Saturday, March 22, 2008

Buying from the LFS

I've spent far too much time stumbling through aquarium related websites in the past couple of years, and here is one thing that I have learned: many people online have a very negative opinion of local fish stores (LFS). There is plenty of reason for this, I'm sure, just as there is reason to complain about Microsoft, Dell, Ford, Starbucks or any of the other oft maligned organizations out there. I'd like to take a minute to talk about the good that I've experienced with my LFS.

I will admit to feeling lucky that I live in Pittsburgh, home to one of the most respected LFS around, Elmer's Aquarium. Elmer's suffers from many common retail problems, a fairly transient staff, limited space, high costs associated with maintaining a storefront in a good location and, an LFS specialty, the difficulty inherent in making a messy product look attractive. Somehow, despite these obstacles, Elmer's maintains a high product knowledge level among their staff, has a consistent level of satisfactory service, a good range of product and livestock and, most importantly, very hardy fish. Where they may be lacking is attractive presentation, which is often a deciding factor among the less knowledgeable consumer. It's easy to assume that a store with pretty cabinetry and spotless tanks does a better job of caring for their fish, but in my experience this is just not so. Algae in the tank does not mean poor water quality or mistreatment. A small amount of algae is normal in any tank. It's also easy to assume that the ease with which a clerk answers a question can tell you how much they know about their product, also not true. I have heard some pet store employees giving quick and polished answers about fish or plants that were patently untrue.

I believe that having a set of questions that you already know the answers to may make your job as a consumer easier, sort of like giving your LFS a test. When I try out a new store I like to ask them about some of their scavengers because I find that the less product-educated will immediately assume that scavengers and algae eaters are the same thing. I also ask about community tank fish and see if they recommend any that I know to be unsuitable. Disease questions are always good, because every LFS employee should know how to treat basic aquatic illnesses like Ick. I always ask about the store's quarantine policy and ask to see their quarantine tanks, if they allow me. One thing I am also certain to pay attention to is whether the store has mixed up their tanks, putting soft water fish into African Cichlid tanks, warm water fish in with cold water fish, etc. Fish do not like regular changes to their water parameters and very few fish have the capacity to adapt long-term to conditions that are too far from their ideal. Certainly some people at home have managed to acclimate fish to different water types, but an LFS that feels it's o.k. to do that just to display fish, in my opinion, is too causal about the health of their livestock.

I have received some odd advice from LFS, that's true. I have also seen some particularly bad advice on the web. When something is written it is much easier to accept it as truth, but there is so much misinformation out there that you really should compare facts from multiple reliable sources before you trust anyone live or online. One thing I have found to be true in the LFS or on forums or other sites, if you feel like you've been given a guess instead of an answer then go talk to someone else. The manager of the LFS, or the owner, will almost always have the most knowledge in the store. It doesn't hurt to call the store and ask when that person will be in so you can get the best information possible. Same thing online, if you need an answer go the best source you can, whether it be the senior person on a site or a better site like a professional organization.

Either way I believe that you are just as likely to get the good or bad in person as you are online.

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