Designing the Aquatics Department

When devising a merchandising scheme for the aquarium department, pet retailers must balance the needs of livestock with effective strategies for inspiring sales.


Of all the sections of an aquatics department, livestock must be given the most consideration when it comes to merchandising and display—and for obvious reasons. The health and welfare of both the animals and the business itself depend on the storeowner’s good judgment. So, when exhibiting livestock, retailers should strike a happy medium between accommodating both fish and customers.

At the top of the list of things to consider in designing the aquatics department is how the line of sight should impact tank location. Aquariums that are too low or too high will not only be difficult to maintain, they will also be hard for customers to view. This means that the optimum configuration is a simple bi-level display, with merchandise stacked neatly above and below.

While I have seen larger multi-tiered displays that worked, it is a difficult merchandising strategy to perfect. Even feeding the fish can be a challenge when you are on a ladder or walking along a gangplank. If space permits, I prefer a single line of tanks—especially if they are large. Is there an optimum size for tanks in a pet shop? The answer varies according to the fish that are being housed. Small fish in big tanks look ridiculous unless you have enough of them. Big fish in small tanks are even worse, since this negatively impacts their health. So, while utilizing tanks of only one size may be the easiest path to take, it is by no means the most effective.

In order to reduce maintenance, retailers may consider using commercial units—prefab acrylic boxes strung together with virtually no variation in tank size, depth, flow rate, background color, etc. That concept has been around for years. In human habitations, these types of units are called row houses. They are all fairly nondescript and function well enough, but believe it or not, people are more adaptable than fish. Humans get out and do things to reduce the boredom of being locked up, but fish are not able to do this. They are either in the store’s tank or a tank in someone’s home, office or business. So, I believe using as wide a variety of tank sizes and shapes as possible is a great way to display livestock and increase sales of both fish and aquariums.

Still, when retailers decide to go the diversified route, it is very important that they maintain a balanced appearance. It is best not to mix 10-, 20- and 30-gallon tanks together with other sizes. Each tank size should be segregated—especially those with varying heights.

Equipping Display Tanks
The great thing about setting up a section of tanks that are all the same size is that they can all use the same size equipment: tops, lights, filters, heaters, etc. This makes everything easier to figure out and creates a uniform design that is pleasing to the eye. Of course, small tanks—like 10- and 20-gallon (long) tanks—can be stacked three high and still permit easy access. It is the larger tanks that should be set up as singles or duplexes.

Every tank needs a filter, and the type a retailer chooses to employ will greatly affect a display. Both power filters and canister filters have drawbacks, but if I have to pick one, I will always choose the power filter. My main reason is that the flow rate from these is highly visible, since the output is above the water line. This is not true for virtually all canister setups, unless, for some reason, you are operating a tank with a reduced water level. When store employees are checking filters for functionality, it is easier for them to evaluate the power filters. Try to select filters that are adaptable as to their media. You don’t want to be restricted to a single type of proprietary cartridge.

Lighting is just as important as filtration. It is not critical for the fish, but it is for the display. When lighting is inadequate, fish are not going to look their best. If they don’t look good, with vibrant colors, people will buy fewer fish. The method of illumination and the type of bulb used in the fixture must be coordinated to match the décor.

If at all possible, avoid placing fixtures directly on glass covers. If you do, there are likely to be accidents caused by wet electrical connections, wet bulbs, overheated glass covers and human error. Hanging a fixture above each tank will keep it out of the way. It is safer, and it makes catching fish much easier. However, this technology does create another problem. The light needs to be shielded, so it will not blind people standing in front of the tank.

Many people believe that a tank looks best when the lighting is bright and fills in any dark corners or caves. While people might like this arrangement, fish rarely do. From my experience, eight out of 10 fish departments over-illuminate their tanks. The tank environment is so bright that many fish hide, seeking shelter just to keep out of the excess glare. Have you ever looked up at the surface of an aquarium from underwater? I have, when cleaning really large display tanks. If there is no light in the room, the effect is similar to looking directly into the sun. Even in a pet shop where there is typically a fair amount of ambient light, it is still over-powering. Think about it: Very few fish live in water as shallow as a fish tank. No matter how bright the sun, it can rarely penetrate as far underwater as the light from an aquarium fixture.

Livestock is always displayed to its best advantage in a room with a low ceiling and very little ambient light. This makes for a much more dramatic effect. Rooms like this should always be at the rear of a store, near the necessary utilities. Aisles leading toward this “fish room” should be perpendicular to the room’s entrance, so it is almost like a formal reception line at a function of some type. Once you enter the fish room, you are in a different world. It is warmer (good for the fish); it is darker (very good for the fish); it is out of the mainstream of pedestrian traffic (great for the fish); and it is quiet (so there are no distractions). The stores I have seen with dedicated environments have been, by far, the most spectacular.

Displaying Merchandise
The layout of dry goods needs to be very straightforward—nothing too convoluted or contrived. First of all, among the worst things a full-line pet shop can do is have aquatic segments interspersed with other pet departments—for example, freshwater livestock on one side of the store, marine livestock on the other, with the bird section between.

The department itself should also be well ordered. Power filters should be in one place, canisters in another, and pumps in another. Heaters should be located all together, and air pumps and supplies should be side by side, so customers don’t have to go running around looking for minor accessories. Fish nets, specimen boxes, media bags, charcoal, filter floss and anything in bulk should be well marked. Small things like this frequently get lost in the shop.

Since much of the equipment is expensive and must be protected from theft and breakage, it also makes sense to have lockable glass-fronted case and perhaps even security tags on some items. Of course, these high-end items are the things that you never hand to customers. Employees should walk the items up to the register, verify the prices, and make sure the tags are not removed until the items are paid for.

Glass tops and lighting fixtures should always go above the display aquariums to protect them from breakage. Light bulbs, on the other hand, must be under lock and key—there are just too many shoplifters out there. The same is true for any expensive items that are pocket-sized, such as medications, UV-bulbs and replacement parts. Bulky items like rocks and gravel go near the floor, but try to keep them raised up slightly, so they don’t get too dirty.

The fish-food department should be segmented a bit, since there are two major forms of presentation: shelf-stable and frozen. This is one section where products should be grouped together according to brand, rather than type. For example, don’t put all the flakes or pellets together. Each style of food should stay with its brand. This makes it much easier to stock and to locate when helping customers. Frozen foods can present a bit of a challenge; but, if possible, locate the store’s glass-front display cases on the endcaps of the food gondolas.

When a retailer decides to make a commitment to a new line of products, it is very important to promote them with as much enthusiasm as possible. If the reps are willing and able to set up the displays, give them the best space available. This should never be in the middle of an aisle, but on either an endcap or, even better, as a freestanding promotional display near the front door.

Every shop owner will have his own special set of problems, because every shop is different. Some concepts will work for a particular situation, while others may not. It is important to tailor a store’s inventory display to meet its layout. There are things you might be able to do that most shops cannot. A good example would be to have a display aquarium facing an outside window, so people walking by can see. This is a powerful selling tool, but it is usually only permitted in a facility like a mall or covered walkway. The key, in all situations, is to be innovative.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.

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