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Well, here we are after Christmas and New Year’s and ready to settle in for a period of three-to-four months when sales should be high and customers are spending more time with their aquarium setups. Typically, the winter and early spring see high sales numbers, but, this may not be the case for 2023. Already starting in September, there has been a steady, if slow, decline in sales of aquatic products, be they live or manmade. I suppose we could blame the economy. As the prices of essential goods rise, there is typically a shrinking of disposable income. This impacts those segments of retail sales associated with entertainment a great deal. Is there anything you can do to fight back? The answer is, yes, of course. If tank owners are looking more to their aquariums as a source of solace or comfort, you can help. All it requires is a little bit of skill and a lot of imagination.
There are two directions you can go, and I will cover the obvious one first. What does it take to make an aquarium more attractive, more appealing, more interesting? The answer is: a makeover. You can rearrange, change and/or add to the decor. While you are at it, why not select a few new fish as well? Decor can be static or living. With few rules in the decor category you can be as creative as your muse allows. Unfortunately, many people are not skilled in the art of Feng Shui, so you must come to their rescue. This requires you to set up display aquariums around your store that will prove inspirational to people lacking that spark of creativity. As a shop owner, or department manager, you must lead by example.
Let’s start with the basics: a 20-gal. (long) tank. This would be a good size for a child’s room. In a tank this small, no fish should be over 3-in. long. It would just not be humane to cage large fish in a small tank. First, change out the tank’s background to a different color or pattern. If there are plastic plants, pull them out and replace them with live specimens. Be certain the gravel is deep enough to root live plants. Aquarium ornaments should be moved or replaced with new ones. Throw out most of the old decor items unless they consist of rocks. Any rocks should be scrubbed and assembled in a different arrangement from the previous display.
Schooling fish will require swimming space, so don’t block the waterway from one end of the tank to the other. You can build it like a maze, but always leave room somewhere for a straight shot. Fish colors and patterns should not match the gravel or decor items. This living room is for the fish, not the people who are keeping them. Err on the side of the livestock when at all possible.
Tanks should usually be over-filtered, because a dirty tank is not that pleasing to the eye. Filtration should be minimally invasive but persistent enough to get the job done. Always include a heater as 90 percent of tropical livestock prefers a temperature higher than 90 percent of the people who are keeping it. Hide the heater as best you can.
Now let’s think a bit larger, but not necessarily on a grand scale. The mid-range tanks are typically those from 55-75-gal. I refer to this size as a “home aquarium,” just right for the living room or a large rec room. Such tanks are almost always against a wall.
The average tank owner has little interest in becoming an aquarist. The tank is part of the decor, not part of the owner’s personal life. It’s easy to become bored with an aquatic landscape when the fish themselves are merely an afterthought. In this case, a grand theme change will help to reinvigorate interest, especially during cold winter months. I suggest a complete makeover with new gravel, rocks, clever decor items, and even new livestock. You might institute an exchange or upgrade program. Customers are permitted to exchange their fish for new ones. It sounds like a nightmare, but I have found it to work quite well. One of the keys to success is to supply the customer with a Styrofoam cooler, a full-size cooler bag and rubber bands of the appropriate size.
Finally, the larger aquariums range from 90-gal. and up with the 125-gal. size being by far the most popular. Believe it or not, these “mega” tanks became quite scarce during the COVID crisis. They remain considerably more expensive than in previous years. My designation for these large tanks is “room divider” or “focal point” aquarium. In this environment, the fish can be quite large and they may even be raised in status to “family pet.”
There is no doubt that large fish require large tanks, but such an environment should not be called a community tank. It’s more like an aquatic dog house or a cat condo. If a customer wants a pet, they should stick to the four-legged type. Large aquariums in a home environment are decor elements with the concept of being integrated into the general theme of a room or even a house. I always encourage customers to express their thoughts and anticipations when considering the purchase of a large aquarium. At the time, it may seem to be a “big deal,” but once it is sitting in the house, the reality starts to sink in. It’s either, “What have I done” or “This is quite pleasant, perhaps I will add one more.”
When planning the decor of a large aquarium for a customer, I feel more like a home decor consultant than an aquatic shop owner. This can be an over-powering feeling, as you realize that the buyer is anticipating your expertise will be up to the task of delivering just the look and/or ambiance they are hoping for. In a situation such as this, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to keep working on your skills. These, of course, should be passed along to your employees. After all, you can’t be expected to do everything.
Keep Inventory Up
No matter how skilled you are at decorating a tank, it will be of little value if your store inventory does not include a large selection of merchandise that customers may purchase. You must stock gravel, rocks and driftwood for a natural look. Plastic or ceramic ornaments will be important as well, even though the ambiance they create will be more artificial or whimsical. People who prefer to mix and match items from these two categories should not be discouraged, but rather applauded for their uninhibited sense of taste. The most important point to consider is whether the decor elements fit the tank size and the fish selection. Livestock should not be required to suffer for a customer’s lack of knowledge when it comes to fish husbandry.
If possible, set up several display tanks scattered throughout the store inventory as inspirational guidelines. Also, even the aquariums that house fish for sale should have some decor items, but not so many as to make it difficult to catch fish. I prefer to locate bags of gravel under functioning tanks, driftwood and artificial ornaments on shelves above tanks, and rocks in bins on a separate aisle with shelves of plastic plants above. Live plants should be in the aquatic garden section if you have one in your store. The more merchandise you have and put on display, the greater your sales of aquarium decor items will be.
Everyone loves a well-stocked tank, but there is such a thing as overkill. You can’t catch fish in an aquarium that is too busy. Likewise, a bare tank looks almost sad and the fish will be nervous or uncomfortable if there is not enough cover. The dividing line is not fine, but it is readily apparent if you take a few steps back and have a look. Aquarium decor is simple if you have a knack for it, but complex if you try to over-think it. Give everyone on your staff a chance to showcase their talents for decor design. You may discover a diamond in the rough.
All employees should be well-versed in the products you offer as decor items. Run through the inventory on a regular basis and add new items if they seem appealing. Don’t be afraid to try out new things, just don’t purchase a container-full until you vet them with your customers and your employees. And the fish, don’t forget to ask the fish. Believe it or not, fish may show you the way to better decor planning and selection by their behavior.
Finally, when selling live plants as decor items, you should keep in mind the things you must do to keep the plants healthy, as well as the fish. If one gets in the way of the other, it is not a good marriage. Many plants need more light than most fish easily tolerate. Many fish love to eat plants as part of their natural diet. It’s a trade off, and learning how to balance the tank environment may require a change of livestock and/or a change of plants. But you see, this is the beauty of a living, breathing aquarium. It is always a challenge, and perfection is rarely achieved. And, if you feel as though everything is working perfectly, just wait a while and you will see the truth of it. This is why I love aquariums. They are never static. Every day something may come along to amaze you or confound you. PB