How to start up a fishmonger

Fishmonger in black apron stood behind table with various fish types on it

Independent fishmongers build up a loyal clientele by selling the best quality fish and shellfish, prepared to the customer's requirements. Get the essentials for starting up and running your own fishmonger's shop in our practical guide.

Estimating income

To complete a cash flow forecast you'll need to make an estimate of how much income your business will earn each month during the first year of trading. This can be a difficult task - you'll probably stock a wide range of different fish and you don't know for sure how much of each you'll sell. However, there are a few pointers that can help when it comes to making your estimates as accurate as possible.

Ideally you will already have some experience in fishmongering - perhaps from working as an employee in someone else's business. You may have a good idea about when demand is likely to be busiest and when it's likely to be much quieter. Perhaps you have some experience of the business side of the trade and can base your estimate of sales on this knowledge. You may find that your local fish market or wholesaler can give you some helpful guidance.

If you are buying an existing business, you could base your forecasts on existing business records. If you are starting from scratch though, it's very important to remember that trade is likely to be slow at first - you will hope that sales build up over the weeks and months as your business establishes a name for itself.

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Using the throughput approach

To help you work out approximately how much your sales might be each month, you could try the following steps:

1. Start with popular staples, such as cod, haddock, mackerel, salmon, plaice, hake, whiting, coley and so on. Estimate how many kilos (or pounds, if you prefer!) of each you expect to sell every month. Don't forget to make an allowance for wastage - for example from filleting and shrinkage on the slab. The weight of the fish you sell is likely to be much less than the weight you buy.

2. Work out a rough average selling price for each per kilo (or pound) - this average should broadly reflect price variation from week to week.

3. Multiply your average price by the weight of each species that you expect to sell every month to arrive at your estimated monthly income for each popular staple that you intend to stock.

4. To make your monthly estimates more accurate, you could account for any significant seasonal price fluctuations that normally occur and adjust your monthly average price accordingly.

5. Try to group other varieties together by broad category, for example 'shellfish', 'exotics', 'oily fish' and so on. If possible, group things that are similarly priced together - you might, for example, decide to divide shellfish between 'expensive shellfish' such as oysters and king prawns and 'cheap shellfish' like mussels. Then make an estimate of your monthly income from each broad category using the method outlined above.

6. If you intend to sell any other items that have not yet been included (for example game, fish recipe books and so on), estimate how many of each you will sell every month and then multiply this by the selling price.

7. Finally, add together the amounts that you estimate you will earn from sales of each product - this is your estimate of total monthly sales.

Remember that certain species will be in season at particular times of the year - this is when demand for them is likely to be at its highest. Bear in mind too that when you first open, you're likely to suffer from high levels of wastage while your business becomes known to customers.

Using the footfall approach

An alternative approach to forecasting your sales would be to try and estimate how many people will come into your shop each week, and how much a typical customer will spend.

You could try doing a footfall count at certain times of the day and on certain days of the week at the location where you intend to open your outlet. Not everyone who passes will come in, of course, but a footfall count could help you to make your daily estimates as realistic as possible. You could even try counting customers going into an established fishmonger's business at key times - but remember that you are unlikely to match this count until your own business becomes well established.

Wholesaling income

If you intend to sell fish to other businesses, for example local restaurants, then you will need to estimate how much your wholesale income will amount to.

Your market research may tell you that several hotels and restaurants would consider purchasing some or all of their fish supplies from you - if so you could make a monthly estimate for each. Otherwise, you might forecast that your wholesale income will be little or nothing in the first month or two, but will increase gradually as your business becomes better known. Bear in mind that your trade customers will expect a discount of, say, 5% to 10% from the normal retail price. They might also expect you to deliver - which will increase your costs.

Price your products

Deciding on your pricing policy is an important part of working out your cash flow forecasts. You must make sure that the difference between the cost price and the selling price is enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings.

Market prices

When you purchase your fish supplies each species will be individually priced, usually per kilo. This price will vary from week to week and even from day to day, reflecting fluctuations in supply and demand. You will base your retail prices on the wholesale price - you might, for example, decide to:

  • add a certain percentage to whatever that morning's wholesale price was
  • set prices for certain species that only change when there is a significant fluctuation in the wholesale price
  • offer daily 'specials' when the wholesale price of a certain species is particularly good value

There may be times when the market price of certain popular species rises sharply. You will have to decide whether to pass some or all of this increase on to your customers or whether to absorb the extra cost, perhaps making up for it when the price is lower than normal.

Competitors' prices

When it comes to deciding how much to add on to the wholesale price of each species, keep an eye on how much your competitors charge for the same item. It may be that you can justify charging a higher price for fresher, better presented fish - or you might decide that you need to undercut the competition.

Realistic prices

There are two very important things to bear in mind when you set your prices:

  • can and will your customers pay them
  • will you make enough profit to cover all of your business expenses and your own drawings

Bear in mind that some of the fresh fish that you purchase will spoil and be wasted. This is likely to be quite high in the first few months after you start up. So your prices will need to account for the cost to your business of wastage.

You may find that you have to accept a smaller profit on everyday staples like whiting, adding a bigger margin to luxury items like sea bass. You could consider introducing cheaper alternatives to popular staples - these can be more profitable. It may be difficult to persuade your customers to try them though - and they may end up being wasted if no one will give them a go.

It can be a good idea to charge a fixed price for some species instead of selling them by weight. For example, you could sell three bream for £10. Customers like knowing in advance what they'll pay - but it's important to make sure you're making enough profit on deals of this type.

Wholesaling to other businesses

Trade customers like restaurants may expect lower prices and special discounts if they regularly purchase large amounts of fish from you. You might decide to set separate wholesale prices for trade customers, or to offer a standard wholesale discount. Perhaps your wholesale discount will vary, depending on how much and how often each customer buys.

As with retail prices, make sure that your wholesale prices are competitive but still make enough profit for your business to be worthwhile.

Price marking

Because fresh fish prices change so often, you may decide to use hand written price labels and/or blackboards to display them for your customers. Setting your prices will probably become a daily routine for you and your staff - once you've decided on the day's price for each species you'll need to make sure that your labels, displays and blackboards are up to date.

A useful tip - put the price on each side of your price label so that you and your assistants don't have to keep turning round the customer-facing label to see how much to charge.

Research your target market

Finding out about your customers

To help you plan the range of products that you will offer and set your prices appropriately, it's a good idea to find out a bit about local people. In particular:

  • what is the ethnic make-up of the local community? Try to find out which types of fish are used in the traditional cooking of any local ethnic communities. For example, the Chinese community generally follows a diet that includes a lot of fish and shellfish
  • are local people affluent? Is there likely to be much demand for high priced luxuries and 'exotics' like lobster and fresh tuna fillet, or organically farmed species
  • what about other aspects of the local community? For example, older people may be less likely to experiment with unusual species and may prefer to stick to well known and cheaper staples
  • are many of your potential customers likely to want to avoid buying threatened species? If so, make sure you have plenty of alternatives such as hake that haven't been over-fished. You can check out which fish species are from sustainable sources using the Good Fish Guide on the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) website

Make sure that there are enough people in the area to support your shop. A footfall count will give you an idea of the numbers of people passing the site where you intend to open your outlet. Repeat the count at different times of the day, and on different days of the week. Make a note of the types of people passing your shop at different times - are they mainly shoppers, for example, or are they people hurrying to and from work?

Trade customers

If you decide to sell fish wholesale to local caterers you'll want to find out how much demand there is. A browse on will give you an idea of how many restaurants, chip shops, cafes, hotels, pubs and other caterers there are in your area. Look out for restaurants and pubs that offer a wide range of seafood, but don't ignore the others - many will have one or two fish dishes on the menu and will need a regular supply of things like fresh bream, sea bass and salmon. You might be able to persuade others to add some fish to their menu.

Don't overlook businesses like nursing and residential care homes. Many older people find fish more digestible than meat and some care homes regularly serve fish dishes to their residents.

Try approaching some of these businesses to find out whether they would be interested in purchasing their fish from you. The chef, manager or proprietor is normally the best person to speak to. Be prepared to explain why your business might be attractive to them - perhaps your prices will be very competitive, for example, or maybe you will stock an unusually wide range of fish. Bear in mind that your trade customers are likely to want a delivery service. If you buy fish everyday you can highlight the freshness of your products - you could also suggest to local chefs that they feature daily fish 'specials' on their menus. You'll need to convince them that you can be relied on to provide a regular service.

Finding out about your competitors

How well are your potential customers already served by existing businesses? Your most important competitors are other fishmongers within, say, five miles of your own proposed outlet and supermarkets within about ten miles (sometimes more). Look out in particular for supermarkets with wet fish counters, but remember that all will sell pre-packed fresh and frozen fish. Bear in mind that you may also face competition from mobile businesses that have no fixed outlet and sell from the back of a van.

If you're near the coast then fresh fish may be available for both wholesale and retail sale from other types of outlet, including fish merchants, wholesale markets and even at the quayside.

Try to identify three or four businesses that you think will be your most important competitors. Make a note of the following:

  • what type of business are they - for example independent fishmonger, supermarket or mobiler
  • where are they located - for example in a shopping precinct, covered market, or on a quayside
  • what impression the outlet gives. For example, does it seem smart and upmarket, or is it perhaps basic and even run down
  • how knowledgeable and helpful are their staff
  • what sort of product range do they offer

Look at their prices for certain popular species - how do they compare with each other, and with what you intend to charge for the same items?

Once you have identified your main competitors' strengths and weaknesses, think about what you can do to set your own shop apart from the competition. Many independent fishmongers emphasise the quality and freshness of their stock. Don't forget that recent years have seen online sales of smoked and fresh fish, and seafood, increasing strongly. Online suppliers are another source of competition for your business.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Product range

As a specialist you will probably focus on selling fish and seafood, but there is still a wide range of different items that you might decide to stock. Some of these are popular staples that you might aim to have available at all times. You might select other items on a daily basis depending on what's currently in season and what seems like a good buy on that particular day. Sometimes a customer might order a product that you don't normally stock, for example fresh oysters or organic farmed salmon.

You will probably sell some fish whole and some as fillets, cutlets and steaks. You could stock frozen, chilled but previously frozen and fresh examples of the following:

  • white fish, including cod and haddock
  • oily fish like mackerel and herring
  • wild and farmed salmon, trout, bream, bass, turbot and mullet
  • live, raw and cooked shellfish including mussels, whelks, langoustines, prawns and oysters
  • exotics such as tuna, shark and marlin
  • unusual imported species such as African Nile perch or Vietnamese river cobbler
  • fresh and frozen cod and herring roe

Other products that you might sell, including 'added value' processed products, include:

  • fresh fish soups, bisques and stock
  • fish cakes and other processed fish products, including fish kebabs and dressed crab
  • seafood platters
  • mixed fish pieces for stir fries or pies
  • smoked fish
  • fish pates, spreads and other similar items
  • deli-style items like seafood salad, rollmops and so on
  • local specialities like cockles, laverbread or samphire
  • quail's eggs

Offering a good variety of fish and fish products can be an effective way of competing with supermarkets, which normally stock a relatively limited range of fresh fish.

You might also decide to stock game when it's in season - many fishmongers do.

Other products that you could consider stocking include fish cookery books, cooking implements and perhaps even things like wines and sauces to accompany the fish you sell.

Type of outlet

There are several types of outlet that you might decide to open, for example:

  • a traditional shop
  • a traditional market stall, perhaps in a covered daily market
  • a stall in a specialist fish market, such as those found in many fishing ports and at Billingsgate in London (many of these market stall holders sell mainly or only to wholesale customers)
  • a mobile stand, perhaps like the trailers that sell cockles, mussels and whelks at many of Britain's seaside resorts
  • a retail counter in an established business such as a fish merchant
  • a retail counter combined with a fish restaurant

Alternatively, you might decide to have no outlet at all, working instead as a mobile retailer selling fish out of a specially adapted van. This type of business might work well in a rural area, particularly where there are many elderly people who don't often visit nearby towns and cities. You could even consider focusing on making online sales.

Think about the sort of business that you want to run and the type of outlet that would suit it best. Weigh up the pros and cons of each - things to consider include cost, level of passing trade, amount of space, availability of facilities like chilled storage, accessibility for delivery vehicles, the image that you hope your business will project and so on.

The size of the business that you intend to start is an important factor to consider. Perhaps you intend to have both a shop outlet and a delivery round. Maybe you hope to open several outlets in the locality. One way of reaching more customers without actually opening additional outlets is to run a mail order or online service. Using chilled, insulated packaging and guaranteed express delivery, it's possible to send fresh fish and shellfish to customers all over the country. If you intend to offer such a service think about things like who will process and package the orders, how you will advertise it and how you will accept payments. You'll also need to make sure that you choose a reliable courier that can guarantee next day delivery. A website is an excellent way of both promoting the service and receiving customers' orders.

Advertising and marketing

It's important to advertise and market your business effectively, to let your potential customers know who you are, where you are, what you sell and what services you offer.

Ways of advertising

A listing on and/or other similar directories can be an effective way of advertising your business. It may be particularly useful if you intend to target trade customers like restaurants. Bear in mind though that many of your competitors will have done the same, so you will probably want to look into other ways of advertising too. For example, you could:

  • advertise in the local newspaper
  • advertise in a trade journal aimed at the catering industry
  • do a mailshot and/or leaflet drop to announce the launch of your business and special events like discount days
  • have a website designed for the business, perhaps with an e-commerce facility
  • sponsor a local sports team or event
  • take a stand at local food and fish festivals, offering a selection of your stock
  • use social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote your business

Try to tell people as many of the good things about your business as possible in your advertisements, particularly things that distinguish your business from its competitors. You could use your website to give users seasonal fish and shellfish recipes and tips on how to prepare different species.

If you supply local pubs, hotels and restaurants see if they would be prepared to include your details in their menus. Many catering outlets are keen to demonstrate that they cook from scratch, using locally sourced ingredients instead of ready-prepared products bought from a catering supplier.

The image of the business

It's really important that your outlet projects the right image to would-be customers. Everything about your outlet should attract the customer and tempt them to come in and buy some fish. Signs should be well designed and professionally made, displays should always look fresh, imaginative and appetising and both the inside and the outside of the outlet should appear well kept, spotlessly clean, odour free and generally inviting. Point of sale material like posters, specials boards and charts should be colourful, interesting and up to date. Ask yourself objectively - would you buy fish from your shop? If you were not a real fish lover, might you be tempted to come in and try something? Would you recommend it to someone else?

Remember that your vehicles can be an excellent advertisement for your business if you have them attractively sign-written and keep them looking clean and smart.

Promotional activities

Think about ways of raising interest in eating fish among local people. You could, for example, consider giving fish cookery demonstrations and free tastings. Local newspapers, free-sheets and TV and radio stations are always on the lookout for interesting subjects and may be prepared to give your business some coverage.

Industry campaigns

The Seafish Industry Association promotes all types of seafood and is constantly running campaigns to encourage people to eat more fish. The organisation produces recipes, fact sheets and point of sale display material that retailers can use in their outlets. It also runs the annual Seafood Week promotion and regularly organises joint activities with fishmongers.

The Marine Conservation Society Good Fish Guide website offers consumers guidance on choosing fish from sustainable sources - this all helps to raise the profile of fish generally as a healthy and enjoyable meal choice.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing retail fish business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • the premises, business equipment and shop fittings are already in place
  • there are established customers
  • the business can usually generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • skilled and dedicated staff may already be place

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up.

Your market research into the sector as a whole and the locality in particular will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because he or she can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, fittings, equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets - possibly to bring the premises up to current food hygiene requirements
  • is the existing owner prepared to give you some training after you take over
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller

Try to find out about the business's reputation. Some fishmonger's shops get a bad name by selling fish that's past its best and by failing to prevent unpleasant odours. Even if you stamp out these bad practices when you take over, it can take a while to re-build a shop's reputation.

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

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