Dazzling Displays

Aquatic retailers that lead by example with fantastic displays will inspire customers to buy décor and build their own dazzling home setups.


Very few aquatic customers come through the door of a pet shop and know exactly what look they are hoping to achieve in their tanks. In other words, there is plenty of room for retailers to influence their tastes. The best way to do this is with display tanks that will inspire people to exercise their inner fashion sense. The concept is to get people started by giving them the inspiration and the means to achieve their décor goals. Retailers must stock a full line of everything that can make a tank look good, inside and outside.

There are certain basic décor themes that you should strive to duplicate in your display aquariums. These themes make up the foundation or building blocks on which more sophisticated themes can be based. Let’s start at one end of the spectrum and travel our way to the other.

Starting Small
If you are selling nano-tanks, you will want a minimum of two display tanks, one freshwater and one marine. Put your nano displays right at the front door, since they are likely to be lost anywhere else in the store. There are quite a few nano-fish available in the freshwater realm, and micro-shrimp species are all the rage in Europe and Asia. Several companies are offering full nano-packages, and they look really compelling when thoughtfully arranged. One drawback to small fish is that a really dynamic display of them requires rather large numbers of them, which, of course, you can’t put in a nano-tank. A “nano” setup requires balance in more ways than one.

I would set aside an entire gondola stand for nano and/or betta displays. These overlap quite a bit, especially when it comes to décor items. Killifish lend themselves well to this environment. If done properly, you might be able to create an entirely new department in your store–”It’s a Small World.”

Leaving the nano environment, we move up to 10-gallon and 20-gallon aquariums. Frankly, beginners should probably not invest in anything larger than these. How can you decide to “go large” when you have never owned a fish tank? Box kits are wonderful things, and your regular freshwater display setups should be built entirely from the equipment found in these kits. A sign under each display should say, “100-percent Box Kit Equipment–Just Add Water and Your Imagination.”

Marine Habitats
Certainly, the nano-craze has been aimed partially at reef habitats. The “fragging” phenomenon has fueled the micro-reef trend, and many experts love their tiny little exhibits. Most new reef people are not able to achieve success unless they go bigger than nano; in fact, a 30-gallon reef tank is the smallest I feel comfortable recommending to people who are just starting. This is equivalent to the freshwater 10- or 20-gallon setups. Fortunately, many reef invertebrates are small and coral frags only grow if handled properly. Marine fish, on the other hand, can outgrow even the largest tank. It’s not that the fish necessarily grow large, but they need space to be psychologically healthy.

Two 30-gallon displays, one for freshwater and one for reef animals, are going to be impressively different in their price points, and even though you might see this as a negative, don’t be afraid to accept it. Create a fantastic reef environment in a 30-gallon tank and people will want it–the cost will only be a minor barrier.

A reef display will probably be at least a year old before it achieves balance and some degree of permanency. You had better locate these setups where they will not be disturbed or be in the way. A reef tank is one of those “wait for it” concepts; all of a sudden it looks like a framed picture. Before that moment, it is an unfinished painting that awaits its final brush strokes.

One of the very best display aquariums is the “aquatic garden” filled with living aquatic plants. A good exhibit will show people what is possible when it comes to the maintenance of live plants. You will need a plant specialist to pull this off. Mixing plants of various colors, sizes, leaf shapes and lighting requirements is only slightly less complex than maintaining a reef aquarium. Both exhibits are driven by lighting and de-emphasize the importance of fish. Even though coral is an animal (not a plant), a reef tank is often referred to as a “coral garden.” A truly dynamic exhibit consists of a reef tank next to an aquatic garden setup; both will take some time to mature, both will need high-tech lighting and both do best when there is no cover on the aquarium.

In the case of the reef tank, the cover diminishes the light intensity and even changes the light spectrum. It also holds in heat and reduces oxygen exchange at the water’s surface. A planted tank, on the other hand, needs the cover removed for another very important reason. Many plants grow emergent and their inflorescences (flowers) must open up above the water line. This makes an unforgettable exhibit.

Let’s move on to my personal favorites when it comes to display tanks–single species setups. In fact, they are breeding tanks, and nothing is more rewarding than having fish reproduce and raising the fry to a reasonable size. The fish are emphasized above all else, and it gives you a chance to show customers what can be achieved even in a home aquarium. Two good fish to select are emperor tetras and rosy barbs. They are both sexually dimorphic; males and females are different in appearance.

.A breeding setup for emperors will consist of a 20-gallon (long) fully graveled tank, planted with live plants. Filtration can be a power filter but add some aeration in the form of a long bubble-wand or air stone under the gravel. Males have extensions on the upper and lower caudal lobes, and even a third point between the two. They are slightly larger than females, but thinner and not heavy in the vent region. Additionally, males have blue eyes and females have green eyes. Tetras lay a few eggs every day and attach them to living plants. With enough cover, there will be free-swimming fry, and once they are visible, they must be fed food commensurate with their size. In six months, it is easy to have fry of various sizes swimming safely among the original breeders.

Rosy barbs also exhibit external differences easily identified even by beginners. Males are red, and females are gold and much heavier than males when they are full of eggs. The fish will gang-spawn, but you will probably never see the act since it usually takes place around dawn. The fully planted tank (20-gallon high) should have tall plants–jungle val in large clusters are perfect. If properly cared for, these plants will grow up to and across the water’s surface. Here the fish will spawn and the eggs will reside attached to the leaves until they hatch and the fry are free-swimming. I recommend a few floating pieces of water sprite for the fry to use as cover. Feed the fry when you see them, and a couple of months later there will be plenty of juveniles scattered through the vegetation.

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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