Starter Kits for Fish Owners

Cute little boy feeding fish in aquarium


Do you know what percentage of people who walk into your store for the first time don’t own a fish tank? No? Well, here’s what you do: Ask every adult from 21 and up to fill out a short form when they enter your store. The questions should include name, zip code, phone number, email address and, of course, if there’s a fish tank currently set up in their residence. Of course, don’t make it a requirement; but to encourage participation, tell customers that their name will be entered for a free 10-gal. starter kit.


When the winner comes to pick up the prize, give them the chance to upgrade from the 10 gal. to something larger, and offer them full credit plus a 10-percent discount on whatever they select. For example, let’s say the 10-gal. starter kit retails for $60, and the winner would like to trade up for a 30-gal. starter kit that goes for $150. With the 10-percent discount and the subtracted value of the kit they won, their total discount would be $75—50 percent off.


A fish store needs to be dynamic to attract a following. It’s not just what you have in the shop, it’s how you merchandise it. Try offering discount coupons on your website and Facebook page, but make sure each one is a different, and don’t offer coupons on both at the same time. Vary it back and forth, so people must keep checking on a regular basis.


There are companies that wholesale pre-packaged starter kits, but honestly, why not do it yourself? Yes, it takes time, but once you have figured out the components of each kit, you can place an employee on kit-making duty. They can pull the appropriate merchandise off store shelves, or you can organize a small area off the sales floor for kit assembly.


Years ago, there were discount and deluxe starter kits, but I believe the concept is antiquated. When it comes to setting up an aquarium, no corners should be cut if it sacrifices fish husbandry. My kit sizes are 10 gal., 20 gal. (long), 30 gal. and 55 gal. Of course, you can go larger, but I would not tie up too much inventory in big tanks. Most people who buy starter kits are novices—they do not own a fish tank and probably never have. Education for these beginners is key to their future success.


Now, here’s a secret... Produce a small booklet that takes a beginner through the steps of setting up an aquarium. You can even illustrate it with photos or drawings, if you have an employee with artistic talent. Printing a few hundred pamphlets may sound expensive, but it will pay itself off 100 times over. Put them in your starter kits or give them to people who spend a significant amount on equipment.


In this day and age of big-box retailers and chain stores, you have something they will never have—diversity of product, flexibility and, most importantly, knowledge. You and your staff can run circles around the vast majority of personnel who populate the corporate boxes. Use this to your advantage, as it was this specific characteristic that made it impossible for big-box retailers to succeed in the past.


Luckily, the times they are a changin’—again—and aquatic sales are swinging back to the places they always belonged: free-standing fish stores. The revolution started with reef stores, and soon it will come full circle back to general aquatics. As long as every member of your sales team cares about their job, the animals they are selling and maintaining, and the pursuit of knowledge in their field, your store should prosper.


If you ask me what the ultimate starter kit should be, I would say an introductory kit to the care and maintenance of corals, both soft and stony. This is truly a complicated subject and you should not attempt to build such a kit unless your knowledge is up to the challenge.


First and foremost, your biggest hurdle will be keeping the cost of the kit reasonable. If you tell a customer they must spend $500 to set up a 30-gal. tank, most of them will just laugh at you and walk away. Novices in coral maintenance don’t last long unless they are quick learners with a large wallet.


Don’t try to pretend or con people into thinking that they can get by with inferior equipment. In reality, the cheapest thing about a coral starter kit will be the tank itself. It’s the yen to the freshwater yang. In fact, you can leave the tank out of a reef starter kit. The only problem with doing this is that kits are specifically designed for certain sized tanks. Perhaps offering both options would be a good idea.


Marine reef starter kit—that’s kind of a frightening phrase. You can go high, or really high. Low is not an option. From my experience, it’s not simple to set up a small reef environment. You need to be an expert to do that. Instead, if a person can afford it, the two best sizes for a starter reef tank are 60- and 75-gal. aquariums. These aren’t cheap, especially if they are drilled. Reef tanks are much more successful if they employ a sump or wet/dry filter. Yes, you can use an overflow box, but it will require constant tweaking. Frankly, beginners are going to have problems with sumps or overflow boxes.


If a customer is willing to start with soft corals and conquer that challenge, then he can probably successfully segue to a hard or stony coral environment. The difference between these two habitats is day and night. Maintaining the two types of coral together is a real trick and adequate spacing is the key to success. You MUST hold classes for novices who are interested in reef tanks. I would give a discount on marine starter kits if a person attends one of the classes you offer.


Frankly, I don’t see a decent marine hard coral kit starting at less than $800.00. Now, if the customer only wants to keep marine fish, that’s an entirely different matter. It’s not as simple as freshwater, but at least the cost of equipment will be substantially less. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. A tank and equipment purchased strictly for keeping marine fish would be woefully inadequate when it comes to maintaining coral. You see, fish are not expected to grow a great deal if they are purchased at an adult size. Coral, on the other hand, must continue to grow to survive. There is rarely such a thing as a full-sized head of coral. The sky is the limit or, rather, the size and quality of the environment.


There is SOME overlap between salt and freshwater starter kits. The tank can be the same, as can the heaters, and if you are selling canister filters, those too are functional in both environments. Marine starter kits must have marine salt, supplemental chemicals, marine gravel, an hydrometer, reef-quality LED lighting and power heads as water circulation devices. It’s easy to see how all of this bumps up the price of the package.


An ancillary service to a starter kit can be offered for a nominal price. This would consist of setting up the tank for a customer. Assuming your shop has an aquarium maintenance service as an integral part of its retailing business, this would not be a problem. Included in the cost would be the delivery of the tank and all other features of the package. When your employees set up a new tank for an inexperienced customer, it’s like an insurance policy guaranteeing a proper start to the adventure of keeping aquatic organisms.  PB


Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.