Fish Tank Display Tips and Tricks

Visiting aquarium. Loving good-looking parents showing their little girl fishes while visiting aquarium


When it comes to aquatics—fresh or saltwater, warm or cold, small or large, modest or expensive—beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How do you, a retailer specializing in the sales of aquatic livestock and equipment, sell more of both?


Static advertising can only go so far to influence people to purchase organic or inanimate products. Sad as it is, people are just as likely to brag about their expensive equipment as they are the livestock in their tanks. Although this rarely happens when it comes to freshwater environments, let me suggest some technique and display strategies to help increase both sales of livestock and equipment.


Have you ever walked into a really fancy or elegant restaurant and thought, "Wow, look at this décor! It’s so up-scale." Maybe it’s soft and plush or cool and hip, but one thing’s for sure: The food has to be great if the ambiance is this impressive. Then, after dinner, you realize the hype was better than the reality. Let this be a warning against pretending to be one thing when you’re really the other. If you’re going to use fancy exhibits to impress customers, you better have the inventory and sales personnel to back up your façade. 


What percentage of the people walking through your front door are repeat customers? You probably think it would be great if over half the customers have purchased items in your business previously. My philosophy is that a store is not vibrant and relevant unless it is bringing in new customers in large numbers. Maybe, after 15-20 years, you could be satisfied with a relatively static customer base. Until then, you need to be hungry. This means you are never satisfied with the status quo, because as soon as you are, one of your competitors is likely to knock that smug look off your face. You know that chip. The one that says, "We are the best aquatics store in the state— no, the Mid-Atlantic... maybe even the Eastern Seaboard."


Start with two large display aquariums along the entry path that customers must follow to reach the merchandise. One freshwater tank and one reef tank should do the trick, but these must be the Mona Lisas of aquatic displays. Nothing smaller than 125 gal. tanks will do, and I highly recommend 180-gal. displays. This gives you plenty of room to diversify the livestock inventory.


One of the major mistakes stores make is using putting large fish in large tanks. Sure, giant fish are spectacular, but how many customers have the room necessary to house species that grow into behemoths? This means no pacus, red-tailed catfish, true gouramis, giant arowanas, gar, goonch catfish, snakeheads, etc. If you are going to sell these fish, do so when they are small and pray that your customers don’t bring them back to you when they outgrow their home aquariums.


The display freshwater exhibit should be filled with species of fish you sell the most of. Use your imagination and your industry connections to mine items from around the world.


And now, the key to success with this freshwater environment is to fill it with live plants—all of which you sell in your extensive water garden department. Once again, a wide selection will work best. Make it look like a stable real-life habitat, even if you are mixing and matching species of fish and plants from around the world. 


You can even take it one step further and label the species of the fish and plants that are on display. Make it look like an exhibit in a public aquarium. People will stand there, read labels and try to match them to the fish and plants. Maybe once a week you could have a sales associate point out the many different items while taking questions from the gallery of customers assembled to watch the presentation. 


It could culminate with a liberal feeding of several types of frozen and prepared foods sold in your shop. They would be identified as they are placed in the tank at different optimum feeding stations. Use your imagination. 


Marine Displays

Of course, after the freshwater experience, a marine employee should begin with a similar show at the reef tank. Now, reef tanks are a real mixed bag, because they must exclude many types of fish. First and foremost, your reef display is about living corals. The fish are only the window dressing—so to speak. If you want a separate aquarium that lacks live corals, that’s fine. Place it in the marine department. Once again, stay away from large specimens. 


Be aware that reef tanks serve a dual purpose. First, of course, you are showing off your coral expertise. Second—but just as importantly—you are showing people the equipment you use to maintain the coral so perfectly. All of this will be under the tank with task lighting and explanatory labels to describe the different devices and their functions. I recommend including an extra large wet/dry filter (sump), high-end protein skimmer with skimmate locker, UV-sterilizer in-line but capable of being bypassed when necessary, chiller, water top-off reservoir, media canisters and controls for above-tank lighting as well as programmable power heads and thermostat.


The sump should house a refugium with live macro-algae and a few shrimp. All of these items must be available for sale in your shop, but these are just the types of equipment that customers may purchase cheaper online. So be it—you can’t control that. When selecting brands to sell in your store, try to vet them for their support of the retailer as well as how they function. 


Building a Brackish-Water Environment

Now, what other display tanks could you consider setting up? By far, I recommend a brackish-water environment—it’s exciting and exotic. The fish are unusual and they have special requirements that will challenge your fish-keeping and display-making abilities. I have never seen a commercially-available tank that I deemed perfect for brackish-water fish, except those made from acrylic. Yes, you can sell glass tanks to customers that make perfectly reasonable habitats, but acrylic is by far a better choice. 


Your brackish-water environment should be shaped like a dog bone with a narrow shallow (12-in. deep) area in the middle and deeper (24-in. deep) areas on each end. All fish in the system must be able to swim from one end to the other, but the fish that prefer shallow water will stay mainly in the middle. In the center, place gravel and rocks that break the surface. It’s just about impossible to put a glass top on a tank like this, but do something to keep the fish from jumping out. I have made a variety of different covers, usually constructed with strips of acrylic and plastic screening. 


The brackish display tank should be a drilled set-up with drains and returns at each end. Use a large sump underneath and keep it on full display. It’s tanks like I have described that will make your store a destination rather than just another retailer, but what I’ve suggested is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other ideas to explore and try. How about a hillstream loach tank? And, of course, there is the crazy world of freshwater shrimp—putting a whole new meaning to miniature species. Which brings me to the numerous micro-species of freshwater fish coming in, primarily from Southeast Asia. You could do a massive display of these in a tank as small as 50 gal.


Don’t stick your display tanks in a corner or out of the way. Put them right in the middle of your store where the vast majority of your customers will see them. They must all be labeled; people need to know what they are looking at. You can’t assume anything. There may be people seeing angelfish, cardinal tetras, arowanas or even rainbow fish for the very first time in their lives. Make their initial experience a memorable event. A good deal of imagination is necessary to make this work, but when it does, it is spectacular.  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.