Trimming the Tank

Retailers can find success in the décor category by providing creative examples and offering a unique selection of products.




When it comes to tank decorating, inspiration should not be solely left up to customers’ imaginations. Most people need visual stimulation to see the potential in that empty glass box, and retailers are in the perfect position to provide it. It’s up to them to lead by example with properly decorated tanks filled with ornamental aquatic denizens, piquing customers’ interest and boosting décor sales. 

While a few display tanks placed judiciously throughout the store are a good idea, you shouldn’t stop there. Virtually every tank in your aquatic department should be fully decorated. Consider lining up the exotic plastic decorations above the tanks and placing bins of rock and driftwood for building natural environments below the tanks for easy browsing. Retailers should also maintain a separate aquatic horticulture section to highlight live and plastic plants. 

A well-managed aquatic department should expect at least 25 percent of its gross sales to come from décor items. If you are not approaching this figure, it may be time to rethink your strategy. Perhaps you should place greater emphasis on natural items such as gravel, rocks, driftwood and live plants. The margins on these are very good, and you have greater flexibility in pricing them than you do with manufactured products. Additionally, every rock and piece of driftwood is unique. You can’t say that about man-made décor.

Whimsical tanks are popular, particularly with children who love to see characters from movies or TV, whether they are manufactured pieces or live residents of the tank. These displays will make you money, although retailers that primarily cater to more serious fish keepers may want to focus their stock on more natural décor. However, there are plenty of cute, plastic ornaments that serve the same purpose in an aquarium as a pile of rocks and some driftwood would in the wild. As long as the tank residents are not stressed, what the accouterments look like is a matter of individual taste. But functionality is always paramount, so set a good example in your store displays by creating a stage that supports the cast of the tank.

With manufactured décor, there are so many lines available that you can’t possibly expect to carry them all. The past few years have seen an explosion of products from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Indonesia. However, as always, make sure anything you bring in from overseas is free of dangerous chemicals that may leech into the water. I am particularly impressed by décor being produced in both Europe and India, and if you can find anything made in the United States or Canada, go for it. My best recommendation is to seek out décor items that your competitors, especially chain stores, don’t have, rather than trying to compete on price.

Natural décor items also need to be vetted for safety. Your source for rocks of all kinds needs to be trustworthy and reliable. If you find local material for sale, have a geologist inspect it for safety and legality. Once you get a green light, you can stock it with confidence. If you are fortunate enough to find an exclusive item at a good price, it can be a real moneymaker—just don’t tell anyone where it comes from.

As for driftwood, there is no way to know for certain if pieces from the U.S. are safe, so avoid testing them in tanks with valuable livestock. On the other hand, dark hardwoods from Africa and Southeast Asia seem to be free of any pollutants or otherwise toxic compounds. Unfortunately, almost every shop and online retailer carries these as well. Your best bet is to buy mass quantities and store the excess, allowing you to drop the price per pound and compete with anyone. Driftwood goes a long way, so don’t overdo it in display tanks. It’s best to use a single piece as a central theme with live plants as auxiliary elements.

The main difference between your display tanks and your customers’ aquariums is the number of fish. You will have far more in a single tank because your fish supply is constantly in flux, and you don’t have the luxury of keeping only a few fish in a tank. Be certain people understand this, as you do not want anyone loading up their tanks like the ones in your store. This is why you should have at least a few tanks that are strictly for display, which you can point out to your customers as ideal examples for décor and stockings levels. It’s always best to have these scattered around in strategic locations, especially near the front of the store, so everyone can see what a balanced aquarium should look like.

Employees who are talented at setting up displays should have the first crack at most of the tanks, but leave room for new people to come in and surprise you with their skills. Perhaps a friendly competition would bring out the best in your workforce. Everyone deserves a chance to shine and gain a little respect from their peers. Don’t forget to lead by example, though. If there is one central display that dominates your store, you should create it. 

When it comes to combining décor elements from different natural habitats, there is a heated battle raging between the aquatic garden contingent and everyone else. Some aficionados hold that unless an environment is “pure”—containing only live plants from a specific habitat—it is not worthy of consideration, but retailers may want be more inclusive. Elements from different environments can be mixed, as long as they are compatible. This approach will enable you to sell more products, both live and otherwise.

Décor items can also be more than just one-time sales for customers setting up a new tank. Just as people get tired of their home furnishings and redecorate their living space, your customers may find the designs of their home aquariums lose appeal after a few years. Encourage your customers to do tank makeovers when they start to tire of the initial look. This can be a daunting task, but that’s where offering a store-based aquarium maintenance service saves the day. Cleaning a tank and changing out the décor can easily double your profit and ensure a satisfied customer.

Finally, as nice as it may look, a well-designed aquarium is not the goal of everyone who owns a fish tank. Some people are more interested in studying fish behavior and reproduction. Setting up a breeding tank has nothing to do with outward appearance. In this case, all considerations should be directed toward the fish’s needs, not the onlooker’s.

Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.


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