Stand by your fish

One recent evening, I happened to wander into a Petco. It was very different than the pet stores of my childhood. Instead of wide-eyed children gazing at puppies and bunnies, I saw two things. Supplies and fish. Apparently, Petco has scaled back.

Or maybe it's always been this way. I can't imagine that a national chain like Petco wouldn't be able to logistically handle dogs and cats, but perhaps those are better left to independent breeders and animal shelters. Or maybe puppies are just low-margin merchandise. (Sorta breaks your heart to think of it that way, huh?)

But you know, the longer a puppy "sits on the shelf," so to speak, the more expensive he becomes to maintain. Employees have to feed him, walk him and love him, and even at minimum wage, all that loving can get expensive.

But a fish has got to have better shelf life. And I'd imagine the markups are decent. So perhaps supplies and fish were more of a business decision than anything else. After all, Petco is a business too. Even though it's peddling love and appealing to shoppers' emotions, it's still a large corporation with shareholders (or recently, private investors) to please.

Anyway, I am not in the market for a pet of any species, but I had some time to kill. So I decided to browse the fish aisle. There I was, gazing into tanks and making pucker faces, when I noticed a small sign.

"15-DAY GUARANTEE ON FRESHWATER FISH. In a properly established system, we guarantee Freshwater Fish for 15 days from the date of purchase with a receipt, plus the fish and a water sample in separate containers."

This was unlike any return policy I have ever seen. I'm going to take it one phrase at a time.

First, Petco is saying their fish will live for 15 days. I don't know if you've ever had a pet goldfish, but in my experience, lifespan varies widely. We'd come home with four new fish in a bag. One would be dead that night, two more would go in a month, and the last one would live for five years. So how they heck are they providing this sort of guarantee? Do they inject their fish with 15-day miracle vitamins? I was skeptical.

But then, they specify a "properly established system." Upon inquiry, it turns out that a proper system takes all sorts of factors into account, such as water temperature, filters and lighting. The Petco employee had a whole bunch of take-home literature on how to properly establish your system. It was actually quite useful, and I'd imagine that if I were buying my first fish, I would read up. So maybe this guarantee has an educational benefit. But I still wasn't totally convinced. Would anyone else make the effort to learn?

Finally, you not only have to bring a receipt, you have to bring the fish. THE FISH. They are not kidding around! Apparently dead fish transportation receptacles have recently included Tupperware containers and pillboxes. Oh, and a water sample. You have to save some of your dead fish's water for inspection. Doesn't this seem like a lot of work for one lousy free fish?

Apparently, it's not. People are indeed taking advantage of this fish guarantee. And I actually think it's quite clever. Petco knows that fish are notoriously short-lived, and I have to imagine it was getting multiple complaints a day, from angry shoppers, about dying goldfish. So the folks at corporate must have realized that the best way to take control of the situation was to give some responsibility back to their customers. Petco can't be liable for every dead-pet heartbreak in town, but it can carve out an area where its responsibility ends, and the customer's begins.

So they wrote this return policy in no uncertain terms. I imagine it's quite effective.

First, there's the education opportunity. The "properly established system" part means that if you didn't read our guidelines, it's your own fault. Imagine what takes place when a customer brings back Fishy. The employee gives him a little fish physical - takes his temperature, looks at his color and size. Then she tests the water's chlorine levels and looks for foreign particles. If something is up, the employee can diagnose it, teach the person what went wrong, and instruct them on what to do differently next time. It's like saying "We told you so" in the nicest of ways. Plus, education is rewarded; if you did everything we told you, then it wasn't your fault and you will get a new fish.

Second, there's the emotional response. I'm sure this is disproportionate for fish. I mean, if your toaster breaks, that is irritating. But when your child's new friend kicks the bucket, that is a sad day. A very sad day. That child is in the darkest hour of his little life. So just when Dad is most pissed, and Joey is most distraught, in swoops Petco to save the day. Joey learns a valuable lesson in the transience of life and death, and Dad learns to read the fine print. I'd imagine this return policy wins major points with parents.

And third, there is the business impact. Which is basically, zero. How much do you think a fish costs Petco? Ten cents? Small investment for what must be big rewards. They'd probably have to give away a free fish, every 15 days for a year before they lost money. And I'm sure someone did the math. Maybe they found that 10% of their stock typically die in less than 15 days, while the other 90% live longer. Ten percent of inventory is pretty manageable. Many retailers make similar estimates regarding their own "shrinkage." I'm sure the fish warranty makes only the tiniest of dents in the bottom line.

Education allows for loyal, informed customers. Replacement allows for happy children. And education + loyalty - small cost = big value. Good job, guys.

PS: I thought perhaps Petco's policy might give it a leg up on PetSmart, its arch nemesis. A quick call told me that PetSmart only offers a 14-day fish guarantee. Ha, ha. How's that for a competitive advantage?


Stephanie Weaver said...

Sarah, as always, I adore your blog. You make me laugh out loud.

Stephanie Weaver

Cheney said...

Speaking of return policies...
One such return for a vitamin company guaranteed their vitamins, no questions asked for a full refund. The catch? If you read further into the policy it stated to return the unused vitamins and you would be refunded on the unused portion. So someone who went through half the bottle, or even took the whole darn thing before realizing the vitamins didn't work or didn't agree with them (and most vitamins take at least a full month if not more to achieve any beneficial effects) would get nothing returned on a money back guarantee policy. Very clever.

sara said...

Thanks Stephanie! Glad to be of service. :)

Cheney, what a crazy example. Now, the company might be implying that they will re-package, and then re-sell, the unused vitamins from your jar. If they do, then I think their policy is at least interesting, because it's reducing waste.

But even that would be a little unhygienic. Not to mention sneaky and unfair. They are singing about full refunds on the front end, while totally taking advantage of consumers' naivete on the back end. Where does clever stop, and dishonest start?

Judith said...

Hi Sara,
I enjoy your writing, although of course I don't agree with everything you say. I would like to "interview" you for a post to 2000 Bloggers. Are you up for that?

sara said...

Hi Judith, sure thing! I've sent you an email at your Livejournal address.

Monostereo said...

I could write an article as large or larger than yours on this subject, but let me just hit a few salient points:

Petco may give the guarantee, but they give an awful small amount of education before buying a fish. If you walk into a busy Petco, Union Square NYC, for instance, you will see employees selling fish without a wisp of concern for the animals. You will hear them tell their customers exactly the wrong things to do in regards to fishcare. You will notice that you can still buy bowls for fish (deathtraps due to lack of filtration and difficulty of oxygenation). You will see overstocked tanks. You will see a myriad of sick and dying fish in most freshwater aquariums (and one sick fish in a tank greatly increases the chance that the other fish will become sick as well).

If Petco really cared about education, they would have an education center (something more extensive than handing out a few pamphlets). They would sell cycled filters for you (which would help encourage the buying of their obscenely overpriced filters and help the fish live longer). They would stock Biospira, which must remain refrigerated, but can cycle a tank with a day or so. They would not sell fishbowls.

A simple goldfish can live as long as 25 years. 5-15 years is not at all uncommon in captivity. The flip side of the 15 day guarantee is that it intimates that fish don't live long. And they don't, and won't, with the kind of lackadaisical education that Petco provides.

sara said...

Monostereo, thanks so much for your insightful perspective on this subject. While I am not a fish owner, I have great respect for you and your peers over at Goldfish Paradise.

My post is written from the perspective of the average consumer, who is starting from zero when it comes to fishcare expertise. I am shocked to hear that even the education Petco offers - which is LOTS compared with other types of retailers - is still far from sufficient.

I found your final point especially interesting. You say that a 15-day guarantee implies that it's common, even normal, for a fish to expire that soon. Indeed, this sets consumers' expectations low from the start, so that they will be less shocked when Petco's self-fulfilling prophecy comes to pass. Because that's what it is, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your ideas for how to solve this are very thoughtful. Any other suggestions for Petco to remedy the situation? Should they get rid of the guarantee? Make it a longer period of time? Hold training classes? Stop selling fish altogether?

Monostereo said...

Hi Sarah, Thanks for the response.

Should there be a guarantee?

There are legitimate reasons for a guarantee. For instance, many potentially life-threatening diseases in fish do not become noticeable for several weeks. Thus, is possible to buy a fish that really may only live for a short time. The problem with Petco's guarantee is that it reinforces the perception that fish are disposable.

Some simple ways to improve the situation would be to offer workshops (as you mentioned), to not overstock aquariums (for goldfish this means having 1 fish for every 10-20 gallons of water), to introduce the idea of show quality fish, to charge more for fish, to increase access to education and especially to dispel the myth of disposable pets.

When I first bought fish a few years ago, I thought I was getting a cheap pet. I was stunned when they started dying so quickly. As I began to educate myself as to the causes (via the internet) I found that I was providing my fish with a terrible quality of life. It took me several months of self education before I was able to give them an environment that was nurturing. In the course of that time, my new pets suffered terribly due to my ignorance, and several of them died. Since then, I have easily spent over a thousand dollars on pets that didn't cost more than $5 a piece.

If stores like Petco were honest with their consumers, then they would let them know that fish are not cheap pets. If they did that, then they would sell less fish. But perhaps, if done correctly, they would make more money by encouraging the hobby of aquaculture and fostering an audience that would be prepared to finance the pastime.

Kat Fish said...

Monostereo has addressed the fish part of your blog, but I want to address the puppy part.
Pet stores,at least the ones I know that still sell puppies, do not go out of there way to buy from responsible breeders. Here in Washington, the two pet stores that sell puppies buy from Georgia and another out-of-state location. The fact that they but from one location far ways makes me highly suspicious of the conditions these animals were bred in, and the care that went into the actual breeding. Pet store pups are notorious for having health problems that responsible breeding would have prevented, especially the larger dogs. Responsible breeders carry out genentic screening, only breed their dogs once a year or so and put their time and money into socializing the pups. Pet stores are in it for business- they need quantity. Puppies in pet stores when they are eight weeks old that have just been shipped cross-country can't have had much thought put into their welfare. Breeders that do ship do so under strict guidlines, and often have rarer breeds that can't be found many locations. Pet store pups are generally common breeds that have many responsible breeders near by. It is a great thing if pet stores do not sell dogs, and in soe states it's even illegal.

Barbara said...

I just wanted to add that petco's filtration system ensures that the fishes that are sick will get the other fish sick that are on the same "wall" of fish...each wall of 12 tanks are on the same filter!!! the aquatic specialist there told me so when I noted that serpae tetras I got had velvet and others in other tanks as well had it now as well...he said it was a nightmare and that he had talked to Petco about it...I wouldn't recommend getting any fish from petco! They did refund me for 4 fish that died, now I have 4 fish that still have velvet and they told me to treat them and suck it up.

Anonymous said...

goldfish are decoration. just like if i bought a vase at ikea, i'd expect to be able to return it if there's a crack in it.

Katie B said...

Petco and Petsmart choose not to have puppies and kittens to prevent supporting impulse purchases and the supporting of puppy mills.

If you want a healthy dog, it requires healthy breeding (or luck). Why would a breeder who cares enough to do the correct tests and socialization, just sell the puppies to a petstore and have no control or contact over who gets them.

Puppies in petstores = poorly bred, sickly dogs that come from puppymills and irresponsible breeders looking to make a quick buck at the expense of the animal. Do a search on petstores and puppies please!!

People should do their homework before deciding to bring a dog home, and either get them from a shelter or a responsible breeder. If all breeders were responsible, we wouldn't have to have shelters.

oh and the 15 day thing: is long enough that if the fish was sick with something it already had, you can bring it back, alive or dead.

Anonymous said...

the real business aspect is that the customer is now in the store right next to whatever the sales associate can recommend for their particular needs, basically it's a great sales opportunity

Anonymous said...

I purchased a "African Frog" for $2.49 on 4-23-11.
On 4-30-11 I found it dead in my aquarium. I put the frog in a pill bottle filled with aquarium water and drove to Petco.

I gave the bottle and receipt to the clerk. He suggested that next time I should put the frog in a separate container, and apparently didn't feel that it was necessary to test the water.

He bagged my new frog and I followed him to the check out where he told me that I owed him $1.00. "ONE DOLLAR", "for what", I asked? He said that because the frog was no longer on sale I would have to pay regular price. I argued with him and he agreed that he that it was an odd policy as well. He was a young man who obviously wasn't in charge so I just paid the dollar and left.

If I had asked for a refund rather than a replacement and the frog was now on sale for a dollar less than I paid for the first frog I could understand them refunding a dollar less than I had paid when I purchased it. I do not agree with the outcome of the transaction and I'm going back to the store first thing tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I had a fish die today and googled Petco’s fish guarantee when your blog came up. So I read your post. I know it’s old but maybe you still maintain it. I'm sure your intention is well meaning but you really are speaking out of ignorance. When you take on the responsibility of caring for any animal, whether it be a land animal or aquatic, YOU are ultimately responsible for educating yourself on how to care for it. The last time I went to Home Depot to buy some wood, no one offered to teach me how to build a house. Do you really believe big box retailers are going to take on the responsibility of educating you on your purchase. I don’t have the expectation you do of the minimum wage employee you talk about.
The three main reasons for tropical fish death are over feeding, overcrowding, and poor water quality. Think of it like this. If someone put you in a sealed room, sent in more food than you could eat, all of the uneaten food and all of your body waste stayed in that room, how long do you think you’d last? At first they replaced about 25% of the air once a month but as time went on that became burdensome so they would forget. Oh yeah and they kept adding more people to the room. Well for some reason people think they can do that with fish, and then expect a guarantee that they will live forever. One of the commentors said fish were a decoration, actually, this is a living, breathing animal not a vase.
Someone else posted that they realized after a few months that aquatic animals require the same if not more care and maintenance than any pet. She also took it upon herself to educate herself about the hobby. People go to places like Petco, buy a glass box and a cheap plastic filter that hangs on the back with some charcoal in it, bring it home, fill it with tap water and start throwing fish in it. The aquarium hobbyist will tell you that it is neither cheap, easy or no maintenance involved in caring for aquatic animals.
You think it’s too much to ask to bring the dead fish back. What retailer would not ask you to return the product when asking for a refund or replacement? You say they need to test the water for Chlorine etc. Well fish don’t do well in chlorinated water, a lot of tap water contains a chlorine residual, an educated hobbyist would know not to use it. Yes the guarantee does protect them against people who think fish are a decoration, but it is valuable to the aquarium hobbyist in that they know if they bought an animal that was sick at time of purchase, the symptoms would manifest themselves within 2 weeks and they would be covered by Petco. Most aquarium store guarantees last until you leave the store.
It is sad that in today’s society vendors, retailers and proprietors don’t care enough to take on the responsibility of informing us about the products we buy and we all wish we still lived in that world. Sadly we don’t.
I’m sure your blog has helped many people but please remember that you too have a responsibility to provide educated information, not just rant about something you saw that would be popular to post.
One last thing, Petco/Petsmart do not call themselves pet stores, they call themselves pet SUPPLY stores. Don’t ask me why they sell fish, reptiles, birds, and rodents. Sort’a feels like a pet store.