Just over two years ago, I interviewed Lisa Hoeber of Super Cichlids. At that time, Super Cichlids was an online-only retail store. Fast forward to this summer and that changed in a big way. Lisa and her co-owner husband, Martin, opened a physical store with the same name in their hometown of Dover, Delaware. Shortly before their opening, I e-mailed Lisa and Martin asking if they would be interested in doing another interview. Thankfully, they happily agreed.
If you’re in the Dover area or within a reasonable driving distance, I would encourage you to visit their store. I haven’t been myself, but I have seen numerous photos. The place looks amazing! I know Lisa and Martin, and they’re first class. If you visit, I would expect that you will experience the same unbridled friendliness that you’ve experienced interacting with them at their vendor booth during fish shows and conventions. Even if you can’t visit their physical store, certainly go to their website. They have great deals all of the time.
You and Martin just opened your brick & mortar store in Dover the 1st of July. Talk about some of the biggest challenges you faced establishing a physical retail presence?
The two biggest challenges that we faced have to be the oldest ones in the book… Time & Money. Since Super Cichlids consists of just two employees, me and my amazing husband, we found that there is never enough time in the day to complete every task that we put on ourselves and never enough money to make it as perfect as we want it to be.
We have to budget our time wisely. Hard work is just that, Hard. We knew that it would be but we didn’t realize it would be all encompassing. For the last eight months we’ve spent 99% of our lives at the retail store prepping it and maintaining the online store. We’ve averaged between 12 to 15 hours a day physically at the store. That’s wasn’t too bad for the first, second, or third month but over the course of the last eight months it’s been a struggle to maintain our sanity at times. Days off are a thing of the past.
We also had to learn to be extremely creative and flexible with our budget. We had a plan and a solid budget in the beginning but we truly didn’t realize that spending the big money was the easy part. It was all the nickel and dime expenses that we didn’t account for in our initial budget. The extra unplanned equipment rentals and projects that were thought to be pretty straightforward took unexpected turns. For example, not realizing that taking 10 layers of warehouse floor paint off would take eight different machines, not 1 or 2 and countless hours of scraping and pressure spraying to actually do it right the first time. You have to spend the money and do it right the first time or you will either never go back like you thought or it will end up costing way more after it’s all said and done. Another part of the financial challenge, and possibly the biggest, was realizing that the distributors we buy products from also sell to all the big guys like Amazon, PetSmart, Petco and Walmart. Those big guys price items lower than what we can actually buy them for so the margins on products are extremely minimal or none at all. We are forced to drop products because we can’t compete on pricing. It was an unexpected irritation.
Your physical store sells fish, especially cichlids, which is something you were previously doing only out of your home. Talk a little about your livestock inventory and where you source your fish.
We were extremely lucky and found a huge, yet affordable, 4,500 sq ft retail location that suited all our needs – offering both a large show room plus a very spacious warehouse. With all that space we could set up over 148 75g tanks, which allowed us to offer a massive variety of fish! Our “African” or Rift Lake cichlid section is extensive, but we also carry monster fish from South and Central America, tetras, barbs, danios, rainbows, sharks, catfish, koi, loaches, and basically any freshwater fish we can get our hands on. We source our fish from many different sources. Some come from the big fish farms that PetSmart and Petco use. Some come from the amazing Mom and Pop farms like Mikes Cichlids in Florida. Some are sourced from our own in-house breeders. We’ve met such amazing suppliers during our extensive travels that allows us to source fish from all over the country. Every supplier has unique benefits and drawbacks. Companies like The Cichlid Exchange quarantine all their fish before they ship them out so, when they arrive in our store, we can be 99% certain those fish are healthy and disease free. The larger suppliers don’t quarantine but, due to the volume they sell and the network of sources they have, they can get in fish that are hard to find. It’s a balancing act.
We do believe it’s very important to quarantine fish. We never sell fish right when they come in like the big box stores. That’s a very bad way to sell fish and doesn’t set up the customer for success. One of our favorite things we do is a consignment program. We find that consigning fish from locals brings in larger, higher quality fish. And fish that have a higher survival rate. We only pay when the fish sells and we pay cash. It’s a 50/50 split.
We basically have a maintenance free system for our tanks. Each tank is its own entity so we cannot pass ick, other parasite, or problems to other tanks. This also gives us the ability to medicate a certain tank and have quarantine tanks for new fish that won’t contaminate the other tanks. It’s fabulous! As I stated in the first question, we have to “do it right the first time” or the issue will come back to haunt us later. What we did was design a water changing system that’s on an automatic time schedule. So it basically runs itself just like your lawn sprinkler system at home. Each row of tanks has new fresh clean water that goes through a huge carbon block system to remove chlorine and impurities from the water which then enters each tank for a certain number of minutes. When the tank gets to a certain height, it drains out into a sump that gets pumped to the sewer. We do not recycle water and it does not go back into the system. It may seem like a waste of water and money but we feel the cost of contamination is far greater if we recycled the water. And at this time, we are unable to afford a huge water processing plant to do the job correctly. That may come in the future if we become successful.
What else can customers expect to find in the store?
We want our store to be a destination, not your typical, basic shop. People drive hours to visit our store so we created an inviting environment so you can “hang out” and enjoy yourself. We have a 1,000 sq ft show room with three massive show tanks. Our largest being a 10-foot-long 590 gallon South and Central American biotope. The fish in that tank regularly spawn so something is always happening in there. We provide a comfortable seating area in front of the tank so you can relax and enjoy the view. Plus, it’s great place for kids or spouses to wait as their other family members walk around looking at all of our tanks! We also have an 800 gallon pond feature with koi and fish from Uruguay. We built seating around the entire pond so you can watch the fish from above. You can even feed the fish as well if you like. The kids love doing that! We are currently working on our coffee, tea, and hot cocoa station so you can enjoy a free beverage as you browse.
Do you have any plans to eventually add fish to your online sales? If so, can you talk a little about that?
As of now we have no plans to add live fish to our online website. With only the two of us working with no employees, it’s difficult to add the task of bagging and shipping fish to our regimen. We find that spending time chatting with customers and educating them on keeping fish is far more important than dedicating time to shipping fish. We may in the future but cannot foresee a time frame just yet. We do have lots of friends with reputable businesses that do ship fish, so we love recommending those other businesses to our customers. We enjoy helping other small businesses. We have to stick together to have a chance in this Amazon based world.
Since the first interview we did (November 2017), you’ve expanded your portfolio of fish foods. Talk a little about the new additions and what else customers can expect to see in food offerings over the next year.
Our newest and most favorite addition is the Dr. Bassleer brand by Aquarium Munster. It’s a German based company and they have created some amazing formulas! The Acai berry formula is stellar and provides extreme color enhancing including blacks! We’ve tested it ourselves, and it really works! It’s so popular that we demanded larger jars and they delivered! We now sell the 600g size jars of Dr. Bassleer and we can barely keep it in stock. Another fine brand we are selling is New Life Spectrum. They have been around a long time but they now have the probiotix line boasting 3 million LIVE cultures per gram. The true numbers are more like 7 to 9 million but they say 3 million to be safe. They test each batch (as well as other top brands) and they came out on top, big time. I add a once or twice a week feeding to our fish and I have seen an increase in liveliness and digestibility. It really works!
Finally, our most popular brand and most loved is NorthFin. They have come out with BugPro and now flakes! The Bug Pro is made from black soldier fly larva and it’s amazing. It definitely rivals Fluval Bug Bites, and we sell it like crazy! They just released the new 1.36kg buckets. That’s almost 3lbs of goodness! Now the flakes, which were just released come in 4 varieties: Krill, Cichlid, Kelp and Community. Community is a mixture of Krill, Cichlid, and Kelp, so you get the best of three worlds if you buy that formula. The flakes only come in the larger 350g buckets but it’s well worth it and goes pretty fast! They will release smaller jars at a later date, but we are not sure when.
How do you decide what to sell at your physical and virtual (online) stores?
Most of what we bring in comes from our many travels around the country and meeting many different types of companies. We soak up knowledge and information and decide which products our customer base would appreciate and use. We find that testing most products ourselves and then liking them decides what we bring in. We feel that the products we sell must have a positive outcome and be something that impacts the hobby is a positive way. It’s nice to have so many fish to test products on, and they don’t mind too much! However, we do have to change with the times and continue to search and find new and awesome products, since many other retailers and Amazon tend to bring on a lot of the same products, which is business. It keeps us on our toes and actively working to stay ahead of the race.
Do you expect a change in your (Super Cichlids) attendance at fish/aquarium shows with the opening of your store? If so, talk about that and what folks can expect from your vendor booths in the near future.
Yes, there will be a change. Because we are only a two-person team (we like to call ourselves Team Hoeber), we had to stop all shows. Normally shows and conventions are loss leaders, and we end up losing money at every single one. This is okay because it’s a great way to advertise and meet companies, but with the extreme cost of our new store, and I mean extreme, we just cannot afford to travel and shut down the store for 4 or 5 days. It’s a sad reality but once we start generating revenue on a regular basis, we will be able to start hiring employees. Then we will be back to participating in shows and setting up vendor tables.