The planted tank hobby is thriving, with several aspects of this niche aquatic pastime generating increased consumer interest. Specialty retailers are capitalizing on the trend, as many are seeing growth in their planted tank business, even among advanced hobbyists.
For some retailers, sales on the saltwater side of the aquatics business seem to be somewhat of a challenge, while the planted tank segment is getting a boost.
"Salt is a little bit of a struggle," said Mike Lucas, owner of Garden Ponds and Aquariums Unlimited in Moore, Okla. "But freshwater aquariums are easy."
Mike Calli, president of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif., also noted the rising enthusiasm for freshwater setups.
"In the last month, I’ve had a big influx of more people trending back to freshwater versus anything else," Calli said. "Everybody gets the new fancy stuff and the specialty stuff. But what keeps us alive are freshwater aquariums."
This trend might partly have to do with recent regulatory issues the reef hobby has been facing—namely, the Indonesian coral ban that, despite being recently lifted, continued to put a damper on exports.
"Customers were shifting to reef aquariums until the recent supply problems with marine livestock," said Zachary Krohne, owner of Krohne Tanks and Ponds in Atlanta. "People are being directed away from reef setups right now. … We won’t have supply problems with planted tanks. Also, smaller systems mean that less-wealthy people can afford to get into the hobby. They’ll need help with them too. It helps keep us a little more diversified."
Many planted tank hobbyists are interested in lower-volume aquariums, retailers reported.
"The shift is toward smaller setups," said Adam Sneesby, manager for Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis. "Where planted aquariums used to be larger with more natural setups, the trend is geared more towards smaller 20-gallon setups. Manufacturers are catering to the smaller tanks on the lighting side with LEDs."
Hagen Group, maker of the Fluval aquatics supplies brand, offers smaller setups geared toward planted tank enthusiasts.
"I really like the look of some of these new Fluval systems with rimless tanks," Krohne said. "They’ve done a good job of pushing the live-plant segment, so it makes it a little easier to get people to envision a potential setup. I’ve noticed in a lot of Hagen’s advertising that they’re heading in that direction. It’s nice because all that stuff is going to be sustainable."
A Competitive Advantage
Customers still want to see planted tanks on display, and, in many ways, having both the expertise and livestock means retailers can enjoy a competitive edge compared to other retailers.
"As far as marketing live plants themselves, there’s not a whole lot of money in them directly," said Zachary Krohne, owner of Krohne Tanks and Ponds in Atlanta. "But with both initial product purchases and the need to resupply regularly, that’s going to keep our bottom line looking a whole lot better."
While online retail is often blamed for siphoning sales away from local fish stores—and there is no denying issues with price competition are real and have affected retailers—retailers should not necessarily fear e-commerce, Krohne stated.
"We tend to favor products that aren’t sold online if we can help it," he said. "That said, [the equivalent of] online sales have been going on forever, since before the internet came on the scene. It used to be that everyone was mad at the catalogs and the magazines. They wouldn’t carry the magazines in their stores because they advertised the first incarnation of Drs. Foster and Smith. They were in there and nobody could compete with them. People have always complained about it. You just can’t let it get you down."
Looking to the internet for clues as to trends in the hobby can also be beneficial.
"On the planted tank side, I think the internet drives trends quite a bit," said Adam Sneesby, manager for Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis. "We have to make sure we’re up on what’s going on, the discussions taking place, where the hobby’s going."
It is not always easy for Sneesby to shrug off low prices he finds online, but he does not see the problem as insurmountable.
"We try to offer competitive pricing, but then we try to strive for quality service in other areas," he said. "For example, when it comes to offering livestock, people are still more comfortable buying it at a shop and seeing it in person. With some products, it’s impossible for
us to be competitive on pricing. But by offering variety, being somewhat competitive on pricing, and by being very specific on lines that we carry, we can stay competitive overall."
On the Market
Showy planted tanks are increasingly popular, and one trend that seems to be catching on with customers recently is the option to stock these smaller planted setups with nano shrimp.
"Shrimp setups go hand-in-hand with planted tanks," said Mike Calli, president of Global Aquatics & Pet Supplies in Ontario, Calif. "Shrimp are so beneficial for aquascaped planted tanks."
Though not exclusive to the planted tank segment, nano shrimp are natural inhabitants for these setups, and generally thrive in heavily planted conditions.
"One particular trend we are seeing in planted aquaria is nano shrimp tanks," said Rachel Torrence, marketing specialist for Seachem Laboratories in Madison, Wis. "There are numerous beautiful shrimp species that are fascinating to keep, and many of them do very well in planted systems. Due to their small size, shrimp are excellent for the hobbyist that is pressed for space, and still offer a challenge to hobbyists seeking a more advanced aquarium setup."
To help meet nano shrimp keepers’ needs, Seachem has recently released its Aquavitro shrimp line of products, including Shrimp Start, Shrimp gh, Shrimp pHa, Shrimp pHb and Shrimp Exo, all of which are formulated to help aquarists re-create the natural water conditions various nano shrimp species experience in their native habitats, Torrence noted.
In general, specialty retailers report that the boosted planted tank sales are directly correlated to the rise in shrimp and related product sales.
"We sell a lot of freshwater nano shrimp with planted tanks," said Adam Sneesby, manager for Aquatics Unlimited in Greenfield, Wis. "We have a pretty good selection, and it’s something that we’ve really only gotten into seriously over the last year and a half or so. It’s really exploded. The market has driven that side of things quite rapidly and drastically."
Along these lines, retailers are seeing increased interest in species well suited as tank mates for nano shrimp aquariums.
"I sell a lot of nano fish," said Pam Nunnally, manager of Azalea Aquariums in Richmond, Va. "I sell a small amount of shrimp, but I sell quite a few nano-type setups and products."
Though it is a harder sell in some cases, retailers are noting that some customers are looking to inject CO2 into their systems, which helps promote rapid plant growth and can create very appealing aquascaped layouts.
"It doesn’t sell as fast because it’s a little spendy," Calli said. "I still try to push CO2. With customers generally budgeting smaller tanks, it’s kind of hard to justify a couple hundred bucks for a CO2 system."
Most customers are not opting for CO2 systems, especially if they are interested in nano-sized setups.
"It can be dangerous," said Zachary Krohne, owner of Krohne Tanks and Ponds in Atlanta. "You can easily bottom out pH rapidly. I, personally, always run them with an air pump even though you’re not really supposed to."
Krohne has seen a move away from smaller, portable CO2 systems that would fit on the back of a tank. These tend to run out of CO2 rapidly, and most customers who inject CO2 have gone back to using 20-pound tanks instead.
"The systems are becoming more and more complicated," Krohne said. "There isn’t that much difference anymore between a freshwater and a saltwater system in our experience."