The first décor item that was ever used in an aquarium was probably a rock. It is simple enough for most people—go out to the nearest stream, pick out a nicely colored and shaped rock of appropriate size, and put it in the tank. Maybe they wash it off first. Maybe they even boil it in a pot, just to be on the safe side. What could be easier and cheaper than using natural décor items in an aquarium?
The truth is, however, there is a cost to be paid for choosing the wrong rock for a particular tank. Anything from chemical contaminants to sharp, dangerous edges can be problematic. Retailers can help customers avoid these pitfalls, while boosting sales, by adopting a smart, calculated strategy to selling rocks as décor items.
For starters, pet specialty retailers that want to set themselves apart in this category need to adopt a proactive approach to rock sales. Rocks won’t just sell themselves. Retailers should create some displays that will feature a variety of rock types, and there are several ways to merchandise and sell décor rocks.
One idea is to select a rock that you have in sufficient quantities and build interconnected matrices that will fit in specific aquarium sizes. These rocks should be glued together with silicon sealant, so they form an integrated unit that you can sell as a single piece. Fabricate several of these and display them in the appropriate tanks. You can even choose to sell them as décor units—aquariums and rocks. This will certainly simplify matters for many customers.
A second approach is to sell “rock packages” that fill 10-, 20-, 30- and 55-gallon tanks. They can be offered at a slight discount, since the customers are buying in bulk. A key to success here is to maintain continuity by grouping packages by the type of rock they contain, giving the aquarium a more natural look.
As for pricing, there are a lot of stores that price virtually all rocks the same, just to simplify matters for clerks. I will admit, it’s fairly difficult to put a barcode on a rock, so if all rocks are the same price, that solves that problem. However, it really costs you in the long run, because with rocks, there are always a fair number of pieces that will not sell—usually because they are too small. Nano-tank rock sets are the perfect solution to selling these small pieces, but this approach will require that someone on staff go through rock bins on a regular basis and purge the small fry to place them in cluster bags.
Rocks, of course, must be segregated even if their prices per pound are all the same. If you don’t group your rocks together, most people will not be able to tell one from another. In order to maximize the value of décor rocks, I like to personally inspect every rock that comes in. If I deem a rock particularly valuable as a décor item for one or more reasons, I will weigh it and give it a little extra bump in price, along with a stick-on price tag. One clever way to make certain that rocks don’t end up being sold cheaply is to mark the price directly on the rock. Obviously, this needs to be done in a discreet location, but with an indelible marker.
There are almost an infinite number of rock types, but only a few that are safe to use. Rocks are merely an accumulation, aggregation or assemblage of various minerals. The safe approach is to only use rocks sold within the pet trade. I have found that there are some good deals to be had if you shop around for suppliers. Companies that sell direct to home and garden centers, pond and swimming pool installers, landscaping firms, and sand and gravel companies may offer the bulk price you are seeking. If this is thinking too big, simply check their clients for prices rather than going all the way to the source.
Many rocks can be used in marine applications, but they would be relatively dangerous in regular freshwater environments. This is because the rocks gradually dissolve and release chemicals that make the water hard and alkaline. This is great for marine, brackish-water and African Rift Lake environments, but it is certainly not recommended for any other habitats. Reef fish and Rift Lake cichlids are accustomed to hiding in extensive cover, and they require a great deal of rock to be comfortable. In fact, you can pile the rocks right up to the water’s surface and not be accused of over decorating.
Be certain to mark “marine” or “hard-water” rocks as such, so customers don’t make the mistake of using them inappropriately. Many of these rocks are fairly heavy, so they should not be used in the integrated rock units mentioned earlier. Besides, you don’t want to deprive people of the creativity of building fully functional reef or cave biotope aquariums.
It is also important to keep in mind that while many rocks can be quite toxic due to their chemical composition, sometimes even the physical structure of the rock can be a problem. A good example of this is obsidian—a beautiful, naturally occurring compound that is formed during volcanic activity. Basically, it is glass; it easily fractures and can cut you or any fish that brushes up against it.
It goes without saying that “live rock” is not really a part of the décor category, even though it is certainly used for that purpose, usually in a secondary manner. Since live rock typically costs three to five times what base rock costs, people are not using it strictly for décor. This product is used to inoculate a new marine tank with bacteria, so it can be cycled faster. With the advent of live bacteria products, the use of live rock is taking a bit of a dip in popularity.
Still, many dealers love selling live rock since there is good money to be made with it. Frankly, there are so many negative aspects to the use of live rock that I recommend the opposite approach; buy the cheaper base rock and inoculate it with live bacteria. Cycle times for this approach can actually be faster than those with live rock if the entire procedure is handled properly.
If you decide to sell live rock, do not guarantee it to be pest-free unless you are extremely confident in what you are talking about. There is no way to know what customers have in their tanks prior to the introduction of your live rock. A few dealers go so far as to purge their live rock, but this is basically useless since you could accomplish the same thing by merely taking base rock and sticking it in a live bacteria “soup.” What you can’t do this way, however, is give customers those special types of live rock they are looking for, such as Tonga, Marshall Island, Fiji, Haitian, etc. To avoid future ill will with customers, you must advertise live rock being sold as is—meaning it may or may not have some bad characters lurking unseen in the deep recesses of the rocks.
What’s my favorite type of décor rock? I prefer petrified wood because it is basically inert and loaded with color and character. No two pieces are the same, and they are usually sturdy, won’t break apart and rarely damage fish that happen to rub up against them. There are a few types of petrified wood, but the vast majority sold in the U.S. is obtained from private lands over parts of the southwest. Rock from non-domestic sources would be quite expensive since this material is extremely dense and would cost a fortune to ship.
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for over 30 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.