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Aquatics Hobbyists Gravitate Toward Kits and Larger Tanks


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While many retailers are finding success with nanos, some reported that larger tanks and kit sales are also an important part of the mix.

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The tank segment is showing resilience and growth as the nano trend continues to push the hobby forward. A combination of new customers, custom setup orders and smaller tanks has kept sales robust, while larger tanks still draw interest, retailers reported.

“The trend now is toward tanks that are even smaller than were popular in the recent past,” said Manfred Eng, a manager at Natural Life Aquarium in South San Francisco, Calif. “Customers are going for nanos quite a bit these days. We haven’t done many large tanks in recent years. Nowadays, you’re better off selling 10 small tanks than one big one. When the tank size escalates, the price escalates, and people tend to be more price wary.”

Nanos are definitely more attractive to the average beginner hobbyist, according to some industry insiders. 

“It is easier to bring in new hobbyists with nanos,” said David Roberts, “fish whisperer” at Aqualand Aquarium Center in Minneapolis. “Actually, a lot of people enter the hobby thinking that the smaller one’s going to be easier. As a crusty old fisherman, I know that that’s not exactly true, but that’s their door to the hobby. So, we have to take whatever door we can get. So if they start with a little shrimp tank, and then learn how to do it, they’re always going to come and get a bigger tank. Then once they get their first 75-gallon tank and realize how easy it is, we’ve got a customer.”

Very small aquariums, below what some consider “nano” setups, are increasingly popular as well. 

“Desktop aquariums continue to be popular as well as nano tanks,” said Sean Raines, director of aquatic marketing product development for Spectrum Brands—Pet, Home & Garden Division in Blacksburg, Va. “Desktop aquariums seem to suit the person who wants to add a bit of life and color to their home or office with an aquarium that doesn’t require a lot of work. Nano tanks tend to appeal more to the advanced hobbyist who is up for a challenge and enjoys experimenting.” 

Among more dedicated hobbyists, large tanks are still popular. 

“I prefer larger tanks,” said Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics in Reno, Nev. “I’m not so sure how I feel about some of the smaller setups out there, such as the small saltwater kits. Those are kind of bad examples for beginning hobbyists.”

The demand for larger setups is dependent on the market a retailer is in, and custom setups skew almost entirely to the large or gigantic side of the spectrum. 

“Custom tanks are still a minority of aquariums,” said Les Wilson, co-founder/marketing of Cobalt International in Rock Hill, S.C. “But the days of mid-level sized aquariums around 10- to 55-gallon tanks dominating the landscape have been replaced with smaller desktop style and aquariums larger than 55 gallons.”

Some custom tank builders and installers have moved away from nano almost entirely. 

“We’ve never been focused on nano,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. “We sell some of the [Coralife] BioCubes and the JBJs. We sell a fair amount of that during the holiday season for little kids and stuff. But typically, we only do saltwater and we do a lot of really large, custom setups. I sold a 10-gallon Innovative Marine Nuvo setup a few weeks ago. It was the first one of those I’ve ever sold. … Right now on our books, we have a 1,400-gallon setup we’re doing, we have a 1,000-gallon setup, we have a 920-gallon. And then we have two of the 750-gallon Red Seas and one 625-gallon.”

What’s Fresh and Trending

The nano trend is driving innovation in the segment, and brands including Fluval from the Hagen Group, Innovative Marine, Marineland and Cobalt, among others, offer nano-sized tank offerings. However, some of these originally nano-sized lines have begun skewing into larger sizes. 

Cobalt recently added a 50-gallon with a low profile to its C-Vue All-in-One Aquariums line, said Les Wilson, co-founder/marketing of Cobalt International in Rock Hill, S.C. 

“The aquarium provides a unique … profile that is perfect for reefkeeping,” Wilson said. “We are also launching our new C-Vue XLs that are more advanced ‘kits’ that start at 90 gallons and go up to 250 gallons, and feature ready-to-go, sump-style filtration systems with all the plumbing and pumps you will need to start a great larger aquarium.”

Some segments of the hobby are skewing toward relatively larger systems, and independent pet retailers are having success selling setups in the mid-50-gallon range.

“Hagen’s focus continues to be aquariums 65 gallons and under,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “Our pre-drilled 63-gallon Fluval Roma is currently our largest aquarium. It’s gaining momentum in the market specifically in independent pet. Aquascaping and rimless aquariums are also trending in a big way.”

Other larger setups, such as Red Sea’s systems, are popular, especially for marine and reef applications. 

“We’ve been doing extremely well with the Red Sea tanks, especially the Reefer series,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. “We’re also still doing a fair amount with Innovative Marine’s all-in-ones. Of the Red Sea tanks, in one week, we set up five of their larger 625 and the 750s. We’ve got one of their larger ones set up here in the shop, so it gets a lot of exposure.”

Some retailers prefer to offer simple systems for freshwater nano aquariums. 

“Of the smaller sizes, the only ones I like are the Fluval Specs for freshwater,” said Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics in Reno, Nev. “They’re nice and basic.”

In general, providing a range of sizes to offer something for everyone seems to be the best way to attract customers. 

“We try to keep a lot of different things around,” said David Roberts, “fish whisperer” at Aqualand Aquarium Center in Minneapolis. “We probably sell a giant tank maybe once every two or three months. Demand is still toward a lot of smaller tanks.”

All-in-Ones Make It Easy for Beginners and Advanced Hobbyists

Complete aquatic tank kits in every price range are very popular, both as tools to introduce new aquarists to the hobby and to offer customization options for returning customers looking for turnkey solutions. 

“Anything that’s turnkey sells well for us,” said Manfred Eng, a manager at Natural Life Aquarium in South San Francisco, Calif. “The kits are doing really well for us in general. They’re the best way to get new people into the hobby.”

Kits help make purchase decisions easy for aquarists, as well.

“Included equipment has simplified the purchasing process for newcomers to the hobby,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. “The Fluval Vista aquarium kit is designed to be fully equipped with everything a new hobbyist would need to successfully maintain a new aquarium.”

The hobby is growing overall, and kit sales are part of the reason for the uptick in sales, industry experts reported. 

“We’ve been very blessed that we’ve never had a bad year or an off year here from the year before,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. “But I would say as far as new interest, of customers that have never had tanks before, we’re up about 30 percent year-over-year. Also, new customer interest, including people just walking in that have never had an aquarium before and want to do one, is growing. I think that’s where the kits, the all-in-ones, come into play. Almost every Red Sea tank that we’ve sold except for one has been to new people. They liked that convenience of just being able to walk in, see it, buy it and do it.”

Custom kits put together by retailers themselves are also popular, and meet the demand for customizability many hobbyists crave.

“We have forever been marketing our own kits,” said David Roberts, “fish whisperer” at Aqualand Aquarium Center in Minneapolis. “We’ll sell an under gravel kit with a heater and a tank-top light with all of that as a kit number we put together ourselves. And so marketing that kit number and making sure we got our margins on all of it is really I think how we’ve kept the doors open.”

Kit sales help expand the scope of what’s possible for hobbyists, and many want customizable options in their kit setups. 

“Hobbyists seem to have a fascination with customizing their tanks, which can make unique lighting options very appealing to them,” said Sean Raines, director of aquatic marketing product development for Spectrum Brands—Pet, Home & Garden Division in Blacksburg, Va.

Marineland’s Portrait Desktop Kit is a 5-gallon glass aquarium that features three-stage hidden filtration with a Rite-Size Cartridge and Marineland Bio-Foam, and has an adjustable flow filter pump, Raines added. The kit also includes bright white and blue energy-efficient LED lights.

Kit setups are popular across the board, and have given more hobbyists easier entry points for larger setups.

“New complete kits have made it easier for entry- and mid-level aquarists to achieve higher success rates and allow advance hobbyists easier access to large tank systems,” said Les Wilson, co-founder/marketing of Cobalt International in Rock Hill, S.C. “All-in-one (AIO) aquariums continue to get better and better. Larger tanks 90 gallons and up that come complete with all parts to set up a ‘custom’ tank without the hassle of figuring out the components is the new wave.”

From Acrylic to Glass

Tank construction has seen a move away from certain materials, industry insiders reported, with low-iron glass offerings beginning to outstrip and surpass acrylic tanks.

“I don’t know if we’re an anomaly, but we don’t do any acrylic,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World in Richmond, Va. “A lot of that is … just because of the weight. But Starfire glass is definitely the greatest thing out there because it gives you the clarity of acrylic without having the risk of the scratches. Obviously, you can scratch anything. But it gives you the clarity of acrylic without having to deal with the annoyance of acrylic.”

Some still prefer acrylic tanks, however, noting that there are ways to deal with the scratching issues these builds are prone to.

“We mostly sell acrylic tanks,” said Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics in Reno, Nev. “Acrylic tanks are cool. You can buff them out, so they’re more efficient for long-term use.”

Other markets have seen a more profound shift away from acrylic tanks.

“Acrylic is dead,” said Manfred Eng, a manager at Natural Life Aquarium in South San Francisco, Calif. “It’s all glass now. The styling of the tanks changed, and the improvement in glass workmanship is what killed acrylic.”

The relatively greater expense of acrylic aquariums continues to be an issue for customers.

“We carry almost no acrylic just because the price point is so much higher,” said David Roberts, “fish whisperer” at Aqualand Aquarium Center in Minneapolis. “We will get a few customers coming in every so often, knocking on the door, wanting an acrylic tank. We don’t really specialize in it. … We’re also in an urban setting here, in the middle of Minneapolis. In that context, keeping the price point reachable is important. You can’t sell a tank if customers can’t afford it.”

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