Maybe it’s not quite time to kiss the 10 Gallon Starter Kit goodbye. But as I write these words in September of 2001, I can’t help but wonder if by the time this article is published, we’ll be looking for its coat and hat and warming up the Oldsmobile.

For decades now, a 10 gallon tank with basic filtration and lighting has been the classic beginner’s tank, promoted and usually discounted rather heavily in order to attract a few people to the fascinating hobby of keeping tropical fish. It’s served this purpose well, and surely many thousands of hobbyists can trace their beginnings to such a setup. Some of these setups were purchased new; others were handed down by either someone who has graduated to a larger tank, or someone who flunked out of the hobby altogether. To the potential aquarium hobbyist, it was almost a rite of passage; to the retailer, it was an old friend that opened doors to new business opportunities.

A 10 gallon starter package still has a lot going for it, including low cost, versatility, and almost universal availability, but is lacking one thing for today’s marketplace:


Enter the new turnkey aquarium kits. Several manufacturers are now making some very snappy models of aquarium setups in the 5 to 15 gallon range that are fully functional, yet look like more than a black-framed rectangular glass box. Some come in bowed-front or hexagon shapes, some in an assortment of colors. Some have filtration integrated into the cover, while others utilize more standard filters. Many have colorful translucent light housings that glow when the light fixture is turned on. Most use small water pumps to provide circulation, aeration and water flow for the filtration system, eliminating much of the splash, splatter and noise associated with air pumps.

While none of the current models can quite justify the phrase “just add water”, each is, by its own definition at least, a “complete” setup. Gravel and decorations are of course purchased separately to allow the consumer to personalize his setup, and even the nearly essential aquarium heater is usually left as an add-on item. All of these setups look sharp, different, and new, and are attractively packaged and ready to sell.

What’s the big deal?

There have been small, boxed, “complete” aquarium kits available for years, including some in assorted colors and shapes. But most were too small, many were too poorly filtered, and few were considered a significant improvement over a goldfish bowl by most aquarium hobbyists. According to Bud Snyder, Vice President of Sales and Marketing with Marineland / Aquaria Group, “Novelty aquariums weren’t manufactured by aquarium companies, and they focused on playful themes” rather than life support. “A two gallon tank would often have minimal filtration, and used a 15 watt light bulb, resulting in poor water quality and drastic temperature changes.” Many such “miniature fish tanks” were probably more accurately categorized as Toys than as Aquariums.

This latest generation of all-in-one aquariums features a little more capacity, a lot more sophisticated filtration, and often better lighting. Snyder uses the term Integrated Aquariums. “All basic life support is considered together at manufacturing, and tailored to fit that particular aquarium.” Smaller tanks don’t include a light fixture, not just to keep costs down, but to avoid overheating or sudden temperature changes. Larger tanks have more powerful pumps and larger filter cartridges. Each element is selected or designed to complement that unique size and style of tank.

Retail prices may range from well under fifty dollars for one of the more basic units with simple filtration and either no lighting or an incandescent fixture to several hundred dollars for a system with an integrated filter and raised compact fluorescent lighting. In every case, the philosophy isn’t to make a cute, eye-catching design, but to make a cute, eye-catching design that will support aquatic life.

Who’s in the target market?

“Practically everybody”, says Bob Stern, salesman for Commodity Axis, distributing the ViaAqua line. “These tanks are almost a ‘no-brainer’ to set up, and are very attractive. They bring the aquarium up out of the basement and back into the house.”

Scott Lebowitz, President of That Fish Place, a huge retail/mail order store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, agrees. “These are great for the starting hobbyist. It’s one-stop shopping; you get everything you need in one package. They’re also great for people with limited space” – like dorm rooms, kid’s bedrooms, and even in the office. “Aquariums are proven to cut down on stress, and office workers just love to have one on their desk.”

A more advanced aquarist might also find it fascinating to set up a micro-mini-reef or a tiny planted aquarium (can one bonsai a bacopa?) in one of these new setups. Depending on which unit he selects, lighting may already be adequate, but a number of hobbyists are already experimenting with ways of retrofitting an extra lamp or maybe an entire compact fluorescent fixture.

Jan Mulholland, Sales Manager for All Glass Aquarium, agrees that almost anyone could find something interesting to do with one of their Mini Bow tanks, “but our primary target is the child’s room. One of our goals is to attract young people and get them off to a successful start in the hobby. We did focus studies on what would be the favorite colors for boys and girls, and added a couple that would appeal to adults as well.”


Since these units are attractively packaged and can practically sell themselves, the entire sales plan could simply be to place a big stack of them somewhere, and let (human) nature take its course. Of course, that’s probably what every mass merchandiser in your town will already be doing. Most retailers will have a hard time competing with these “big boys” on price alone, and may need to find a way to add some value to their packages.

That added value might be as simple as just giving good, solid advice on just what can – and can’t – be accomplished in this sort of setup. In an effort to keep things as uncomplicated for the beginner as possible, many of these systems have rather limited setup instructions, and even less information on long-term care. Most also display photographs of much larger aquariums with dozens of large fish on their packaging and in their advertisements, which may give a newcomer the false impression that such a grand display might be achieved in such a petite vessel.

Joe Olenik, general manager of Hoffer’s Tropic Life pet store in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recommends training the sales staff to walk the customer through every setup purchase, discussing both its potential as well as its limitations. “We have a mission to educate, and while one goal is to make a sale, a much bigger goal is to make a successful hobbyist for tomorrow.” So, while a 12 gallon tank with adequate light and filtration might be suitable for a small group of tetras, or even a small saltwater clown anemone fish and a few “live rocks”, forget about the breeding colony of African cichlids or the Harlequin Tusk Fish.

“Some customers may succeed with very little help, but others will make some of the classic mistakes such as adding too many fish too soon and overfeeding.” Olenik continues. Some will be disappointed in the amount of time and effort required to keep a bargain aquarium kit clean and healthy. A well-trained salesperson can help to teach basic aquarium care, direct buyers toward low-maintenance systems, and head off future problems.

Added value might also be found in your creative abilities. Mulholland and Stern suggest setting several tanks up complete with water, fish and decorations. This could be a fun project for a few employees, and a chance to show off their imagination as well as their fish-keeping knowledge. Be sure to show several options of color and shape, and have additional styles readily available. Inevitably, some customers will be looking for the exact item you don’t have in stock. Snyder also recommends this approach but cautions, “the worst way to merchandise an aquarium kit is to set up a nice display, and then neglect it.” If the display begins to look a little stale or is no longer getting second looks, it’s time to clean it up, make a few changes, or maybe replace it with something a little bit different.

Don’t be surprised if someone wants to purchase one of these units fully set up, right off the display counter. Beginners often know just what they like, but not how to get there from scratch. Many dealers have had success selling established mini-tanks by bagging up the livestock, emptying most of the water into a bucket, and having the customer carry the tank home with the gravel and decorations inside. Once there, it’s a quick and simple process to refill the tank with the original water and add the fish. There’s little muss or fuss, no break-in cycle, and no acclimation period – the hobbyist skips most of the hassle and gets right down to the fun!

Olenik also suggests a seasonal approach to marketing. “We have a nice display of these tanks by the entry way, with signage that’s geared (in September) toward students, science projects and biology experiments. In a few months, it will evolve into a gift section. Nearby, we keep a gondola of tie-in merchandise, especially cutesy little ornaments.” Small bags of aquarium gravel, appropriate sized heaters and small portions of fish food and dechlorinators make good add-on sales, and should also be displayed in the vicinity.

What impact will turnkey aquariums have on the hobby and the industry?

Marineland’s Snyder believes integrated tanks are already having a strong influence, citing a recent APPMA survey that showed a strong increase in Market Penetration for aquariums. “The aquarium industry has never had a problem attracting new business,” says Snyder, “but often we have as many people going out the back door as coming in the front door. Giving a new buyer a successful experience narrows the back door, and the result is a buildup of people remaining in the hobby.”

That’s great news for a hobby that now finds itself competing for consumer dollars with video games, computers and other high tech gadgetry. Even though many turnkey aquarium product lines are just now finding their way to market, everyone I interviewed, from manufacturer to retailer, agreed that sales are already exceeding their expectations. If this trend continues, we may well be witnessing a rather small change that makes a big difference, saying “hello” to a new way of attracting hobbyists, and “goodbye” to an old friend.

This article originally appeared in

Pet Age Magazine