Boy feeding fish in aquarium

Summer will be coming to a close shortly, and in years past, that typically meant an uptick in sales that usually lasted until the beginning of the holiday season when things really took off. Not this year, or last, because the effects of COVID continue to have a major impact on sales in the pet trade. If you are a fully aquatic business, you have almost certainly seen your sales maintain a robust level throughout the entire year. 

Hopefully, this increase in revenue will continue, perhaps without any prompting from you; but, my guess is you are not just going to sit around and wait for customers to show up. You are going to be proactive and spend time and money on concepts or ideas that will continue to make your business grow. With that in mind, I would like to make some suggestions in the area of “starter” kits for aquariums.


Prepackaged Kits

There have typically been a number of companies selling prepackaged aquatic setups. The components of these kits vary a great deal; some are all-inclusive with built-in filter and light while others have individual items, including a standard glass aquarium. While you should stock both types of kits, your competitors can too. In fact, some of these kits even come with a price printed on the box. This means your only leverage is in the direction of lowering the price if you want to offer your customers a better deal. Why lock yourself into selling the same thing that every other store can sell? Unless we are talking about a fully integrated aquatic unit, you can do a better job than any company that is offering cookie-cutter combos.

First, start with the basics: tank, top, filter, heater and light. Tanks come in various sizes and the tops, filters, heaters and lights must match the tank. For example, a 20-gal. (long) is 30 in. in length and 12 in. in width. Whatever you select to cover the top of the tank must fit those dimensions. It could be a glass top with a separate fixture (incorporating the light) or it could be a full plastic cover with a removable light fixture. 

Likewise, filters and heaters should be of the proper size. For heaters, it is 5-watts per gallon or 100 watts for a 20-gal. (long) tank. Filters are typically rated by their flow rate in gallons per hour. For a 20-gal. tank, you want the water to “turn over” five to ten times in an hour. That’s a range of 100-200 gal. per hour. It sounds like a lot, but it really is not.


Beyond the Basics

So, what I have described thus far is the “super basic” package that will at least get a customer started down the road to setting up an aquarium. There is so much more, of course, but many of the remaining items are customized to a person’s taste. 

Consider things such as gravel, rocks, décor items, plastic plants, ornaments, backgrounds, etc. And then, of course, many people prefer live plants to the artificial ones. If you or your employees have a creative streak, this is the time to give it free rein. Custom aquarium setups are frequently better sellers than the basic packages. In fact, you can actually set them up, for real, and sell the whole thing, livestock and all, at a fixed price. Should a customer feel unable to duplicate the tank himself when he takes it home, you can offer aquarium transportation and set up for a price based on the geographical location of the buyer and, of course, how many gallons the tank happens to be.

In reality, the sky is the limit for selling complete setups in your store. Starting with a 2-1/2 gal. shrimp tank, you can go as large as your ability to move and transport the components allows. I draw the line at 150-gal. setups, but as for basic components, it is 300-gal. After that, I would call in a real specialist who can fabricate custom-designed aquariums and transport them to any location in the country. 

Talking about giant setups may seem a little fanciful for the average retail aquatic store, so let’s get back to what most of us have room to handle. Every square foot needs to make money and having stacks of empty tanks taking up valuable retail space is not good business. You can always store excess stock in locations off the retail floor or even in remote storage areas. With this said, starter kits will certainly draw attention and give people ideas as to what might work in their homes.


Specialized Kits

Now, a “starter” kit is just that, basic in every way, but what about “specialized” starter kits? This concept opens up a wide world of possibilities. First of all, if you decide to offer these “themed” kits, you had better practice setting them up in the store. 

From my perspective, there are a number of possibilities for dedicated environments. The major types include: (1) livebearers, (2) South American schooling fish, (3) rainbowfish, (4) small South American cichlids, (5) Rift Lake cichlids, (6) West African and Congo cichlids, (7) angelfish and discus, (8) brackish-water fish, (9) African and Asian schooling fishes and (10) medium-size anabantoids. 

Seeing these choices, you might be a little overwhelmed, but no one is suggesting you set up all of these environments. Just pick a couple and try those. I believe you should start with South American schooling fish and Rift Lake cichlids.

As an example, for the New World (South America) schooling fish aquarium, there are virtually hundreds of species you could select. A 55-gal. tank will work perfectly since you want to watch the schools swim back and fourth across the length of the tank. Throw in a few Corydoras catfish to forage over the substrate and you are in business. This is a great choice for a heavily planted aquarium that can generate more sales of live aquatic plants.


Brackish Water Environments

Now, I have a favorite specialty display tank and it can easily become a center of attention in your store if you make it big and bold. This would be a brackish water environment in which you can go one of two ways: (1) aggressive or (2) eclectic. Either way it’s going to be impressive or kinetic. For the aggressive version you will want to use a 125-gal. tank. Put in marine sand and lots of rocks sourced from the ocean. Keep the specific gravity around 1.010 to 1.015 and populate the tank with monos, scats, large gobies, orange or green chromides, puffers, columbian sharks (catfish) and Datnioides. The balance of species is important, and don’t let the Siamese tiger fish get too large or they will dominate. I guarantee if you have this display tank, many of your customers will want to set up one and buy the brackish-water fish as well. 

The flip side of this coin is the eclectic version. There will be two major stars in this environment, the Anableps and the mudskippers. Both of these will crawl out of the water onto the rocks to eat and rest. The trick here is to make the substrate look like a sand or even a mud flat. No, you can’t use actual mud. Marine sand made from crushed coral will have to suffice. The water level can be low but not too low. I prefer a depth of 16 in., but this must be in a tank that is 24 in. in height or more. 

You want to give the fish plenty of room to crawl out of the water onto a beach-like environment. Live mangrove seedlings will be perfect for décor. In general, the mudskippers will spend more time out of water than the Anableps. This tank can include bumblebee gobies, sail-fin mollies, small Australian gobies, small species of halfbeaks and a few species of brackish-water killifish. This is a dynamic and super-impressive display that you can sell to customers as a kit. Once again, a long tank with sufficient depth is critical. 

The simplest tank kits to sell are the small environments for freshwater shrimp, miniature fish species and Bettas. Once again, your customers will require examples to guide them through the possibilities. While shrimp are the latest craze, the Aquatic Garden or Water Garden concept pre-dated them by several years. These environments are aquascaped with a wide variety of aquatic plants that create a scene reminiscent of an actual garden somewhat like the formal gardens of England and France from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If you go this route, you should have an employee who knows how to create these stylized and formal habitats. They are sparse in fish, but your aquatic plant sales will definitely see an increase.

So, as you can see, there is a lot more to aquatic kits than selling them to beginners. In fact, when I approach someone new to the hobby, I typically ask what he or she is interested in and what their budget might be. I usually recommend starter kits to the neophytes and more personalized versions to people wanting to kick their aquatic experience up a notch. 

It’s like buying a car. You think you want a certain brand or model before you actually own one. Then, maybe later you realize that car isn’t what you hoped it would be. No matter what your interest, cars or aquariums, it’s always better to get a little experience under your belt before you go for broke.  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.