How to Open a Tropical Fish Pet Store

Little girl looking into a gold fish tank

Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

Many fish hobbyists dream of opening a tropical fish store, sometimes called an LFS (local fish store) by hobbyists. While this undoubtedly is a fascinating undertaking, it also is a complicated, high-maintenance, costly endeavor. Success demands extensive knowledge about tropical fish along with keen business smarts and a deep passion for this pursuit.

Be aware of what you'll need to get started and the challenges you'll be facing.

Startup Costs

Opening a tropical fish store requires a lot of money upfront. If you start with 50 display tanks to hold the fish and plants you will be selling, expect to spend several hundred dollars per tank on setup costs. In addition to the tanks, each one will need heating, lighting, filtration, and aeration. Depending on the size and types of tanks you choose and the types of equipment you use, prices can vary. However, buying in bulk, expect to spend a minimum of $150 to $200 per tank.

Those costs do not include the heavy-duty shelving required to hold the tanks. Whether you buy prebuilt shelving or hire a contractor to build it to your specifications, expect the cost to be at least what you spent on the tanks and associated equipment. Conservatively, this means you've already spent $15,000 to $20,000 on empty display tanks and the minimum necessary equipment.

When choosing a location, plan on hiring a contractor to make necessary renovations to handle your extensive electrical and plumbing needs. Supporting 50 or more display tanks plus your show tank means your location will need sufficient wiring to handle the filtration, heating, and lighting equipment. You'll also need sufficient plumbing for efficient water changes.

A large show tank is another necessity. The display tanks that hold the fish and plants you'll be selling will be in the neighborhood of 20-30 gallons, but you'll want to have a larger tank—120 gallons or so—in a prominent place at the front of the store. Expect to spend $2,000 or more on the setup for this tank, and use it to set up a stunning aquarium to show off your skills and let customers see what can be accomplished. If you're selling both saltwater and freshwater fish, you might even want to have two show tanks.

Stocking Your Store

Whether you're talking about freshwater species or saltwater species, there are dozens of popular fish species. While you'll want to carry common, popular standbys like mollies, tetras, guppies, swordtails, bettas, and more, it's also a good idea to identify a specialty. Maybe your own passion in the hobby is keeping discus, so that will be your focus. Or, perhaps your competitors have a lot of South American cichlids, but little in the way of African cichlids. In that case, you might want to fill that need and offer the best local selection of fish from the African rift lakes.

Tanks holding fish you plan to sell need to be stocked gradually over several weeks before your grand opening so they have time to go through the nitrogen cycle. A healthy aquarium, including your display tanks, need time to grow bacteria that break down ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates that are the result of fish waste.

Whatever direction you choose, you'll need to find a reliable supplier. Depending on species, you probably can buy most fish for $1 or less if purchasing juveniles in bulk. Some rarer fish will be more expensive, and you may want to invest in more mature fish for your show tank.

It's also important to test the city water where your store is located. Most popular tropical fish species are sturdy and will do well in municipal water, but you may need to set aside some of your tanks for fish with more specific needs. Discus, for example, require very soft water with a pH lower than 7.0, while many African cichlids prefer harder water with a pH higher than 8.0. The best approach is to invest in a high-volume reverse osmosis unit that will purify the water for your specialty tanks. You then can add buffering agents as needed to reach appropriate hardness/pH levels, etc.

In addition to fish and plants, you'll also need to stock supplies and equipment including tanks, stands, hoods, lighting, filters, aeration, substrate, decorations, food, nets, water chemistry testing kits, and more.

Customer Service

Tropical fish hobbyists rely on their local fish store for more than just stocking and maintaining their home aquariums. They rely on them for support and advice—and this is how you can set yourself apart from the big-box pet stores. Some services you can provide that your big-box counterparts won't be able to rival include:

  • Water testing: Maintaining a healthy aquarium is not difficult, but it does require time, effort, and basic knowledge of water chemistry. When new hobbyists set up their aquariums for the first time, encourage them to bring in water samples while they're cycling their tanks and show them how to use their testing kits and direct them to products and strategies to maintain a healthy environment.
  • Special orders: If an experienced hobbyist wants a particular fish you don't stock, work with your suppliers to find what they need.
  • Returns: Within reason, be willing to take fish that customers want to return. You definitely need available quarantine tanks to handle these requests, but it's common for new hobbyists to buy more fish than their aquariums can handle once the fish start to grow.
  • Set-up and maintenance: Many high-end customers want aquariums for their homes or offices, but they don't want the hassle of maintaining them. In addition to operating your storefront, you might choose to make house calls for clients willing to pay for the service.

Tropical Fish Challenges

Selling living creatures is demanding because they need to be cared for. You or staff members need to be in the store every day to feed the fish and perform regular maintenance on tanks. This is important for the health of the fish and also for the appearance of your inventory. If you're not investing the necessary time in care and maintenance, you'll have sick or dead fish on display, and that simply will turn customers away from your store.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, comes from online retailers. Many websites can sell fish, plants, and supplies cheaper than you can from your storefront. You'll even run into customers who will take advantage of your superior customer service and advice but still make their purchases from competitors online. All you can do is grit your teeth and continue to offer the services that set you apart. Once you build a reputation as an LFS that knows its stuff and sells healthy, vibrant fish, loyal hobbyists will want to keep coming back.