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Small, desktop-sized aquariums have been very popular for years. Demand for nano-sized tanks has steadily risen, and, as of late, aquarists have been purchasing these systems at a record pace, pet specialty retailers reported. However, the types of systems that are in demand fall into two distinct categories.

“Saltwater nano systems are actually pretty popular right now,” said Joe Digrande, sales associate at Ultimate Aquarium, a retail store in San Mateo, Calif. “We do both fresh- and saltwater. What’s really hot, even more so than the nano reef setups, are nano planted tanks. People are going nuts for those.”

Customers are looking for setups that meet their basic needs and are easier to put together.

“We’re seeing strong demand for saltwater nanos,” said J.J. Elliott, co-owner of Triad Reef Critters, an aquarium shop in Greensboro, N.C. “We also see a lot of interest in rimless tanks. Customers love all-in-ones, especially because they’re easy to set up. For most of our customers, their interest in all-in-ones is about ease of use. We have a lot of new customers, and when they’re first starting out in the hobby, they typically want something that is very attractive. … Most want really sharp-looking nano aquariums, with clean lines and nothing hanging off the back. Modern all-in-ones are designed to meet this demand.”

Retailers also reported an increased interest in the hobby from a younger demographic.

“We’re definitely seeing more children come into the shop,” Digrande said. “The biggest complaint that we’ve had over the years is that the hobby is always skewing older, and that kids weren’t getting into the hobby.”

The pandemic, however, has disrupted that trend, he added.

“We’ve seen a lot kids come in with their parents to start up aquariums,” Digrande said. “It’s probably something like a 400 percent increase in the number of children entering the hobby, compared to what it was before the start of the pandemic.”

Many kids are taking their first leap into the hobby by beginning with more advanced saltwater nano setups. While this is not always the right path for a novice, retailers said that younger customers are having success if they are educated properly.

“Starting out on the saltwater side of the hobby really isn’t as outlandish as it once was,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World, a tropical fish store in Richmond, Va. “Kids almost have to be more sophisticated today.”

Both new hobbyists and experienced hobbyists with larger established systems are buying nano aquariums.

“A lot of our nano customers are definitely entry-level hobbyists,” Genero said. “We do have a few customers over the past couple months that we sold nano tanks to who already have a really large tank at home. A lot of people are working from home, and they want to put a nano in their office on their desk so they can sit there and watch it while they’re working, in addition to the larger tank in another part of the house.”

Overall, nano aquariums are driving the aquatic tank market, said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group, a manufacturer in Mansfield, Mass.

“The most popular features of a nano aquarium consist of a sleek modern design, built-in filtration and LED lighting,” Hester said.

Sales are booming, according to industry insiders.

“Nano tanks are our bread-and-butter,” said Royce Suzuki, director of marketing for Innovative Marine, a manufacturer based in Cerritos, Calif. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen a massive increase in sales on the nano tank level. Perhaps people wanted to be able to see the outside world from the comfort of their homes. Many of our retail partners have significantly increased the amount of merchandise they bring into their stores. This part of the hobby is definitely increasing.”

Planted Nano Explosion

Freshwater systems configured to feature thriving plants are the fastest-growing segment within the nano aquarium trend.

“Freshwater nano sales have been growing substantially,” said Laura Hampton, owner of Aqua-Holics, a pet store in Orlando, Fla. “This trend was driven by the pandemic, and also because freshwater systems are more readily available. … For saltwater systems, you can’t go super small. A lot of people have set up freshwater nano aquariums.”

Even longtime, dedicated saltwater-only retailers have taken notice, and are offering products to help customers keep advanced freshwater nano systems.

“We only sell saltwater livestock and products, and I do carry a lot of nano setups,” Genero said. “However, I do have freshwater customers come in. Just in terms of water purchases, I have around 25 or 30 customers that come in regularly every week to pick up freshwater. We also get a tremendous amount of calls daily asking if we stock freshwater species and equipment.”

The segment is garnering so much interest that Genero said he sometimes contemplates opening a separate freshwater store.

“I’ve had a lot of customers that are into planted tanks, so much so that I started carrying carbon dioxide injection systems and CO2 bottles,” he added. “That way, when our customers’ bottles go empty, they can come in and exchange them for another bottle. We’ve also sold several Neptune Apex controller systems to freshwater hobbyists that want to monitor their setups.”

The planted freshwater nano tank trend has facilitated a shift in perception, as these tanks are increasingly viewed as high-end, technical systems.

“At least for us, price point is not really the most important factor when it comes to selling nano systems,” Elliott said. “A lot of hobbyists have thought of freshwater systems as less sophisticated. That’s not true anymore. With planted systems and CO2 injection, the planted tank hobby can be very technically challenging, and these systems often come in at the same price point as saltwater nanos. They are definitely aesthetically pleasing.”

New Products

All-in-One Kits

Manufacturers are innovating with both entry-level and advanced nano tanks to meet market demand.

The Hagen Group, for example, is planning to launch its Fluval Betta Tank. The aquarium shares the footprint and general aesthetics of the company’s 2.6-gallon design, but the filtration and lighting has been completely redesigned to create the ideal betta environment, said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Mansfield, Mass.-based manufacturer.

The aquarium kit features an expanded array of intake slots designed to reduce the intensity of water flow, which helps protect betta finnage and prevent the fish from being stuck to the intake. At press time, the company planned to release the new tank this summer.

All-in-ones are very popular among hobbyists, as are reef kits designed to support corals. Innovative Marine’s Nuvo Encore line features designs inspired by nature, said Royce Suzuki, director of marketing for the Cerritos, Calif.-based manufacturer.

Nuvo Encore is a line of all-in-one nano reef systems designed to give hobbyists the ability to choose different configurations depending on their intended use. Kits in the line can support both fresh- and saltwater systems in multiple styles, Suzuki noted.

Equipment designed specifically for nano aquariums is also increasingly available.

“Innovative Marine has come out with some new DC pumps,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World, a tropical fish shop in Richmond, Va. “We’ve sold some of the Innovative Marine nanos, and they’ve got some nice DC pumps. We sell a lot of nanos, and customers will buy the Aqua Illumination Prime HD to go with it. It’s been really nice to have the AI Prime 16 so that customers can use it to light those smaller tanks.”

Most retailers reported that all-in-ones sell very well.

“We have seen an increase in nano popularity,” said J.J. Elliott, co-owner of Triad Reef Critters, an aquarium shop in Greensboro, N.C. “Our nano systems sell well. We carry everything from 5-gallon tanks all the way up to the 32-gallon [Coralife] BioCube, which is one of our most popular tanks for marine nano setups. It’s an all-in-one system.”

Design Trends

Show-stopping Tanks

Nano tanks have always incorporated modern, sleek designs, and the trend toward rimless aquariums and other aesthetic design considerations is being partially driven by interest in nano setups.

“Aquarium aesthetics are very important in the nano market,” said Johnathan Hester, aquatics brand manager for the Hagen Group, a manufacturer in Mansfield, Mass. “The nano aquarium is certainly the default for a beginner due to the limited space required and price point, but these systems don’t only appeal to beginners. The reason the nano trend has had such a hold on the market is the mass appeal nano aquariums offer all hobbyists. … Retailers and hobbyists are asking for unique aesthetics at an entry-level price point.”

Aquariums have always been incorporated into home décor, and nanos are often set up as display items meant to enhance the look of the space they are a part of.

“Manufacturers have made an effort to design their nano tanks to be aesthetically pleasing,” said Joe Genero, owner of Fish World, a tropical fish shop in Richmond, Va. “They’re putting out different types of stands in different colors, for example. There is definitely a trend toward thinking of these setups as part of [a home’s] furniture, versus having a monster aquarium built into a wall. People want smaller tanks that fit in an office or kid’s bedroom.”

However, not all aquarists are looking for nano setups primarily to enhance their living spaces. As demand for nano aquariums has increased, many customers are focused on the practical aspects of nano aquariums, retailers reported.

“Nano are popular not so much as furniture, but more because people are just looking for something to do,” said Joe Digrande, sales associate at Ultimate Aquarium, a retail store in San Mateo, Calif. “They’re looking for something interactive that they can engage with at home. If you had asked me 18 months ago, I would have said that people are looking for something bigger and nicer that has appeal as décor. But right now, the general feedback we get from customers is they’re looking for something they can do to help entertain them at home.”

However, good-looking nano setups are still very popular, and focusing on visual appeal is a great way to help drive sales.

“Design aesthetics is everything, from the glass you use all the way down to the silicone holding it together,” said Royce Suzuki, director of marketing for Innovative Marine, a manufacturer based in Cerritos, Calif. “Hobbyists are now buying furniture that matches or complements their setup, to create a focal point in that room.”

Setting up display nano tanks in-store, he added, helps customers visualize what they can accomplish.

“Seeing a live display brings attention to a nano aquarium in a retail store,” Suzuki said. “An experienced hobbyist knows the capabilities of a nano aquarium. However, newcomers still have many questions, and this can answer them quickly without a salesperson. … I like to think that a nano tank is something anyone—either novice or advanced—can set up and enjoy.”