On Display

Showcasing creative, attractive tanks in stores can inspire customers and boost sales of both livestock and aquarium décor.




Selling aquarium décor is a must, but it isn’t going to happen unless you work at it. Aquatic displays should be prominently located in high traffic flow areas to ensure maximum effectiveness. Sticking a display tank back in a corner of the livestock section is going to have limited appeal. Retrofitting display aquariums can be a real hassle, but most retailers don’t plan ahead sufficiently to do it any other way. If this is a problem in your store, I have a solution.


Most fish tanks housing livestock for sale are arranged in long rows. This works well for maintenance, but it doesn’t make a very attractive display. However, there’s room for a few surprises. In a line of 20 tanks, you could have two or three fully decorated. With appropriate signage, it would be clear to customers that these aquariums are meant to inspire and educate. I call the residents of these tanks “silent salesmen.” The ebb and flow of aquatic life through the unique and stable environments you have created should sell a lot of livestock and a lot of aquarium décor. These dynamic displays should have minimal turnover in livestock. Every type of item in each display tank is for sale, of course, but not the specific ones in the display tanks themselves.


The average customer wants a tank with a natural, balanced look. A few people enjoy the whimsical artificial pirate chests, skeletons and bubbling volcanoes. Don’t neglect this group, for they frequently change over to the more classical approach as they gain experience in the hobby.


When you set up display aquariums, there should be something for everyone: children, teens, young couples, old couples, collectors, enthusiasts and even fish breeders. What most people don’t realize they want is a tank full of live plants. These are a bit of a challenge since it doubles the responsibility. You now need to keep both fish and plants alive. If you can get customers to take that step and add live plants to their tanks, you will probably ensure they have at least one aquarium well into their golden years.


Where is precisely the right location to display décor items? Line them up on shelves above the tanks or, if they are heavy, on shelves or in bins below the tanks. Plastic above, rocks below. Ceramic above, driftwood below. Mechanical (air-driven) ornaments should be out of reach on shelves, but well-represented in display tanks. The relatively new underwater lights can illuminate your décor sales, but use them judiciously—you don’t want it to look like an overkill Christmas display. My favorites are the bubbling ornaments, for they serve a dual purpose. Not only are they decorative, but almost every aquarium can use the extra aeration they provide since fish need dissolved oxygen to survive.


Most stores make a half-hearted effort to obtain natural décor items, such as stones, rocks and other minerals. This neglect is due partially to a reluctance to go outside standard supply channels to obtain these items. If you are motivated, you can drive to a place where you can pick them up wholesale, then either rent a truck or buy a large enough quantity that the company will deliver or ship the rocks to your door.


Driftwood makes a great display item, but you must be certain that the product is coming from a safe environment. Wood washed up on a beach is typically full of sea water and bacteria. It usually floats, and it can’t be allowed to do that in an aquarium. You should never use or sell a product like this. Instead, use the dark and remarkably dense wood that comes from Africa and the Far East. This is scavenged from freshwater swamps, bogs and rivers. Since it is so dense, it is almost always free of bacteria. If any pieces float initially, just place them in a vat full of freshwater and put a brick or rock on top until it becomes waterlogged.


Some rocks are dangerous to use in aquariums since they can leach harmful compounds or minerals into the water. You need to be able to identify the bad actors in the mix. Lava rocks are quite popular, but they will quickly lower the pH in an aquarium if you use too many. I would say to avoid them altogether since they are frequently sharp and fish may cut themselves.


Now comes the hard part: putting everything together to make a beautiful and functional display. You want just the right amount of gravel, rocks, driftwood and live or plastic plants. Always have a theme. You can base it on decor elements, such as “Mountains to the Shore,” “Tropical Paradise,” “Aquatic Garden,” “Freshwater Swamp,” and “Rocky Creek.” Alternatively, you can base the theme on the fish in the displays. Examples are: “Rainbow (Fish) Revolution,” “Fishes from the Amazon,” “Miniature Fishes” and “Go Big or Go Home Fishes.” A good display will sell both aquatic décor and livestock.


Display tanks should come in all sizes to fit all budgets. The best range is 10 gallons to 125 gallons. Anything bigger and you are not going to sell many anyway. Anything smaller and the minimal profit will not be worth the effort.


Marine Methods

Aquarium décor is a necessary part of every tank. Fish need a place to hide, to feel safe if they are threatened. But, thus far, I have only talked about in freshwater environments. I have yet to mention what décor is sold for marine tanks. Well, the answer is—unfortunately—not very much. In the old days, stores could and would sell pieces of coral skeletons farmed from dead reefs. So-called base rock on which live coral builds more coral is nothing more than coral reefs that died hundreds, thousands or perhaps millions of years ago. Even the gravel for marine tanks comes from the oceans. It is mined as sand or  taken as rocks, which are subsequently pulverized.


Natural sand and rocks are removed from the ocean and used as décor, but a few places around the world have outlawed this practice. Enterprising companies have developed an amalgam of cement and freshwater rock to be used as a base for living organisms to colonize. This is dropped in the sea and, after an appropriate length of time, sold as “live rock.” I object to the use of live rock in any marine tank. My main concerns are the organisms it attracts, such as bristle worms and Aiptasia anemones, both of which can quickly multiply in home aquariums. A customer should not have to endure these problems just to ensure rapid progress of the nitrogen cycle. It’s not a good trade off.


I would never sell live rock to customers if it was cured in the ocean or any other location subject to natural sea water. In order to be safe, live rock must be thoroughly bleached and recycled in a controlled environment. Only then is it clean and free of harmful organisms. Such rock is usually called base rock, and it can be a bit more expensive than wild live rock, but you will never have to make excuses for its safety. This is the base rock you will use in your marine displays. Frequently, it is rather featureless. You can sculpt much of it using a large drill bit and a grinder—then you can sell it for more.


For customers with reef tanks, there is little to do to make a display tank look better. The live coral you use will be the décor. Mix types and shapes and colors. Use shelves and ledges and holes and caves to lend a natural look. For marine fish tanks, it is important to create as many hiding places as possible. Most of the time you want a balanced look, so the environment should have a variety of fish, such as angels, butterflies, tangs, wrasses, gobies and blennies. PB


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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