspiration: a beautiful mature reef tank.

This photo is from the Reef2Reef archives, courtesy of @MJC ©2019, All Rights Reserved.

Choosing an online LFS (or "local fish store") can be a bit more difficult than choosing a brick and mortar store near you. You can't walk into the store and look around, so you have to rely on the advice of others and whatever you can uncover about the store yourself.

An online store may have a real location that's just not close to where you live or the store may exist only online.

Whenever I'm considering spending money in an online store where I've never bought anything before, the first thing I do is email them and ask some random question. I do this for several reasons.

I want to see what their customer service is like and if they're organized. As I said in the earlier article, I expect replies to emails to be prompt. Because if the store doesn't respond promptly to a potential customer, then what chance is there that they will reply promptly after I have already spent my money?

I also do this to check that there's a real live person behind the storefront who speaks English. I don't care if there's no real brick and mortar store. However, I do care that there is someone who is minding the online store.

The next thing you can do is check online reviews. The first way to do this is to just type into google the name of the store. If I type in "World Wide Corals," you will see a screen like this:

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On the right-hand side, under World Wide Corals, you see the store has 4.8 stars and 470 Google reviews. What that means is that World Wide Corals has registered with "Google My Business." They are shown on Google Maps, and people can leave public reviews. That's an excellent rating and a lot of reviews. I might be more skeptical if there were only 10 reviews, but 470 reviews would be difficult to fake.

This is just an example. World Wide Corals is one of the sponsors of Reef2Reef.

The next thing I would do is look and see if the business had a Facebook Business Page. There are several ways to find this out. One way is to look on their website. A business website would normally have links to any social media accounts on the Home Page and/or on the Contact Page. Here's the WWC Home Page, below:

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This is the bottom of their Home Page, and on the right under "Enter your email," you can see they provide links to their accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Yelp. Here's their Facebook page.

Edit: July 12. There's one more thing I'd like to mention that I noticed after publishing this article. If you look at the bottom of the WWC Home Page above, you'll see that there are 12 different ways to pay. Each one of these methods of payment costs the merchant something. Cold hard cash.

This tells you two things: one, that WWC has some cash flow because a fly-by-night business would never set up so many different ways to pay, and two, that WWC wants to make it very easy for the customer to pay. That's a good thing. They want you (the customer) to do business with them.

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If you look on the right, again you'll see they have 4.8 points out of 5, and it's based on "the opinion of 427 people." That's a good rating.

Next, you can look and see if the store is a sponsor here. If so, they will appear under Forums, and scroll all the way down, and the sponsors are in alphabetical order. Here's WWC.

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Now, not every store in the universe is a sponsor here. In my example, WWC does have a presence here. If the store has a presence here, then you can talk to them inside their forum.

Also, if the store you're considering shopping at is a sponsor here, then you might find some reviews in the special forum just for reviews, which is here, below, under Forums, but before you get to the bottom where all the sponsors are:

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It's called "Vendor Feedback." Look in the middle of the screenshot above. You can search there.

If the store is *not* a sponsor here, then you can always post and ask a general question if people like XYZ vendor.

Now this is not everything that can be done. You could search Yelp, the Better Business Bureau, and just do a general google search for reviews of XYZ vendor. But this is a good way to start.

Once you're reassured that the store is responsive and has good reviews, the next thing I check is its shipping policy. Do they ship to me? Not all stores will ship to all places.

You also may want to check on their return policy. What happens if they send you the wrong item or a damaged item?

And last I check do they have what I want. If I want some kind of equipment, I usually prefer buying from a store that also carries replacement parts or refills. If you're buying livestock, then I would be even more concerned about what kind of guarantee the livestock has.

If you're satisfied with all that, then let's take a brief look at shopping safely.

1. If you have to set up an account to shop there, don't use the same password you've already used 67 times. Pick a new one and write it down somewhere.

2. Never give a store your social security number (US) or social insurance number (Canada). No store requires those to do a transaction. Ever.

3. Make sure that the transaction is being processed in some kind of secure way. There are lots of different ways to do that, and a list of them all is beyond the scope of this article.

4. If you use a PC, then make sure you have some good anti-virus software that is updated regularly.

5. Check your bank statements after the transaction to be sure you were charged the correct amount. If you see a problem, make some noise right away.

Shopping online is very common and user friendly today. Don't be afraid of shopping online. And don't be afraid to ask us here at Reef2Reef if you have any questions.


We encourage all our readers to join the Reef2Reef forum. It’s easy to register, free, and reefkeeping is much easier and more fun in a community of fellow aquarists. We pride ourselves on a warm and family-friendly forum where everyone is welcome. You will also find lots of contests and giveaways with our sponsors.


Editor Profile: Cynthia White

Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU a long long time ago. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is @Seawitch.