Discount? Or Display!

Every tropical fish retailer can probably relate to suddenly noticing a tank full of fish that seems to have been around since the dawn of time. They’re bigger, stronger, and healthier now than ever, and really should be worth a bit more than their old sticker says, and yet no one seems to be interested in them at all. Rather than feeding them for another six months, all the while using up valuable tank space, maybe it’s time to break out the “2 for…” sign and move ’em on out. And if that doesn’t work, maybe a “3 for…” or “4 for…”

Then again, maybe not. If the price gets low enough, some bargain-hunter will no doubt eventually snap up most of these fish – to use as feeders if nothing else. But before you give up on the idea of selling these lollygaggers for what they’re really worth, consider this:

Display is Everything… Price is Nothing…

One of our employees and I used to jokingly chant this phrase, as if it were some great bit of wisdom passed down over the centuries. Perhaps it isn’t an absolute truism, but I firmly believe there is a lot of common sense packed in those six little words. No price is low enough for a poorly displayed fish, and a well-displayed fish can often command a higher price. Here are a few tips on how to show off your underwater wares.

Color blocking is the practice of displaying items with identical colors in a group, giving an overall appearance of uniformity that draws attention. Although I have yet to hear anyone else use this term, pattern blocking – grouping items with identical patterns – also adds to an appealing display. Most retailers quickly realize that sorting items like power filters by brand makes a much more effective display than mixing brands and sorting by size. This technique can work with livestock as well.

Ever notice how appealing many fish are when you visit a local wholesaler? For some time, I was in the habit of visiting one wholesaler in my area weekly, just to pick up a few odds and ends, and see what looked interesting. After half a dozen or so visits, one of our employees asked me why I kept buying more Red Phantom Tetras, when it seemed as though we had yet to sell any from the last 4 batches. After a little thought, it occurred to me that I was attracted to that batch of fish at the wholesaler because they were displayed as a large school of just the one species of fish. In our shop, since these had been historically weak sellers, we typically only kept 6 to 12 specimens around at a time, usually in a tank with 5 or six other species. Figuring that what worked on me might also work on others, we purchased enough additional Red Phantoms to fill a 20 gallon display tank, and removed all other fish except for a few scavengers. Sure enough, within a few days, we were selling what used to be a year’s worth of this species.

Of course, once a great batch of fish starts selling, there will soon come a time when they no longer need that same size tank. Moving them to smaller quarters might be an option, but it is also possible to continue to see that attractive uniformity even after adding different varieties of fish to their tank. The key word here is “different;” and the second variety should be different in several characteristics from the first. For one thing, the display seems to work best if there are different numbers of each, rather than a 50/50 mix. Different colors and shapes also help the keep blocking effect intact, and if the species tend to frequent different parts of the tank, so much the better.

An example of a fairly weak mix would be 25 Blue Gouramis and 25 Opaline Gouramis, which have only a single different characteristic: color pattern. Somewhat more striking would be 35 Blues and 15 Opalines, and better yet might be 35 Blues and 15 Gold Gouramis. All these mixes keep the body shape theme, which maintains some of the blocking effect even while the fishes interact. You could also choose an entirely unrelated fish that interacts less, for example a Red-Tailed Shark, as a partner for the Blue Gouramis. Some fish such as Corydoras Catfish and Hatchet Fish inhabit such extreme ranges in the aquarium, that they can be displayed with almost anything (keeping in mind compatibility and tank requirements, of course).

Background coloration, including both the colors of the tank backing and the aquarium gravel, can have a substantial impact on livestock sales as well. Some shops prefer to use identical gravel and backgrounds on all their stock tanks, which actually does make a nice color blocking scheme for a whole section of tanks. However, no single combination of these colors shows every species of fish to its best advantage. An extreme case would be trying to display Black Mollies on either (or worse yet, both) black gravel or a black background. As one would expect, dark colored fish generally show up best on light colored surroundings and light colored fish best on darker surroundings.

Many fish even change their own colors in accordance with their surroundings; sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. Black Tetras, for example, tend to “wash out” losing much of their black coloration, if kept on light colored gravel for any length of time. Keeping them over black gravel enhances their striping, and a light colored background shows off those enhanced stripes. Silver Tip Tetras, on the other hand, almost darken up too much on black gravel, but look great against a black background.

Don’t be shy about experimenting with colors; some combinations can be very surprising. Many years ago, in an attempt to show off some new backgrounds we had recently obtained, we set up a tank with medium blue gravel and a bright yellow (yes, yellow) crystal background. It was much better at selling backgrounds than fish (and it wasn’t even very good at that), until we happened to add a batch of Head and Tail Light Tetras. Something about that combination really set off their silvery body color, bright red eyes, and glowing tail “light,” and before long, we had a hard time keeping that tank full of water (from filling fish bags), much less fish. Though we no longer sell that style of background, we maintain a couple of tanks with that combination to this day.

Color is not the only quality of the background and gravel that affects the impact of the display. Shiny, metallic finishes on gravel and tank backing show off fish with more of a matte coloration, and flat finishes make metallic-scaled fishes stand out nicely. And while plain, single-colored backgrounds can show most fish of contrasting color well, they are a near necessity for displaying fish with a busy pattern and multiple colors. Scenic backgrounds or multi-color gravels are usually best reserved for mono-colored fish like many Swordtails and Platies.

Tank decorations can also boost sales of tropical fish – and of course have a side benefit of boosting d├ęcor sales, too. Fish feel more secure, act more naturally, and color up more fully, in an aquarium that has adequate shelter. Live aquarium plants make an excellent natural display, although much care needs to be taken when netting fish. Rocks, driftwood, plastic plants (natural or supernatural looking), and commercial ornaments all enhance the overall display, and increase fish sales. To make fish catching a bit easier and safer, the front third of the tank may be left clear of decorations – especially live plants. Alternately, non-living decorations may be removed while catching fish, to be replaced – in an attractive manner – when finished.

Water and glass clarity can make a “day and night” difference – or at least a “day and smoggy day” one. Keeping up with filter cleanings, water changes, algae scraping and glass polishing will assure that your customers can easily see what’s going on inside the displays.

Lighting can also be used to show off specimens to their best advantage. There are numerous light bulbs available to choose from, each with it’s own spectral properties. After a bit of experimentation, you’ll be able to wisely select one model for showing off most fish, and perhaps another one or two for special situations. Be sure to keep the cover glass clean and replace old bulbs promptly to maintain optimum light intensity and a pleasing spectrum.

Labels and signage also impact sales, but probably to a lesser extent than we’d think. While some hobbyists are looking for the deal of the century, most are probably just looking for something attractive to add to their collection. Labels should be neat, clean and easy to read, and should cover all species in each tank and their prices. Some stores prefer to use marker directly on the aquarium glass for fish and plant prices, while others use adhesive labels. Either method can be used successfully, providing care is taken to keep the labels from overwhelming the items to be sold. Signs have the most impact when used somewhat sparingly, and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to cover up all the work done to make the tank presentable.

The surrounding area should get the once-over as well. All your work to make an eye-catching display will be of little help if your customers have to walk on a soggy carpet, trip over a garden hose and hurdle a half-empty bucket just to get to the tanks. Likewise, if dirt is allowed to accumulate or odors begin to appear, that’s the only thing that many customers will be able to see. There’s a lot to be said for simply keeping the sales area tidy, allowing the customer to focus on which fish to purchase, rather than worrying about where he should and shouldn’t take his next step.

Fish health is of course crucial to sales, and is covered last only because every dealer is already very aware of it. Proper water chemistry, feeding, maintenance and above all avoiding crowding all add up to healthy, active fish that everybody will want to take home. It should be assumed that all fish displayed for immediate sale will have gone through an appropriate acclimation and quarantine process.

As strange as it may sound, the retailer may find it better to exclude some species of fish from getting the royal treatment in their display tank. For example, if you made an exciting display out of a tank of cute little Figure 8 Puffers, but your customers primarily keep small, slow Tetras or fancy Guppies, you’ll be spending a lot of time saying “no” when asked if they’ll get along. On the other hand, this would be just the showcase to kick off sales in brackish water setups.

Few fish departments will have the time or manpower to make every tank a showcase – and after all, you’ll hopefully need to spend a lot of time catching and bagging more and more fish to sell. Show off what you’ve got, and who knows, maybe it won’t be long before we hear you chanting along:

Display is Everything… Price is Nothing…

SIDE BAR: The One-Hour Makeover

It’s worth the effort. Find that one tank of slow moving (saleswise) fish that have been collecting dust (figuratively speaking), and make them a new home. Pick or adapt another sales tank with contrasting background and gravel, and move the current residents elsewhere. Add just your target fish, and decorate neatly to make an attractive display. Feel free to promote some of your decorative items in the process; this tank should stand out among the rest. Tidy up, squeegee the glass, add labels and signs, and stand back.

Or, try the opposite approach: pick an existing tank that has been experiencing lackluster sales, spruce it up and look for just the right group of fish to display in it.

This process should take no longer than an hour to complete, and will hopefully generate some sales quickly. If some sales quickly. If not, change something until it works!

Once you get the hang of it, apply this technique to a few more popular species, and see if you can make them even more popular.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine