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/Go Rin No Sho of Business

Merchandising Corals and Shells


By Bob Fenner


There has been a tremendous growth and shift in emphasis in saltwater versus freshwater aquarium keeping, especially these last couple of years. Dealers in the know are capitalizing on this effect on saltwater sales.

The popularization of "European" "reef" filters and specialized lighting for marine systems has created opportunities for sales of related livestock and supplies.

In this article we will describe techniques for merchandising corals, shells and related biological ornaments.

Even if you have no inclination to sell saltwater livestock or equipment, there is money to be made selling these decorations to saltwater aquarists and other people interested in natural art. They are indeed beautiful; and worth having if for only enhancing your store's appearance and other sales.


Check around. There are several excellent coral/shell dealers in the United States and abroad. A word of caution: Unless you deal in very large volumes & have the facilities for prepping, cleaning, packaging, warehousing & savvy for international commerce, you are better off buying domestically.

Some selection may be available to you through local distributors and jobbers, but do try one or some of the importers/sources to be found in the annual Buying Guide and Directory. Their corals and shells come cleaned, shrink-wrapped, and pre-priced if you desire. (photo)


Here's the area that separates the retailer who has coral from the one who sells coral.

1) Put some in your tanks. (Only saltwater)

2) Place it in other displays amongst your store's aquatic dry goods.

3) Make a permanent coral retail area; the following considerations apply.

A) Keep it clean- like the rest of your store.

B) Provide adequate lighting- coral does not sell in the dark.

C) Keep it out of the immediate reach of the public. Some retailers will disagree, but having too much access to these products invites breakage and cuts on soft hands. Allow the experienced individual hobbyist to peruse the coral or offer a piece at a time for examination.

D) Set your coral on shelving that is covered with a dark, soft material. My preference is wooden shelves with black (velvet) cloth.

4) Offer variety in size, texture, color and price. Corals and shells come naturally in all the hues of the rainbow. Sea fans (photo) and shells (photos) should be displayed in or near the same area.

And If Possible:

5) Have a display cabinet with lighting for especially nice specimens and quality coral and shell jewelry. (photos)

6) Present a diorama tank (photo). A lighted false-back box behind the aquarium providing the illusion of depth with the ease of low maintenance and easy rearrangement.

7) Put up a living "reef" aquarium and show your customers what the real live organisms look like. Better still, sell both live corals and shells and their "skeletons" (photo).


Sell corals and shells on their merits; they're functional and aesthetic.

What they do: Provide substrate for filtration and growth of food organisms. Break up the physical environment, reducing aggression and making habitat for fishes and invertebrates. Buffer the pH upward by slowly dissolving (they're mostly limestone, calcium carbonate).


Are similar as for all dry goods. Inexpensive items can be marked up from a few to several hundred percent. Stock costing a few to a few tens of dollars can be doubled. Very expensive specimens may have to discounted from 100% mark-up to move.

Freshwater Admonition:

A warning: Do not use or sell coral or most shells for freshwater use! Though the question of chemical interaction has been largely solved by means of sealing with various materials, corals and shells still pose a mechanical hazard. They are sharp. Freshwater livestock is by and large more clumsy and likely to scrape or puncture itself. Don't do it!


We thought of adding a note as per periodic washing of coral and shells. If you are of the persuasion that cleanliness is sterility, there is a standard method (with many variations) of cleaning by bleaching.

1) Carefully remove the material to be cleaned.

2) Gently rinse off with freshwater.

3) Soak the coral, shells in a dilute bleach solution; about one cup of household, or better still, pool chlorine bleach per gallon of warm freshwater.

4) When sufficiently bleached, remove and

5) Rinse in warm tap freshwater, then

6) Soak in warm freshwater with lots of dechlorinator. If you don't have a chlorine test kit, or an extra set of coral to let that being cleaned to air dry, or want to take the risk of killing your livestock, use more dechlorinator.

7) Put the coral/shells back in.

Simple, huh?

So that's it in a nutshell; an introduction, rationale, purpose, notes regarding sources, display, freshwater warning, cleaning instructions and this valediction. Think it over. Are you doing what you can to effectively merchandise coral and shells? Get to it!

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Marty, Dennis and Jan at Tideline (wholesale, Los Angeles) and Steve Kendricks et al. at Tis Tropical in Fountain Valley, CA and Jake, Phil and the gang at the Wet Pets stores in San Diego, California for photo opportunities, information and good times.


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