Driving Decor Sales

Cutesy ornaments may be top of mind when talking aquarium décor, but don't forget to play up other important categories that will drive sales and rouse customers' imaginations.


In our business, a fish tank is merely a glass cage until it is transformed into something more attractive. This requires the use of decor items. There are really not that many categories to choose from: background, substrate material, rocks, driftwood, plants (live and artificial) and ornaments. Perhaps the most important décor element that fish owners will need, however, is imagination. Even with everything you need to do the job, the project will only come together if there is a good architect and someone to carry out the vision.

It’s not easy to teach people how to decorate a tank—they either have it or they don’t. A retailer’s best tool, therefore, will be its display tanks. If decorated in a variety of ways, these tanks may give people the inspiration they need. Having a great selection of décor products to choose from will also help spark customers’ imaginations and spur sales. Here are some categories of décor to consider:

Animated Ornaments
Tank décor items are an extremely important part of retail aquatic sales. While these products are often tank necessities that customers will seek out, they are just as often impulse purchases. This is especially true when it comes to ornaments—both static and animated. Sales in both categories are good for the bottom line, but ornaments that require aeration or electrical connections generate more revenue, since they require the necessary equipment to operate them. All of these integrated products should be given their own displays in a store’s tank-décor department.

Action ornaments that operate by use of aeration may require air pumps, aquarium tubing, air stones, gang values, pump hangers, check valves, etc. Don’t make customers search for these components; stock them on the shelves right next to the ornaments.

A tank without live plants is like a day without sunshine—drab and dreary. Still, many people shun live plants because they see them as merely one more thing they have to keep alive. These customers prefer artificial plants, and you are only going to have one opportunity to sell them what they need. On the other hand, people who buy live plants will probably come back frequently to look for new varieties, so it will almost always be to your advantage to sell live over artificial plants. There are many products on the market to help people keep plants healthy and growing, and these will certainly augment your sales. Also, don’t forget something as obvious as keeping aquarium lighting up to date; live plants benefit greatly from fresh bulbs.

The best time to start a hobbyist on a live plant décor-themed tank is when it is first being set up. When live plants are an afterthought, the proper environment may not be in place to ensure success. Gravel in a planted tank should be sufficiently deep for the plants to root, and this frequently requires more gravel than most customers would otherwise purchase. The livestock selection is critical because many fish are plant eaters. When starting from scratch, it is easy to pick and choose the proper species. People adding plants after their aquariums are stocked with fish may have to remove some of the more aggressive plant-eaters. There are also fish that should be added to aquatic-garden set-ups. These are plant-cleaners rather than plant-eaters. They prefer to feed on algae that might be growing—unwanted, of course—on plant leaves. Fish that dig up plants must be removed.

Rocks and Driftwood
Bulky items such as rocks and driftwood are certainly critical for retailers. If you don’t stock a wide variety of these, you are stifling both sales and your customers’ opportunities to create diverse aquatic landscapes. Lack of product will only encourage customers to look elsewhere for both goods and services.

There are two basic types of safe-to-use rocks when it comes to aquariums. There are rocks that are safe for freshwater aquariums and those that are safe for marine tanks. The primary difference is that most marine rocks come from calcium and/or magnesium deposits, which means they will slowly release these compounds into the water. This is a positive thing since it will help to buffer the pH and keep the water hardness at appropriate levels. You want this to happen in marine, brackish and African Rift Lake environments. You do not want this to happen in other types of fish communities.

I am not saying that one or two marine rocks will be detrimental to the water chemistry of a regular freshwater tank. I am saying, however, that these rocks just don’t fit in to the freshwater décor or ambience, so they should not be used. Another rock you might avoid selling altogether is obsidian. Even though it can look really good, it is basically nothing but glass, and it usually has sharp edges that can cut any fish that might happen to rub against it.

There may be restrictions for some shop owners when it comes to available space for large bulky items such as rocks. When you purchase them, you rarely have the opportunity to select individual pieces. You may buy a box, a bag, a skid, a crate, a barrel or even a tractor-trailer load. Some pieces are going to sell fast, others slow and some not at all. Customers will rarely see the beauty in rocks unless they are under water. Use a long trough-like glass tank that will act as a surrogate aquarium. Here, people can mix and match and use their imaginations to create whatever strikes their fancies. This is guaranteed to sell more rocks in a store.

Driftwood that is safe for aquariums now comes primarily from Africa and the Far East. I would be reluctant to sell wood that was harvested from saltwater. Such material will require considerable purging in freshwater baths before it is safe to use. Also, the foreign woods are quite dense and usually sink without any problem. One practice that confounds me is shrink-wrapping pieces of wood. The only benefit would seem to be the fact that you can put price tags on the plastic. I believe this is totally unnecessary and customers have complained about how difficult it can be to remove the plastic wrap. It also ruins the appearance of the piece when it is on display. I suggest you just thread a plastic tie with a price tag on it through a hole in the wood.

Where do you showcase large bulky items such as rocks and driftwood? My rule is “rocks down and driftwood up.” Lifting heavy, unwieldy rocks down from a shelf or a bin may be asking for trouble. Driftwood, on the other hand, is lighter in weight, usually has good hand-holds and displays well when you are looking up at it. If you have wood of more than one type, I would try not to mix them together. This same philosophy is even more obvious for rocks. Customers are not experts and mixing different rocks may confuse them. Even if most rocks are the same price per pound, they still need to be segregated.

Don’t Forget to Merchandise
Perhaps you are challenged as an artist when it comes to aquarium décor. This means you will need the help of an employee skilled in the art of making a tank look good. Gone are the days of bare tanks, sterile systems and walls of water with no personality or warmth. Displays like these are never going to sell fish or decor items. 

The best piece of in-store advertising any shop can have is a large, beautifully decorated aquarium that greets customers as they walk through the front door. If possible, it’s better to  have two tanks—a freshwater Amazon environment on the right and a fully functioning marine reef on the left. Displays such as these announce your store’s level of expertise and attention to detail. Show everyone from their first footsteps into your business that you are there to help them achieve the same level of success with their aquariums.

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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