Saleswoman cleaning fish tanks

Want to sell more aquariums? Unfortunately, those empty tanks stacked in a corner aren’t going to cut it… unless you want to offer deep discounts. As cyber sales of pet product have taken off, they’ve impacted tank sales, for obvious reasons—the margins on tanks were already quite small, making them almost loss leaders. This only goes so far, however, and the tipping point comes between 55 and 60 gallon tanks. Additionally, the glass is fragile and tanks are bulky items that must be well-insulated in their cartons or they might break during shipment. 

As a brick-and-mortar retailer, your golden opportunity to sell tanks will primarily come in 60, 75, 90, 100 and 125 gallons. This doesn’t mean you should refrain from selling tanks of lesser gallonage; it only means you can’t expect to make as much of a percentage profit off of them.

You might like to believe that a large display aquarium will help you sell more tanks—it won’t hurt, but the odds are it won’t convince people to buy a larger tank. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “go big or go home”… well, this idea does not translate as far as tank displays are concerned. It’s about quantity and quality.

I have been in pet shops, aquatic retailers, reef stores and/or public aquariums in 49 of our 50 states, and the more memorable places were those with multi-tank displays. It wasn’t size that impressed me, it was sheer numbers—200, 20 gallon aquariums fully decorated with everything you can imagine, including live plants (and natural-looking artificial plants for tanks with herbivorous species of fish).

In particular, I remember a store in upstate New York. All the tanks were 10, 20 or 30 gallons in size, and each one looked like a picture in a magazine. There was one large aquarium that housed South American species, mainly from the Rio Negro: wild discus, altum angelfish, cardinal tetras, Corydoras catfish, flag-tail catfish and flag-tail Prochilodus. That tank was gorgeous—I still marvel at it over 25 years later.  

While it might be impossible for you to achieve this standard, you could do it on a limited scale. Select a small corner of your store and turn it into an “Aquatic Wonderland.” Show customers what is possible even for people who are not experts or lifelong aquarists. If you set this up, you may gradually convince people that anyone can create a beautiful display—especially if your store supplies all the elements necessary. 


Laying the Foundation

Gravel is the anchor for every tank—it sets the tone for everything to come. Gravel comes in a wide variety of colors, grain sizes and textures, and there’s even artificial varieties. Regardless, I recommend natural. 

Gravel can be a natural color or it can be dyed, and substrate material varies in size from sand grains to quarter inch pebbles. Gravel can be rounded off by tumbling or it may be variable in shape. Gravel from a stream is usually somewhat rounded, but not every piece is equally worn down. 

If you are going for a natural look, you want a gravel with different grain sizes and shapes. Symmetry usually means the gravel has been tumbled, and an unnatural color means the gravel has been dyed. When gravel is dyed, it is usually given a waterproof coating, so the color does not dissipate over time. The gravel you select depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

Gravel comes in bags of various weights, depending on how many square inches of substrate you are trying to cover and how deep you want the substrate to be. You will want to stock several different bag sizes based on weight. Start with 5-pound bags for bowls or micro-environments, 10-pound bags to handle 10- and 20-gallon tanks, and 20- to 25-pound bags to handle larger tanks. 

If you have a type of gravel you sell by the pound, you will want to use 50-pound bags to stock the storage containers. Food-grade plastic trash cans work best for this—they are somewhat portable, and they can easily be emptied out and cleaned. Stores typically place gravel near the back of the shop where deliveries are usually made.

Next comes the rocks, which are so varied you could use a geologist to identify and explain the properties of each type. As a store owner, what you need to know is that only certain types of rocks are safe to use in aquariums. Basically, you only want to use rocks that do not dissolve in water to any appreciable extent. 

Technically, a rock will dissolve in water if the molecules in the rock prefer to attach to molecules in the water. And, yes, I had geology and geomorphology classes in college with a major in chemistry, but I do not intend to bore you with the details. The safest rocks are sandstone, tufa, petrified wood, obsidian, red shale, lava, holey rock, etc. In a marine aquarium, I would only use rocks that came from a marine environment. Basically, if the rock is sold by a reputable company, it should be safe.

Once the substrate and rocks are out of the way, the next step concerns driftwood. The only guaranteed safe driftwood for an aquarium is that sold in the industry. If you want to be completely safe, use only artificial wood made from non-toxic polyresin and cast into molds. Otherwise, you can go with natural Mopani driftwood, Cholla wood, Malaysian driftwood, Manzanita driftwood and, finally, driftwood you pick off the beach or the shoreline of a lake. These last two choices may seem cheap, but they can also be deadly. If you have someone trying to sell you “natural” driftwood, I would be very suspect of the source. This material frequently floats if it has not been seasoned under water in vats for months. 


Décor Tips

Now that we have what I like to call the “bones” of the tank selected (if not assembled), it’s time for the “flesh.” I prefer live plants, but some of your customers will want to use artificial plants. In general, these are safe, but they do have a “shelf” life, which refers to how long they will last underwater before becoming brittle and start disintegrating. 

Everything depends on the “look” you are going for: natural versus fanciful. If you really want to go off the reservation, you could sell Glo Plants, specifically created to glow under the blue light of a Glo Fish aquarium. These are, of course, artificial, since they are manufactured. However, scientists have recently been able to create living plants that glow. Needless to say, there is some genetic material being shared here. 

So far, no underwater plants have been involved in the research projects, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time until we will have an entirely new category of living plants to sell for the aquarium. Science is amazing, until thoughts of Frankenstein’s monster roll through your head… but I digress.

When laying out tank décor, it’s critical to think about the scheme and layout of the tank before any items are assembled or even purchased. This is where your expertise can help customers who are struggling to bring a concept to fruition. If one of your employees is good at this, give them the job. 

With décor selected, we must match that with filtration and light for a perfect balance of nature versus nurture, meaning filtering the tank and lighting used. I know that technology has made great strides with coral lights, but if all you need is illumination for live aquatic plants, it’s hard to beat a fluorescent plant bulb. Old-fashioned, perhaps, but it works quite well for most setups. 

The cheaper LED fixtures do a poor job providing the necessary lumens for shorter, more substrate-loving plants. Sure, if you want to spend hundreds of dollars, you can use a coral light fixture, but why spend more than you have to? Maybe, if you want simulated storms playing across the floral landscape, you would go this route. Few of your customers will prefer that expensive option.

Finally, you come to the last, but most important factor, in the equation: the fish. Even before you sell the tank, the gravel, the rocks, the driftwood, the filter and the lighting, you must ask the customer what type or species or size or number of fish they would like to put in the tank. This factor influences every other decision. 

Some people don’t know what fish they want. In this case, do your best to sell them the most versatile décor and equipment you can put together. It is this exact scenario that will ensure your display tanks are doing their job. They need to be varied, beautiful and, most importantly, inspirational. In other words, create concepts that will make people want to have an aquarium, not just a tank full of fish. There’s a big difference.  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.