Aquarium Décor

Have you ever thought of livestock as part of an aquarium’s décor? Most retailers don’t put two and two together when merchandising their décor items. In fact, the livestock in a tank is by far the most important element. The size, color, physical attributes and feeding behavior of fish should all be considered when selecting décor items.

The pertinent question is, do you try to influence your customer’s décor choices or do you simply allow them to freeform? Some people don’t care about perfection and are not interested in creating an aquatic work of art—they simply want function.

Customers who are shopping for décor will not always ask for help. If you see people casually strolling past the shelves of décor, perhaps you should stop and engage them. Ask them about their tanks. With cell phone cameras being so popular, the odds are that they’ll have several photos of their aquarium.

Remember to judge the setup based on the interplay of fish and décor. Some tanks are so crowded with fish there’s barely any room for décor. If that’s the case, it’s time to upgrade to a larger setup.

See, selling décor is more complex than you realized. For example, if the tank is mainly a curiosity for children, then the décor should be a bit outrageous. Lots of bubble-activated devices may be what it takes to satisfy the customer. Since aeration is—or should be—a critical factor in every tank, why not incorporate it with the décor?

While most aquarium décor is made from plastic, resin has become popular in recent years. Either way, these items will deteriorate over a period of time and should be replaced. Water and light can take a toll on the functionality of air-driven ornaments, so they may gradually lose their ability to make bubbles.

While substrate material is not frequently thought of as a décor item, that philosophy has changed rapidly with the introduction of perfectly rounded balls of different diameters. These balls—popular for mini-environments—are relatively light-weight and composed of compressed soil, making a great planting medium for aquatic plants.

Speaking of plants, they make up the largest category of décor items. People who don’t appreciate the versatility of living items and live plants opt for artificial while those who do enjoy seeing things change as they grow go for live plants.

The substrate category has never offered a larger choice than it does now. Common natural gravels are all produced in the same manner. The material is quarried and broken up into pieces small enough to be moved, where it is then passed through a grinder and grader that sorts them by size. They are tumbled to round off the edges and coloring is added or, in the case of natural, the gravel is merely coated with a clear resin. If a color coat is added, the gravel may or may not have a clear resin coating applied.

Watching aquarium gravel being produced is a fascinating and educational experience. In a store, displaying gravel has always been a hassle because it’s bulky and makes a relatively low-key presentation. Your inventory of gravel should be used throughout the aquatic department in both freshwater and marine display tanks, with a small label on each tank that informs customers which gravel they are looking at.

The six major categories of non-fish décor items include gravel or substrate; rocks, stones and driftwood; live aquatic plants; artificial plants; man-made décor; and aquarium backgrounds. Virtually every tank that’s set up today will contain several of these elements. Since all but one of these are shelf-static products, they can easily be located together. Rocks and driftwood should be in bins or on sturdy lower shelves placed above stacked bags of gravel on or near the floor.

In the old days, some gravel companies provided clever marketing tools to highlight their products. These were comprised of a series of plastic, bubble-like compartments totally enclosed and mounted on a single panel of masonite. Each bubble contained gravel of a different color and/or grain size so customers could get an idea of which color they might prefer before they go looking for a bag of the product. But, as any good aquatic shop owner knows, gravel in air and gravel in water appear, at the very least, slightly different, meaning nothing beats having gravels in display tanks.

While aquatic plants are, indeed, a décor item, they also stand alone as the primary element of what are enthusiastically called "aquatic gardens." How much they resemble an actual garden depends entirely on the skill of the creator. It is not reasonable to display a full range of plants in tanks containing large numbers of fish. Many fish are herbivorous and they will eat the plants or uproot them and snack on the tender roots. When possible, you should have plants on display in both the fish section and the aquatic garden department—if you have one.

Fish stores used to sell and display their aquatic plants out of shallow troughs of water. The bunch plants were kept together with rubber bands and individual specimens were simply laid on their sides, bare roots and all. Sure, if your turnover rate was exponential, maybe you could get away with this. Now, you need to display them to full advantage, which means planted in a substrate material with full-spectrum lighting overhead. Keeping plants alive in your retail space is just as important as keeping the fish in good health. You must respect the needs of both forms of livestock.

The very best advice you can give to your customers looking for tank décor is to select items that match well with the fish they are already keeping or those they wish to add. Trying to subvert this axiom will almost certainly result in having fish that are uncomfortable in their environment. My motto is, "when in doubt, leave it out."

Don’t buy décor just because you like it, buy it because the fish will like it. When uncertain, ask an expert. It’s more important to make the fish happy than it is to try and convince them to accept décor you like. These are the concepts that you must instill in your customers if you want them to be successful.

Depending on where you live, it might be possible to collect rocks and stones from nature. This would be a reasonable idea if you are a geologist who can identify just which minerals or elements are in the rocks. Otherwise, I strongly advise against it since there are chemical combinations that can prove deadly to aquatic livestock as the rocks slowly dissolve in the tank.

Most hobbyists will not require large quantities or pieces of rock. Wherever you source your rock from, try to ascertain that is being collected legally and in a manner that does not damage the environment. In general, there are many rocks safe for freshwater tanks: petrified wood, slate, quartz, shale, lava, sandstone, etc. Other rocks, like limestone, dolomite and tufa, contain high concentrations of minerals common to marine environments, so they are well-adapted for marine, brackish and Rift Lake cichlid aquariums. In your store, sort the rocks for sale according to their suitability for specific environments. Be certain your employees are knowledgeable enough to help customers in their selection of rocks.

If you have room in your store, I highly recommend having two or more tanks that celebrate your selection of décor items by using them exclusively in these setups.

One aquarium should be smaller and one larger; my two favorite sizes to use are 20 gallons and 55 gallons. I select these two based on their relatively inexpensive cost and the likelihood that customers would have one of them in their homes. Rotate out the décor in these tanks between three to four times a year. The two displays should be completely different from one another. Don’t forget to add live fish.

There is a good chance that if your decorating skills are well-honed, you will be able to accomplish two things with these tanks. First, you’ll sell more décor items by giving customers good ideas and second, as an added bonus, you can sell one (or both) of the complete setups to the customer. You can offer each setup at two price points: cash and carry, where the customer takes everything home and tries to duplicate the scene; or a delivery and set-up price, which would include an employee from the store transporting the elements to the customer and setting the tank up for them. The second choice would obviously be much more expensive, but why would you complain about making more money?

In short, selling décor is as simple as selling fish. The more diversified your selection, the better your sales. 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.