The School of Rock

Selling rocks as décor items can be tricky for retailers that do not know which rocks are safe and which are dangerous in aquatic tanks.


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These days, other than the livestock itself, there are few items for sale in the aquatics trade that are actually natural—as in, not man-made. Probably the first casualties were plants. The market used to offer an endless number of live green plants, but it is down to mostly plastic items. Other aquarium components, such as driftwood and rock décor, have followed suit. And there are some very good reasons for this.

The plastics and resins with which these products are constructed are easy to maintain, inexpensive and most importantly, inert. Looking specifically at driftwood, for example, the value of fake pieces is in eliminating the possibility of introducing noxious compounds into tank environments. Real driftwood might have substances lingering on its surface or deep within the wood itself that can cause trouble for the tank and its inhabitants.

Still, the rock décor segment offers many natural varieties that are perfectly suited for aquariums, and can add beauty and authenticity to a tank setup. The trick for retailers is knowing which types of natural rocks are safe, which are dangerous, and how to display and merchandise them for maximum sales potential.

In many instances, the use of artificial rocks makes sense. Most rocks will leach chemicals into the water, and many retailers do not have the knowledge required to identify rocks as safe or unsafe. For example, granite is not a safe type of rock to use in a fish tank—or is it? The correct answer is: some granite is safe and some is not. It all depends on where it comes from and its chemical composition. Granite is like a lot of things in this world; it varies in characteristics, depending on where it came from.

There are, of course, some inert rocks that are almost always safe. In other words, they are unaffected by being in water. The major players here are obsidian, sandstone, petrified wood and quartz. Shale and slate are also usually okay. Quite a few types of rocks can be used in marine tanks, because the chemicals they give off are actually beneficial to the water chemistry. These would include items such as lace rock, tufa, limestone, coral rubble, holy rock and marine substrates.


Creating Rock Stars
The learning curve can be steep, but getting to know the category is well worth the effort. Natural rocks can make the difference between a mere tank and an aquarium. A fish tank is a glass cage that holds fish—the interior may or may not resemble anything remotely similar to nature. An aquarium, on the other hand, is purposefully designed to simulate nature, and an aquarium hobbyist is a person who cultivates an aquarium as a farmer would his crops.

Aquarists know and understand that rocks have the power to change a featureless, nondescript tank into an aquatic landscape—one that observers might characterize as a display of art. However, this masterpiece is not usually created in a single day, week or month. It is an ongoing project that may take years, especially since it is not always possible to find the perfect rocks—just as you might look for years to find furniture for your house. Merchandising is the key to helping hobbyists find those perfect rocks.

Retailers often buy rock in bulk and dump them indiscriminately into bins, boxes and troughs, believing it is a waste of time combing rocks for hidden treasures. They are, of course, wrong.

Maybe you have an employee with an eye for the unusual. Put him or her on the task, and you may be pleasantly surprised when you see what they come up with. First and foremost, these gems should be used in display aquariums. Short of that, I would place them in a special section designated as “Handpicked Décor Treasures.” These can be displayed as singles, but the greatest impact will come if they are in well-matched groupings. Offered for sale in this manner, a retailer can easily expect to double its normal markup.

Keep in mind that rocks look better under water than they do out of water. Case in point: I was in a jewelry store in a Mexican town where the mining of opals is big business. The owner of this store had the bright idea to leave many of the prized opals in their native rocks. He cut the rock away around the opal deposits and placed the rocks under water in fish tanks. There were no fish, of course, and just enough filtration to keep the water crystal clear. No one can resist buying opals once you see them au naturale. It was a great marketing tool, and it can work for you as well. Take all your best rocks and create beautiful aquascapes that you sell as complete scenes. All it takes is a little fashion sense.

Everyone has their favorite type of rock. For me, it is petrified wood. I have several reasons for my predilection, but the most significant is probably the array of colors in the rock. Second is the striated texture of many pieces. These striations are the natural growth patterns of the tree, but turned into stone—or more accurately, minerals. Another great thing about petrified wood is its weight. It’s heavy, so it makes great foundation rock to build on. Although it is difficult to find long flat pieces, a rock hound with a wet saw can cut slabs for you. These look fantastic under water, since they are basically polished by the saw.

Moving on to rocks available for use in marine or brackish environments, there are many to choose from. Of course, even live rock falls in this category, but I would stay well away from it when you are considering rock strictly for décor purposes. If you see a piece of live rock you love so much that you must incorporate it as part of an overall landscape, kill it first. All it does is cause trouble if you try to keep it alive. Frankly, few pieces of live rock are worth the effort.

Increasingly, I realize that reefs and marine fish tanks are two very different animals and trying to mix them into a single environment is senseless. Yes, in the wild it works perfectly well. But what you don’t see is the death and predation that takes place constantly on a reef. Many fish, invertebrates and even other corals prey on corals, each other and everything else. Of course, it’s possible to balance all this, if that is your primary goal. If you want great coral, put few, if any, fish in the tank. On the flip side, if you love the fish, why restrict your choices in order to have one or two pieces of coral?

This philosophy also applies to showcase or décor aquariums—even marine tanks. If the architecture of the aquarium is your main concern, the selection of rocks is crucial to achieving your goal. The coral and the fish are secondary, but still must play a part, even if only as accent pieces that do not detract from the main display. They only enhance it.

I refer to two specific examples in this case: atoll and peninsula setups. They work almost exclusively only in tanks that can be viewed from either all sides (atoll) or three sides (peninsula). In both scenarios, the selection of rocks is critical. You can’t get the right look without the right rocks. When set up properly, both of these aquariums are almost breathlessly beautiful and authentic. Of course, these specialty tanks are a luxury that few people have the talent and money to create. But, many of your customers are capable of a single front-viewed display aquarium. If they can frame it in a wall, so much the better. Even using a well-matched canopy and stand will be almost as good. The main idea is to drive the view away from everything but the internal décor of the tank. Well-placed rocks selected for their special features are critical to the effect.

So, I recommend you get rocks in your head. They can help your bottom line more than you realize and be a great source of additional revenue, if merchandised properly.


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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