Salty Q&A: Can We Do Better for Beginners than Caveat Emptor?

Hobby newcomers are often blissfully unaware of the challenges they may be putting themselves up against

Hobby newcomers are often blissfully unaware of the challenges they may be putting themselves up against


I recently had a frustrating experience at a major chain pet store in my area. I watched as the aquarium department salesperson sold a type of butterflyfish that has a very specialized diet to a self-identified newbie, and he didn’t bother to tell this customer anything about it. The fish probably isn’t going to live very long for that person, so now I regret that I didn’t speak up at the time. Everyone says we hobbyists need to do prior research on all the animals we buy, but it seems to me the salesperson owed it to the customer to at least explain the fish’s feeding habits. What’s your take on this?” – Submitted by Veronica


Thanks for your question, Veronica! I’m afraid there’s no easy solution to this problem—or at least not one I’ve been able to brainstorm. While it is absolutely true that hobbyists should thoroughly research all of their livestock acquisitions, in my opinion, there’s a significant information gap for novices that’s extremely difficult to bridge. Why?

Many (though certainly not all) hobby newcomers are blissfully unaware that there’s a very steep learning curve to marine aquarium keeping and that the dropout rate is extremely high for beginners who don’t come into it with their eyes and ears wide open. In other words, as CC and I are fond of saying, “They don’t know that they don’t know.” Even if they do make an effort at prior research, they generally have no idea what information sources they can trust and which aren’t worth their salt.

As your question highlights, a very common mistake novice hobbyists make is assuming that their local fish store or big-box retailer’s aquarium department wouldn’t steer them wrong and that certain industry safeguards are in place to protect them from making a bad purchase. To steal a line from Dave Matthews, they assume “everything is all taken care of by those qualified to take care of it all.”

When you think about it, this isn’t all that illogical. Caveat emptor is great advice any time one is in the market for goods or services, but is it really so unreasonable for a newbie to assume the local fish store wouldn’t try to sell an animal that can’t possibly be fed in captivity and is essentially doomed to die?

If you go to pick out a dog at your local animal shelter, you certainly have to be concerned whether a particular breed or individual will be a good fit for you and your family with respect to its temperament, energy level, etc., but should you really need to ask, “By the way, does this one eat food?” You assume that’s a given.

Nonetheless, you and I both know that’s not always the case when it comes to livestock in the marine aquarium trade. Like it or not, many animals that appear routinely on the market really aren’t appropriate for beginners, and a fair amount aren’t even suitable for experts. But how do we get newcomers—especially those who are prone to impulse purchases—to understand this before they head for their local fish store? I’m not sure we can.

I agree that the salesperson in question owed that customer more than a fish in a water-filled bag. He should have been forthcoming with some basic husbandry information as well—particularly the bit about the fish being a specialized feeder. In fact, part of the solution to this problem might be somehow getting more point-of-purchase educational materials into the hands of aquarium retailers and their staffers so they can display them in their stores or hand them out to customers with livestock purchases. But then how would such a campaign be coordinated?

Of course, many local fish stores out there are already doing an exceptional job of educating their customers and are very conscientious about getting beginners off on the right foot. After all, a beginner who succeeds is a lifelong customer. However, as with any industry, there are less conscientious folks out there too, and coupling one of these individuals with an impulsive novice who doesn’t do his or her homework is a recipe for certain livestock losses and the aspiring hobbyist’s ultimate failure.

I only wish I could figure out a way to get vital hobby information into the hands of novice hobbyists—or at least those who “don’t know that they don’t know”—before they make that first ill-considered purchase or husbandry decision. But so far I’ve drawn a blank. Fellow salties, do any of you have thoughts on the subject? If so, please share them in the comment section below.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Well said Jeff !!
    You covered all the basics of the situation !! But newbies are confronted with a MYTH throughout the Media and even many LFS websites. The problem being the Reef Tank itself: it all seems too easy. Everywhere you look there is this Reef Tank with regularly spaced corals at 6 inch intervals and heavy duty intensily bright and heated up lighting that seems PERFECT for Soft & Hard Corals indiscriminately as well as Anemones etc… I mean really that is what is sold: a MYTH. It might take a while or never for anyone to understand that a simple Toadstool softie spaced 6 inches from another Coral is a Mathematical Impossibility !! That Toadstool will reach 2 to 3 feet in diameter in a short time…. Tha’s three feet off in a 6 or 8 foot tank usually pictured…. A major step for the industry would be to actively promote SPECIFIC Tanks allowing for growth and development of species. Then those happy customers would become real aquarists for life and invest gladly in several tanks in the long run. Understanding depends on perception. But if the aim of Marketing Strategists is Deception then there really is a Perspective Problem.
    Hope my grain of salt did not offend anyone ;D)
    A Great Day to all salties out there

  2. Wow – I could tell you some horror stories about some of the LFS here in the UK. I nearly got chased out of a store for enquiring about alk buffering once – “Why would you do that?? You’ll drive the PH through the roof – I wouldn’t sell to you if I knew do that”.

    So not even a basic understanding of water chemistry!

    This same guy I’ve heard advising people to “ignore what they read on the internet” – needless to say once I’d learnt enough to know what I’m doing I don’t buy from there anymore.

    I’ve purchased pre-mixed salt water and found it’s the wrong the salinity.. RO water that’s little better than tap water for TDS.

    Never mind fish with parasites or nobody in the store understanding their needs.

    Acropora described as monitpora etc. etc. etc.– and this from a well know chain store. Is it any wonder the hobby is sometimes viewed so poorly?

    Simple answer is I found a store where they won’t even sell you a fish without a water sample the first time, all the fish are healthy and all the coral too. They will gladly refuse the sale rather than doom something to a tank where it won’t survive. It’s clear they’re passionate about what they do (and aren’t just in a low paid retail job because it beats working at McDonalds).

    Perhaps we need a “newbie safe store list”!

    Top tip for me is the display tanks, if they look good they know what they’re doing and if their tank is full of dead inhabitants AVOID – and if you find a good store pay that little bit more and support them with you hard earned cash!

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      All great points, Henry. It truly can be the “Wild West” out there when it comes to finding a reliable LFS. Love your idea of a newbie safe store list!

  3. Caveat Emptor still rules, and in today’s day and age of having information readily available at our fingertips, there’s no reason NOT to be able to understand what you’re getting into and not have to be reliant on the SALESperson to “educate” you. If I find a fish I like in a store, before I even think about purchasing it, I pull out my trusty smartphone and Google it to see what requirements are needed for it and the care level associated with it…and if I’m (emphasis here) able to meet those needs.

    Ultimately, a salesperson at a big box LFS chain is no different than a salesperson at say, a car dealership…their job is to sell you what you want, regardless of whether or not it’s the best fit for you, because, outside of a paycheck (and keeping their jobs), they have little invested in the success of the store. That’s why I prefer to shop at mom & pop’s…the two I frequent are both long time owners (one’s been open since the 60’s) who don’t really advertise (outside of Facebook posts and occasional emails listing stock) so they rely more on word of mouth from their customer base to get their name out and get people in the door. It’s in their best interest to educate/sell appropriately, because if someone has a bad experience, a post on social media gets shared, the dam breaks on it and all of a sudden, hundreds of people see it, and so on. Their tanks (especially the holding tanks) are generally immaculate (there are mom/pop shops I haven’t gone back to because the lack of care was evident).

    On the flip side, they are a business, and the focus of a business is to turn a profit…which can only be done by moving product (even though fish/coral are live creatures, they are still a commodity). One of the guys who works at one of the stores I frequent told me “I can preach about this, this, and this to make sure they fully understand what they are getting into, BUT I’m not going to NOT sell you something, because it’s your money and who am I to tell you what you can and can’t buy? I can inform you but ultimately, it’s up to you to understand what you’re getting into.”

    • A realistic point of view Bob. The last thing we need are a Reef Police and/or a Tang tribunal…. 🙂 .
      If I take our tanks here at SBMarine ( into account…. I doubt any of them would pass the Empire’s Political Criteria !!! However constant development and reproduction of species are a realistic testimony to what Aquarists are really capable of without necessarily being Reefers…. Some very rare and delicate Algae for example are incapable of developping on wild reefs and need special conditions… but then this applies to so many Marine species I wonder if those LFS Bishops even realize how ridiculous they are (and most of the social FB crowd also)….
      A Great Day to you !!

    • Jeff Kurtz says

      Excellent points, Bob! Not to mention, plenty of people will still go ahead with a livestock purchase even after being advised by their LFS that it may not be in their best interest.

  4. Here in New York I can’t swing a dead catfish without hitting 3 or 4 fish stores. There is a lot of competition with each other and from on line sources. I know many of the owners and none of them are very wealthy and all of them are just about staying in business as this type of business has a huge loss of livestock, not to mention their electric bill for all the heaters, pumps, salt etc.
    The employees really need to sell stuff for the place to stay in business. I assume they all make about minimum wage and most of them are very young. Very young people making minimum wage probably don’t have a reef tank so they may not be the best person to ask advice from.
    Livestock in a store doesn’t generally fare very well for very long as their tanks have to be bare so the fish can be caught. They are also contending with wild fish from all over the world and virtually all of them are carrying parasites, bacterial infections, small pox, plague, the heartbreak of psoriasis. This all contributes to a loss of profit so they really have to sell to stay in business. Do your homework before you buy and don’t fall into that rumor about all the suppliments, controllers, dosers and medications you need.

  5. I work in a LFS part time and we have a marine section witch me and a other worker run.He knows more about the equipment side of running a tank and I more about the live stock side.It balances out but there are times when I will not sale a fish/inverte to some one because I dont think his/her system is up to it.The owner most of the time respects my decisions but sometimes against my advice will still tell to sale them the animals.I have noticed that most of our clients dont do there homework before they buy and reley on our knowlage for there purchases.

  6. A great post and read. One thing I’d add is that at most chain stores (privately-owned stores hopefully run differently), employees may not actually know much. They are trained for a short time by their fellow employees, who probably have a mix of good info born of years’ experience and misinformation.

    I’m reading up on fish and other animals so I can provide correct information, but I’m a full-time student and have limited hours in the day. Many other employees may have a family to take care of, or not want to spend time off reading something that (imo) should be provided in job materials, along with a longer time training.

    That’s why I take issue with some peoples’ attitude that the employee should necessarily “know better”, or “owes it to the customer” to give information that is easily Googled. I can’t take out my phone and Google something at work- a customer can.

    I guess all I’m saying is that people should keep in mind that we’re often doing the best with what we have at hand, and that Google is friend.

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