So is MiniWaters “Expensive”?

We must be rolling in it! Image by Tracy O. - CC BY-SA 2.0

We must be rolling in it! Image by Tracy O. – CC BY-SA 2.0

Right off the bat, straight up, while I don’t ever want to be “cheap”, I don’t believe for a moment that MiniWaters.FISH is “expensive”.

And I can prove it.

Rumors, rumors, rumors.

It was recently put to me by a good trustworthy friend, that among some, the general consensus is that retail pricing at MiniWaters.FISH is “more expensive.” Hmm.

I’ve certainly professed my disdain for downward price wars and razor thin margins, and make no apologies that I *might* be the most expensive option. But does this make “more expensive”, as in to say we are simply asking “too much” for our fish?

It this just an impression, or are we really “overpriced”? Either way, it would seem we have a PR problem. I had to find out.

Informal Pricing Study

On Saturday, 10/22/16, I surveyed 4 online vendors of freshwater fish, and on Sunday, 10/23/16, I did the same with 4 saltwater vendors. It’s worth noting that two vendors were included in both FW and SW lineups, as they simply carry both. The survey compiled my overall retail online price list, both in and out of stock, and used the same with online retailers. With regards to “sale” pricing, transient sale prices (sales that are generally 1 week or less) were disregarded and normal retail prices were used. But vendors that make use of “lot” item sale pricing (like I do here on MiniWaters – the sale price remains until I sell out, and the next price could remain on sale, or not) or “permanent” sale pricing (the fish are simply always “on sale”), their sale prices were used.

We Have Things Other’s Don’t

On average, roughly 70% of the fish offered on (69.5% FW, 68.4% SW) had no comparison at any particular online vendor surveyed. That’s hardly surprising on some levels; offerings like captive-bred Yellow Tangs or large captive-bred Maze Angelfish, or locally raised Ultra Lightning Maroon Clownfish, simply are so exclusive that you’re not going to see them often in the first place, and of course these ultra-rare offerings carry high price tags.

I can’t help but wonder…when you see captive-bred Yellow Tangs for $199.99, does that make you think we’re expensive? I realized that’s significantly “spendy”, to use a Northern Minnesota phrase, when compared to a wild-caught Yellow Tang. But I also know what the captive-bred Yellow Tangs sold for, and know that we were one of the few retailers anywhere to get to offer them. That is the price (and in reality I tried to accomodate everything, grading them into $99 and $299 price points as well).

Does being the first to offer something for sale, or to offer something you can’t get anywhere else, make “expensive”?

Are You Comparing the Same Things?

Even as I ran my comparisons and surveyed my competitors, one thing that can be difficult to discern is whether you’re really comparing comparable fish. One of the biggest misunderstandings is also one of the most obvious – are you comparing captive-bred fish to wild-caught fish?

Without a doubt, often times, wild-caught fish are less expensive. Sometimes they’re not, but honestly, many times the difference can be dramatic, as much as 50% less. Of course, the losses you might incur could be significantly different too. Does selling mainly captive-bred marine fish make us “expensive”?

(I can certainly tell you what I think deciding to buy cheaper wild-caught fish, solely because they’re cheaper, makes you…)

Sizes and Grades Dramatically Affect Pricing

Another way some vendors, at least online, are able to offer prices that at first glance appear “cheaper” than a price, is to offer fish at a very small size. “Tiny” fish might cost less, but a 0.5 to 0.75″ clownfish is just that…so small that it has a good chance of being sucked straight into your filtration. I’m not going to bother offering super-tiny fish (unless that’s how they normally are…eg. Micro Rasboras), just so I can list a “cheaper” lowest price on my website.

But you also have to pay attention to the grading of fishes, specifically in the designer clownfishes. At, I tend to avoid buying fish that don’t interest me. A classic example is the Frostbite Clownfish. I only bring in the most heavily patterned, profusely-spotted individuals I can buy. These are also generally considered the most desirable, and cost the most. If you simply compare my “Frostbite” to anyone else’s “Frostbite” without considering the grade, you’d think was outrageously overpriced. I’m not going to bother carrying the low grade Frostbite (eg. “Flurry”) because it’s basically just a solid white fish, not unlike Wyoming Whites. So the only Frostbite Clownfish you’ll see on our website, unless I have a special order for cheaper grades, are going to be the best of the best, with their commensurate price. Does only carrying fish that are really exceptional make more expensive?

It Turns Out MiniWaters.FISH IS More Expensive?

$0.36 more on the average on the freshwater side of things. Yes, 36 cents per fish.

I can see you now, about to proclaim how right you were...we're the more expensive option! Well darnit, someone has to be, right? By Hans Splinter - CC BY-ND 2.0
I can see you now, about to proclaim how right you were…we’re the more expensive option! Well darnit, someone has to be, right? By Hans Splinter – CC BY-ND 2.0

When you look at the individual freshwater price matches line by line, MiniWaters WAS more expensive 53% of the time. We were the same price, or less, 47% of the time. The cummulative average – if you bought one of ours for every one of our competitors, overall, you’d spend a whopping 36 cents more per fish.  Consider that the average price of our freshwater fish, across all our offerings, was $12.46. That’s a 3% difference in price. $3 more on every $100 vs. my competitors.

Someone haul us off for price gouging!

What about Saltwater Fish Pricing?

Line by line, MiniWaters.FISH was priced higher 61% of the time, and the same or less 39% of the time, on saltwater fish where fair comparisons could be made. But here’s the kicker:

In the aggregate average of all individual price matchups, was $6.08….LOWER.

Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0
Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0

Line up the pitchforks, light the torches, get out the tar and feathers…it’s time we showed MiniWa….wait…what?

$6.08 cheaper per fish?!

How does that happen – you were usually “more expensive” line by line, right?

Well to dramatically oversimplify, If I’m more expensive by $5 each on two line items , but cheaper by $20 on a third, what’s the average? That’s right, I’d be $3.33 cheaper on average.

Is Price REALLY what matters to you?

Well…as I see it, you can continue to think MiniWaters is “expensive” and go spend apparently more money elsewhere (at least on the saltwater side of things)…and along the way you’ve missed the entire message.

First, if you’re shopping for fish solely on price, you’re not considering anything about the fish themselves. The quality, the care they’ve been afforded before being sold to you, and the people standing behind them.

Second, if you’re relying on your “perceptions” of price, apparently you’re going to fully miss out on the actual value in a vendor, and in fact, you could wind up paying more when you don’t have to. Or you could even be casting the wrong vote with your wallet, because you weren’t fully informed on what you were really voting for.

Oh…but I didn’t include shipping costs you say?!

That’s right, I’m not talking about shipping costs here.  Sure, there are vendors who’ll give you free shipping after spending a couple hundred dollars. If lower than their free shipping thresshold, they might give you some flat-rate subsidized shipping. They may even have lower minimum orders that MiniWaters.

First, irony of ironies, this notion that we’re “more expensive” actually grew out of the region in the world where I can generally ship a 20 lb. box of live fish, overnight, for under $10.  The people who came back and told me I was “expensive” are in fact the same people who have the luxury of having some of the cheapest overnight shipping available to any aquarium shopper anywhere?

Just think about that for a second.  I can put a $500 Nebula Percula, quadrupled bagged in over a gallon of water, and ship it regionally for like $9.  Or…or…if you could even find that fish somewhere else, you could have it crammed into a small box with maybe 1/4 gallon and hopes that it’s still happy when it arrives to you…but *that* was “free” shipping, right? So really, you got the “better deal”, right?

Let’s talk about being treated fairly for a moment.

Do you believe that “free shipping” is really free?  Of course not.  It could well be that the reason we’re on average $6.08 cheaper than our competitors per marine fish is because they’re just rolling the costs of shipping into the fish themselves.  Could be, I don’t know. But if your shipping costs less, they keep that extra profit.  Oh, but flat rate and free shipping was totally a great deal, right?

Do you believe that you should pay for someone else’s shipping? Sure…it’s nice, right? You pay your flat rate $50 shipping, where it might cost $10 or $90 if you come to us.  You feel great that you paid $50…it was a steal.  No one ever tells you it cost $25. No one from one of the other guys came to you and said “Hey…we owe you $ it is…we charged you too much for shipping”.

I believe fair doesn’t have to be EQUAL. I believe that if it costs me $90 to ship to you, that’s what you should pay, and if it costs only $10 to ship to you, that’s fair too. I believe if I charge you too much, that extra isn’t mine to keep. Nor it is mine to give to someone else.

Hey, I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter…but this isn’t socialized medicine. Pay for what you use, and not a penny more. To me, that’s about as fair and honest as it gets.

Let’s talk about DOAs for a moment.

There’s one other area of “fairness” that I’d really like to talk about. Fairness to the fish. Playing a shipping by the numbers game, where everyone pays equally and the vendor hopes to break even, encourages the minimum packing for livestock. I’ve seen it firsthand…some of my favorite vendors truly cram the fish into bags by the dozens, rolling the dice that they make it here alive. Most of the time they do, but it also requires that I’m here, ready to deal with them the moment they arrive, and often they are stressed.

In 2015 I had TWO fish arrive DOA.  So far for 2016, I’ve had one cherry shrimp arrive DOA. Less than 0.1%. Less than 1 out of 1000.

I stand behind every fish I send out with a live arrival guarantee because I pack the fish not to maximize the “value” of shipping, but to maximize the chances that you get a healthy, vibrant, stress free fish when you open up the box. Sometimes that could cost more, other times not.  It all depends on where you live. Does that make “expensive”?

MiniWaters.FISH Must Do Better!!!

As one vendor friend of mine suggested, “I wonder if the fact that your company is so professional and you have such nice stuff people just assume you are high priced?”

Clearly, we have a PR problem. I’d like to think my friend is onto something!

So…people think we’re “expensive”.  Well…since I know that 1500 words proving to the contrary will never get read, might as well raise all our prices by 20%, effective immediately. Right? Might as well actually be “expensive!” It clearly works for APPLE!

Please keep an eye out for our new storefront, opening early 2017 in downtown Duluth, MN.


The new MiniWaters storefront, "Expensive Aquatics", is currently under development in downtown Duluth, MN.  Anticipated opening date early 2017.  Satire with elements from WolfmanSF, Aquarium of the Pacific, and Per Palmkvist Knudsen.
The new MiniWaters storefront, “Expensive Aquatics”, is currently under development in downtown Duluth, MN. Anticipated opening date early 2017. Satire with elements from WolfmanSF, Aquarium of the Pacific, and Per Palmkvist Knudsen.

Har har har…

If you still believe is “expensive”, well, you might be right.

If price is the only driving force behind your purchase decisions, if a price difference of 2 or 3% is what makes the difference between “too expensive” and “a good price” (hell, gas prices fluctuate more than that even at the same shop every week), we’re probably not the right place to give your business.

There are several great companies to shop at, many of which I’ve used myself over the years. Some of which might have even been part the companies I surveyed for price comparisons (and some not). Here’s some of my perennial favorites and recommendations below. Tell them MiniWaters.FISH sent you!

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