Aquarium Decor

Decorating display tanks in an enticing and vivid manner will help retailers sell more fish, décor and tanks.




In 1965, I moved to Philadelphia to take a job after attending college, which initiated my tropical fish education. At that time, it was still the home of William T. Innis, a legend in the aquarium hobby and industry. From 1932 through 1967, he published a magazine aptly titled The Aquarium. He also wrote perhaps the most famous tropical fish book ever published in this country, Exotic Aquarium Fishes, and it went through 19 editions in its lifetime. Innis was a living legend and he was still active when I showed up in Philly. His favorite aquarium shop was still there as well. It was a throwback to be certain. Opened in the 1920s, it was a model for what aquatic shops should be. Every single tank in that store was immaculately appointed with natural décor, whether it be live plants, driftwood, real gravel or lots of rocks of all types. It was almost as though every tank was an entry in an aquarium competition and any one of them could be winners.


Unfortunately, for both fish lovers in Philly and myself, the building housing this iconic business was bulldozed only a few years later. This was a terrible loss, but there was another store that was more modern, with a strong history of sales from the late 1930s. The tanks were totally different. They housed only fish, save for an artificial cave or two for knifefish to hide in. Yes, hundreds of tanks, most of them interconnected through a central filtration system, the guts of which were hidden from public view. This place sold a lot of fish and reminded me of an upscale livestock wholesaler. This concept worked for close to 30 years, even as the aquarium hobby began its slow decent into oblivion, or at least a degradation from its glory days. Today, the coral craze passes for the enthusiasm that I remember from my early days of fishkeeping.


So, guess what. Both concepts worked at the time: natural and homey, and commercial and sterile. It’s hard to know if the fish were happy, but customers did not seem to mind the bare bones look. My bet is the fish didn’t like it very much because they were certainly subjected to a great deal of stress. Without objects in a tank, fish usually huddle together for protection. While this works for many schooling species, the more solitary fish will simply cower in place. At least, in a bare tank, people can see the fish.
I suppose if every fish had to endure this indignation briefly, it might be acceptable. The big-box, chain and many multiple-outlet shops get away with it. Why can’t you? Well, if that’s the kind of retailer you wish to be, you need to find another way to make money.


Even now it would seem the selling of historically staple aquarium items is coming under attack from several different outlets. Our favorite animal protection organization, with support from other groups, is trying to have the sale of bettas (Betta splendens) made illegal in pet shops. The organization’s premise is relatively sound: the fish are cramped into cups or containers while they are offered for sale. Once sold, many people place them in tiny tanks or bowls on a desk or windowsill. The trouble with bettas is an industry problem, not a fish problem. Pet shops are selling these tiny aquariums for the bettas that give them almost no room to move, explore or live. But, more importantly, 90 percent of betta habitats do not come with a heater. Bettas prefer warm water, around 80 to 84 degrees in temperature. If the water is cold, they are going to be lethargic and just lay around like they are dying. These fish have a lifespan of two to three years at best; they deserve a better deal than a cold jail cell. Bettas kept properly are some of the most beautiful fish in the aquarium hobby, but the industry needs to get its act together.


There are very nice and spacious systems for retailers to display and sell bettas. There are also a few habitats available for bettas, exotic shrimp and the many new micro-species of fish that come with small heaters. Frankly, fish need at least 10 gals. of water. I would not sell a tank smaller than this unless someone was interested in breeding their bettas. Even then, a 10-gal. tank still works.


Decorating Tips

Display tanks in aquatic shops should all be maintained and decorated in a manner that pleases both the fish and the customers. It’s a win-win situation. Good-looking tanks are soothing to the public and generally keep fish happy and healthy. You will certainly need to put someone in charge of tank décor and maintenance. That person is your go-to employee for giving maintenance tips to customers. I can’t stress enough the importance of utilizing people who keep fish themselves. You need sales associates who can identify fish, know how to feed them and suggest to customers what species make good tankmates. Expertise comes at a price; you will have to pay them more. It’s money well spent if their knowledge is real and true. You should vet everyone who you consider hiring. Don’t leave such an important job to anyone else.


If you don’t fill your tanks with beautiful and interesting décor items, how will you be able to convince your customers to buy similar products? Your creativity at aquatic displays will greatly influence people to emulate what they see. Don’t think for a second this is going to be an easy job. You must kick your game up a notch by stretching your imagination and searching far and wide for exotic products that other aquatic stores don’t carry. There are a lot of companies out there producing aquarium décor. Run of the mill décor is everywhere and you don’t want to compete with the stores in your area. You want to out-compete them by doing the things that show you care. Take time to study your competition, your customer base and your product availability. Don’t settle for items that everyone can sell. Look for the unique and/or rarely seen things. You might even consider importing décor items yourself, just as many stores import livestock.


I prefer natural items as décor. This is not easily accomplished in store tanks since there is a good deal of activity taking place. Fish come and go, and décor is frequently disturbed and rarely reorganized the way it should be. Every evening, after closing, appoint several people to straighten up the tank décor. After a long day of sales, extensive restoration may be necessary. This is particularly true if you utilize live plants in your tanks. Maintain an adequate supply of plants for sale in your aquatic department so you don’t need to steal any from the tanks that house your fish. If customers ask to purchase tank décor directly from a tank, only permit it if you have duplicates on store shelves. Try to accommodate everyone, but don’t sell your best décor items just to make a sale. Let’s face it, you picked the tank décor for a reason and if you sell it, you will spend entirely too much time attempting to recreate an environment that was working.


Very few stores employ tall aquariums to house their fish for sale. This makes sense from a utilitarian aspect but not from a décor aspect. Tall tanks make some of the most spectacular exhibits you will ever create, so try to stage a few such tanks around your store. Let some plants grow emergent, especially if their inflorescences are prominently above the water line. It will help you sell more fish, plants, décor items and tall tanks.


Natural items are also great for décor because every single one of them is different.. This should be a special section in the décor department. Rocks can be made from many different compounds or minerals, so identify them in that manner. For example, lace rock, holey rock, tufa rock, shale, lava rock and river rock are all relatively general terms. If you can, list the chemical make-up of the rocks you sell. Some rocks are dangerous for use in aquariums, so stay well away from these. Going out in nature to scavenge for décor is not recommended unless you are an expert at geology, botany and chemistry. Obtain your natural décor items from vendors you can trust to sell you safe products. 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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