12 types of people you'll find in fish shops

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You've probably been to your local stores a few times now. Or you might work in one, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending on your personality. That means that you'll have probably spotted a few 'types' of customer who like to shop there, says Nathan Hill.


Now, there’s a whole world of management speak about customer demographics, and whether they are 'price hunters'or 'wanderers' or whatever, along with predictive charts about purchase probability, aftercare requirements, and all sorts of other exciting sales speak. I’m not going to touch on any of that, though, because I find it as interesting as being handcuffed to a radiator in a cellar for ten years. 

Instead, I’m going for a good old, out-and-out character assassination. I’ve served my time in the field, and I’m allowed to have a bit of a dig at some of the more abrasive shoppers. So there. 

Here are some of the customers most memorable to me…

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The bomb dropper

This one used to royally sting my kidneys. The customer who would want to buy lots of fish, only to ruin everything at the end. 

They’d be on total form, and come across as totally clued up and faultless. "Has the tank been running for a long time?" Yes, yes it has. Years, in fact. "Is it already well stocked?" Yes, teeming with fish. "Is it big?" Over four feet long. All is good!

Fast forward ten minutes when the shopkeeper has carefully caught and bagged up twenty Cardinals, four Rams, a fleet of Corydoras and a couple of Ancistrus when the customer politely mentions "Yeah, we stripped the whole thing down yesterday morning, cleaned everything with bleach, boiled the gravel, changed all the filters and put it back together with water from the hot tap…"

If you look real close when this happens, you can actually spot the exact moment when the employee’s will to live completely untethers itself and drifts off for a happier life in the cold, dead void of empty space. 

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The conspiracy theorist

I’ll bet you anything you’ve been caught behind one of these when you wanted to just buy some fish and get home. The conspiracy theorists, aka the slow learner, will just not comprehend that ‘no’ might be the answer to their question.

Picture the scene. They’ve had a tank running for a little while, they maybe have a few 'starter' fish like platies or danios already swimming about. After discussion with the staff about what fish will be okay to add next, and taking in to account things like temperature, water chemistry, age of tank and so on, they’ll be given a dozen carefully considered species to choose from as suitable next additions. 

At this point, they’ll casually saunter to the next aisle of tanks, containing the exact opposite of the kinds of fish they can keep — marines, or Malawi cichlids, or whatever, and proceed to systematically ask if each and every one will be okay in their tank. Every. Single. One.

They’ll keep that up until they’ve been through every species in the shop, refusing to accept that the handful of fish advised by the retailer are their only options. Meanwhile, you’re stuck for twenty minutes in the queue, watching this debacle unfold and wary that you really don’t have all this spare time available. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to just saunter over there with a Warhammer and get medieval on their indecisive behinds.

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The professed expert/aka the helping doofus

Quite possibly the single most annoying type here, for both customer and retailer — a customer with three weeks of fishkeeping orientation from Facebook, who is now an unrivalled expert in everything. 

This one warrants a bit of unpackaging. Did you know there are four stages of competence? It’s true, I used to teach this stuff (badly) for a living. When someone first starts to learn something, they might do so at the level of 'unconscious incompetence'. That’s to say, they know so little about the subject, that they don’t even understand how little they know on the subject. As they learn more, they become consciously incompetent, which means they start to understand that there’s lots of stuff they don’t know, and that they’re still beginners. 

Then you hit conscious competence, where they becoming increasingly aware of what they do know and are capable of, but in effect they actively need to think about what they’re doing still. 

After that, they progress to being unconsciously competent. As in, they are so familiar with the subject that they no longer need to think about it. It’s second nature. Think about learning to drive, and the stages of confidence you went through, compared to how you are now (not having to think about indicators, gears, etc.) and you’ll get the gist of it. 

Now, the helping doofus is almost certainly in category one – unconsciously incompetent. They honestly have no idea how little they understand the subject matter, but by golly they want to talk like an authority on the subject. To you. At length. 

You’ll spot them in retailers, lurking about and doling out the wrong kind of advice to anyone unfortunate or foolhardy enough to stay in their vicinity. Usual gems of insight include 'they only grow as big as the tank', 'you need to soak plants in salt/copper before adding them', and the mighty 'you don’t need to do water changes…'

They might even hit you with the timeless 'We bought *insert name* fish here and it wiped out our whole tank…' But they’ll fail to mention this was a 45cm long tank, running for five days, without prior cycling or maturation, and stocked with 60 fish. 

The usual response is that you’ll want to treat them with outright derision, but you can be subtler than that. Just ask for evidence to support their claims. I guarantee you’ll get back to you that 'we did it that way', to which you can just point out that a single anecdote does not constitute data, and watch them squirm. 

Note also that they can eventually become very good aquarists once they get past this stage of incompetence. They just need to get on that next level, conscious incompetence, and suddenly they’ll be a lot more fun to be around. 

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The actual expert

Can go either way. The vast majority you meet are really nice folks. Note the kind of question they ask — how long have the fish been in country for, what are their origins, are they wild or tank bred, what conditions are they being kept in, have there been any health issues in that tank or system…

From a retailer’s point of view, these folks are bliss. From a fellow customer’s point of view, they can be great to eavesdrop. You might even pick up on questions they ask that hadn’t occurred to you. 

That said, they can also be the worst kind of arrogant douchebag on the planet. There’s something unsavoury about watching a lifelong, qualified-to-the-hilt fish breeder ragging about a Saturday boy for sport, when it’s clear that they’re only doing it to make themselves look good in front of everyone. 

If it happens to you, just remember that there’s someone even more qualified than your aggressor, someone more cerebral out there who knows the subject better. And he or she probably would think the person laying in to you is a complete weapon. So there’s that.

One thing I will say — never rule out young people as potential experts. In my time, I’ve seen staff saunter over to young lads and ladies of maybe 12 years old, ask if they can help with something, and find themselves embroiled in a conversation of such cerebral depth that even Christopher Hitchens would have calmly backed away without making any sudden moves. When those young brains get fixed on a subject, they’ll absorb every nugget of information available on it. 

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The time traveller

A curious beast, this one. Often a complete newcomer to the hobby, but frequently someone who had 'a' unspecified fish (almost always a goldfish) in their early childhood, and who is adamant that whatever is advised, they could do the exact opposite ten, twenty or thirty years ago. The rose tinted spectacles are strong with these customers.

Typical lines include: "We never had filters when I did it" (which is why all their fish died), "They used to live for years" (maybe one or two years, which really is crap for a goldfish), and "we didn’t have to test before" (and to be fair, if you’re talking the 1970s, that would be a bit of a nightmare). 

If you’re a fellow customer, expect them to look at you and expect you to back them up as though what you’re saying is obvious. If you’re the retailer, expect to be polite for the next half hour, but for them to get the right hump and go elsewhere after the fiftieth time you’ve gently explained why unfiltered bowls are a no-no.

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The noob

Ah, go easy on the newcomers. We all started somewhere, but I still get a flush of inconsolable despair whenever I hear the line "How hard is it to set up one of them Nemo tanks?" by someone closely inspecting an 8 litre pico by tapping at it in the aquatic equivalent of a tyre-kicker at a car showroom. 

Noobs are everywhere, and it’s a good thing. More noobs = more hobbyists = more money spent = more R&D = better hobby for all. 

Noobs get a tough time, and curiously it would seem mostly from those who haven’t been in the fishkeeping game so long themselves. I used to be a right jobber with newcomers for a while, completely forgetting that I once didn’t know a young Discus from a Severum, or what the nitrogen cycle was, or how to pronounce any of the names. 

And that’s another thing. Nowadays, many folks snort derisively at someone who mispronounces ‘cichlid’ as though it’s the worst crime in the universe. Maybe it is, in which case we all have criminal records, but when I hear someone trying to pronounce something difficult these days — and let’s be honest here, getting Uaru fernandezyepezi right the first time takes some skill — I think to myself, 'cool!'

Know why? It’s because it means they read that name somewhere, and if they’re reading about stuff then they want to learn. For everyone I ever mocked for saying 'chicklid' instead of 'sick lid', I apologise. Well, except to the ones that just didn’t want to learn even when I spent day after day correcting them on it. 

The complainer

Usually comes in with a face like they’ve been forced to eat larks’ vomit all night, hovers around the counter making short, frustrated beelines to busy passing staff, then eventually joins the queue. 

Notably, they usually fail to provide any of the fundamental basics that you need when making a complaint. "All those fish that you sold me died," they’ll say accusingly, like the shop assistant personally came around and shot their dog dead in the hallway. 

That might be the case, but then it all comes crashing down. Got a body? Nope. Got a water sample? Nope. Got the receipt, even? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Niet. Nein. 

How retailers maintain composure with this often passes me by. If I buy something and it doesn’t fit me, like a jumper, then at the very least I know they’ll want the jumper back before they’ll swap it. If I just rock up and say 'I bought a jumper here yesterday, it doesn’t fit so I threw it away, along with the receipt and now I want another one,' then I’m sure the staff would smile and keep me occupied by jangling shiny things while the security guard creeps up behind me with a raised baton.

So why are fish somehow different? Yes, the thing has died. Yes, the retailer might be at fault. But if you’re going to expect them to replace it without any evidence, then I say you’ve become fair game for me to demand the same. You sell computers for a living? Great, I just bought one and it broke. I binned it, and I have no proof of purchase, but I’d like a new one right here, right now. 

Cheers then.

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The cheapskate

Small retailers in particular seem a magnet for the shameless tightwads of this world. Maybe there’s a sense that the independent retailer is more desperate than a supermarket, and people want to prey on that. I don’t know, but I’d have to concede that I’ve actually seen someone try to barter in a supermarket. 

No joke, I watched the man, who used to do exactly the same with me in my own store at the time, when he was in a branch of Tesco. He was heckling, actually trying to heckle over the price of his groceries, and he was being deadly serious. The girl behind the counter was entirely unprepared for it, flapping about all clueless, and for a moment I was thinking 'now you know what every day of my life is like…'

You’ll hear cheapskates rather than see them in stores. They’ll be the ones asking "What’s the best price you can do on these" while pointing at a single snail. 

On balance, when someone is splashing out on £1k of marine hardware, you might expect a little incentive thrown in. And none of us should be put off by a savvy buyer who simply checks prices against typical online prices to make sure they’re not being really ripped off. But if you’re like me, you might feel a little bit vicariously dirty when someone in front of you tries haggling on a single strand of Cabomba. 

Usually they’ll try to justify themselves with the line "You have to try it though, don’t you?" which makes me instantly think 'no, I don’t, because I’ve got more respect for these guys trying to make a living than that…'

The fact checker

A sort of semi-fraudulent wannabe expert, the fact checkers like to get online while in stores and fact check. Sometimes. 

Now that’s a great thing, and with information so readily available, we should all be doing something like this. If you’re stood in front of a tank with fish that you really want, but aren’t too sure about, you should be getting straight on to the PFK website, Seriously Fish, or ScotCat, or one of the many authorities on fish requirements. 

But — there’s always a but. There are people in this world who know how to navigate good and bad information, and those who do not. That’s why we still have popular clickbait stories about how eating garlic will make your teeth fall out, and how a GM tomato is going to destroy every frog in Europe. Some people just cannot establish the credibility of evidence. 

And there we find the problem. There’s a difference between going online quickly to verify something, and going out of your way to find something that supports your assertions, no matter how wild or obscure they might be. When someone in a store is advising that a Red tailed catfish gets to 120cm long, it is a blinkered customer who will then desperately track down a website claiming they only get 30cm long, and tout it as some kind of unstoppable freight-train of irrefutable evidence. 

The curious buyer

Who are you? I mean, who on Earth appears in a store once in a lifetime, and buys up the most obscure thing there is, never to be seen again? As a customer, you’ll probably not have seen this person. As a retailer, you’ll know who I mean.

I feel rude asking, but I’d love to know more about these obscure ninjas of fishkeeping. I would get the occasional one, always clued up to the nines, and after something I’d had in a sump for about a year. A person would arrive, ask a price on some battered, rehomed Brachyplatystoma I had in a display tank, then offer to buy it at the going rate. 

Bear in mind that none of us had ever seen this person before, we’d instantly start asking the usual 'trip up' questions to assess competence, but then we’d be blown away at how hardcore a fishkeeper this person was. They’d have a big tank (so they said) of 2.4m long or more, and would know their water quality intimately, including all the stuff we weren’t particularly fussed about, like conductivity and dissolved oxygen. 

During our brief and clumsy relationship, we in the store would be enamoured by this shining beacon of fishkeeping, and then they’d leave, polybox bulging with tankbuster, never to be seen again.

This kind of customer has led me to believe that there is some occult, underground ring of ichthyologist geniuses, in a secret guild of fishkeepers that have access to Bat Cave levels of technology. Every so often, one of the dark knights of aquatics will venture out, rescue some hapless tankbuster for a life of luxury, and retreat back out of the public eye. 

I’ve no idea how to become a member of this guild, but if you’re reading this, leave me a sign of how I can join. I’m ready, I swear*.

*Disclaimer: I’m not ready. 

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The singlet

If those curious buyers were my fishkeeping superheroes, then the singlet buyer has to be a superzero. Try as you might, whether you are a fellow customer or a store worker, you’ll not be able to convince these folks where they are going wrong. 

Their trick, as the name suggests, is to buy up singles of fish. Now, in some cases they might have a thing for runts. I’ve known customers and fellow keepers that have their empathy chips running at full volume, and all they want to do is take in the eyeless, finless, bent-spined, upside-down, spiralling runts that have somehow made it to adulthood. I’m not going to knock that, as it’s kind of humble to go out of your way to set up a tank just as a haven for the downtrodden and weak. And as long as they aren’t trying to breed from these things, then there’s no reason for the rest of us to get upset either. 

But there’s also the customer who wants a single Glowlight, or Guppy, or Corydoras. They’re often deliberately obscure about what it’s going in with, hinting that it will be going alongside a ‘shoal’ (unspecified) which almost always turns out to be anything but — more a forced collusion of 20 individual shoaling types mashed together in a tank. 

I’ve no idea. Maybe it’s a neurological thing, an inability to commit to numbers. But whatever it is, I’ll wager that if I looked in their tanks, my OCD — which is pretty mild — would be taken to pandemic levels. 

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Upstart writers

Yeah, that’ll be me then. You’ll spot me in a store, because I’ll be the one walking about with an unjustifiably sanctimonious air, pretending to take shots of fish, but surreptitiously photographing the other customers, judging them and making notes on their personalities. 

I’d guess that the big thing with having a fishkeeping journo in your store, is that you don’t know how much he or she is scrutinising you. Here’s an interesting point though — you’re not being put on some kind of trial. You have to say something really unethical or outlandish to warrant suddenly going on the record, because most of the time they just want an easy ride, to drink all your tea, and do what all the other customers want — have a good nose around your fish tanks. 

Expect to see customers who recognise them having a dig about some error they made on a picture caption seventeen years ago, or showing off pictures of their own set ups on mobile phones. Expect to see retailers trailing them from a safe distance, intently focused on whatever it is they’re making notes about or photographing, and occasionally tossing over a Custard Cream.

What I will say is that from the journo’s point of view is that almost everyone assumes you know a million times more than you do. We have our fetishes, but outside of those, we’re pretty much in your hands. Treat us like total beginners, and we’ll love you for it. I will, anyway. 

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