Beginner FAQ: Finding Reputable Fish Stores

Like all businesses, fish stores have to make money to survive. Unfortunately, some are more interested in profits than selling you just what you need and nothing more. Consequently, a smart customer is a careful shopper.

Of course no store is 100% perfect all the time, but the difference between a good store and poor one can be astonishing once you've been to a few. Visit a store several times, and don't rely on just one experience. If the same bad patterns are present on multiple visits, find another store.

The following highlights some of the things that distinguish a good, reputable store from one you should avoid.

If the fish don't look good at the store, chances are they won't survive long after you bring them home; they may already have been stressed beyond the point of recovery.

  1. A store's fish tanks should be clean and the fish should look healthy and unstressed (e.g., no nipped fins, good colors, fish active, etc.). Are dead fish removed quickly? All stores will have fish die in their tanks; good stores will remove them quickly (fish covered with fungus have probably been dead a long time).
  2. Do any of the fish show signs of disease such as ick (tiny white spots)? A good store won't sell you ANY fish from a tank that has ick, even if the specific fish you are purchasing looks OK.
  3. Are incompatible fish kept in the same tank? If so, how can you trust the advice they give you concerning compatible inhabitants for your tank?
  4. Check out the store's policy on fish returns. A good store will give you full credit on fish deaths for a period of a few days, provided you bring in a water sample so that they can test your water for ammonia.
  5. Are the sales staff knowledgeable about what they are selling? A good store will ask you about your tank (size, inhabitants, etc.) in order to find out whether a prospective fish purchase would be a good addition to your tank. A bad store will sell you whatever you want; they'll be happy to sell you more fish later, after incompatible inhabitants have killed each other.

    For beginning aquarists, a good store will take the time to explain the nitrogen cycle, and advise you to wait on fish purchases until your tank has become established. A bad store will neglect to mention the nitrogen cycle, until you return a few days later wondering wondering why your fish died (now they can sell you more fish, and maybe ``nitrification bacteria'' to go with it!).

    Ask lots of questions. Be wary of vague answers; they are a sign that the seller doesn't know the answer (and isn't willing to find out), or worse.

    Like that tiny oscar fish? A good store will warn you that oscar fish get VERY big, and verify that your tank is big enough and that none of its inhabitants will get eaten by the oscar. A bad store will remain silent.

  6. Be wary of adding medications to your tank; they frequently don't work or are unnecessary. (See the DISEASE FAQ.) A good store will first ask about your tank's water quality, verify that cycling has completed, etc., and suggest water changes. They will also recommend medications only if they can identify the specific disease. A ``bad'' store will encourage you to buy medicine, without regard to whether the specific medicine is useful in combating the specific problem you have. A good store will ask you what fish you have in the tank, as some medications are toxic to certain species of fish. A bad store will let you find out the hard way.
  7. As a (very) general rule of thumb, stores that specialize in aquariums are better than stores that sell fish as a sideline. In the former case, a ``bad'' store won't make money over the long haul (they can only sucker customers once or twice) and will eventually go out of business. In the latter case, a store's fish department may continually lose money, but remain open because the rest of the store (e.g, puppy sales) is making money. Of course, there are exceptions.
  8. Finally, buying fish at the cheapest store isn't necessarily a good bargain. A healthy fish is worth paying extra for. A sick fish may infect all of your tank's inhabitants or die shortly after purchase; some bargain.
Is a pattern becoming clear? A good store is knowledgeable about the products they sell and will take the time to be sure the customer is making a purchase that they will be happy with in the long term. They want your repeat business in the future. A bad store will encourage (or fail to discourage) you from buying things you don't need.

NEXT: Preparing Water For Your Tank
UP: Contents

The official home site of the FAQ is maintained by Erik Olson as part of the The Krib.