Exotic, Not Quixotic

Variety is the spice of life, they say. It’s a big reason that saffron, sumac, serrano chilies and epazote, despite being rare and lesser known, are highly coveted seasonings among fine cuisine aficionados. And it also helps explain the irresistible allure of exotic small animals, like sugar gliders, prairie dogs, degus, hedgehogs, chinchillas and kinkajous—out-of-the-ordinary species that can add diversity and dollars to your business.

Yes, there are hurdles to clear: some of these breeds are prohibited in certain states and municipalities, finding reputable breeders can be challenging, and retailers might need to get up to speed on the unique requirements of these breeds (bet you didn’t know hedgehogs are insectivores and the nutritional needs of sugar gliders are still up for debate). But if store owners start slowly and at least begin stocking some of the species-compatible supplies, they’ll likely gain traction in the exotics space quicker than expected, say the experts.

Filling a Niche
“General awareness of exotic pet ownership seems to be a growing trend, probably largely due to social media and the popularity of pet influencers,” said Brent Weinmann, president and CEO of Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., in Weston, Ohio. “Good online resources for learning about these animals and how to care for them are encouraging more people to consider exotic pets.”

Michael Clark, director of marketing for small animal consumables with Schaumburg, Illinois-based Kaytee, says exotics can be profitable, with the right planning.

“Retailers are always trying to distinguish themselves and fill niche categories,” Clark said. “Offering less common small animals is a way to do that.”
Brian Wood, president of Cleveland-headquartered FiberCore LLC, manufacturer of Eco-Bedding, agrees.

“If you’ve got a knowledgeable staff and curious customers, exotics are going to be a draw. To be able to pull people into your store with animals you don’t see every day is a way to differentiate yourself from the big box and online retailers,” Wood said. “Consumers are always looking for something different, especially those who might have started with a hamster and later realize that there are other interesting critters out there. Why not take a chance, be a leader and add a few of these breeds to your livestock?”

Responsible Retailers
This decision, however, comes with important obligations, notes Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Kordon LLC in Hayward, California.

“It’s the retailer’s duty to provide accurate and detailed information and instructions, and they must remain up to date and informed on all that is required,” Morehouse said.

Be forewarned that some exotics are higher maintenance than others. Degus need a diet high in fiber but somewhat low in protein, fat and sugar. Prairie dogs need stimulation and interaction as well as high-fiber foods. And hedgehogs are nocturnal and require a diet lower in fat but higher in protein.

“Sugar gliders are also nocturnal and don’t like to be alone, so potential owners might be deterred after they learn they should have at least two of them,” Weinmann said. “All exotic animals are different, and one specific trait of a species that makes them really desirable pets to some will make them less desirable to others.”

Additionally, most exotics require a regionally or geographically specific diet, “which you’ll need to stock,” Morehouse said.

“Buyers need to be educated about the pet and what it will grow into, as well,” she continued. “For example, the retailer needs to provide the proper cages and internal fittings, as the size of the habitat, toys, perching places and climbing options might change as the pet grows and becomes more athletic. And the retailer should have a listing of veterinarians in the area that accept and are experienced with these exotic pets.”

Creating Synergy
Clark recommends pet retailers engage closely with their clientele to learn more about what they’re looking for in rarer small animal species before overcommitting their operations.

“You can learn a lot from your customers, just as they can learn a lot from you,” Clark said.

Most customers interested in exotics will need guidance and interaction from the store. The reward is trust and loyalty that can make registers ring for the life of that pet.

“The owners that gravitate to exotics tend to be better read and more aware of what they’re getting into—often because there can be a greater financial commitment versus investing in a hamster,” Wood said.

Food and Hard Goods
In the food segment, major players include Sunseed, whose Vita Prima Sunscription line offers formulas for chinchillas, degus, hedgehogs and sugar gliders; Exotic Nutrition, makers of Hedgehog Complete, Degu Complete, Glider Complete, and Prairie Dog Diet; Mazuri, providers of Hedgehog Diet; Brown’s, makers of ZOO-Vital Hedgehog Food; Manna Pro, manufacturers of Small World Complete Feed for Chinchillas; and Blessings, producers of Bugs-n-Fruit Protein Plus, a sugar glider diet. Degus, prairie dogs and other exotics also eat hay, which is well represented with Harvest Stacks by Oxbow Animal Health, Western Timothy Hay by Nature’s Promise and Timothy Gold Hay by American Pet. Among the treats category are Brown’s Extreme! Wild Berry and Extreme! Candy-Covered Sunflower Seeds, as well as Hagen’s Living World Alfalfa and Timothy Chews.

When it comes to hard goods, an ample array exists. Prominent cages include Kaytee’s My First Home Habitat Multi-Level for Exotics; Exotic Nutrition’s Kritter Castle, Brisbane Sugar Glider Cage, and Hedgie Home Sweet Home; and a plethora of enclosures made by A&E Cage Company and MidWest Home for Pets. Compatible toys are equally abundant, as evidenced by Kaytee’s Chewbular Play Tube, Comfort Exercise Wheel, and Woodland Get-A-Way; and Prevue Pet Products’ Hoppin’ Harvest, Grassy Nibbler Toy Trio, and Hideouts Double Coconut with Ladder.

Tricks of the Trade
To stimulate interest in in-store exotics, stores can try hosting a weekend event that introduces a new species for sale, and partner with a breeder, vet or other specialist who can answer any questions about care and feeding.

“Also, encourage interested customers to visit your store multiple times and interact with an exotic to help avoid impulse buys,” Weinmann said.
Lastly, aim for visual variety in merchandising strategies.

“Use end caps in different departments and point-of-purchase displays that showcase different supplies for exotics,” Clark suggested.

Seeds for Success

They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That can also be said of pet birds, whose owners know that providing nutritious yet tasty edible offerings can keep their winged companions healthy and happy. More importantly for pet retailers who cater to this need, it can sow the seeds for a successful merchant-customer partnership that brings patrons faithfully back for more when that favorite food for feathered friends runs out.

But earning a valued reputation as the go-to destination for primary diets requires a store to evaluate its current set carefully and determine if it needs a wider array of brands and products that fit the bill for various breeds. It also involves identifying industry trends that could keep the retailer ahead of the curve when it comes to consumer preferences.

For example, Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Bowling Green, Ohio-headquartered Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., says he’s observed a recent resurgence in blended, forage-style diets.

“Pet bird diets have historically been divided into two groups: seed mixes and pellets. Recognizing that the vast majority of consumers use both, companies have begun to emphasize blended diets as an easy feeding mechanism that gives the consumer what they want and more. These have high ingredient diversity and almost always contain a mixture of seeds, nuts, extruded pellets, fruits and vegetables,” said Norsen, who noted that Vitakraft launched Sunsations Natural and Vita Sunscription with these concepts in mind. “The goals with these types of diets are to be nutritionally complete, attractive to the consumer and to minimize selective feeding.”

Family-Friendly Foods
Another trend gaining traction in the bird food space is pet humanization: treating and nurturing birds like a valued member of the family, says Gail Shepard, director of marketing for ZuPreem in Mission, Kansas.

“We conducted qualitative and quantitative research, reaching out to approximately 1,800 homes representing around 4,300 pet birds, and did six focus groups across the country,” Shepard said. “We found that bird owners are concerned with meal occasions; they don’t want to feed the same food to their bird at the same time throughout the day. So we came up with a new Feed Smart nutrition program, launched last August, involving three product lines that help pet parents take the guesswork out of daily feeding.”

The three product lines are Essential Nutrition (including FruitBlend, VeggieBlend, NutBlend and Smart Selects brands), which should constitute 60 percent of the bird’s diet; Enriching Variety (Pure Fun and Sensible Seed)—no more than 30 percent of the diet; and Rewarding Treats (Real Rewards)—no more than 10 percent.

Other examples of products that attempt to simplify the daily diet choice include Marion Zoological’s Scenic Bird Food line and its new Paradise Mixed Flavor pelleted food; Brown’s Tropical Carnival Zoo Vital Extruded Ultimate Avian Diets; Kaytee’s Fiesta, Forti-Diet, Supreme and Exact Rainbow food lines; Hagan’s Hari line of extruded diets, including Tropican Lifetime Formula Granules and High Performance Granules; Lafeber’s Premium Daily Diet pellets; Harrison’s Bird Foods’ Adult Lifeline formulas; and Caitec’s Oven Fresh Bites baked diets.

Lessons from the Label
Norsen adds that manufacturers have also made a strong effort lately to improve bird food packaging, which helps to enhance the look of a store’s bird department as a whole. Case in point: all of Vitakraft’s bird diets are now available in stand-up packaging with improved graphics.

“We’re in the process of redoing the packaging on our three lines: Sweet Harvest, our value brand, and Rainforest and McBride, our premium brands. They’re currently in lay-down bags, but we will go to stand-up gloss mat bags soon,” said Ben Goldman, director of sales for Kaylor of Colorado, which is located in Greeley, Colorado. “Packaging is critical. The perception of our customers is that there is greater value in our Sweet Harvest brand, even though it’s not our premium line, because of the packaging, which promotes the dehydrated carrots, banana chips and chili peppers within and catches the customer’s eye.”
Shepard notes that consumers desire cleaner and simpler labels they can better understand.

“They appreciate better visualization with graphics on the packaging that they can relate to,” Shepard said. “And they want to see recognizable ingredients. If we tell them that there are apples in our product, we put a graphic of an apple on the back.”

In-Store Strategies
Reading packaging isn’t the only way shoppers can become more knowledgeable about better ingredients and dietary requirements for birds. Pet stores should also take the initiative to get patrons up to speed on how to choose the right goods.

“Educating your customers about the nutritional needs of their birds is the best way to sell products,” says Stephanie Carbaugh, design and marketing assistant for Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania-based F.M. Brown’s Sons, Inc. “This can be accomplished through point-of-purchase signage and materials, in-store training or websites with useful information.”

When it comes to merchandising bird diets, retailers can try implementing brand blocking with a good, better and best product approach to shelf placement.
“The goal here is to encourage the consumer to purchase more premium foods,” Norsen said. “Also, consider bulk dispensers. Selling in bulk is a great way to encourage customer loyalty and grow margins.”

Clever promotional strategies can pay dividends in the bird food zone, too.

“Host small events that attract families, such as throwing a birthday party for your store’s bird mascot, bringing a veterinarian in for a Q&A with customers and making your store available to daycare centers who can read a book about a bird to kids and then show them a real bird,” Shepard suggested.

All About That Base

Today’s pet retailers can’t afford to roll out of bed late—or roll only partway into the small animal bedding subcategory, for that matter. That’s because pet owners are increasingly aware of the plethora of substrates crowding the market and are clamoring for greater variety in the products with which they choose to line their cage bottoms.

However, it’s not enough for a store to simply diversify its bedding/litter stock: it has to cater to popular demand for colors, defense against stench, eco-friendliness and alternative materials, too, say the pros.

“As consumers’ understanding of how their pets interact with the bedding increases, retailers have been challenged to expand their offerings to include products that not only cover the bottom of the cage but also contribute to a safe and enriching environment,” explained Angie Schmitt, senior brand manager for Kaytee Products in Chilton, Wisconsin. “As a result, many retailers have moved away from substrates that contain oily or aromatic woods and toward those that, for example, are dust-free and use natural, non-irritant ingredients to generate scent.”

Offering a do-it-all combination of features in one product—odor maintenance, absorbency, zero dust/no mess and low-processed ingredients—certainly seems to hit the sweet spot that customers crave.

“Pet owners are increasingly looking to buy sustainable, healthier and more natural products that are good for their pets, their homes and their environment. And they want bedding that performs well for odor control and easy cleanup but is still soft and cozy,” said Leslie Ellis, consumer communication manager for Healthy Pet, makers of carefresh natural paper bedding in Ferndale, Washington.

The Paper Chase
For these and other reasons, biodegradable paper bedding remains atop the heap when it comes to sales and preferred ingredients.

“There’s definitely been a trend in the last few years toward more naturalistic products that have the animal’s health in mind,” said Brian Wood, president of FiberCore LLC, the Cleveland-based maker of Eco-Bedding, which is made from 100 percent post-consumer paper waste that is Forest Stewardship Council-certified.

“We’ve seen a movement away from unhealthy cedar chips and cheaper products to recycled paper that’s cleaner and more economical and encourages foraging and nesting,” Wood added.

Many shoppers are also enamored with chromatically cool and colorfast bedding that enables cage customization, often choosing a tinted product that harmonizes with hues in their room or the colors of their favorite sports team. Consequently, fun and festive-colored substrate products abound, including Kaytee’s Clean & Cozy Apple Orchard, Camo, Frozen Fun, Birthday Cake and others; Healthy Pet’s carefresh Complete Confetti or carefresh colorful creations (available in six colors); and Ware’s ColorFresh Multi-Color Small Animal Bedding.

Shredded or pelleted recycled paper and wood shavings aren’t the only options available, either. More manufacturers are providing alternative materials, with each boasting unique merits. Examples include Oxbow Animal Health’s Eco-Straw, which sources high-fiber wheat straw into an absorbent, dustless, pelleted product; Hartz Corn Cob Bedding & Litter, utilizing coarse ground cob; and F.M. Brown’s Sons’ Corn Cob Bedding and its Twirls & Cobs, which mixes corn cob with recycled paper for a colorful combination.

Additionally, bedding SKUs aren’t limited to bags. In recent years, Kaytee has made a splash with its disposable CritterTrail Bedding Trays (available in a three-pack), preloaded with the company’s Clean & Cozy bedding and designed to accommodate all CritterTrail rectangular enclosures.

Sniffing Out Sales
Keeping olfactory funk to a minimum never goes out of style, either.

“Today’s pet parents are looking most often for products that help to control odor and neutralize the ammonia found in pet urine,” noted Phoebe Stanley, associate marketing manager for Bowling Green, Ohio-headquartered Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc. “Guinea pigs, for example, are social animals that need to be kept in pairs, which can create more odor in the enclosure.”

To help matters, Sun Seed offers Heavy Duty Odor Control Fresh World Bedding. Many brands, like Fresh News Small Animal Bedding and Phresh Paper Small Animal Bedding, use baking soda to curb cage-stink, and some manufacturers, like Hartz with its Nodor Natural Bedding and FiberCore with its Eco-Bedding with New Triple Action Odor Control, employ proprietary odor-encapsulating technologies or formulas they promote on their packaging and marketing materials.

Merchandising Tips
When it comes to displaying and promoting substrate goods, common sense tactics still apply. That means avoiding the urge to downplay or bury the products on bottom shelves, grouping them near habitats for sale, using new bedding products within live animal cages (and making the customer aware of this with signage) and training staff to be able to answer patrons’ questions about each product’s features and benefits.

In addition, it pays to give customers a taste—compliments of the house.

“Provide bedding samples to shoppers so that they can try the product at home,” Wood suggested.

Lastly, don’t ignore online merchandising, especially on a small animal staple like bedding.

“It’s important to provide photos on your store’s website of the bedding products you carry as well as additional content about these products,” recommended Ellis, who also advised posting images featuring the merchandise used in live habitats.

Time to Branch Out

You can’t exactly put yourself “in a bird’s shoes.” But imagine how their feet must feel gripping the same cylindrical surface day after day.

Now imagine how you can capitalize on educating customers about how to avoid this fatigued foot fate. By stocking a wider array of perches and related accessories in your store and taking time to talk to shoppers about the importance of perch variety in their cages, you can not only improve your bottom line, but you can also increase comfort and health on the bottom of the foot for plenty of pet birds.

If you’re determined to pay closer attention to perches, start by scrutinizing your set and determining which types and materials are worthy. That means saying no to cheap dowel and plastic perches and making more space for suggested products in this subcategory, including those made from natural woods like Java, coffee wood and Manzanita; ropes made from cotton and sisal; and sand, cement, bark or shell-textured pedicure perches that help trim the pet’s nails.

Trends Underfoot
Michael Acerra, marketing representative for Hauppauge, New York-headquartered Penn-Plax Pet Products, says the perch subcategory has changed noticeably from years past.

“The industry is trending more toward natural and natural-looking products and away from the bright colors and sparkle finishes that have dominated in the past,” Acerra said.

There’s also been a mass migration away from the “one-size-fits-all” perch philosophy.

“Bird retailers need to convey to the customer that there’s no such thing as a simple ‘cockatiel perch’ or ‘macaw perch,’” said Melanie Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen USA Corp. in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “Birds need a variety of diameters in perches to maintain healthy muscle tone in their feet and prevent arthritic or bumblefoot conditions, which is why natural tree branch-style perches are recommended.”

Case in point: Hagen’s HARI brand Coffeewood Branch side-mount perches, made from aged coffee trees, offer warm and secure footing for bird feet as well as irregular shapes and variable diameters to promote foot health.

Most consumers, Allen explained, are likely not aware that rope or sisal perches are ideal for sleeping, “as they provide secure footing and are easy on the bird’s feet.”

“I like to compare this to humans who kick off their work shoes at the end of the day and switch to our more comfortable soft slippers,” she said.

Storytelling Secrets
That’s the kind of metaphor that can get a shopper’s attention and which should be part of an overall narrative you can use to get patrons to better understand the significance of perch variety within the avian habitat.

“We’re constantly reinforcing to our customers the importance of having different perch surfaces and sizes in the cage,” said Chris Luberski, manager at Delran, New Jersey-based Todd Marcus Birds Exotic, which exclusively carries SKUs from Polly’s Pet Products, including the manufacturer’s Twister Perches, Manu Mineral Perches and natural hardwood perches. “We’re also consistent on recommending that they rotate each perch every few weeks and replace them at regular intervals. That means every six to eight months for natural wood and sisal or rope perches, and once a year for pedicure perches.”

Luberski advises having multiple perch levels within the enclosure and the right material for each level.

“We advise a rope perch up high, which is where 90 percent of birds sleep, a cement perch for a level just below and wood perches for the level where food and water dishes are and for the level just below that,” Luberski said. “We also suggest using a soft rope perch with a bendable inner wire that lets you twist the rope into a spiral shape—providing fun and exercise for the bird.”

Additionally, never forget the golden rule from the church of perch: Take these products out of their packaging and use them in your store.

“The best way to promote and sell these products is to use and display them within your cages featuring birds for sale,” Acerra said. “Additionally, make sure the cages are clean and attractive and filled with plenty of accessories and toys,” which makes perches appear like a natural fit within the avian environment.

Added Flair
Caterina Novotny, director of sales and marketing for Prevue Pet Products in Chicago, cautions retailers not to overlook perch-related accessories in their set, either, including ladders, perch swings and activity centers with built-in perches or ladders—such as Prevue’s hanging Coco Hideaway with Bird Ladder.

Foraging perches that can be filled with treats, fibers or nesting materials—like the Calypso Creations Hide and Seek, also by Prevue—fit the bill, too.

“These are great add-on items for retail stores to sell, and the popularity of these products has grown impressively over the last few years,” Novotny said.

Terry Gao, president of Baltimore-based Caitec Corporation, agrees.

“Bird owners have become more aware of their pets’ needs for stimulating activities,” explained Gao, whose company developed its suction cup-secured and outside-the-cage Window Play Center to cater to this particular need. “Products like play centers with perches expand self-entertainment opportunities.”

Small Animal Abodes

The days of the all-purpose aquarium serving as a surrogate for a proper pet rodent residence are long gone. So is the era of the flimsy plastic domicile that functioned more as a disposable chew toy that could be gnawed through faster than you can say “chinchilla.”

Indeed, the good news in 2017 is that there’s no shortage of quality-built, brand-name small animal abodes on the market that can add breadth and variety to your set. Many, of course, are modular, chromatically eye-catching and expandable thanks to a seemingly endless array of interconnecting accessories tailor-made for the Lego and Minecraft generation.

Bright Ideas and Concepts
Kaytee helps lead the pack with its relatively recent introduction of two inventive CritterTrail products: the Quick Clean Habitat and the LED Lighted Habitat. The former is the first enclosure of its kind to include a disposable bedding tray cartridge designed to make cleaning easier and help control unpleasant aroma. The latter includes a pair of battery-operated LED Bubble Plugs (one for nighttime use, the other for anytime use) that increase visibility within the cage and particularly excite kids.

“These LED Bubble Plugs actually connect to any CritterTrail habitat or Fun-nel tube accessory to improve pet parents’ ability to see their pets. They have fully protective lens covers to safely keep animals away from the battery and light inside, and the light won’t harm their eyes,” said Mary Ann Loveland, senior associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods in Chilton, Wisconsin, adding that it won Best in Show for the small animal category at Global Pet Expo in 2016.

Third place in that category went to Ware Manufacturing for its new Critter X Connect 360 enclosure, a modular enclosure that boasts a detachable ball for outside-the-cage adventures. Ware has also made a splash in this space with Critter Universe products, like its clever three-level AvaTower and its three-wall mouse and hamster home that’s now bundled together with Healthy Pet’s carefresh Complete food and carefresh colored bedding.

Other players capitalizing on fantastic plastic include Penn-Plax, makers of the Dingo Home for dwarf hamsters and mice, Rainforest hamster homes, and the Home & Traveler with Carrier and Starter Kit, which comes with a removable mini-travel cage on top; Hagen’s Habitrail line of products, like its OVO series and its Crystal Hamster Habitat; and Prevue Pet Products, producers of the brightly hued Hamster Haven.

Large species don’t get short shrift, either. MidWest Homes for Pets still makes its Critter Nation habitat with interlocking panels; Prevue manufactures a wrought iron model (no. 495) with a powder-coated hammertone finish; and A&E stands out for its multi-level, 35-inch-high wire cage with removal base available in platinum and black (model 13221-SA).

“The 13221-SA is perfect for a variety of small animals—it’s easily movable, has extra storage on the bottom and has three levels,” said John Lance of Burlington, New Jersey-based A&E Cage Company LLC.

House Rules
When it comes to merchandising habitats, Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Hayward, California-headquartered Kordon LLC, has a failsafe philosophy: refer customers to the largest cage available for its specific breed.

“That means carrying cages in alternative sizes that offer more options for consumers,” MorehoIMG_0133use said.

The most important retail consideration when choosing which habitats to stock in your store is appropriate size and species needs, Morehouse insists.

“For example, guinea pigs should never be housed on wire floors, such as those used for rabbits, as they have tender skin on the bottoms of their feet and can suffer sores, severed toes or fractures when housed in the wrong cage,” she said.

Hence, selling the right enclosure to the customer requires properly training your team about w
hich products are safe and appropriate for particular species. Getting closely familiar with cage brand features and product amenities and then spreading that gospel of good information to your clientele will not only likely result in the customer purchasing a safe and suitable small animal dwelling, but it also makes you appear as a responsible,
knowledgeable and caring retailer who’s worthy of repeat business.

Also remember that “it is hard for some consumers to visualize a habitat if it only exists
in a cardboard box on the shelf,” according to Jane Wasley, head of consumer marketing for Ferndale, Washington-based Healthy Pet, makers of carefresh small animal bedding. “Instead, make the effort to set a habitat endcap with assembled enclosures displayed, which not only gets the customer’s attention but entices them to purchase additional accessories, such as bedding, food, treats and toys.”

Loveland says her golden rule for better habitat sales is to first focus on selling the animal itself, assuming you stock mini mammal pets. The problem here, however, is an olfactory one: in-store enclosures housing hamsters, mice, cavies and their cousins can smell pretty ripe if they’re not cleaned and maintained regularly—which can be challenging for a retail operation that may carry dozens if not hundreds of small animals for sale.

“For these reasons, we often see retailers today choosing to no longer display live animals within setups of the habitats they also sell,” said Loveland, noting that a strong odor can leave patrons with a bad impression of the cage as well as the store.

To prevent this problem, consider showcasing your small animals for sale within large specialty cases built for display only or segregate them to a back area of the store where odors can be better controlled.

Beyond the Norm

They say the cure for feeling cooped up is to spread your wings and fly. But many bird product retailers are content to confine sales of cages—the most crucial avian commodity that bird owners purchase—to a limited supply and a small selection.

That’s an opportunity missed, say the experts, who recommend expanding your offerings to cater to consumers increasingly seeking larger, higher-quality enclosures for their feathered friends.

Spacious and Superior

“Trends today are toward larger cages—enclosures that not only give the bird more active interior room but prevent seed debris from spilling out and which offer additional play area outside the cage,” said Rick Savitt, director of product development for Prevue Pet Products in Chicago. “Additionally, manufacturers are paying more attention to customer feedback and better engineering by improving features such as door locks, spill-proof cup containment doors, and ease of assembly.”

Examples of the aforementioned include Hagen’s Vision cage series, which employs features like a debris guard and deep base to curb air currents and prevent debris from escaping the cage; A&E Cage Company’s new line of roomy flight cages for parakeets and finches, available in green, blue and purple; MidWest Homes for Pets’ Grande Playtop cages; and Kaytee’s Treat Play-n-Learn parakeet cage with a convertible playtop.

Chris Luberski, manager at Todd Marcus Birds Exotic, a pet store in Delran, New Jersey, says his customers’ insistence on better-built cages in recent years prompted the retailer to partner exclusively with a single reputable manufacturer who happened to be local: King’s Cages in nearby East Brunswick, New Jersey. High-quality welding, cage style variety and durable powder coatings factored into the store’s decision to choose this cage maker.

“It’s important to offer a superior cage brand that provides many sizes, models and materials,” Luberski said. “We stock 30 different cages, each fully assembled and on display in our store, priced from $49.99 to over $2,000—from smaller plastic colored cages to powder-coated aluminum cages to high-end stainless steel cages.”

Mary Wyld, CEO/owner of Norfolk, Virginia-based Wyld’s Wingdom, Inc., a pet bird product distributor, agrees that it’s smart to provide a variety of cage sizes and styles to accommodate various breeds and needs.

“If you do not have a healthy selection to offer the bird owner, they naturally will search elsewhere, which meansPenn-Plax their other purchases may drift to other sources,” Wyld said.

Savitt recommends choosing manufacturers who assure quality and safety of construction and components used, including laboratory testing of all materials used, such as powder coating. Customers should have the reassurance of some form of product warranty or guarantee on the cage they purchase.

Daytime Domiciles

Wyld says retailers also need to tap into a rising trend practiced by many bird owners: providing both a large daytime cage and a smaller nighttime cage.

“Most, if not all, of our bird friends are originally from near the equator, where day and night hours are relatively equal,” she said. “Providing a smaller sleep cage in a room away from other activities and putting the bird to bed there enhances their quality of life and health. Simply covering the cage while still in the midst of human activity does not give them the peace they need.”

Educating patrons on this fact and recommending the purchase of a daytime and nighttime cage can reap cash register rewards and lead to more satisfied repeat customers.

Also, consider carrying uniquely shaped cages that provide visual appeal and possibly even space-saving features. Two examples include the Triple Roof bird cage, sporting a unique three-roof design, ideal for small- to medium-sized birds, and the Penthouse Suites curved front bird cage, boasting a unique wall-hugging flat back and curved profile—both by Prevue Pet Products.

Pet store owners need more of this out-of-the-box thinking to compete with internet retailers who have contributed to the shrinking of in-store sales margins on cages, according to Wyld.

“Emphasize to your shoppers that many cages they order online arrive damaged from shipping,” Wyld said. “When they shop for a cage in store, they can see the exact condition and style of the cage.”

Catch the Eye, Close the Sale

The key to better sales of aviaries is pre-assembly within the store.

“They should be put on the shelf already set up and ready to go,” Savitt said.

But showcasing a diversity of aviary options brings up a challenge: how should they be grouped and where should they be displayed? Luberski’s answer is to group cages together by size and then smatter them throughout your store to avoid visual monotony. Then, encourage customers to explore more of your real estate.

In addition, Savitt says that affixing point-of-purchase materials to the cage front “can be quite effective in allowing the potential customer to make a more informed purchase decision for the species of bird they are housing.”

Including sold-separately accessories within the cage and offering bundled discounts can be another clientele builder and profit-padding tactic.

“Maintain your margins by offering a toy package with the cage, and encourage owners to change out the toys regularly and to continue shopping with you, as you know birds and their caging needs,” Wyld said. “This also means being sure your staff is knowledgeable, too.”

One Hot Reptile

Want a way to ensure more register rings? Think insurance, as in Geico. That company’s pitchman has entrenched geckos within pop culture. It’s your job to get patrons to enroll in a pet ownership policy that involves purchasing more gecko goods from your shop.

Most experts will tell you that geckos are a great beginner reptile and gateway pet that can get customers excited.

“Most people who come to stores looking for geckos want them because they have a friend that has one or they’ve seen one in a classroom, library or nature center,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for California-based San Francisco Bay Brand. “Their hardiness and gentle nature, plus the fact that most of the common geckos offered are captive bred, makes people feel good about having a pet gecko.”

Going Live
Frank Indiviglio, a herpetologist and zoo/pet trade consultant in New York City and Long Island, agrees that geckos and their gear get attention. So if you’re not already carrying live geckos, he suggests you get with the program and tap into a popular and profitable segment.

“After skinks, geckos are the second largest group of lizards in terms of species diversity, which provides retailers an opportunity to offer a wide range of breeds, colors and traits that appeal to different budgets,” said Indiviglio, who recommends starting with a safe option like a leopard, crested, house and Madagascar day gecko. “The sweet spot price range you want to hit is $5.99 to $30 per gecko.”

That means partnering with one or more reputable local breeders who may be able to expand your line to include other crowd-pleasers like arboreal species, terrestrial breeds and some species that are newer to the trade.

“Leopard and fat-tailed geckos, crested geckos and other New Caledonian species have separated themselves from the pack, with the morphs of each having completely surpassed sales of normal-looking individuals,” said Steve Sotelo, division manager for Exo Terra, a Rolf C. Hagen USA Corp. company in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “As a result, they have become very popular.”

Cage Considerations
Whether you choose to stock these live lizards or not, it’s smart to provide ample related merchandise. When it comes to habitats, consider that many of these geckos thrive on more natural designs and nocturnal setups.

Notables in this category include Exo Terra’s new Habisphere Lifestyle Desktop Terrarium, which features a stylish bent front window for maximum viewing and an energy-efficient day and night light built into the top lid and controlled with the touch of a button, and Zoo Med’s Naturalistic Terrarium Crested Gecko Kit, a vertically oriented habitat that comes with bush plants, a climbing branch, substrate, food and water dishes, water conditioner, vitamin complex, calcium supplement and a care handbook.

Food Facts
When considering gecko foods to stock in your store, Indiviglio states how important it is to offer a variety, including complete commercial (or prepared) diets as well as insects like crickets, roaches, hornworms and black soldier fly larvae.

“If I were a retailer, I would encourage customers to feed a wider mix of foods—not just live foods,” said Indiviglio, who recommends carrying prepared diets by manufacturers like Repashy and Pangea, including Pangea’s Fruit Mix with Insects Complete Gecko Diet.

Oneppo notes that prepared diets—some of which come pre-mixed and ready to use while others require mixing with water—represent the latest gecko trend.

“These prepared diets allow people to keep some species of gecko, such as crested, day, gargoyle and others without having to use live food,” Oneppo stated.

Exo Terra recently launched two pre-mixed diets: Day Gecko Food and Crested Gecko Food, each offered in disposable cups to reduce waste and prohibit reptiles from tracking excess food on glass or décor.

“Since the diets are stabilized and pre-mixed, they also don’t dry out as readily as powder diets would,” Sotelo noted.

Can’t Beat The Heat
Consumers are warming up to new heating products, too, including Zoo Med’s new Nano lamps and fixtures, ideal for small gecko terrariums. Included in this Nano line are a dome fixture, combo dome fixture, five-watt LED, 35-watt halogen heat lamp, ceramic heat emitters, infrared heat lamps and basking spot lamps.

“Our Nano line includes some of our smallest and lowest wattage heat lamps,” explained Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Labs, Inc., in San Luis Obispo, California. “The domes are only 4 inches in diameter and perfect for small terrariums. And with heat lamps and emitters that are only 25 to 40 watts, keepers can provide proper thermal gradients in smaller habitats or were space is limited on the top of a terrarium.”

Retailers might want to consider expanding their heat source offerings.

“Try to carry different products, including under-tank heating pads that can be attached to the bottom for terrestrial geckos or to the side of the tank for arboreal species,” Indiviglio said.

Tricks of the Trade
To catch the shopper’s eye, pursue merchandising tactics that pay off.

“It’s worthwhile setting up dedicated end caps with gecko products and featuring fully staged cages with all the accessories inside,” said Oneppo, adding that retailers who don’t sell live geckos “may be wise to use plastic or plush gecko replicas inside these displays to help convey the message.”

Packaging your own bundled starter kits—complete with all the essentials for beginners—can also pay dividends.

“Think about offering a discount on combined purchases, such as a lower price if you buy a live gecko with a set up,” Indiviglio said.

Chew and Improved

Here’s a thought that should gnaw away at any impulse to ignore the small animal accessories sub-segment: mini mammals like to incessantly munch, and for many species—including guinea pigs, chinchillas and lagomorphs like rabbits—the all-important front incisors continuously grow and require filing down via chewing.

And therein lies a golden opportunity to position your store as an indispensable provider of nibble-tastic products.

“Small mammal chews are very popular accessories that often make a great add-on to purchases of core products such as hays and foods,” says Lucas Stock, communications manager for Murdock, Nebraska-headquartered Oxbow Animal Health. “This category continues to grow and evolve, making these items more of a focus for many retailers.”

Nibblers Have Needs
MaryAnn Loveland, senior associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods in Chilton, Wisconsin, says it’s important to stock an assortment of chews and dental toys.

“You should feature an assortment of textures—a hard source for gnawing, like wood; a medium texture for cleaning teeth, like sisal; and a soft chew, like loofah, for flossing,” Loveland said. “Pet parents will always be looking for new chew toys.”

When asked what’s trending in the space, Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., in Bowling Green, Ohio, has two words: fun and flavor.

“Chew blocks have always been an industry standard,” Kniceley said. “However, pet owners today seek products that not only promote dental health but that provide variety, entertainment, fun and interactivity. For example, our Mini-Pop Corn Treats, which can be popped in the microwave and which help with dental wear, create fun for both pet and owner and help to deepen the bond between both.”

Stock agrees that the traditional wooden block, while functional, lacks excitement and merit.

“The right chews and toys should come with value added and encourage physical and mental enrichment while also being 100 percent edible and healthy,” he said. “Value-added items, like 100 percent woven hay chews and toys, are oftentimes an easier sell. Hay should be the cornerstone of every small herbivore’s diet, so it’s essential to provide it in as many forms as possible.”

Toothsome Wares
To cater to this demand, Oxbow makes the Timothy Carrot (shaped like the vegetable it’s named after), Timothy Twists (available in a package of six) and the Timothy Hideout.
Kaytee, meanwhile, boasts a large assortment of chew-related products from which to pick, including its recently launched line of chewable nests and mats, hand-woven from natural materials and Carrot Patch Chew Toys, which come in a pack that features three assorted textures.

Vitakraft Sunseed now offers a wider array of edibles designed to maintain teeth and promote dental health, including Vida Prima Snappers, chew treats that break apart into eight separate snacks; AnimaLovens Treats, featuring round-shaped crunchy cookies with cranberry and orange as well as pretzel sticks made from tasty vegetables; Grainola Treat Bars, triple-baked for crunchiness; and Vitakraft Nibble Rings, “O”-shaped ring snacks.

Other players in this space include Prevue Pet Products, makers of the Grassy Nibblers line of chew toys and accessories sourced from matte grass, including a Squash, Carrot and Activity Ball; Hagen’s Living World, provider of Chew-Nels products like the Alfalfa Chew Tube, Corn Husk Tunnel and interconnecting Cardboard Tunnels; A&E Cage Company, which produces all-natural accessories like Corn Dogs, a chew-safe corn cob, sisal, loofah and coconut husk toy; Hartz, which offers Nibble Sticks and Timothy Chews; and NPIC, known for its N-Bone Ferret Chew Treats available in bacon, salmon or chicken flavor.

The Store with More
They say good things come in small packages, but that could be a challenge to display properly and catch the customer’s eye.

“Placing small animal chews in one central area at eye level, organized among groups of similar treats and products and by species, is a great way to showcase this merchandise,” Kniceley said.
One of the many advantages to smaller packaging is that it takes up less real estate, “making it easier to achieve quality placement in your aisles,” Stock said. “Clip strips are one great option to draw attention to chews and make them easily accessible, and they hang easily from peg boards as well.”

Customers pay attention to audible activity within a display cage occupied by live animals, and few sounds perk up a human ear like that of a hamster, ferret or other small animal chomping away at something substantial.

Consequently, “a great way for retailers to showcase chew products is to physically use them inside the habitats of the animals for sale,” Loveland said.

On a final note, remember that training your staff on what to recommend and how to advise shoppers when it comes to appropriate chew SKUs and materials can pay your store back in the form of more loyal customers and repeat business.

“Consumers need to be educated about how important it is to offer a safe source of chewing for small animals and to recommend a variety of chews that have different materials and textures that will offer different benefits to small animal pets,”
Loveland added.

A Real Crowd Pleaser

Hamsters, mice and cavies may rule the small animal roost at pet stores, but smart retailers should think about expanding their inventory to accommodate another soft and cuddly critter: the chinchilla, a love-at-first-sight pet many of your patrons will find irresistible.

Consider the pros: chinchillas enjoy a longer lifespan (up to 15 years) than many other pet rodent breeds, their fur is among the softest and most pettable and their bushy tails and jumbo ears give them a distinctive adorability.

“They’re also fairly low maintenance compared to a lot of other pets,” said Steve Barlow, manager at Mark’s Ark, a Salt Lake City-based pet store that stocks plenty of chinchillas and related products. “They can live solo or share a cage with other chinchillas. And many chinchillas come from the Andes Mountains and live at 15,000 feet elevation. Consequently, their bodies are designed to retain moisture, which means they don’t urinate as often as other rodents do and their fecal matter is not as messy as other rodents.”

For these and other reasons, chinchillas can make a great starter pet for families, including those with younger children—provided the kids are gentle, responsible and supervised by mom and dad.

“Like other small animals, they do have teeth and can bite if frightened,” Barlow said. “They’re also a little high strung and can take some time to warm up to you, so owners will need to work on socializing these animals. And they’re kind of like Gremlins—you don’t want to get them wet because their thick coats retain water, which can promote fungus growth.”

But if you educate your staff on how to market these pets and offer proper care recommendations, as well as carry the necessary supplies, chinch sales can be more than satisfying.

“They are a high-reward, low-risk pet for consumers and retailers alike,” Barlow added. “The profit margins on these pets and their staples can be pretty decent.”

Choose the Chinchilla 

Amanda Negron, buyer for Pet Kingdom, a San Diego-headquartered store that specializes in small animals, agrees that chinchillas anGrey chinchilla. isolated.d their merchandise are worthy additions to your set.

“A lot of products suitable for chinchillas cross over to other breeds, including rabbits, rats and sugar gliders, so chances are you’re already carrying many chinchilla-friendly items,” Negron said.

Whether you opt to sell live chinchillas or merely the SKUs related to them, it’s important to offer a chinchilla kit for beginners. In addition to stocking pre-packaged starter kits available from manufacturers, Negron recommends bundling together a starter setup using carefully chosen products from your store.

“The kit should include a large habitat that allows the animal to move around a lot, pellet or paper bedding, a hideout and ledge, dust bath powder, hay, water bottle, food dish and treats for positive reinforcement and training,” she said.

Once you’ve convinced shoppers to invest in a beginner’s kit, your team can upsell them with add-on products and reinforce the need for repeat purchases of key staples.

“Items like alfalfa cubes, Timothy hay, hammocks and snuggle sacks can help build the basket and increase your margins,” Barlow said.

Plenty of Products
Many chinchilla-tailored products are available today, including edibles like Oxbow Essentials: Chinchilla, a complete fortified food; Higgins Sunburst Gourmet Chinchilla Food Mix, enriched with DHA Omega fatty acids and digestive probiotics; Supreme Petfoods Limited Charlie Chinchilla Food, which comes in a wide array of shapes, textures and sizes; carefresh complete Chinchilla Food, featuring crunchy pellets that encourage dental health; Hagen’s Living World Timothy Toppings with Vegetables or with Fruit; and Vitakraft’s SunSations Natural Chinchilla Formula.

When it comes to cages, standouts include Prevue Hendryx’s Black Feisty Ferret Cage, also suitable for chinchillas; Marshall Pet Products’ Penthouse II; and Midwest Homes for Pets’ Critter Nation.

Among accessory notables are Kaytee’s Big Branch Bites and Combo Chews and Kaytee’s new Terracotta Chew Proof Hideaways, made of terracotta clay that works as a cool resting place on hot days.

“These long-lasting hideaways offer a great place for pets to burrow with nesting material and create a protective safe haven that the animal enjoys,” said Mary Ann Loveland, associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods in Chilton, Wisconsin, who notes that the large-size hideaway is also suitable for rabbits and guinea pigs.

Small Package, Big Seller
Negron suggests displaying chinchilla-geared products in high-traffic areas and offering deals and discounts whenever possible. At Mark’s Ark, for example, customers get 20 percent off if they purchase an enclosure at the same time they buy a chinchilla.

“You always want to do some special promotion, especially when you are introducing new breeds and new products to your store,” Negron said. “Also, think about partnering with a local animal rescue organization and hosting an ‘Adopt a Chinchilla’ day, which creates awareness of the need to adopt unwanted pets and also brings customers to your store.”

The Heat is On

Reptiles and their owners appreciate the tech-free simplicity of merchandise provided by Mother Nature—from perky crickets for dinner to bona fide rocks for basking. But it’s the products you plug in that can have a dramatic effect on the health and longevity of herps and the long-term satisfaction of their keepers. Smart retailers who’ve seen the light are careful to stock plenty of the latest lighting, heating and humidity goods.

Before such products were made commercially available, reptiles that came with a higher level of care were difficult to keep alive in captivity.

“Only the hardiest of reptiles thrived in captivity because the needs of some of the more specialized species could not be met,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Healthy Herp in Newark, California.

He remembers the days in the early ’80s when a hot rock represented the only commercially available heating product for reptiles.

“We’ve come a long way from the days when you’d have to fill a spray bottle with hot tap water and mist down the terrarium to increase humidity—things like ultrasonic foggers have solved that problem,” Oneppo said.

Lighting the Way
Addie Schuhle from Phoenix-based Pet Food Depot says halogen lighting continues to be in vogue today.

“Fixtures nowadays are much smaller than previous lighting products, and many have a matte finish that look nicer on display,” Schuhle said.

An example of the smaller light trend is Zilla’s Halogen Mini Dome, which takes up less room atop a terrarium without sacrificing heat or light. ReptileUV, meanwhile, recently introduced splash-resistant halogen lamps in the form of Brightrite.

“Companies are now incorporating LED lighting into terrariums, and many of these products have color-changing capabilities that make for an attractive display, creating almost a nightclub-type effect when the lights are combined with a fogger and waterfall,” said Oneppo, who cites Zoo Med’s ReptiBreeze LED Deluxe as an example. “Also, in recent years, more metal halide bulbs have been appearing on the scene for use with reptiles.”

Case in point: The new PowerSun High Intensity Discharge Metal Halide UVB Lamp and fixture by Zoo Med, ideal for larger enclosures, emits UVA, UVB and heat all from one lamp. The innovative lamp construction creates a true flood-lamp effect, eliminating dangerous UV hot spots common to other metal halide reptile lamps, and the 6500 K color temperature and 95 CRI emitted by the lamp make the cage and its contents appear richer and more vibrant.

Zoo Med’s new Nano lamps and fixtures, on the other hand, fit the bill perfectly for smaller terrariums geared toward geckos, amphibians, invertebrates and hatchling reptiles. The Nano line includes a dome fixture, combo dome fixture, 5-watt LED, 35-watt halogen heat lamp, ceramic heat emitters, infrared heat lamps and basking spot lamps, each available in 25- and 40-watt sizes.

Modernized Merchandise
Space- and power-saving designs drive manufacturers, such as ReptileUV recently rolling out its Mega-Ray 60-watt Lightless Infrared Heat Projector, which projects a soft penetrating heat in a forward direction, emitting more heat than a traditional 100-watt ceramic heat emitter but without risk of burning a reptile. And the Slimline Reptile Lighting Fixture with UVB Lamp by Zilla boasts an ultra-economical florescent strip light product in a modular plastic housing that mounts easily on top of a tank.

More overseas products are infusing the American marketplace, too, as evidenced by Arcadia’s D3 6 percent T8 Reptile Lamp from Europe now available in North America and designed for ideal vitamin D synthesis and a high UVA output (30 percent).

Innovative humidifier products have recently hit the market, such as Exo Terra’s Monsoon Solo, a programmable misting system that generates a fine mist at programmed intervals to maintain optimum humidity.

Johnathan Dolev, an associate with Galapagos Reptile Gear, says natural products like moss are natural humidity-boosting alternatives that are in demand.

“Royal pillow moss, for example, absorbs a massive amount of water and looks a lot better than plastic or silk botanicals because it’s a real product,” Dolev said.

These additions to your inventory can improve your herp-related sales.

Bugs are Big Business

They’re the most plentiful creatures on earth—skittering about by the billions from leaf to soil and undulating endlessly beneath the surface. Herps devour them ravenously, and reptile owners who care about their pets have learned to handle them, literally, and overcome their phobias.

They are insects. And if you’re a reptile retailer determined to grow your business, they deserve a place in your establishment.

Grub Hub
Rich Shannon, manager of Repxotica, a pet store in New York City, says carrying live feed is worth it—even though it means micro maintenance of creepy crawlies on site.

“You want to be a one-stop shop where customers can get all the reptile supplies they need in one location,” he said. “Some of these insects and worms provide higher profit margins than others, but many of these species are worth offering because consumers today have high demand for them.”

The key to stocking healthy live feed is to choose reputable suppliers that breed quality insects and worms with a relatively long shelf life. Many pet retailers partner with local suppliers, while others rely on major players like Timberline Live Pet Foods (which offers the Vita-Bugs line of crickets, mealworms, giant mealworms, superworms, waxworms and other options), Mulberry Farms, Reptilefood.com, Josh’s Frogs and other companies.

To save more money and eliminate the middleman, some pet stores offer homegrown live pet feeders.

“I personally breed crickets, roaches and superworms right here in the store to cut down on costs,” Shannon said. “Once you get the routine down, it’s fairly easy to do.”

In-demand Insects
Crickets, mealworms, superworms and waxworms may sit at the top of the reptile live food chain, but they aren’t the only bugs worth considering: flour beetles, flightless and normal fruit flies, silkworms, harvester ants and springtails are among the latest invertebrate breeds that retailers are stocking.

“Soldier fly larvae, horned worms and roaches are also newer items available as live feed,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Healthy Herp in Newark, California. “Additionally, several types of insects are now available gut-loaded with all the necessary vitamins and, in the case of some, such as soldier fly larvae, containing high levels of calcium.”

Shannon says many of his shoppers have switched from crickets and superworms to Dubia roaches (also known as the tropical spotted roach) and butter worms, which cost the consumer more, but can provide better nutritional value.

“Customers are coming in pre-educated about how butter worms and roaches are packed with more protein, calcium and other nutritional benefits,” Shannon said. “We tell them that the protein in one roach is equal to about five crickets and the calcium in one butter worm is equivalent to about six crickets.”

Addie Schuhle of Phoenix-based Pet Food Depot advised retailers not to overlook the profit potential in live or pre-killed rodents, popular among snake owners.

“Frozen and live mice are, by far, our biggest seller, followed by rats, mealworms and crickets,” Schuhle said. “Frozen mice and rats are much easier because they can’t escape. For this reason, I suggest offering frozen every time a customer asks for a rat or mouse.”

Successful Merchandising
If you are selling prepackaged insects, make sure to rotate inventory regularly and inspect your goods on hand.

“It’s important to train employees to pop off the container lids, swish around the bedding and make sure the contents are still alive—if they appear black or have a foul smell, they are likely dead,” Oneppo said. “When customers see that you put this much care into selling a tub of bugs, it will build a better, stronger and longer-lasting relationship.”

Oneppo recommended stacking live insect containers near the front counter or within your reptile department for quick grab-and-go customer convenience. He also noted the importance of making insects that need refrigeration visible to customers.

“Some of the insects could be stored at room temperature within the store, while others need to be refrigerated, such as certain worms,” he said. “I recommend keeping these items in a glass door refrigerator so the customers can see what’s inside and will more likely help themselves to these items, as opposed to them being kept in a regular fridge, which may intimidate a customer from opening it if they are afraid of what they might find inside.”

Hare-Brained Schemes

Rabbits are known for a lot more than just making lots of little rabbits. They’re also good at making smiles appear on the faces of store customers.

Perhaps it’s the ultra-soft fur that feels velvety smooth to the fingertips, the adorably long ears and button eyes or the bountiful bulk—captive bunnies are, after all, larger than pocket pets, which is a big deal to a small child in awe of animals. These are just some of the compelling reasons to carry cottontails and the plentiful products that are made for them.

White Glove Test
If you’re going to stock live rabbits for sale and capitalize on their cuteness quotient, keep in mind that larger pets can make for messier habitats, and shoppers expect clean coney cages, says Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc.

“Customers will shy away from pets in dirty, smelly cages,” Knicely said. “And a healthy, happy pet in a clean environment is a much more desirable pet.”

Cages, in fact, should be a prime staple in your set. A notable manufacturer is Prevue Pet Products, maker of the Critter Animal Cage, which features all-metal chew-proof ramps, platforms and a bottom pull-out grille, wrought iron construction with powder-coated Hammertone finish and easy-rolling casters.

MidWest Homes for Pets’ Wabbitat Rabbit Cage is another product that might be of interest. This cage can be set up quickly with no tools or connecting pieces required, provide one-handed door operation with a secure slide-latch and come with an easy to slide out and clean and durable front access plastic pan. The Bunny Wonder Pop Up Animal Home, manufactured by Caitec, is another cage that you might want to purchase for your store.

Bunny Bundles
Kniceley suggests creating “welcome kit” bundles for new rabbit owners that feature all the essentials, including an enclosure, food and water dishes, bedding, daily diet, treats and accessories.

“Many people find it overwhelming to pick out these products individually,” Kniceley said. “Providing a starter kit displayed near the pet rabbits in your store will ease these concerns and offer both convenience as well as ease of purchase.”

Mary Ann Loveland, associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods in Chilton, Wisconsin, agrees.

“We continue to see popular demand for all-inclusive kits for small animal species,” said Loveland, whose company recently launched a rabbit starter kit that includes the largest cage that its division, Pets International, has ever offered: 42 inches long by 18 inches wide by 20 inches high. “It’s important to ensure that pet parents have the essential needs covered when bringing home their new companion and that adequate living space for their pet rabbit is met.”

Not Just Carrots
Of course, you’ll want to make room on your shelf for rabbit vittles, which come in a wider variety of formulas and flavors than ever before.

According to Kniceley, natural diets that are vitamin-fortified and contain no added sugars or sweeteners are currently trending for pet rabbits. In response to this demand, Vitakraft offers two special feeds. The first is Sunseed Vita Sunscription Rabbit Natural Timothy Diet with Added Vitamins and Minerals, a no-sugar-added daily feed in pellet form with timothy hay included. The second is SunSations Natural Formula with fruits, veggies and flowers that adds taste and variety without sacrificing other natural ingredients and helps satisfy a rabbit’s natural foraging instincts.

Other popular brands include Hartz’s Bonanza Pet Rabbit Diet, Small World Rabbit and Kaytee Supreme Rabbit. Kaytee recently introduced several new wares for hares, including a new line of hand-woven nests and mats, such as the Tunnel Hideaway, House Hut and Large Woven Mat—and the Chew Proof Terracotta Hideaway, made from terracotta clay that creates a cool resting place on hot days and a great place to burrow.

Another new SKU that pet retailers are increasingly paying attention to is Kordon’s Oasis Vita E-Z Mist for Rabbits—the same high-quality multivitamin formula long offered as drops but now also available in a spray format.

“Not all rabbits accept drinking water treated with drops, so an alternative delivery method was introduced in order for the multivitamins to be added to a wide variety of food items,” said Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Kordon LLC. “This new Oasis product sprays directly onto food items—including pelleted diets, hay cubes and loose hay—and boosts nutrition levels of fresh fruits and veggies. It replaces the need to mix vitamins into drinking water.”

Win-Win Situation
Kniceley recommended promoting “adoption” of rabbits versus “purchasing,” both literally and figuratively.

“The current trend is for pet stores to hold adoption days and feature adoptable rabbits from shelters, along with rabbits that the store already carries,” Kniceley said. “This way, you are able to accommodate both mindsets and able to help shelter pets at the same time.”

Partnering with a local animal shelter on such events can not only create feel-good opportunities that patrons will appreciate, but it can also pay dividends in terms of cross-promotions and building collaborative resources.

Sales that Sing

Busy consumers are constantly on the lookout for dummy-proof pets that are relatively inexpensive. That’s where softbills like finches and canaries fit a nice niche. Crested, red factor and bright yellow canaries as well as zebra, society and Gouldian finches and their family are low maintenance, colorful and compact. Depending on the species, they also are capable of breaking out into beautiful song.

Hence, they can make great companions for first-time and on-the-go owners and great options for your pet store—whether you choose to carry a live canary/finch inventory or just the products tailored for them.

“Finches and canaries are picking up momentum as perfect pet birds for more folks simply because they fill the home with very pleasant songs and are relatively easy to care for,” said Melanie K. Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Massachusetts. “This is especially good for folks who have busy lives, yet want to share their homes with a pet bird.”

Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Bowling Green, Ohio-headquartered Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., adds that, unlike many parrot species, the availability of canaries and finches remains strong.

“These species and varieties provide a very affordable way for the consumer to enter the bird hobby,” Norsen said. “While the level of physical interaction is very low with these birds, they are very enjoyable and rewarding pet birds.”

Keep it Calm
Allen says that finches, especially Gouldians, can stress easily, so it’s important to maintain a Yellow canary on its perchzen-like, peaceful ambience in live cages and the surrounding department within your store.

“They do well with as close to a natural environment as possible,” Allen said.

“The days of putting a dozen finches or canaries in a large, empty square cage are gone,” said Gerry Brostek, chief operating officer for Hauppauge, New York-based Penn-Plax. “Greater consumer response is generated by cages that include not just the livestock, but also the toys, mirrors, ladders, swings and bells that you are trying to sell.”

Brostek’s golden rule for retailers? He says it’s to make sure you keep the cages clean and that your birds look healthy.

“This may seem obvious, but we still see stores that skimp on cleaning and which display birds in dusty, dirty cages—which does not encourage the consumer to purchase,” he said.

Enclosures and Edibles
When it comes to cages, it’s important to stock a variety of avian habitats from which shoppers can choose and which are appropriately sized for canaries and finches. Popular wares in this sub-category include the Avian Adventures Nina Birdcage by MidWest Homes for Pets, which includes innovative interlocking panels that enable quick and easy no-tools assembly, interchangeable slide out pans, bird-proof locking latches and either a dometop or playtop; Preview Pet Products’ new Crown Top Cage and Stand, which features a large-hinged front access door, removable bottom grill and pull-out debris tray, and integrated floor stand; and A&E Cage Co.’s Economy Finch Cage with a white ornate top, equipped with slide-up front door and feeder doors, two plastic feeding stations, and a non-toxic durable and safe powder-coated finish.

The most important merchandise in this space is the edible kind.

“Historically, diets for softbills have been extremely simple, sometimes only containing a small variety of seeds and grains and often without effective methods of vitamin and mineral fortification,” Norsen said. “Happily, this trend has changed and many of the diets available today contain a wide variety of seeds, fortified pellets, fruits, vegetables and additional insects providing a high level of nutrition.”

Case in point: Vitakraft’s Vita Prima Canary & Finch Formula, a nutritionally fortified diet with Omega 3s, vitamins A, D and E, probiotics, calcium and no artificial preservatives. Other brands that boast healthy and natural ingredients include eCOTRITION’s Essential Blend for Canaries & Finches, fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts; Kaytee’s Forti-Diet Pro Songbird: Canary & Finch, nutritionally formulated to provide singing birds what they need to make beautiful music; Lafeber’s Premium Daily Diet for Canaries or for Finches—both of which are naturally preserved and flavored, balanced with Omega 3 and 6 and free of artificial food colors and dyes; Goldenfeast’s Premium Canary Food Australian Blend, complete with a tasty blend of fruits, herbs, spices, bee pollen, probiotics, hemp seeds and vegetables; and F.M. Brown’s Sons Tropical Carnival Canary & Finch Food, filled with papaya, peanuts and canary and millet seed.

It’s also smart to bolster your canary and finch offerings with a wide array of cage accessories, including mirrors, perches, food and water dishes, toys, treats and multivitamin formulas. One new product in that last domain is Kordon’s Oasis Vita E-Z Mist for Small Birds, which sprays directly onto food items, including seed or pelleted diets, and boosts the nutrition levels of fresh fruits and veggies.

Boosting Bird Sales
When it comes to marketing and merchandising these products to ensure a healthy bird and happy bird owners, it’s of vital importance to carefully consider ideal placement.

“I would recommend displaying any related products next to the live finches and canaries you sell and using some of these products in-store, showing your customers that the birds love them,” said Stephanie Carbaugh, marketing and design assistant for F.M. Brown’s Sons, Inc. in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania.

“Cross-merchandising with feed, toys and accessories serves as a silent salesman while saving space,” said Tara Whitehead, director of marketing and communications for MidWest Homes for Pets in Muncie, Indiana. “It also allows the customer to interact with the product and view its features and attributes.”

The Bottom Line on Herp Bedding

Every successful operation needs a good foundation. And that’s as true of a pet store as it is of a reptile habitat, which requires the proper bedding material on which a herp can habitate and thrive.

According to experts, an increased focus from manufacturers on species-friendly products and more natural materials are among the reasons retailers have plenty of substrate merchandise and types to choose from nowadays.

The Real Deal
Apollo Reese Owens, sales manager for Galapagos Pet Supply, the Santa Barbara, California-based maker of reptile substrates and moss bedding, says natural materials are all the rage.

“Pet store owners and consumers are waking up to the benefits of natural substrates, and are starting to understand that many products come from non-renewable resources,” Owens said. “Sustainable materials and by-product harvesting are more important now than ever, and more reptile owners are leaning toward natural-looking enclosures, so fake and imitation bedding is dwindling in popularity.”

Coconut and moss are two of the most preferred substrate ingredients today. Both are used in Galapagos substrate products, including Tropicoco Soil and Tropicoco Husk, as well as Royal Pillow Moss. Coconut husk is a perfect reptile substrate material because it contains natural antibodies that help fight against mold, mildew, foul odors and other harmful pathogens. Meanwhile, Galapagos’ hand-harvested moss helps maintain a terrarium’s humidity and is conducive to proper pet hydration and shedding.

Austin Harris, manager for Underground Reptiles, a Deerfield Beach, Florida, pet store, is a fan of substrates that blend different materials, including Galapogos’ products.

“Being able to mix multiple substrates, including live moss, into your terrarium allows you to get the perfect humidity you’re looking for, plus it looks cool,” Harris said.

Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Labs, Inc., in San Luis Obispo, California, says planted and bioactive terrariums are becoming more popular, as well.

“They can be beautiful works of art in a reptile owner’s home, providing ideal habitats for tropical pets and a peaceful window for keepers into a tropical world,” said Rademacher, adding that Zoo Med’s new ReptiSoil is the ideal substrate for these bioactive setups. The product supports growth in terrarium plants such as ferns, bromeliads, miniature orchids, succulents and carnivorous plants. ReptiSoil features four components—peat moss, soil, sand and carbon (which helps aerate the soil and improve drainage)—that work together to retain humidity and promote burrowing, nesting and egg laying.

Getting Creative
Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for Healthy Herp, a division of San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, California, has noticed an increasing demand for products designed to create more naturalistic terrariums, “such as substrates that are easy to clean and free of dust and shavings, as well as soils and sands that can be wet, molded and excavated.”

Indeed, some goods go beyond the cage-bottom call of duty and offer the ability to sculpt creative, livable landscapes within an enclosure. Case in point: Zoo Med’s new Cavern Kit contains Excavator Clay Burrowing Substrate, which can be imaginatively shaped via included tools into tunnels, caverns, caves and shelters that allow reptiles to engage in their natural digging and climbing instincts as well as safely wear down their nails.

While the proliferation of substrate brands over the past few years is good for consumers, it’s also challenging for retailers who may have limited shelf space. Among the notable products in this subcategory today are multiple SKUs from National Geographic, like Sunset Reptile Sand, Coconut Fiber and Marble White Sand; numerous offerings by Zoo Med, such as Repti Chips, Eco Earth Expandable Reptile Substrate and Hydroballs; and a diverse array of choices from Exo Terra, ranging from Forest Moss and Coco Husk to Jungle Earth and Bio Drain, a non-organic substrate that doesn’t rot or decompose and allows for superior drainage.

From the Bottom Up
For years, retailers have been stocking substrate products horizontally flat and positioning them near the bottoms of shelves. Owens warned that this can hurt sales.

“Lately, I’ve seen more stores peg their substrates and begin to move them higher up on the shelf,” he said. “Merchandising substrates higher up and closer to eye level attracts customers’ eyes and encourages them to actually read each label and learn what makes it different from the product next to it.”

Harris said retailers need to ensure that customers understand the importance of buying and using the right substrate product.

“Always stress the importance of a healthy, clean environment,” he said. “To care for most reptiles and amphibians properly, the substrate should be changed at least every four to six weeks, which equates to around $10 a month on new substrate that provides a nice clean bedding for the pet to live on. That’s not a lot to ask for a product that will decrease the chance of the animal getting sick from bacteria growth.”

To encourage this and cater to consumer demand, it’s important to stock a healthy variety of substrate options.

“If a customer remains uncomfortable in using a particulate substrate, point them to a different product, and don’t let them feel limited in their options,” Rademacher said.

Lastly, practice what you preach by showcasing different herp bedding in your displays.

“Use (herp bedding) in your store to create some really nice looking terrariums—even if they don’t have live animals in them,” Oneppo said. “Also, try using the excavator type sands and create nice looking environments that people can purchase on the spot to take home, ready to go without the work.”

The Bowl Truth

Skeptical about bird receptacles? It’s important not to overlook merchandise mainstays like feeders and waterers, which every bird owner needs.

In fact, many customers are willing to pay more for an upgrade that improves on the cheap vertical vessels of edibles included in a starter cage—provided you can upsell them on the benefits of a higher quality and more convenient waterer and/or feeder.

Dish Niche
William Kalichman, owner of Bill’s Birds in Davie, Florida, believes this is a subcategory that bird owners don’t flock to in droves, but it can pay off if you carry a healthy assortment of brands and models.

“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in this space in recent years, but there are at least more choices available and plenty of user-friendly designs,” he said. “Our most popular product is a stainless steel bowl that clamps onto the side of the cage, which is ultra-durable, inexpensive, convenient and compatible with most cages. Plus, the stainless steel products are easy to clean and rewash in the dishwasher.”

Plastic crocks with quick-release attachments are nearly as in demand at Bill’s Birds as hooded ceramic cups, “which offer the benefit of less spills and mess,” Kalichman noted.

Mary Wyld, owner of Wyld’s Wingdom, Inc., a wholesale distributor in Norfolk, Virginia, has noticed some attention-getting new designs and plastic feeders for smaller breeds that are “whimsical and appealing to the shopper for their fun aspects and colors, especially some of the new products from Caitec. There is a trend to get past the ‘same old-same old.’”

For example, Caitec offers a portable window perch feeder with suction cups on it “that allow your small bird to dine while enjoying a view of the great outdoors—and it doubles as a play area, complete with toy and swing,” Wyld said.

Caitec also recently launched several other new SKUs, including its Auto Water Seed Feeder, with a stylish and curvy green plastic base and attached perch, and several products within its “Mess Less” line. These items include a shielded feeder with a bold, red shield attached to the feeder bowl to prevent spillage outside the cage; a hanging feeder with a decorative large plastic feeder base and three cute yellow perches above it; and a combo feeder, which features twin blue bowls attached to an arm that extends the bowls further into the cage to decrease mess.

Preventing a Mess
Indeed, neat and clean seem to be the marketing concepts manufacturers are emphasizing above all else. This is supported by the popularity of products like Tidy Seed’s No-Mess Bird Feeder, designed to do away with scattered hulls and seeds thanks to its trough-like compartment, and Fatpet’s Splash Proof Bird Feeder, which boasts an automatic feeding trough with a stand perch. Aside from “scatterless design,” other amenities currently in vogue include “chew proof,” “high-gloss finish,” “universal mount,” and “dishwasher safe.”

Manufacturers have had success trying to infuse fun and foraging within a feeder. Caitec offers an array of options in its Creative Foraging line of durable polycarbonate products, ranging from its Foraging Wheel, Food Tumbler and Foraging Ball and Kabob to its Space Circles, House of Treats and Foraging Sphere. Bird owners fill the compartments with everyday feed or treats and watch contentedly as their pets work diligently to open, move or access a food compartment.

“Creating a foraging environment so that birds explore more around their cage and within toys to find their food provides mental stimulation as well as exercise, which you should encourage to your customers,” Wyld said.

Other companies are also trying to cater to increased demand for treat receptacles, among them Petmate with its JW Pet Treat Stick Holder, fashioned to carefully keep debris and fragments from dropping outside the enclosure.

When it comes to waterers, the tried-and-true upright water bottle has yet to be improved upon, although Super Pet offers a different take on the “wet-my-beak” approach via its Habitat Defined Enrichment Pod Gravity Waterer. This product features compact, customized and refillable water pods.

Mostly, however, the classic plastic or glass tube rules the roost here, including products like JW Pet’s Insight Clean Water Silo Bird Waterer, Lixit’s Glass Bird Bottle and Kordon’s Bird Water Bottle. Stainless steel coop cups by Prevue Pet Products, Hagen’s Living World, Pro Select and others also have a habit of moving quickly off the shelf.

Store Secrets
New and improved waterers and feeders don’t automatically “sell themselves,” so be prepared to promote and recommend specific merchandise to bird owner shoppers, especially newbies.

“Avoid just hanging merchandise up—always engage the customer to learn how they currently feed and what their needs are,” Wyld noted. “Educate them on the great inquisitive nature of birds and the importance of creating different feeding stations and locations around their cage as well, as the instinctive nature of birds is to forage.”

Kalichman agrees that it’s crucial to educate patrons about feeders and waterers, “especially the need to replace food and water on a regular basis and thoroughly clean out these products.”

In addition, put your feeder and waterer inventory to work by showcasing them in your live displays.

“We do that in our store and are careful to rotate the products within the cages, too,” Kalichman recommended.

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