In support of brick and mortar...

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uniquecorals

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Not too long a go, I was driving by an area where a tropical fish store has long resided, one that I used to go to as a kid. Being in an introspective mood (and having a growing interest in setting up a new small aquarium in my office!), I decided to drop in and see what was cooking! I had an amazing time! At first, you’d think, “Why is this owner of an internet based marine aquarium livestock company dropping in to a local fish store?” It’s an easy question to answer: Because I’m a hobbyist, and as a hobbyist, there are few better places in the world to go than the local fish store! It’s one of the best things that we can do!

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The "hallowed aisles" of the local fish store...alluring beyond measure!

In this postmodern, internet-enabled hobby world, it seems that the venerable local fish store (“LFS”) is under constant attack. Online vendors, hobbyist garage-based start-ups, group buys, eBay, Craigslist, and even frag swaps are but a few of the challenges facing the brick-and-mortar fish store’s very existence. These guys get it from all directions! Our hobby changes constantly and quickly. What was hot 3 months ago is yesterday’s news. Trends and shifts in interest happen so quickly in this internet-based world that the LFS barely has time to source a hot new item before it fades into memory.

Add this to the fact that many “dialed in” hobbyists seem to enjoy bashing the “guy at the LFS”, and you’ve got a big-time assault on one of the hobby’s most endearing institutions. Why is this so? What created this unfair stereotype? Does being active in a forum or buying only online make you somehow cooler? Does everyone who owns works for an online vendor have some special “instant cred” because they have a fancy logo and an email address? (Wait, don’t answer that..LOL). But seriously, what gives?


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- it’s time to re-think the much-maligned LFS and take a look at what it does so very well.

Believe it or not, the LFS has significant advantages over many other forms of aquatic businesses.

First, think about convenience. For most hobbyists, the LFS is convenient, close and quick, especially if you know what you want. If you need a pack of frozen food, a replacement filter cartridge, or a length of tubing, you can get it the same day. No worries about shipping, lost packages, and weekend delivery delays. And, you have the chance to check out some cool livestock while you’re there! Sure, you can do that on line, but there’s nothing like seeing that hot new Cirrhilabrus swimming right in front of your face!


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There's nothing like seeing him in person, right?


Sure, the LFS will not have every item that you see on line, but neither do many on-line sources. You’ll need to do some legwork to find the more exotic things. Many good LFS owners will try to source specialty items for you if they can. Remember, the LFS owner has different overhead to cover, and his/her business model is quite different than an online business.

That trendy LED light or ultra-hot protein skimmer that’s all the rage on the forums will sit on the shelf at the LFS for months or longer before it’s sold, so you’re more likely to see more well-established products with broader appeal at the LFS. Notice I said “broader appeal”? The LFS has to cater to a far wider variety of customers than your typical e-tailer, who, with less overhead, and the wonder of drop-shipping, can typically offer more obscure products much more easily. It’s just unfair to expect the same from the LFS.*They sell what works, because they have to. And you know what? There is room for both in this hobby.

In my travels, I’ve met many really cool LFS owners and visited some amazing stores. The great ones are always run by passionate, committed, and knowledgeable people, and they are clean, well stocked, and thoughtfully configured. The really great ones become what I call “destination” stores – businesses you’ll gladly drive an hour or more to visit, schedule a layover to see, or take every out-of-town fish geek to. *There are plenty of ‘em out there, too.

A common knock on the LFS is the stereotype of the “ignorant employee”. Hobbyists on forums love to share stories of the* LFS employee that sold that Catalaphyllia to the hobbyist as an anemone, or the one who sent the beginner home with a Nano Cube, two Rabbitfish and a Goniopora at the same time. Let’s be honest here- ignorant fish people are not limited to the LFS. After perusing forums and message boards for decades, I’ve seen far more absurd “advice” and stupidity online than I ever have in the local stores.*

Some online “vendors” are (I will be frank here, ‘cause I AM) some of the stupidest hobby people I’ve ever met. Just because you can buy a cheap coral from Indo, hack it into 3 pieces, and sell it on a website under a trendy name for an obscene price does NOT make you more qualified to dispense hobby advice. In fact, I’d sometimes take the advice I’d hear from the 17 year old passionate reef geek working behind the counter at the LFS than I would from the “expert” at the online “chop shop.” At least the 17-year-old is physically working with fish and corals daily, and his work is obvious to all those who see. He’s not hiding behind a URL or fancy logo.

OK, I just bashed on my own industry sector. Is NOTHING sacred, Fellman? Nope.

Advice from ANY source in this hobby should always be taken with a grain of salt. Whether you’re buying on line or buying at the fish store down the street, caveat emptor applies! The ultimate responsibility for bad decisions is that of the hobbyist. A little reading and talking to more experienced hobbyists before making that purchase will go a long way towards greater success.


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Just because I have MACNA cred and a company doesn't mean I'm right. Take all advice with a grain of salt.

The LFS is a “breeding ground” for hobby/industry talent. Many great hobby movers-and-shakers got their start at the LFS. I vividly recall the first time I ever saw captive-bred Cardinal fish many years ago at my LFS. The enthusiastic teenage employee proudly pointed them out to me and lovingly showed me how he fed them, etc. An amazing accomplishment at the time-and the kid was just over-the-top stoked! I never forgot his enthusiasm, and neither did he! His name is Dustin Dorton, who is now President at a little aquatic business in Florida called ORA. He’ll be the first to tell you that it all started at his LFS, where he gained valuable experience that you just can’t gain through other retail avenues. Who knows what other future “superstars” are out their right now, netting Neon Tetras for customers while experimenting with the next great hobby breakthrough in the back room?


Let’s face it-even in this Facebook-optimized, Twitter-enabled, Instagram-powered world, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with other fish geeks. The idea of 140 characters being able to communicate all that you need to know to make a buying decision is just stupid, IMO. There, I said it again: I think that some of the social media platforms we embrace (and yeah, I embrace them reluctantly) and hold up as a “better way” to reach consumers are…well…idiotic. Who is stupid enough to make a buying decision based purely on an Instagram pic? Are today’s consumers too dumb, too busy, or too important to read more than a few words about something they supposedly love? What’s wrong with a conversation with an LFS employee before you buy? Better to “dumb down” the message? Who is the benevolent, apparently “godlike” patron of the marketing world who decided that consumers don’t like to actually understand what they are purchasing?

Calm down, Fellman….


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Since when did clicking and tweeting become more important than talking? Bring back the horse and carriage! Well, not exactly, but...

The LFS is, and hopefully always will be, a “watering hole” for local hobbyists. A place to swap stories, exchange experiences, offer wisdom to beginners, and to keep the love and lore of the hobby alive. When you’re at the LFS, you’re among friends. It’s our tribe. You can’t always get that from a keyboard and monitor. It’s one of the delightful intangibles that the LFS can offer than no other hobby source can.

So stop trashing the LFS.

Finally, there is the…wonder. I remember seeing my first Sea Anemone at the LFS when I was a kid, and I never forgot the thrill. It seems like every time I visit my LFS, there is some kid just like me, with his face pressed up against the glass as he squeals with excitement at seeing a real “Nemo” for the first time. I still enjoy seeing fish that I’ve only read about, right there in front of me. Just because I have a website and a traveling hobby lecturer “career” doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all. For many hobbyists, their first brush with the wonders of the ocean was at the LFS, and it launched a passion that changed the direction of their lives.


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"The watering hole."

For the above reasons, and for hundreds more that I didn’t think to touch on, the LFS must endure. Support your LFS- encourage it, and participate in the culture that it perpetuates, just like you do on this forum. Think about the many benefits that the LFS offers, and think about what it will mean to our children to have this precious hobby resource, and to the generations of children as yet unborn.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it yet again! Long live the LFS!

Until next time

Stay Wet

Scott Fellman
Unique Corals

 
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Rob.D

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Love it! Small business is the backbone to this great country and supporting your local small business is essential to keeping America great!
 

casey187

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Great article. Love all my LFS and wish i spent more $$ at all of them but it is hard to quantify spending more than double on coral and fish. I do frequent the stores and purchase all my dry goods locally and will usually buy something that catches my eye.
 

All Delight

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I absolutely love going to my LFS and I go to a bunch of them. I could spend my entire Sunday driving to 4-6 different ones just browsing. Even if I walk away without a new purchase I still enjoy myself. I hate it when I hear to see a LFS going out of business. Without them our hobby would greatly suffer. I support them as much as I can, I know I can buy dry goods for less online and wait for delivery, but many times I'll spends a few extra bucks to support my LFS.
 

rworegon

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Great read on a contraversial topic by a guy who is critical of his own industry. I like it. It took me a while and a lot of gas to finally realize that the LFS I wanted to support was a mere 3 miles from my house. I checked all the trendy stores within 100 miles from me and found that the one right down the street was staffed by the guys I could actually trust to give me real advise. They are less interested in selling me stuff than seeing me be successful in the hobby. A really smart business model if you stop and think about it. It has gotten to the point of a mutually benefecial relationship where we learn fron each other. They have even housed fish for me during crisis times when I was having a tank meltdown, I love my LFS. I can't always get everything I need from them and they understand when I source items online.
 

Worldwide reefs

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Thank you for doing a wright up, I've worked solely for "mom and pop" type fish stores for years. The feeling, the care, the compassion you get in those places is untouchable at other retailers. Convience is one thing, but the overall feel of having someone who is there, waiting and caring. Our doors are always open and our ears and hearts are always there for people who want to share them with us.. Its tough economy to deal with right now and all we can try to do is be polite, professional, and knowledgeable and to be real with each other we all have a true passion for this and it shows (i feel at least) so when you want to order a bottle of ic gel and save 2$ remeber theres a nerd (like me) waiting to talk to you and share experiences and maybe a laugh simply over a bottle of glue!!
 

larangcon

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I too, love going to the LFS, just to talk to the owner and shooting the breeze makes me feel good, even though most of us already moved on to forums and internet vendors, LFS is a must have store not only for beginners but to the community, its a nice place to hang out.
 

inurocker

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Once again well said. You left out that with a mom and pop LFS you have a safety net when that emergency happens. (and it will trust me) When you can't wait 3 to 5 days for a pump, heater, salt, meds for a sick fish or someone to hold your livestock due to catastrophic failure. Support you LFS it pays big dividends when the chips are down and when there gone they will most likely never return.
 
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uniquecorals

uniquecorals

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Excellent points; well said by all.

The LFS is a venerable institution that has been absolutely indispensable for making hobbyists successful for generations. It's great to see support for these great businesses. Like so many other aspects of reef keeping, the personal relationships forged with LFS employees will create a better experience for all!

-Scott
 

Peterock

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Great points and a great read.

On two occasions, I was trying to get my tank up and going after a cross country move and couldn't afford to do it after all the expenses. Two LFS owners let me help out around the shops for store credit on weekends so I could get what I needed and some of what I wanted. I was too broke to stay in the hobby but because these two small business owners helped me out, I was able to stay in a hobby I really enjoy. Now that I'm in a more favorable finacial situation, I'm able to shop at this business and happily spend a little bit more for something I could get online (the other shop sadly closed). It's not the "best" shop in town, but I will never forget the kindness and understanding of this owner to help a young, eager and broke hobbiest get their tank up and running.

Thank you LFS!
 

VIPReef

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Well said.

I miss going to all the LFS in my area and visiting like I used to before I became an owner of one. There is nothing like seeing the real thing (fish or coral) in person and talking to people who know exactly what they are doing. I always advise my customers to be wary of whose advise they follow on the forums unless you have seen their tanks. It seems many of the "experts" that do much of the talking don't have the best aquariums.

Happy holidays!

Frank
VIP Reef
 

Tradewinds

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The sentence that got me was "Finally, there is the…wonder." That is what got me hooked on SW aquariums 15 years ago. The wonder of seeing all the different colors of fish and corals, seeing the latest technology up and running, and hearing other customers talk about their systems brought me back into the hobby in 2011. You can't feel the thrill of the roller coaster, if you don't walk through the gates of the amusement park. The LFS is just that for us fish nerds.
 

solar

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I always love your articles. And store prices!

I remember being a noob and going into Sea Dwellers and being taught by Joel the ins and outs of reefing. I loved that place and he was a great owner. Still to this day he has the biggest rbta that had bubbles on its tips that I have seen. I remember staring at his 180 for hours looking in every nook and cranny to see whats fallen that I could buy.
 
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Fusion in reefing: How do you feel about grafted corals?

  • I strongly prefer grafted corals and I seek them out to put in my tank.

    Votes: 6 4.4%
  • I find grafted corals appealing and would be open to having them in my tank.

    Votes: 71 52.6%
  • I am indifferent about grafted corals and am not enthusiastic about having them in my tank.

    Votes: 45 33.3%
  • I have reservations about grafted corals and would generally avoid having them in my tank.

    Votes: 10 7.4%
  • I have a negative perception and would avoid having grafted corals in my tank.

    Votes: 3 2.2%
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