1) Do their tanks look good and are their fish healthy? If the tanks in an aquarium store don't look good, the store is either under-staffed or the owners don't care. In either case, you may want to think twice about shopping there. Some stores put on a good front with well-decorated tanks, but the fish in them leave a lot to be desired. Look for fish with healthy erect fins. Watch the fish in several aquariums. Are they all swimming upright? Do you see fish hiding in the top corners of a tank? Do they seem to react and respond to each other. Slowly lift your hand up in front of an aquarium and almost touch the top of the tank. The fish should either be looking for food or ducking for cover. Look at the bodies and fins of fish for marks, blemishes, small white spots, or protrusions. Look for heavy respiration. Rapid gill movement may indicate parasites or bad water quality. One or two sick fish in a store may be normal but several tanks with sick fish may indicate a major problem.
2) By the way, not all stores have the room for quarantine and hospital tanks. If you see one tank with blue or green water and/or a sign that says: "Not for sale," that isn't necessarily a bad thing. At least the store's being careful. Ask the store if they quarantine their saltwater fish. Find out what their guarantee policies are. Do they feed their fish frozen and commercially prepared foods? How often do they change water in their aquariums? Here's a little secret: Watch them catching fish. Do they use two nets or do they use one net and stress the fish who are much more agile then they are and don't want to be caught.
3) The three dead fish rule. We don't claim to be original with this one. We've read this in several books and magazines, and practiced it ourselves. Dead fish in aquarium retail is a fact of life, but the dead fish should all be removed from the aquariums before the store opens for business. It's normal for a store to lose a fish in the course of a day, but if you see more than three dead fish, the store may not care about their aquariums. If you (quietly) notify a staff member of a dead fish in a tank, they should act on it as quickly as possible to show that they care about the health of their tanks.
4) Ooooh! That smell! If a store smells bad, they don't care about their image. A good clean aquarium store may smell a little musty or may have an earthy odor, but should not smell like a seafood store or a public zoo. If a store has a bad odor, they may not be taking care of their animals. If they sell animals other than fish, there may be an odor around the small animal and reptile cages, but the entire store should not smell like old urine or worse. It's been our experience that a clean store usually means clean aquariums and healthy fish.
5) Attitude. You already know this one. The salespeople working in the store should be alert. If the store is slow, the staff should be busy cleaning aquariums and stocking shelves, but they should also be willing to wait on you if you need help. Don't get us wrong. Good fish people have a reputation for being a little strange or eccentric. We're not always known for our good manners either. We don't mean these eccentricities, we're talking about bad attitude - plain and simple. When you feel like you're being talked down to or patronized, you know you don't want to learn anything from the person talking to you. A staff member can be the most knowledgeable fish person in the world, but if you don't feel comfortable talking to them, you won't learn much. If a salesperson makes you feel like they're going out of their way to wait on you, they need to find a new job and/or you need to find a new store. Bad attitudes are bad for business. Let the store owner know why you're taking yours elsewhere.
6) Test their knowledge, but before you do, buy an aquarium book and do a little reading. If you're new to the hobby, sometimes it can feel like anyone knows more than you do. That doesn't mean that everyone working in an aquarium store is competent. It just means they know more than you do, and yes, there is a difference. Read enough to be able to ask some very basic questions and take note of the answers you get. Then compare what you've been told with the book you read when you get home. If you're a more experienced aquarist, try asking some questions for which you know the answers: "Will this damsel go in my aquarium with my six inch Lionfish?" or "I have a planted aquarium. How will these African cichlids work in my tank?" You don't have to get quite that silly, but we hope you get the idea. You'll be shocked at some of the answers you'll get!
7) What's their motivation? Does the store seem to want to sell, inform, or both? If you find yourself feeling like you're in a used-car lot, you know the store's more interested in selling you. Try to slow them down and ask some questions. If every answer to a question or an aquarium problem you're having involves spending money, watch out! Many aquarium problems can be solved simply by doing a water change, testing water for problems, or adjusting water chemistry. It is okay, however, if they go out of their way to try to sell you a book. That's always a good investment. Take their advice and buy it.
8) What you want vs. what they do. What do you want with an aquarium? Are you looking for a hobby or do you want a piece of living sculpture? Are you willing to get your hands wet or do you want someone to do the dirty work? Are you interested in fish or do you just want to decorate your family room? These are important questions to ask yourself before you shop for an aquarium store. Not all aquarium stores provide outside maintenance services and many that do don't do it well. Many excellent aquarium stores do a great job working with hobbyists, but get frustrated with aquarium owners who only want to look at the fish. Take our advice: If you don't want to be an aquarist and you're not going to clean the tank yourself, buy your aquarium from a reputable maintenance company or an aquarium store that does a lot of maintenance business.
Tip: Ask them how many people they have doing maintenance. If the answer is two or more, and everything else falls into place, you've found your store.
9) Shop around. Look in the phonebook and make a list of stores in your area. Then take a tour! Spend a day or two exploring all the available resources before you pick your aquarium store. Sometimes it's worth it to drive a little out of your way to find an excellent aquarium store.
10) Prices? Prices are not as important as quality. Don't expect a retail store to have prices as low as a mail order company or an e-commerce business. They have a much higher overhead, and when you need help they'll be there for you. In our opinion, it is better to pay more for quality fish and invertebrates, especially if you're also getting sound, knowledgeable advice.
BIG NO NOS!
Take it from someone who spent fifteen years working in large retail aquarium stores. The staff of a store will remember you in either a positive or negative way, depending on how you conduct yourself when shopping for merchandise. If they don't seem to want to spend time with you now, but were eager to do so when you first met them, you have probably committed one or more of these aquarium-store faux paus.
Don't ask so many questions that you monopolize a salesperson's time.
Be polite, especially if you know you won't be spending money right away. Remember that they have a store to run and other customers who need them. Let them go if they need to catch fish or wait on somebody else. They'll come back to you. By the way, if you do find that you're getting intelligent answers to your questions and the store is nice in other respects, LET THEM KNOW that you'll be spending your money there.
Don't tap on the fish tanks!
This one's for the uninitiated: that's the fastest way to get yourself thrown out of a fish store!
Don't be a nudge!
Hey! You found a good store with healthy fish, beautiful aquariums, and a knowledgeable staff that's willing to spend time with you even when you aren't spending money. You're going to pay a little more for that kind of quality. Do them a favor. Don't try to talk them down on their prices. Trust us. It's a sore spot in the aquarium retail industry. Spend some money and support your store!
The biggest no no! Don't take up a ton of a store's time, get all your free advice and knowledge, take advantage of their generosity, and then buy all your stuff mail-order or from the internet.
Even if you buy fish there and everything else mail-order, you should know that fish are no longer the high-profit item they once were. This is especially true for marine fish and invertebrates. Remember that if that store goes out of business, the mail-order joints (including us) won't come close to taking their place. Providing information costs money because the person providing the information gets paid for their time. Respect that. Once again, spend some money and support your store!