Your local pet shop can be of great help to a beginner in the hobby or it can be a great setback depending on how the store is run! As with everything, there are good and bad stores, and I’m going to try to give you the information in the following article so you can determine this by yourself.
First and foremost I have found in my 40 years in the hobby, that its not always the cleanest store that is the best. You cannot judge a store on that alone. My thoughts on a good store is that when you walk in, there are no dead animals lying around, the fish are all up and swimming plus no dead fish in tanks. The birds should all look active and there should be no birds that are sick or lacking feathers in the cages.
The sales staff should allow you about 5 minutes to look around the store and then ask if you need any help or if you have any questions on anything. There should be nobody trying to pressure you into buying anything! This last one is a very important thought. High-pressure sales people have a tendency to force you to buy fish that are diseased or do not take the time to ask you what you have in your tank at home. They will also make false statements about equipment requirement and compatibility of fish. Many new comers to the hobby tend to fall for this tactic! Beware!
Buying incompatible fish or diseased fish can wipe out your entire fish population in your tank. Many stores do not have a guarantee on livestock so you lose your investment.
Dirty tanks are always a clue in saying “watch out” if you buy fish from these tanks. This may be a clue to lack of cleaning or medicine has been used or a chemical imbalance or poor filtration. Take the time to observe the behavior of the fish and the condition of the tank. Your first indication should be listless fish or bizarre behavior.
I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t buy something unless you need it. Yes, at one time I was a sales person that did the above, not good! I’m also a firm believer to visit a local family-owned pet shop because 95% of the time you will find more experienced staff and people that are truly trying to help you. In the big super stores, it is really rare that you will find staff that are actually trained in all fields. I’ve gone to some of these super stores to buy a certain fish and have had their staff try to sell me a male when I wanted a female (and knew the difference). If you say, “that’s a male”, they actually fight with you and try to make you out as the fool. The super store mostly will never order something in for you, where as the small local pet shop will be most happy to bring in anything on a special order. Mostly I have found that by visiting hundreds of pet stores, the little guy is the one that will go out of his way to help you. If you go to a super store, your choice of what you want is very limited to what they have in stock at the time.