It's a Small World
by Ed Taylor
July 1, 2012
Leveraging the popularity and appeal of nano tank setups can pay off in big ways.



In the retail world, it is always better to make a big sale rather than a small one. For example, selling a 125-gallon tank setup makes the day’s receipts look really good. But let’s face it, how often do you sell such a large setup? What if there was a way to make just as much money selling something much smaller, with almost no physical effort and no heavy tanks or bulky stands to move around or wedge into customers’ vehicles?

I am talking about the exploding world of nano aquariums, which has become a real phenomenon within the industry. How many nano tank setups does it take to equal a big sale like a 125-gallon tank? Well, it would take quite a few to equal the revenue generated from the sale of a complete 125-gallon kit, but a single complete nano tank kit will sell for almost as much as the 125-gallon tank alone.

What’s more, many people who “go small” end up with a full-size aquarium, as well. It’s a natural progression for those customers who turn into fish-lovers. This evolution, however, does not happen for everyone. Unfortunately, small is not for everyone, so you must expect a few people to become disillusioned by the experience. The smaller a tank, the more difficult it is to balance, and this leads to frustration for some consumers.

Before you sell a nano tank, you must be certain that people understand the parameters under which they operate. Only species that stay small all their lives should be housed in a nano tank. I recommend designating a special section where only miniature fish are sold. It’s best to house these specimens in 10- and 20-gallon aquariums, since they are perfect representatives of nano tanks.

Of course, as with any trend, there are extremes, and some really small desktop aquariums are being marketed to the trade. Fish for these micro-environments are restricted to only a few hardy miniature species. Even better than fish, however, are the small ornamental freshwater shrimp species, which have become popular in Asia and Europe.

Nano tanks are actually making their biggest splash in the marine field. Here, a hobbyist can start a real reef tank on a budget. It’s like a bicycle with training wheels—it allows people to get ready for the big time without investing a fortune to discover if they even enjoy the hobby. I highly recommend nano tanks for first-time marine reef enthusiasts. These are not nearly as fish friendly, however, since the species suitable for these small tanks is limited. For example, tangs are virtually out of the question, since even the smaller species will outgrow any nano environment. Any fish that grows larger than three inches will probably be stressed in a nano tank. Even with this restriction, there are many species that can be kept in small tanks if a person is able to control his impulses to select inappropriate fish.

Corals and most invertebrates are custom-made for nano biotopes. If a coral gets too big, you simply frag it and give it to your friend. You certainly can’t do this with fish. For me, losing a coral, be it soft or stony, is a lot less traumatic than losing a fish. I feel certain that many “reefers” would disagree with this philosophy. Part of my reasoning has to do with pulling living organisms from nature and trying to force them into artificial environments with unnatural companions. It seems somewhat more humane to raise and frag corals in captivity.


To Market
How should you market nano tanks? Since they are small and easily overlooked in a large store, I would put them up front and force customers to enter your establishment through a gauntlet of fully set-up and functioning nano tanks. Each size, model and brand you carry should be represented. Vary the contents—marine fish, reef, dwarf freshwater fish, freshwater shrimp, bettas, micro aquatic gardens, etc. The possibilities are limited only by the availability of livestock and your creativity. Put your best and most artistic employees on these projects—as long as he/she has a thorough understanding of aquatic habitats. Mistakes in nano tanks are much more obvious than in larger aquariums.

Surround the fully functioning nano setups with boxes of the same units. If you offer a special price over a period of seven to 10 days and advertise adequately, you should sell a large number of them. You might think that setting up nano tanks would be simple since they are so small, but you may be surprised by the complexity of some brands and models. It’s important to have a knowledgeable sales associate standing by to answer any customer questions.

If your nano sales take off, don’t be surprised to see a corresponding drop in sales of larger aquariums. This is a good reason not to run a constant special on nano setups. You should certainly maintain a healthy supply of these units, but alternate your best price between large and small setups. Follow a nano-tank blitz with a blowout of mega tanks (125-gallons or larger), and then concentrate on the bread-and-butter sizes of 55-, 65-, and 75-gallon tanks. Finally, move to the specialty items such as bow-fronts, corners, hexes and extra-tall tanks. Keep your customers coming back by giving them something new every few weeks.

No company has exclusive rights to produce and sell nano kits, so you too can create your own nano setups. This will require some extra work on your part, but it will bring you great results if you select products that are not found in typical commercial nano offerings. I would concentrate on items such as gravel (sand), fish food, water treatment products (including marine salt), filters with appropriate cartridges and/or filter materials and coupons for livestock. Even if your kits cost more than the professional setups, they may sell better because of their completeness. Most people will not have to buy a lot of extraneous things to get their tanks running. You can even customize your kits on the spot to satisfy the requirements of almost any individual. I would go no larger than 27-gallons with these kits.


Little Livestock
It’s one thing to sell nano setups. It’s an entirely different matter to sell the fish that go inside these tiny environments. If you can’t house and sell nano fish, you should not be selling nano tanks. You are doing your customers a great injustice if you leave them hanging when it comes to livestock. Small fish don’t have to go inside small tanks, but they are frequently lost inside larger ones. In particular, the filtration in small aquariums must be designed so it cannot suck up or otherwise dismantle the animals housed inside. This applies to both nano setups sold to customers and the tanks in your store.

Fortunately, most of the miniature species of fish available to the trade are not predatory on other fish species. Many of them prefer to eat small crustaceans, worms and insect larvae. The others are, to a major extent, vegetarians—and these are even easier to keep. It’s a real challenge for people with nano tanks to not over-feed their fish. Very small fish eat very small food items. Anything large can be a pollution danger unless the fish graze on it over a period of time. Micro-pellets are great, and tiny frozen plankton or brine shrimp nauplii will make good alternatives. As with any species, it is important to vary the diet as much as possible within the boundaries of the fishes’ dietary requirements. Hobbyists may wish to culture some of their own foods; such things as daphnia, rotifers, micro-worms and wingless fruit flies come to mind.

Miniature fish have often been referred to as living jewels of the aquarium, and this is particularly true of a few of the brightly colored species. Unfortunately, a fair percentage of the tiny species come from waters that are soft and acidic. Only captive-raised specimens of these animals convert well to regular water chemistry. Customers may have to “go native” and create special water chemistry for some wild-caught fish. A perfect example is one of the original nano species, the cardinal tetra. It requires acid water to stay healthy. Neon tetras, on the other hand, do quite well in regular tap water from most parts of the country.

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.