A Decorated Aquarium

Décor items like plants, rocks and gravel not only enhance a tank’s environment, they greatly contribute to a pet store’s bottom line.


The main function of décor should be to enhance the environment for the fish, but these items can also help boost sales. When selecting items for a décor department, keep in mind that customers’ tastes run the gambit from cheesy to sophisticated. A shelf of air-driven ornaments will probably sell just as well as pieces cast from molds of real rocks, driftwood or other naturally occurring objects. There is no accounting for taste, so don’t try to second-guess customers. Carry decorations that have historically sold well for the store. New SKUs may be great, but don’t neglect the tried and true.

When stocking décor items, it’s imperative that retailers consider the following products:

When it comes to décor, I prefer natural items–especially rocks. Most of the rocks sold in the pet trade are safe, but a few should not be used. As beautiful as obsidian can be, it is nothing more than fused glass, and it may have sharp corners that can easily cut fish. Granite is another type of rock to avoid, since it slowly dissolves and can add harmful compounds to the water. My favorite rock is petrified wood, and even though it can vary a bit in its constituent compounds, it is almost always safe to use. Sandstone is equally acceptable, as is shale, slate and quartz. Lava rock usually lowers the pH of a tank rather quickly. It is also sharp and, therefore, not a perfect choice.

There are many rocks sold for the marine trade that can be used in freshwater aquariums–but only in moderation, with a few exceptions. Brackish-water environments and Rift Lake habitats will benefit greatly from these rocks since they buffer water chemistry by gradually leaching compounds that make water harder. Live rock, on the other hand, should only be placed in marine tanks, otherwise it will die off and pollute everything else. With live rock, post signage that adequately describes exactly what it is and explain the reasons why live rock is more expensive than base rock.

Live rock can bring in substantial revenue, but it is not for everyone. There are drawbacks and, in a well-established aquarium, it may be totally unnecessary–even counterproductive. Regardless of the level of curing, selling anyone large quantities of live rock is inviting an unnatural disaster into a captive environment. Live rock should be added to a tank very cautiously, over a period of time.

Sometimes, however, a retailer must accommodate their customers, which requires flexibility. If a great shipment of Tonga slab comes in, customers know that they must act quickly if they want the primo pieces. Rather than making them take all the rock at once, set up a holding tank where prepaid pieces of live rock are held until customers are ready for them. A store can charge a small fee for this–say 25 cents a day. Mark each rock with a waterproof tag that lists the customer’s name, date of purchase and item cost. This is a good customer service concept that many people will appreciate.

The ultimate décor items are live aquatic plants. However, there are reasons that live plants are not good décor options for every hobbyist. First and foremost, some people don’t want to worry about keeping both fish and plants alive. Second, not every tank environment will support live plants–many fish will eat plants, and sometimes the water chemistry may be improper. Finally, live plants require certain modifications to the aquarium, such as stronger lighting, different water chemistry, a different water temperature, deeper gravel, additional chemicals, etc. Taking all the negatives into consideration, I believe that a tank is not an aquarium unless it has at least a few live plants.

When helping customers select décor for their tanks, always take them to the live plant section of the aquatic livestock department. Live (or artificial) plants can always be added gradually–just like fish. The variety of size, structure, color and hardiness in live plants far exceeds anything available on a gondola shelf. What’s more, live plants can frequently bring future additional sales of maintenance products. Artificial plants need to be replaced occasionally, but that’s about it for add-on potential.

The foundation of all tank décor is the foundation of the tank itself–the substrate material, which is typically gravel or sand. Both gravel and sand are very important for décor sales.

Everyone who sets up a tank is going to need gravel, but that doesn’t mean gravel merchandising should be neglected. In fact, take special care to place gravel where everyone can see it. One of the major drawbacks to stocking substrate is its weight and sheer bulk–it takes up a lot of space and it’s not really packaged for customer appeal. This means a retailer needs to make it appealing by using it in livestock tanks. If a store has 100 tanks of freshwater fish, there should be 100 different gravels in them.

One marketing idea is to hold a “Re-Gravel Your Tank” sale, during which customers receive a 25-percent discount off of the regular gravel price. This will encourage shoppers to make a décor change. Of course, changing out tank gravel is a big job and people may need some additional equipment to do it properly. This will bring in additional revenue–and retailers owe it all to tank décor.

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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