Aquarium Décor

Retailers have a lot to gain by offering a diverse, comprehensive assortment of aquarium décor items.


The field is wide open when it comes to selling aquarium décor. Everyone needs it, and no one can do without it. It’s a retailer’s gateway to extra sales–after all, tanks may sell at a discount, but décor items are rarely offered at bargain prices and boxed tank setups never include the décor. All too often, stores overlook the importance of stocking a wide selection of décor items. Most successful businesses carry a diverse livestock portfolio, shouldn’t décor receive equal attention?

Let’s get down to the basics, in fact, right to the bottom of everything–substrate material for the bottom of the tank. This is commonly known as “gravel,” but it can be as fine as sand or as bulky as pebbles. Different environments require different substrates. A marine tank might use crushed coral or aragonite gravel. A reef tank, however, is frequently better suited for marine sand, which is usually made from aragonite. There are many different colors, textures and sizes of marine substrate. Retailers can carry black sand, crushed pink coral, coral rubble and numerous grades of aragonite gravel, and to further expand the selection, most can be stocked as “live” items. So-called living substrate contains the gravel and liquid infused with billions of “beneficial” bacteria. Typically, the gravel is “wet” but some brands offer a package or packet to add to the substrate once it is in the tank.

Since nano-tanks have become extremely popular for saltwater, it is important to stock marine-style gravel in small packages. The basic bag of gravel seems to be 20 pounds but that is entirely too much for many setups. Customers will really appreciate 10- or even five-pound bags for small tanks. On the opposite side of the coin, mega-tanks are gaining acceptance, especially as focal points for room décor. In the old days, a 125-gallon tank was huge; now, aquariums may be 150-, 180-, 215-, 265- or even 300-gallons in size. It will take 10-to-14 25-pound bags of gravel just to achieve a modicum depth of substrate in a 300-gallon aquarium.

Stocking Issues
Bags of gravel are bulky and take up a lot of room. The best merchandising solution for retailers is to put only a portion of their gravel stock on the floor, leaving the majority in storage until it is needed. While there may be 25 colors available, retailers will probably be well covered with about 12. Basic gravels can be stocked in much larger quantities than the others. Many stores like to sell “natural” gravel, which can range greatly in appearance from white to tan to light brown or chestnut to dark brown. What passes for “river rock” gravel is also popular but customers should be warned that the usually larger grain size makes it difficult to “gravel-wash” than a typical grain size. Hobbyists will find it easier to keep normal-sized grain clean.

Small bags of gravel will be important for freshwater habitats as well as the marine nano-environments. In fact, desktop containers with bettas have become very popular. Any betta “bowl” will require almost daily maintenance to stay clean and free of disease. Gravel will definitely help the fish feel more comfortable and add a touch of color. These bowls only require a tiny amount of gravel, so retailers should stock betta-sized bags of substrate, which may contain gravel, pebbles, smooth gem-shaped plastic stones or many other exotic choices.                            
Moving further up the tank décor list are items that sit on or in the substrate, including rocks, driftwood, ornaments, artificial plants and live plants. And there are pros and cons to the many options available for each.
Using an artificial piece of driftwood instead of a real one, for example, may make a great difference or a small one. Some fish, such as wood-feeding loricariids may perish if they are deprived of wood to rasp and use in their diets. Other species may benefit from the tannins leached into the water from the wood.

Ornaments made of resin will change very little over time, only losing a bit of color when they are cleaned. The same is true of plastic ornaments, including artificial plants. Plastic will, however, become brittle and eventually fall apart after a few years.

The term “solid as a rock” is definitely true–and very few rocks used in the aquarium will dissolve fast enough to fall apart. There are many rocks that, unfortunately, may leach unwanted minerals and compounds into the water. The safest rocks are petrified wood, quartz, sandstone, most shales, slates and many so-called river stones. Also perfectly acceptable for environments requiring hard alkaline water are lace rock, coral rock, tufa and limestone. Rocks to avoid are many of the volcanic-based minerals such as lava rock, obsidian and granite. Lava rock may quickly lower pH and some volcanic material is sharp enough to cut fish that rub against it.

Retailers should have bins of rocks available for customers to pick through, including large and small pieces for tanks of all sizes. Keep scales handy so customers will know just how much a rock is going to cost them. Everything in this category is strictly by the pound, but a few entrepreneurs will “cherry-pick” the rocks and put a premium on really good pieces.  These can be merchandised in a rock display–a long tank with examples lined up underwater–to show people what to expect.

Going Green
To many people, the most obvious and important décor items are live plants. The tried-and-true plant selections can be intermixed with just enough new choices to bring customers back on a regular basis. Everyone wants to see new products. They may not buy it, but they want to see it. Before investing a fortune in the latest and greatest product to hit the aquatics trade, retailers, however, might want to gauge customers’ reactions to a small representative sample. It’s not always easy to tell what will be a hit and what will flop.

Finally, when it comes to tank décor, don’t neglect the aquarium background. It is an extremely important element in virtually every tank set-up. Many of the new mega-tanks are so tall that backgrounds must be “pieced” in order to fit. It’s almost impossible to do this seamlessly, so a good investment might be solid-colored backgrounds. Monochrome backgrounds sold at a discount encourage internal tank décor sales.

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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