Every store should carry a basic selection of live plants for the aquarium and terrarium, and knowing how to display them is key.
How a store displays aquatic plants has a lot to do with how well they will sell. Jamming them all together may save space, but it will not showcase them to their best advantage. A highly effective technique is to employ what I call the “zoo approach.” When you go to a zoo, the animals are presented in groups according to their types and/or where they come from. Set up a large tank–or several smaller ones–and strategically position plants by their types.
For instance, one aquarium might house all “bunch” plants, arranged in small groupings with a label on each one. This will illustrate to customers what the plants should look like when they are thoughtfully planted. Other tanks could have Aponogetons, sword plants, semi-aquatics, Cryptocorynes, vals or sags. The zoo approach will take up some space, but it will prove invaluable when putting away new shipments of plants. If an incoming item is not identified, check the “zoo” for a match.
Plant display tanks should incorporate only a few fish to complete the illusion of a home aquarium. Such displays will also educate people about proper lighting and choice of substrate materials. In fact, there has been an explosion of products designed specifically for planted aquariums. Live plants (and accessory items) are a major product category for stores catering to specialty segments of the aquatics hobby. This is an area completely disregarded by big-box stores.
Bunch plants do not have to be anchored in gravel to thrive. In fact, they can float throughout the tank and be perfectly healthy. This does, however, make a poor presentation, since few people buy plants to let them float free in the aquarium. Let’s say a retailer orders 24 bunches of a plant, such as green Cabomba. Plant these together in a sales tank so they can be properly labeled and customers will know what they are. While this clustering of multiple bunches is not particularly attractive, it facilitates their identification and sale.
It is also necessary to use a fairly thick layer of gravel on the tank floor in order to secure these plants. The selection of a substrate material is crucial in the maintenance of these plants, but not the sale. It is not advisable to use the substrate marketed specifically for growing plants in the sales tanks. These substrates are not meant to be disturbed over and over again, like those in sales tanks. Restrict commercial plant substrates to display tanks only. Sales tanks should be furnished with a basic gravel that will not compact and can be easily gravel-washed between plant shipments.
Few plants look good on dark substrates. Since most plants are green, they are bound to appear more attractive on substrates that enhance their color. This is usually a color that contrasts the plant color and certainly does not compete with it. So-called “natural” gravel is typically the best choice, although off-white can be effective as well. In a planted aquarium, the focus should always be on the living plants, not the gravel. The same concept applies to accessory décor such as rocks and driftwood. These items should be integrated into the plant theme and appear as perfectly natural elements of an overall concept. With this in mind, organize and label a special section of the décor aisle as “Items for Aquatic Gardens.”
Keep in mind that both terrestrial and aquatic plants can look good and prosper in clay pots. Some of the most dramatic exhibits I have seen incorporated numerous sizes, shapes and even colors of clay containers to houseplant groupings or individual show specimens of items, such as sword plants and Aponogetons. Special soil is easily contained in a pot, and moving a potted plant is much easier than relocating an item that is hard-wired into the general substrate.
The use of carbon dioxide to provide nutrients to aquatic plants is a technique considered advanced even though it has been around since the 1970s. Customers will likely ask if the store sells CO2 cylinders and/or the dispensing apparatus. There are high-tech and low-tech versions of CO2 dispensers, but serious hobbyists will only use the former since they know the results are more dependable. Heavily planted tanks require more CO2, and there should always be full cylinders in reserve. Money spent in stocking CO2 equipment may not generate good profits until the store has a sufficient base of plant customers. Keep this in mind before committing any significant amount of capital to the project.
Fish in the Tank
Sometimes all it takes to get people started keeping live plants is a little push. Consider giving away a free bunch plant for every $10 spent on fish or similar aquatic livestock. No one is going to decline a live plant, and the more they spend, the more plants they will accumulate. One problem with this is that some fish will eat and/or uproot plants. Cichlids are the biggest group of offenders since they love to redecorate, and many barbs are herbivores and can devastate soft-leaved plants in no time. Close attention should be paid to a tank’s inhabitants before selling to novice customers. Detritus-feeding catfish, such as plecostomus, frequently chew plants to bits. Even schooling fish may be closet herbivores.
If a store decides to go into the aquatic plant business, be aware that there will be many competitors on the Internet. Unlike fish, live plants can be shipped in almost no water, so there is little weight and/or space taken up by plant specimens. Fortunately, few websites specialize in plants, but there will always be a handful of customers saying they can buy a plant online for half of the store’s price. To combat his problem, let the customer know that the store will always be willing to help them with any problem, no questions asked. Resist the temptation to lower prices to match these competitors. Do not, however, be reluctant to special order plants for customers. Frequently, this can lead to additional, unanticipated sales.
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.