Improving the View

Most aquarium décor purchases are dictated by personal aesthetic preferences, but retailers can provide valuable insight into the most appropriate way to decorate a tank.


The most popular fish in the freshwater realm of the aquatics trade are commonly schooling fish. In nature, these species spend most of their time living communally with hundreds or even thousands of their own kind. After all, there is safety in numbers, and it is also a highly successful method of feeding. In the aquarium, however, there is really no advantage to the schooling behavior, but the fish do it anyway—out of habit. Basically, all that schooling species require is open water. This is easily provided in a fish tank, but it does not do much for interior design.

Naturally, most fishkeepers want to showcase their fish, and they will need to create an aquatic environment that will most successfully accomplish that. Still, décor in the aquarium must be chosen and placed to maximize both beauty and function. That’s a tall order for most people to fill, so it’s up to retailers to help them. 

Retailers can help in several ways, including by example with their own display aquariums, or more proactively by offering classes. Either way, any help retailers can provide customers will increase the enjoyment of their aquatic experience, while helping the store to establish a loyal customer base.

The rise of chain and big-box stores has managed to do at least one positive thing for aquatic shoppers. While it has greatly diminished the variety and quality of fish available, it has increased the number and type of décor items. The aquatics department at most large retailers will have at least one aisle of aquarium decorations. If properly displayed, these items sell themselves, and that’s what a big-box store is all about. A pet specialty retailer’s best bet is to counter this by carrying décor items that their larger competition do not. And the first step is become familiar with the décor market and the various types of products available in the category.

A lot of décor items have gone high-tech, so don’t be surprised if things bubble, glow in the dark, light up or have moving parts. These products are typically more expensive than the old-fashioned varieties, like rocks, driftwood, plastic plants and molded-resin decorations. Retailers might consider having natural décor items in one location and manmade products in another. Additional segregation might encompass a section for anything that is air, water or electrically powered. For example, some décor items use aeration to move features on a main base. This requires the use of an air pump, which is, of course, an electrical device.

In fact, there is such a proliferation of powered products that retailers may also want to stock multi-outlet power strips. Look for those that accommodate transformers and have cords of extra length. These will be very useful in the marine reef department as well. 

Light ‘Em Up
One segment of aquarium décor that has exploded in popularity is underwater lighting. This phenomenon is tied to the rise in the use of LED bulbs as the main source of illumination for fish tanks. It may sound like a great trend, but retailers have to factor in the loss of revenue from selling replacement light bulbs—LED bulbs cannot be replaced, and they last forever compared to standard bulbs. Of course, for the consumer, they are a boon because they use less electricity and produce less heat. This is a major concern for reef tanks, because coral prefers temperatures in the 75 to 78 degree range. Fish, on the other hand, do better at warmer temperatures.

LED bulbs come in a wide variety of colors, so they make fantastic displays if they are skillfully hidden behind or under other décor items. Whether this bothers the fish is yet to be determined. At any rate, look for a continued string of innovative lighting products from companies specializing in LED fixtures. There is even a main lighting bar that can be positioned in the tank, rather than on top, since it is totally waterproof.

I’m a bit old school, so I really prefer décor items that are natural. And, if you are so inclined, this is a product category that you will have almost exclusively to yourself. Why? Because virtually all chain stores do not and will not carry things like rocks and driftwood. 

By far, aquariums with live plants are the best looking and most natural in appearance. While aquatic garden setups are very popular in Europe and the Far East, they have a long way to go in the U.S. Perhaps it says something to our lack of consideration for all things “natural,” but it may simply be a lack of inspiration. Retailers that want to sell more live plants as décor items must lead by example. The wider the variety of plants you sell, the more exotic and diversified you can make the display tanks look.

Coordinate & Contrast    
What about livestock or fish as décor items? Maybe the fish should match not only the décor, but also each other. If you had a dozen cardinal tetras in a tank, would you put neon tetras in with them? Let’s say you have red serpae tetras, should you add black phantom tetras? Is this a good aesthetic mix? If some fish have bars, should others have stripes? If none of the fish in a tank have an adipose fin, should you consider putting in some that do? These are just a few of the questions that someone can consider when setting up an aquarium; the answers will impact both aquarium décor and environmental variation.

Retailers also have to ask themselves how much retail space should be taken up by décor items. It should be commensurate with the percentage profit that department provides to the bottom line. Don’t forget that virtually all display tanks contain décor, and if you are willing to sell items from these, that greatly expands the amount of space dedicated to the category. Of course, there will be exceptions—for example, unique displays that would be compromised if integral elements were removed. Otherwise, as long as customers don’t expect a discount on store-use décor pieces, I say selling the display pieces is a good policy to follow. However, for the sake of inventory control, only a manager should be given the right to authorize such sales. 

Décor is a very personal choice, with no two people having the same mindset of what appeals to them. Even couples will argue over aquarium décor, if they are both concerned about such things. Few home tanks have what you could call a theme, so almost anything goes when people are looking for décor. If the kids are involved, it’s an even more complicated dynamic that rarely culminates in a universal decision. Whenever possible, I try to ascertain what fish are being maintained and lead people to décor that will be fish friendly. 

The great thing about an aquarium is that it is always an experiment in progress. It is rarely static, and that is the way it should be. It’s not like fixing up an old car or redecorating a living room. With these endeavors, once they are completed, they don’t change. On the other hand, you can’t keep a fish tank from evolving. It’s a living entity that you created and continue to nourish. It can always be better, and it can quickly go south if it is deprived of the necessary attention. Aquariums that start to linger are better off if they are dismantled. Customers know neglect when they see it. Retailer’s display tanks should be the best that they can be, because they set the example that people will follow. Anything less than a maximum effort is unacceptable.

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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