Fish Tank Display Tips and Tricks

Creating stunning display tanks to showcase livestock will help retailers increase their sales.




All aquatic retailers must do what they can to increase sales in their stores. A proven technique is to create both beautiful and dynamic displays. Active exhibits like these are “silent salesmen” for many products that you carry, not to mention the livestock you are showcasing. Sounds simple, but in reality it is not that easy to pull off. First of all, you need someone with a flair for design who also knows a good deal about livestock. This is not a job that can be allocated easily. If you pick the wrong employee, you could end up with a big mess. Unless you take on this task yourself, you must vet your employee by testing their aquatic knowledge and their décor sensibilities. Perhaps you are lucky and you already have a valued employee who can handle this responsibility. If that’s the case, it’s time to get started.


It’s not always the “what,” but rather the “where.” Your first decision should be where you put display tanks in your store. You can’t just pick an obscure corner and drop one there; no one will see it or pay attention. You want to grab the customer’s attention with a display. So, right off the bat, give them something to look at as they walk through the door. However, you don’t want to cause a traffic jam at the front door, so put the display off to the side and leave room for passage — it will be perfect.


An entrance tank should typically be 6 ft. long, giving fish plenty of swimming room and you adequate space to develop a décor theme. I suggest that this aquarium should contain primarily common species, particularly those that like to school. Use small, non-predatory catfish and loaches for the substrate, and if you must add cichlids, stay away from gravel diggers. You don’t want your décor destroyed by an enterprising cichlid engineer. Consider angelfish, discus, dwarf cichlids and even some of the smaller West African species. You want lots of color, no drama between species and nothing with unusual dietary or environmental requirements. The only other acceptable option would be a marine fish and coral reef habitat. Go this route only if your primary sales are in the marine segment of the trade.


As customers migrate into your store, you can stage additional displays, which should be specific to different groups of fish. The most spectacular exhibits will be African Rift Lake and brackish-water habitats. These need to be as far apart as physically possible, but still remain inside the freshwater livestock section. The two large Rift Lakes in Africa are Tanganyika and Malawi. Even though your customers may mix species from these two lacustrine environments, you should not. If you don’t have room to set up displays of fish from both lakes, I would go with Tanganyika. The diversity of form and behavior is much greater among the cichlids in that lake. The reason this is true has to do with the origin of the cichlid’s ancestors. Virtually every cichlid in Lake Malawi evolved from haplochromine stock. In Tanganyika, however, the cichlids came from both haplochromine and tilapiine progenitors. Many Tanganyika cichlids are not mouthbrooders, while 95 percent of those in Malawi are.


Your Tanganyika display should offer examples of small substrate species such as Julidochromis, Telmatochromis, Spathodus, Eretmodus and Tanganicodus. Once you add some of the smaller Lamprologus to this list, you will have a full crew of bottom-dwellers. Now, into the water column, you can display Cyphotilapia frontosa, feather-fins such as Cyathopharynx furcifer, Opthalmotilapia nasuta and O. ventralis. These are exciting fish to observe and your customers will stare in wonder at them. Also, you will want to throw in a small school of Cyprichromis. There are several species of these smaller mid-water schooling cichlids. In the old days, they were nicknamed the killifish cichlids because they resemble them.


While Tropheus moorii in all its many geographic varieties is quite striking, it is really too aggressive for a community tank as I have described. You may showcase this fish in a dedicated display tank, if you wish. Also, considering the number of varieties, you could switch them out several times a year.


If space is not a problem for you, I would also have a tank for Malawi species, but refrain from using a majority of mbuna. These small colorful mouthbrooders do nothing but dig, fight and spawn. In fact, it’s easy to get babies, even in your store. Pull the fry after a couple of weeks incubation in the female’s mouth. They should be placed in a small tank where they are safely developed into fully functional juveniles at around 28 days time. Mbuna are so colorful, they don’t really need a lot of publicity. I would concentrate on the so-called “peacock” species. In the genus Aulonocara and a few other related genera, there are the most colorful and peaceful cichlids you can imagine. Show them off because they are best sold as adult pairs and the females of most species are rather drab compared to the males. Also, the small ones have not developed their gorgeous color. You need the adults. They will show people what a nondescript 1 ½ in. baby is going to turn into.


Brackish Beauty

Leaving cichlids behind, let me tell you about the most dynamic display you could ever have:. a brackish-water tank filled with all the fascinating fish that can live in such an environment. Brackish water for display tanks in a retail environment should be kept in a range of 1.009-1.012 specific gravity. Most of the fish living in this range can be adapted to almost totally freshwater or saltwater as high as 1.023. There is such a fascinating mix of species you can keep in this environment. Some of my favorite choices are monos, scats, dats, sail-fin mollies, numerous goby species, archerfish, chromide cichlids, targetfish, puffers, and, best of all, Anableps and mudskippers.


If you set up your display specifically for the Anableps and mudskippers, all the other species will become bit players. Mudskippers in the genus Periopthalmus actually crawl out of water onto rocks or a shoreline. Anableps, commonly known as the four-eyed livebearer, will do the same. If you are clever enough to create an exhibit with a tidal surge, you will see what I mean. Also, believe it or not, these fish get along together quite well.


There are two tricks to setting up a successful brackish-water display. You will need deep water and shallow water, both in the same environment. While you might be able to combine two tanks, it is not easy to do. I would suggest a large custom-made aquarium about 4 ft. long, 18 in. wide and 24 in. deep. One side can have the glass lower than the other. So, if the tallest glass is 24 in. at one end, it’s only 18 in. at the far end. This will allow water to flow out. Now, you are not really looking for a waterfall effect. There should be a tank brought up to this lower section. It will have one end missing and you attach that to the larger tank with sealant. It will require a custom stand to accommodate both tanks. If you know how to make tanks out of marine plywood and resin coat them, you can accomplish the same thing on your own.


At any rate, there is one additional trick. The environment must be completely glass enclosed so the air in the tank is as warm as the water. If it is not, the fish will suffer and develop body sores. I have found that 84-85 degrees is a perfect water temperature. When you think about it, fish that come out of water can tolerate some fairly high temperatures in the wild. You can observe the Anableps and mudskippers roll over and submerge their heads every so often. This fills their gill chambers with water and prevents them from drying out. The display is absolutely mesmerizing and it will sell fish that otherwise might not be on your customer’s most-wanted lists.


Are there other display tanks you could try? Of course, the list is endless but the value in terms of sales may be minimal. A lungfish environment would be cool, but in reality, how many of these living fossils can you sell? It’s much better to think frequent and multiple sales with fish like rainbows from Australia and New Guinea. There are a number of gobies that can be mixed with these colorful schooling fish to populate the substrate and hill stream loaches do quite well in this environment.


You could also decide to go micro since there are a fair number of dwarf or micro-species coming from locales in Asia. Perhaps the smallest display you would ever set up would be a 20 gal. with a variety of micro-fish. This will work if you are willing to carry the livestock. You could also display adult breeding pairs of Neotropical cichlids, one pair at a time, but you could sequence a number of species through the same display, as they sell. Otherwise, do not sell fish from your displays.


Now, I could get into the marine environment, but why bother? Every store has a coral display tank chock full of gorgeous specimens of both hard and soft species. A lot of these will try their best to kill each other if you don’t display them properly. I’m here to talk about selling fish by displaying them to the best advantage. And, speaking of advantage, just what is yours over the big box and/or chain stores as an independent retailer? That’s an easy question to answer. You can be creative. You can take the initiative. You can carry full-size fish instead of those half-grown fish you see in most places. Your success at livestock sales is up to you, but don’t forget to tie in your dry good products in all your fish displays. 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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