View from the Bottom
by Edward C. Taylor
September 30, 2012
Substrate is not a sexy product category, but with the right assortment and smart merchandising, retailers can maximize its sales potential.



People frequently judge others by the clothes they wear and the shoes on their feet—and this is perfectly logical, since there is little else they have to go on if they do not know them personally. Fish tanks may come under scrutiny in the same way; they are evaluated strictly by their decor. In this case, people start from the bottom up, giving the substrate careful consideration.

Just like shoes, the gravel must be stylish, as well as functional. You wouldn’t wear sandals to a formal affair or sport patent leather shoes to the beach. Likewise, substrates should fit the application. Retailers can make the most of this category by giving customers a broad enough selection to appeal to the senses, a well as suit the needs of many types of tanks and the fish that inhabit them.

Most customers choose substrate based strictly on its color, and retailers can offer a full spectrum of hues. Unless people see these colors in use, however, they are not going to know how they look in fish tanks. So, step one to selling this product boils down to displaying the options.

Retailers can use different brands, colors, grain sizes and chemical compositions in their stores’ display tanks, allowing customers to get an eyeful of their options. Signage that lets customers know which gravel is used in each tank can act as a silent sales associate. The signage should list the brand, color, grain size, the amount used and price. Meanwhile, in the gravel aisle, each product can boast a sign saying, “To see this gravel in use, check out Tank No. 21, in Aisle 2.”

But there is a lot more than color to think about when choosing gravel, particularly in the marine segment. In fact, most marine substrates are not gravel-like; they are more sand-like. These products need to be reactive in a marine environment so they can aid in maintaining a proper pH and alkalinity. This is not the case in freshwater, except for brackish-water setups and African Rift Lake tanks.

On the contrary, freshwater gravel should be chemically inert, giving hobbyists better control of the water chemistry. There is also true sand—silicon dioxide. It is non-reactive, although it can add silicates to the water, and it is not suitable for reef tanks.

A popular trend with marine enthusiasts is to use what is referred to as live sand, which is wet and contains live bacteria. Retailers must keep in mind that stocking live sand comes with challenges. First, the product has a shelf life. Secondly, if a bag of live sand gets a hole in it, it will leak and subsequently dry up. Either way, live sand becomes a liability. You can avoid this problem by stocking only a single bag of each type on the shelves and supplying purchase cards above the products. Customers take the pre-printed card to the register and use it to pay for items, which they then proceed to pick up in the rear of the store. This is common in furniture, electronic and appliance stores, and it works really well for pet shops that sell a fair number of large items.

Some stores put their gravel in a special bulk-storage room. Here, there might be stacks of tanks, rows of aquarium stands, pallets of filters, bins of rocks and towers of bags full of gravel. A few special dollies and/or hand-trucks should be available to move these products to the checkout area.


Gravel Up Sales
Gravel is not a glamorous product, and people get excited about it only once—when they are setting up their tanks. Unlike fish food or other consumables that generate return sales, gravel basically provides retailers with only a single opportunity to sell the product. It should probably be replaced every four to five years, but just try to get people to do this. And short of getting customers to cycle out old gravel, it is difficult to dream up ways to sell extra substrate. Your next best ploy is to convince people that more is better than less. If someone thinks that 40 pounds is enough, try to show them they really should use 60 pounds. This usually works, since it is logical.

Gravel is a relatively heavy product, surpassed only by some types of rock, large aquariums and wooden stands. Because it’s so heavy, you may think it best to stock it in an aisle nearest the exit. But, this is probably the last place it should be. Position gravel near the back of the store. Gravel is never a loss leader, and it is not a spontaneous purchase product. Customers will seek it out when they need it. Don’t clog up high-traffic aisles with single-shot merchandise.

When it comes to substrates, product placement and packaging have little influence on customers’ choices. A bag of gravel is a bag of gravel. However, the packaging has to be clear so people can see what the gravel looks like. Also, avoid letting the bags collect dust, which can happen rather quickly since they are usually located on or near the floor.

Bags should be neatly stacked, and this will require nightly attention since people feel no compulsion to place a bag back on a stack in perfect symmetry. Re-stocking, shelf straightening and merchandise fronting is a thankless task, but one that must be performed every day—especially with gravel.

No matter how you approach selling substrate material, there is little chance you will see a significant increase in sales unless you have an equally impressive upturn in fish tank sales. Sell more tanks, sell more gravel; the two are inexorably linked. As an experiment, you might try the following promotion: buy a tank setup and get the gravel for free. Or you can offer two bags of gravel, with the third bag free. Let me know if you come up with some good ideas on getting substrate sales out of the basement and into the mainstream of profitability.


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.