Colorful fish from the spieces Symphysodon discus

How large is your retail space? Are you walking around on top of each other or do you have room to spare? Either way, you can make display aquariums work for you. 

The term “silent salesman” may seem a bit old-fashioned, but this sales tool is not limited to something as mundane as signage. In fact, while your signage speaks for itself, your display tanks can say more in a decorative way than the most attractive sign ever could. You can showcase your livestock, your hard goods, your decorative skills and the talent of your employees all in one exhibit. 

Assuming you sell freshwater fish, marine fish and reef animals, your best bet is to go with three dynamic environments that will become focal points in your store. Hard pressed for this level of extra space? Then turn some of the livestock tanks into phenomenal purveyors of piscatorial products. 


Get Creative

So, how do you begin changing your humdrum aquatic environments into dynamic sales tools? I recommend starting small if you feel challenged in the creative department. Since a shop owner frequently has duties that fall outside the area of artistic display, perhaps you have a sales associate you can trust to set up the first show tank. Consider it an experiment, but offer suggestions if time permits. 

There are not rules, only rights and wrongs. Don’t put driftwood in a Rift Lake cichlid tank or don’t use tufa rock in an angelfish or discus environment, for example. Use common sense, but uncommon imagination. And please, don’t showcase plastic toys—those tanks are for the children, not the adults in the room. 


Fish to Feature 

Let’s face it, some fish lend themselves well to display tanks, while others do not. Perhaps you would like to sell more L-number catfish. First of all, most of these fish are loricariids (or suckermouth armored catfish). They love to scrape algae from rocks and driftwood. They also like to hide, but you don’t want fish in a display tank to hide, so don’t give them any caves to hide in. Instead, use large pieces of driftwood rising from the substrate almost to the water’s surface. 

A few live plants might be in order, but these fish usually don’t need them. Along the bottom of the tank, employ coarse gravel interspersed with large flat rocks upon which algae can grow. In fact, you may wish to set up a “harvest” tank off display, where you grow algae on rocks to cycle through the catfish environment. That harvest tank should have the illumination on 24 hours a day. 

Above all, don’t crowd this L-number paradise. One example of each species is plenty. Try to keep all the specimens to a moderate size, and I would recommend a 125-gal. tank for this display. Use no cichlids, but perhaps a few larger schooling fish would be fine. In fact, flag-tailed Prochilodus or headstanders, also enjoy live algae, so they would make good tankmates.

Another fish, and the perfect fish for display tanks, would be rainbows from New Guinea, Irian Jaya, Australia and the Celebes. These fish are extremely colorful, non-aggressive, easily fed and love to swim in and around aquatic vegetation. You can showcase both fish and plants in this environment. 

Now, a “must have” display tank is a Tanganyika environment with small species in the genera Julidochromis, Telmatochromis, Eretmodus, Spathodus and Tanganicodus. Fish in these genera are pretty much substrate bound, so a long, low tank is perfect. Pair them with catfish from the lake in the genus Synodontis. All of these fish are fairly easy-going, but there will be a little aggression if pairs start to form. They all like caves as safe havens, but they will come out and feed or forage a great deal. 

Most of the specimens you have for sale will be small, so if you grow some larger in the display tank, it will help you increase sales of these fish. Not everyone is a fish expert, so it’s important to showcase small, unusual fish that people may overlook otherwise.


Displaying Marine Life 

Moving over to the realm of marine reef fish, there is an extremely diverse selection to choose from. My primary caveat is: never set up a display that contains both captive-bred and wild-caught specimens of the same species. You can sell these two categories of fish all day long, but don’t lead people to believe they mix well in captivity. 

For example, try keeping tank-raised maroon clowns with wild-caught fish of the same species. It rarely works out. Of course, your reef fish display should have many different types of fish, but they must all be compatible. Fish that eat fish are difficult to place together without something eventually going wrong. 

Now, your spectacular marine display may indeed contain predatory species, but only a single specimen of each, such as a clown trigger, a clown grouper, a squirrelfish, a goatfish, a grunt, a snapper, a puffer, etc. If you prefer a relatively non-predatory display, you might select some of the following: large angelfish, butterflies, wrasses, tangs, hamlets, rabbitfish, small hogfish, porkfish, filefish, etc. 

As for me, I enjoy a 125-gal. community tank with items such as damsels, dwarf angels, basslets, gobies, blennies, cardinal fish, small wrasses, butterflies, etc. 


Deciding on the Perfect display 

I know you don’t have room for everything, so work closely with your sales staff and select what works best for your store and your customers. Of course, if coral is your forte, that’s the one category of display tank you can’t afford to do without. 

A mixed fish and coral habitat is a very difficult environment to maintain perfectly. As you begin to set it up, I would have a plan in mind and don’t expect to achieve your goal instantly. In fact, you should give it six to 12 months before you are satisfied. 

What a living reef can do for your business is hard to say. It really depends on where your store is located, both locally and regionally. If you are in a major metropolitan area, it may merely be one of many such displays. If you are a bit more isolated, it may be the only game in town or even within a hundred miles. 

Keep this in mind when you start to set up the tank. Can you do it bigger and better than your competitors? If you can’t, it may end up being a waste of both time and money. However, if you can, many enthusiasts will travel a considerable distance if your store offers things that others do not.

Frequently left out of the picture are brackish-water environments. They are a bit tricky to set up because the water parameters can be quite variable and the varieties of fish that prefer these habitats are more than diverse. The best choices include Anableps, mudskippers, target fish, scats, monos, gobies, Siamese tigerfish (Datnioides), halfbeaks and a few other really strange species. If you are interested in creating such a display, you should do some research.

Last, but not least, what about display tanks for miniature animals? I say animals instead of fish because I can’t leave out ornamental shrimp. There are also a handful of micro-species and mini-species of tropical freshwater fishes that have become quite popular in the past few years. A 20-gal. display aquarium would be quite large enough to showcase many of these. 

Keep in mind, the smaller an environment, the more difficult it is to balance. Using plenty of aquatic plants should help accomplish that goal.  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.