Aquarium décor may be a key category in a pet specialty retailer’s aquatics department, but these items do not necessarily sell themselves. An educated staff and strategic merchandising can make all the difference. Retailers can also increase décor sales exponentially by having the right assortment of products co-located in organized, eye-catching displays.
In general, there are two main categories of aquarium décor: natural decor, such as gravel and live plants, and man-made, such as ornaments and fake plants.
Gravel is a natural product that is somewhat manipulated by being refined to specific grain sizes. It can also be painted or coated with a tinted resin. For the best results, gravel color should complement other décor elements in a tank.
Next to gravel, the most important décor items are probably rocks, which are, of course, natural—unless you decide to use fake rocks made from plastic or resin. There are many different types of rocks, but only some of them are suitable for the aquarium. You should never sell rocks that might give off potentially toxic substances. Likewise, it’s best to avoid any natural materials with sharp edges, such obsidian and lava rock, which can be dangerous.
There are also many rocks used in marine aquariums that can potentially be a problem in freshwater environments, if they are used in excess. These slowly dissolve and give off calcium and magnesium, keeping the water hard and the pH high. This is perfect for marine, brackish and Rift Lake environments, but not in others.
The same can be said for natural driftwood, but exactly in the reverse. It is safe for freshwater tanks and, in moderation, for brackish-water habitats.
The safest driftwood comes from freshwater environments in Africa and some parts of Asia. Most of this wood is dense enough to sink in water. You can try boiling driftwood in a large ceramic pot. This may remove unwanted pollutants and waterlog the wood, so it will sink. Driftwood is an extremely important décor element, and an entire display can be anchored by a centerpiece of suitable size and conformation. You should stock a wide selection of driftwood in sizes small to large. Remember, distinctive pieces sell the best.
The final category of natural décor is actually the only one that contains living organisms. These are live aquatic and semi-aquatic plants. Many stores choose to carry few, if any, live plants. I can assure you, this is a mistake; there is much money to be made in stocking both the plants and the products used to support their care. It is not possible to have good sales of décor items and leave aquatic plants out of the picture. In fact, the most spectacular displays will always contain live plants.
The first thing to remember when using plants in a display is that you must be careful to find the right mix of plants and fish. The wrong selection can result in a good deal of eaten and shredded plants, which will make a really poor display. For example, silver dollar characoids are basically plant-eating tetras. They will do best with driftwood, a few large river rocks and a thicket of jungle Vallisneria. This is the type of information that you or your staff must have available, either from personal experience or published literature.
A fully decorated tank sells more fish. A bare tank never sells anything. Still, it is possible to over-decorate, and it takes a lot of savvy to know where to draw the line. If the décor overwhelms the tank, you will not be able to see the fish, nor will you be able to catch them.
Of course, selling these products does require staff with the knowledge and skill to create an aquatic garden, and employees can be inspired if they are encouraged to be creative. I suggest giving employees the opportunity to show off their decorating skills. Assign several tanks to each person and see what happens. You may be surprised to find some hidden talents.
The second group of décor items is man-made, but many of them are designed to look exactly like natural items. People who don’t want the hassle of dealing with live plants can opt for the fake alternatives. I also like fake plants for environments and fish that will not support the real thing. These include many vegetarian fish, who will eat them.
Ornaments are another group of man-made décor items, and there are literally thousands of them on the market. They run the gambit from innocuous to totally offensive. This category also includes colored underwater lights that add to a tank’s décor and action ornaments that move with the aid of pneumatic pressure.
In order to sink, ornaments must have holes that allow water to enter and air to escape. In fact, the bigger the holes, the better, so that fish can swim in and out without restriction. Retailers should have a wide selection of ornaments for tanks from two gallons to 200 gallons.
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.