Improve Retailing Systems to Increase Sales

Published on March 2, 2010

20_retail_joe_pawlak*Optimizing your holding system to maximize sales. Some simple fixes that are sure fire ways to increase sales and average invoice size.*

Running a retail business is not rocket science. Most people can do it…success or failure mainly depends on how you operate, not just where you are located or your clientele. In the next series of articles, we will explore some of the fixes that can be done to improve your success in the retail koi and goldfish trade. These articles will include ideas for better holding systems, better employee training, business philosophies, and so forth. I have traveled around the world, seen the good and the bad, and also owned a retail koi shop.

I will start writing this series of articles with the assumptions that you already have a pond business with tanks and a storefront. With that in mind, if you’re looking to start up from scratch, you might avoid some mistakes and get ahead quickly.

**Step one–The Customer**

We are gonna skip all the needed equipment, fish types and sizes and all that other stuff (for now). All that stuff really does not matter if you don’t have the ability to attract and keep the customers.

Even if you have only been in business for a month you have customers, even those that don’t buy, that can help you to become profitable. Each person that enters your store gets a first impression of your business. What’s the perception of yours? Is it inviting, is it easy to navigate, clean, bright, are you greeted when you come in, are the isles free of clutter. Are the employees sloppy, or helpful and friendly?? Those people entering your store will get an impression in ten seconds or less. So what’s it gonna be?

**Lets go over the old rules…they still apply **

Rule 1 The customer is always right.

Rule 2 Even when the customer is not right…make them feel that they are right!

Rule 3 What the eye sees…the mind believes. Gestures, dress code, store appearance, and overall “buzz” will keep your customers coming back or go away.

**Store Hours**

Don’t keep them waiting. Store hours are store hours. If your store opens at 9 am … then be open by 8:50. Seeing a customer waiting for a store to open might mean that they are eager to see you and buy some stuff. But if you open 10 minutes late, it shows disorganization, and lack of caring. Saying “hey I don’t really like my business enough to serve you” or “ I am scattered and don’t have control of my business and probably cannot help you solve your solution.” I have this problem myself … not so much at the store but at other events where I have let people wait sometimes over an hour to speak to me and then not giving them the time I should once they do speak with me. I have solved some of this by systemization, more on that later.

Many times the customer comes in just before closing and wants to look for hours (if you have been in business a while, you have had this happen). The way to handle this varies on a case-by-case basis. Systematic questions/observations are best. A few questions, and prior employee training will go a long way here.

1. Find out…is this an emergency for your customer?

Did their favorite fish die? Is it dads Birthday and he wants a special fish? What is important to your customer must be important to you. Take the time to help that customer and you will score points and gain trust with your customers. This is priceless and a major business builder. Remember just because it seems trivial to you…does not mean its not important to your customer. Take the time; solve the emergency, score major goodwill points.

2. That you and your staff are on the same page and that staying late will benefit both you and the customer.

3. Make sure you and your employees understand that there will be times when staying late is needed. It may be best to schedule the closing time of the store 1 hour later that closing time to allow extra time to clean up or help the “overtime customers”

4. If the customer is just looking, have the employee tell them that you will be closing soon. This PRE-SCRIPTED AND PRACTICED conversation should suffice after the conversational questions have already been asked.

The way NOT to do it ……

Get on the intercom and yell “store closing in fifteen minutes…please come to the register now. This is especially true when there is only one customer in the store…very impersonal.

Okay, you are up and running and the store is packed and you’re under staffed. What do you do?? The customers are getting impatient? You have three people and the one you are helping wants an hour of your time. This is where proper training comes in and staffing correctly is most important. Staff accordingly to season and cross train your staff so everyone can help and not leave one person to be the problem solver. You can loose good employee by not providing them with the tools they need to do the job. Give a man a fish and he eats for the day teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.

Here’s how. Break away from your current customer by asking them if would be ok to tell the others that you will be with them soon. When you approach the people who are waiting …say “I’m sorry to keep you waiting” Tell them you will be with them very soon “can I offer you a cold drink or bottle of water?” This lets them know they are important and you care and want to help them. There is nothing worse than seeing a customer walk away because they got tired of waiting.

Remember their name and Look out for their best interests. It says you care when you approach a customer and say, “ Hi Mary, how have you been? How’s the fish doing?” People like to be remembered. Many people have trouble with names. Do what ever you have to, take a picture with her holding her fish she purchased and make a file in your computer or even a flash card. Personality builds loyalty.

Give them your opinion and let them decide. I have heard many shops say, “I won’t sell them another fish because their pond is too small.” I agree–somewhat with this however, I had a person (who is now a friend) call me and ask for 500 small koi. He wanted to grow them out and sell them for a profit. I carefully explained (for one hour) that it is better to buy the fish and after quarantine, re-sell them quickly as you cannot grow them cheaper than we can. After an hour of my time telling him “no you can’t have that cookie.” He called another farm and purchased the $750 worth of fish! The moral of the story is–Offer the customer advice that you feel is correct, but give them what they want. They will get it somewhere and they came to you first.

The hard questions. Sometimes there are gonna be questions that just stump even the seasoned pro. If you don’t have the answer, be honest and say, “I don’t know, but I will find out for you.” That goes a long way. Take some time when the store is quiet and research the answer and call the customer, just be sure you get back with them. Keep a journal of the questions for other team members to review in the future.

I met these guys at a retail shop in New England. At first I thought they were just a couple young guys who worked there. They were down to earth, patient and very knowledgeable. You could tell they were into koi and ponds based on the patience they had for the store and the tour they gave me. After speaking with them I had thought that they were the owners. It turned out they were seasonal workers. I sure would love to have them on my crew. Great training and the freedom to “run” the place, has led this retailer to a lot of success. Good job guys!

Here’s what you will not find (most likely) – Knowledgeable Employees who know your business policies and procedures. Have you ever hired that specific person and paid all you could afford because they had a lot of prior experience in the pond business? Who knows your business better than you? In my experience, a good training plan is much better than throwing a dart at a bunch of resumes. We had a key person once whom could sell ice to (well you know)…. The customers loved him and bought a lot of product because of his personality. Well that person left the company and I thought to myself “where are we gonna find another person like that? I came to the realization that I was not. I got lucky, once. It is not something I can count on. What I can count on is that if we train our people what, where and how to act in our business endeavors and what the limits and freedoms are, they will make my customers very happy. We have gone as far as role-playing at the shop to practice. This has allowed us to take fairly ordinary people (without a PhD in fish ponds) to do extraordinary things.

If you want something done right…TRAIN, Modify and TRAIN again. Create the best people don’t hope you will find them. This industry is not big enough to have all the people you are looking for.

Okay, I’ll touch on the toughest subject- Angry Customers Sooner or later, your gonna have someone unhappy about something. I like to refer this as a fork in the road customer. Remember the rules I wrote about in the beginning? This is where those rules apply.

There are two ways the customer can go. Either away from your business forever OR home happy that you took care of them. My philosophy has been that YES the customer probably killed the fish due to neglect. Say that to the customer and they will probably leave. If you ask a few questions offer some advice and let them save any embarrassment AND give them a new fish, they will go home knowing that you stand behind your products and they will be back as a customer. My ideas are that you replaced the fish that had at least a 2x mark up so the customer went away with a new fish happy with you and trusting your company. You (the shop owner) broke even (less a little time) but gained a better relationship with your customer. Don’t replace that fish and the customer will tell others who could have become customers to avoid your place.

Divesting a customer. Rarely, and I mean rarely there is a customer whom you have helped repeatedly and just cannot satisfy. You have tried everything and it is just not working, there comes a time to say goodbye. We have done this twice in our business (in 10 years). It’s a touchy subject and even though you would like to carry them out by the back of the shirt, refrain and politely explain that we have tried to be accommodating, but we will no longer be able to help them. This should be done in a respectful manner by a higher up manager or owner. It’s better for them to go away unhappy, but not furious. People are eight times more likely to talk about a bad experience than a good one.

Customers are the lifeblood of your business. Treat them like gold. Be patient and accommodating. What might start as a small sale, or no sale at all can turn to gold. Expect that everyone who enters your storefront is there because they have interest in what you have to offer. Impress them!

**Step Two–The Stores Marketing **

“Ya gotta let’em know your there,” as they say. Very true. What is the best way to market? By word of mouth and satisfied customers of course (see the above paragraphs). Beyond that, there are many, many ways to market successfully. If you are targeting a local radius of 50 miles or so, you should look at local ads. Here in central Florida we have some “free classified” ad newspapers that cost around $75 a month for a postage sized spot. Creative wording will help. Our ad was so small that we used the words “Fish Fish Fish” to catch their eye.

Trade magazines will also help. If you are selling locally – advertize locally. If you sell via the Internet or nationwide, an ad in POND Trade magazine can put you in touch with prospective buyers. Many times a person from out of state will come in with a magazine ad to see the store and typically take home a pond souvenir. Magazine ads will help establish your presence in the market and aid in branding.

Here’s what we found YOU DON’T NEED. A super cool 4500-gal aquarium pond on the corner of a highway with 26,000 cars driving by each day. Yes it was cool and I personally always wanted this, and $10,000 later we had it. People would pull up to the stoplight and see the fish swimming in the upper part of the aquarium/pond and they would forget to take off when the light turned green. It was a landmark, it was very unique…BUT we found that people came in more from word of mouth than anything else! In all reality that $10,000 could have been spent elsewhere – better – but I was able to fulfill a goal (and it did look cool).

Adding signage to your vehicle will give you a lot of exposure as well and the cost is very low based on the life of the stickers (around 4 to 6 years).

**Step Three–The Equipment**

So what equipment do you need to do it right? Is it big tanks, small tanks, bead filters, widget filters?? What is it???

In a really generalized manner, I will describe what I see as the basis of every good selling system.

1. Water Volume

Probably the biggest factor I’ve seen in the success of a koi business is water volume. The bigger the volume of water, the better the fish seem to do. Small tanks are great as long as they are connected together to form a large volume of water. A drop of chlorine in 5000 gallons will not affect anything; a drop in a 10-gal tank could be bad. The other side of the coin is the fact that inter-connected tanks can spread disease. On visits around the country, those with the most water volumes seem to do the best.

Although these were not the prettiest tanks I have seen, they were all connected to a gravel-bottomed swimming pool in the middle. This company sells a ton of fish, with very few problems. They use bead filters and UV sterilizers. The system works great for them. The have very few problems and fish sales are extremely high in comparison.

This wholesaler/retailer moves a lot of fish though the 10 tank system of around 2,500-gal. A automatic filter removes the solids from the water on a continuous basis and the tanks are maintained with a salt level of 5 ppt (5 lbs salt per 100 gallons).

The smaller the system, the bigger the problems. Call it critical mass. These stand-alone systems are very convenient, but the small amount of water subjects the inhabitants to rapid water quality changes that can cause stress and disease.

2. Too Many Choices

The customers can get confused if you have too many choices. This is especially true if you have a few tanks of fish with multiple prices per tank. It’s ok to have lots of tanks of fish, just limit the tanks to having one price per tank.

3. Can You See the Fish

What good is having fish in a tank if you can’t see them? Sounds like a dumb question …but its true. Many places that I visit have a lot of surface disruption, or even worse GLARE from the sun.

How would you like it if you were in a store trying to by a piece of jewelry and the store clerk was holding a mirror and guiding a bright light (or worse the sun) right into your eyes? You couldn’t see what you were buying and would get annoyed and probably move on. THIS HAPPENS IN THE KOI INDUSTRY ALL THE TIME!

This simple fix works wonderful in many applications. Add some black pond under liner to the back of the pond where the reflection is. Have a person stand at the tank and move the black around until the reflection is of matt black color. Actually you will not see a reflection at all and if your water is clear, the fish will look as to float in the air AND you will sell a bunch more!!!

If your tanks are deep, how about adding a tilt up net box so the customer can see them easily and the employee can easily and quickly catch them.

4. Filter

Filters come in 100’s of designs. Most work well when used in the correct application. In general, I have seen the most success in systems using pressurized bead filters with power backwash modes (either a propeller or an air blower). Filters are a great mystery to most customers. One of the better ways to explain the concepts is to leave them exposed (or cut away) so the customer can see how they work for themselves.

Almost all of the systems that seem to work well have a good quality UV sterilize incorporated into them as well.

Here are a few pictures of different designs that are very successful for those operating them.


To summarize, it’s not any one big thing that will make you successful in this business. It’s more of a bunch of small things that add up. Well-trained staff, clean facilities, easy to recognize/understand products, and good business practices all add up to success.

**Coming Up**

Step Four Expectations – Make sure you know what to expect from your system. Some fish are gonna die, some customer are gonna kill’em, and so forth. There is a lot to talk about when gauging your success in retailing. It’s more that just the amount of sales you are making. Making sales is part of it, but not all of it, more to come in the next issue.

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