Burton’s Blog: Aquarium Kits and a Deadly Misperception

Burton's BlogIn searching for educational gifts for children we often look for kits that supply everything the child needs to start what we believe is a worthwhile endeavor. In the past 10 to 15 years, manufacturers and marketers decided they could make more sales by building these all-in-one aquarium starter kits.

Once upon a time, people would come into stores with their children. They would learn what they needed to know in order to begin an adventure in the aquatic hobbies. And then manufacturers like Marineland and Tetra put beautiful pictures on a box with a whole gaggle of fish swimming in a small tank. Just another example of misleading packaging – lies through over-simplification.

The more fish you put into the aquarium, the less time before they expire – if you don’t know what to do. The kit will not show you how to manage your tank.

These starter kits are essentially saying, “Here’s the tank, this is where the fish go, enjoy.

These kits provide a container that holds water along with a few supplies like gravel, food samples, and a plastic plant or two. Due to their misleading photos people think that this is all they need to create an idyllic and sustainable aquatic setup.

The marketing is all about price point. Even the “deluxe model” kits come with insufferably cheap heaters. All of this is misleading. The aquarium kit has destroyed the aquatic hobbies by giving people a false sense of security, like it’s all so simple and there’s nothing that needs to be known about water chemistry or simple marine biology. “But the manufacturer said it was all I needed in one simple box!” People want to believe them. People want an easy solution.

Did you ever consider what the manufacturer gets out of this convenient setup?

They get to pass their bottom-barrel equipment off as a premium “starter” setup. It’s a simple twist of phrase that shifts consumer perception from skepticism to false confidence. Meanwhile the manufacturer makes more money on this cheap equipment than they would have made by selling them individually – if they even bothered selling these items on their own at all.

This is a shame. The aquatic hobby is the greatest hobby for a child curious about the world in which they live. As parents one of our jobs is to provide proper experience and guidance to help a child discover what they want to do with their lives in both avocation and vocation.

The aquatic hobby teaches us about ecology, water chemistry (what makes pollution), and animal behavior. It is a study in applied biology and science. Aquatics can teach us about amphibians, aquatic turtles, a myriad of plants, and thousands of fish species. Each animal is a different project unto themselves. Each animal has different needs. To give a child a hobby with live animals and no knowledge is to invite funeral services, heartache, and ultimately discouragement.

Nothing will kill a child’s enthusiasm for a hobby faster than literally flushing it down the toilet.

In past decades – before the Internet, before mass manufacturing – people would come to a store to talk with real people who lived the hobby. They could get you started in the right direction, with the right equipment, to minimize the avoidable casualties that almost always arise with kits sold by store clerks and websites just trying to make a buck.

Take a look around. There are so very few aquatics professionals or aquatic stores left. Let’s not just stop there. Let’s reconsider the scope of the argument. There are so few true professionals of any variety left in the retail sector. To work in stores today, you don’t need to know anything. The big national chains like Petco, PetSmart, Pet Value and Pet Supplies Plus have deemed information about the products they sell irrelevant. They want you to buy something and as long as you walk out of the store with a purchase, they’ve done their job.

What does this specifically mean for the aquatics hobby and industry?

Inevitably people and children fail to succeed in their new hobby – they fail to learn and they fail to experience the rewards of maintaining the basic needs of an animal. Parents get disgusted. Children experience the trauma of watching their brand new beloved pet die. And after all that, adults tend not to blame the stores that blindly sold them a pile of crap. They’re quicker to blame the children for not trying. How backwards is that? Fewer people seriously enter the hobby. Soon the hobby ceases to exist.

Any animal sold to a child as a hobby requires parental guidance. It’s become cliché at this point – parents telling their children that “pets are a big responsibility.” Most definitely. Pets are for people with responsibility, but kids are still kids. We need to show children how to do things and teach this responsibility – not just say that responsibility has to happen. The animal doesn’t teach responsibility. Either the parent knows the hobby or he/she works with their children and they learn together. The parent is involved with the child’s learning process. I had many such hobbies as a child, and my parents were with me all the way. As I progressed through high school I far surpassed their knowledge of the hobbies, and that investment in learning led me to my vocation and avocations.

My whole career in animal husbandry and animal behavior was rooted in my parents’ participation in my early-age hobbies.

My parents were children of poor, depression-era families. They didn’t have more than high school educations but they encouraged me at every step of my life to pursue knowledge. I am just as interested today as I was at eight years old about what makes animals tick.

One of my projects in which my father was particularly involved was hydroponics. That hobby resulted in a high school science project that took me to the finals in the Illinois State Science Fair in Chicago. We loaded up 10 basins with about 150 gallons of water and I hauled those basins and the tomatoes that I grew hydroponically to the fair at the Illinois Institute of Technology. My father made the basins out of sheet metal that were perfect for the experiment. In 1961 very little was known about hydroponics. It was a brand new horizon for agriculture. I got into it because I found nothing more than a definition of this new method and developed a hobby where there was none at the time.

The point of this discussion is that we need to talk to professionals that know their product. There’s a big different between knowing a product and selling a product. You won’t find that in most retail environments in 2018 and you definitely won’t find it on an Internet e-tailer. How does that change?

It changes with each of us. It changes when we as a community respect the notion that knowledge and experience have value.

Corporate stores hire people at minimum wage and just hope they show up. People with passion come to work and hope to inspire positive change. They want to work with you and guide you to the right thing even if it is not what you want to hear – even when it’s not the easy answer. Animal care cannot be an industry in which we just sell stuff. These are living creatures that require our care and our attention and our knowledge to keep them happy and healthy. It is about selling a hobby that can become a lifetime passion or even an occupation. I harbor nothing but disdain for marketers that sell pet products without care or concern for the welfare of the animals. False marketing and careless retailers lead unsuspecting customers to the cash register and ultimately failure – to the detriment of our pets and the enthusiasm of our children.

Burton’s Blog 9/22 : Shopping Local – On Patronage

shopping local


If we go to a sit-down restaurant with professional cooks, we, as it is customary, tip the employees for jobs well done. The staff at these restaurants is incentivized to provide quality service, but it is not the business that rewards their generosity of time and patience. It is the customer. In fact, they are actually owed remuneration, as without our “gratuity” they cannot make a living wage.

The valued and essential concept of financially rewarding great service and information goes well beyond tipping your wait staff at meals. The problem is that not all service-related needs are considered equally.

Knowledgable Assistance Is Not Assured

Let’s relate this to the pet service industry. Customers often enter a pet supply retailer seeking professional service and knowledge. The service of any store clerk generally goes unrewarded and unrecognized. In this sphere of business, service is also demanded, but the customer is not expected to remunerate accordingly. The business pays the wage. Obviously this does not excuse rude or unhelpful clerks who are paid to provide said service, but consider for a moment the ways in which the expectations of each system realistically function to directly incentivize employees.

Customers often complain that customer service is lacking. There is good reason for that. Customers have the right to expect great service and information. The reward for great service and knowledge in retail is the repeated patronage of that business. That takes tenure and time.

What’s happening in 2017, however, is that many people will visit a business, obtain knowledge, buy a few items and then scour the Internet and grocery stores for the cheapest options. The repeat patronage (aka “the tip”) to reward the clerk and the business for services well tendered never takes place. The pet supply store provides the service while Internet merchants and grocery stores receive the repeat business.

The Realities of Business in 2017

Make no mistake – we’re realistic about the difficulties facing modern brick-and-mortar business – but we believe that sharing proper pet care information is essential to the transaction with our customers. We have an obligation not just to our customers but to their animals to provide the best pet care information possible.

Neither the online retailer nor the grocery store provides personal care. The customer often goes to these businesses with false information acquired from flashy television marketing or Internet hearsay.

Consider the difference between McDonald’s and that aforementioned sit-down restaurant. You don’t tip a McDonald’s employee for stuffing a soggy burger in paper, but you do tip a waiter or waitress that serves you repeatedly over the course of an hour, maybe more. They take your order, refill your drinks, bring your food, endure your jokes, check if you need anything, anything at all.

The grocery store is the McDonald’s of pet care. If you want a McDonald’s burger, that’s what you get. It’s not really what you want or what you should be eating, but it’s there and it’s for sale on the cheap. Customers find an inexpensive bag labeled “balanced,” something they saw on the television. They believe that it’s the best because Purina told them so, repeatedly. Nobody can talk back to the television, to tell them that what they’re doing is wrong. These companies get away with the kind of misrepresentation that should make us all ill.

Lies and Misinformation Cost More

When something goes wrong with their pet, do these same customers go back to the grocery store for help? Who’s there to help them, hopefully, solve some of their problems? The benefit we get for providing our experience is having you as a customer. That’s all we ever ask. We don’t receive or ask for tips or any other compensation. A customer that uses us for information, but does not give us their business attaches no value to that service – yet this very same customer likely tips 20% at a restaurant without thinking twice. With enough customers like this, they won’t have us around to provide that information for much longer because we’ll be out of business.

Recently a customer sought my help. I have helped her many times in the past. My information saved her hundreds of dollars, and she freely admitted it. She also told me I saved one of her dogs from euthanasia. The only benefit we got was her business, and obviously we asked for nothing more.

After the discussion I made an offhand comment that I hadn’t seen her in the store lately. She said, “No, I’m getting my food from the Internet so I don’t have to carry the bag.” She saw nothing wrong with that, nor did she think twice about telling me.

The Realties of Business in 2017: Part II

Look at this from our perspective. We have to provide a storefront and pay sales tax. Most Internet retailers run a warehouse and pay no sales tax. This is like doing business with one hand tied behind our back. In order to provide service and information, we have to pay quality, experienced people. This isn’t a restaurant where the owner can pay his wait staff insignificant wages. We also can’t be McDonald’s, merely stuffing unhealthy burgers in sacks.

ust because you and your pet are in a good place now doesn’t mean you no longer need service. Consider what’s going on in the pet service industry today. Four of our competitors – PetSmart, Petco, Pet Valu, and Pet Supplies “Plus” – have been opening stores by the hundreds. They also have people with virtually zero education in animal husbandry telling you what to buy and what to do. I wish I could compile a book containing all the dumb things people tell me they were told to do by employees at these stores.

Having a big sign and flashy TV advertising doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. You’re buying stuff off of a shelf without the benefit of service. Grocery stores and companies like Purina and Pedigree rely on the widely held belief that all dog and cat foods are just fine and pretty okay.

I Cannot Write This Next Part Loudly Enough

*ALL* DOG AND CAT FOODS ARE NOT OKAY – just as all dog and cat food suppliers are not equal.

Maybe you can’t afford the very best products. That’s reasonable! But that doesn’t mean you can’t make real, substantive improvements in your pet’s diet without spending a lot of money. A quality, professional pet store provides service beyond that of a regular chain store that hires people with no discernible knowledge or skills. It takes years to learn how to properly care for animals.

Experienced pet people can suggest fresh new products that improve your pet’s wellbeing. An experienced pet person will keep you updated on the latest in practical care. We can be sounding boards for you to tell us about bad experiences and vent frustrations. We can recommend qualified groomers, pet hotels, or any manner of pet professional.

At Burton’s Total Pet, all you have to do is read the reviews on our website to see the difference we have made to pet’s lives. Burton has practiced professional animal husbandry for 45 years. 25 years as a mentor to pets in Pittsburgh, 20 years as manager of large livestock farms and operations manager at the Detroit Zoo. His life has been devoted to animal health from a practical perspective.

Experience Is Not Cheap, But It Is Free (To You)

The staff of our stores has a lot of experience as well. We have a parrot expert at McIntyre. Dog expertise at Cranberry, McIntyre, and Bridgeville. Professional fish expertise at McIntyre, Greensburg, Monroeville, Bridgeville, and Irwin. A reptile expert at Cranberry. To gain access to their experiences all you have to do is ask. We have five managers with over 20 years of experience.

It is for the above reasons and more that make our stores a valuable, community asset. Our existence relies on you shopping at our stores or at least giving us a chance to show you what we can do for your pet.

We are not looking for tips. We survive as a business because people recognize our worth to them and their pet and they bring their repeat business. We believe you deserve more than just a bag of food from our shelf.

Ask yourself what is our service worth to you? You likely think about that when considering 15% or 20% or more at a restaurant, but not when receiving service at a retail store. It’s not easy to put a value on years of invaluable experience, but in our stores you get it for free just by shopping here. Your patronage is your gratitude. Your patronage keeps us in business and allows to continue to serve Pittsburgh-area pets and their people.

Burton’s Blog: Talking Pot Bellied Pigs

Burton’s Blog 8/11: Talking Pot Bellied Pigs

blog banner pot bellied pigs
We don’t necessarily recommend pot-belly pigs as pets, but when they are small, they can be really fun. Some years ago we got talked into three so-called micro pigs. Their names were Fiona, Einstein, and Philbert. 
We acquired them not to sell, but for our customers enjoyment. Providing access to animals like these is an important service. We provided space for these pigs for as long as we had the ability to do so. Despite their name, these pigs can grow quite large. Fiona become almost 200 lbs! They were great companions, but a 200 lb. pig is a difficult roommate. They outgrew their modest temporary homes in our store and needed to move on to greener pastures.
We ultimately found really good homes for them where they could live happily ever after. Pot-bellies are not good house pets, unless you are not fussy about the destruction and mess that can come with an animal that is more like a small bulldozer. Put simply, they are an incredible challenge and only for people with ample outdoor space to explore their piggy natures.
The main point I was trying to make with them was to show people the intelligence of the animal. They are not just bacon. They have intellectual capabilities. During the 20th century, science didn’t want to recognize that animals other than humans had an ounce of sense. That is totally false and through researchers like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey we have come a long way in understanding the cognitive abilities of other animals. Now Goodall and Fossey worked with primates rather than pigs, but their research led to a widespread scientific awakening about animal intelligence.