The Play’s the Thing for Birds
Few things warm bird lovers’ hearts more than seeing their winged companions busy at play. But avian amusements only go so far in a cage lacking bird-friendly baubles, trinkets and toys. And therein lies an opportunity for pet store retailers, who can position themselves as the go-to source for fun products designed to stimulate birds and endlessly entertain their owners.
We may not be able to reinvent the wheel, but brands have shown that they can reinvent the mainstay mirror and bell and infuse more shapes, colors, textures and materials into the bird toy space—to the amazement of many pet supply retailers.
“Manufacturers keep introducing new and different toys to the market that get customers excited,” says Kimberly Kay, manager for Bird Hut, a standalone store in Portland, Oregon, that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. “The trend is toward busy, bright colors, more wood, and different types of pieces clustered together.”
The latter of that description fits one of Kay’s most popular new shelf additions: the Ripple Mobile by Super Bird Creations, a hanging contraption sporting multi-colored wooden blocks and chains with a classic metal bell at the bottom. It’s one of over 40 new bird toys the company rolled out in spring 2017 alone.
Bill McGrath, bird product development specialist with Caitec Corporation, a Baltimore, Maryland-based company founded 25 years ago and one of the largest bird toy makers in the industry, can vouch for Kay’s claim that bird toy makers have been increasingly busy inventing new wares. He says Caitec’s goal is to introduce up to 36 new toys per year, one-third of which will try to incorporate new raw materials.
“Today, destructible and interactive toys continue to be category leaders,” noted McGrath, who added that Caitec launched 16 new “Jungle Theme” small bird toys and cage accessories at the 2017 Global Pet Expo, including the Jungle Mirror—a bright green plastic gizmo with a built-in perch, spinning beads and bell. “Foot toys, which are highly entertaining and inexpensive, are also doing well.”
Value-added products that serve as multiple toys in one are high in demand, too, says Jason Casto, director of Pets International for Chilton, Wisconsin-based Kaytee Hard Goods, originally founded back in 1866.
“Our Forage-n-Play line of ladders and swings remain our most popular bird toys because they are each both a toy and a functional bird cage accessory,” said Casto, who adds that the perch portion of any Forage-n-Play Bird Swing can be swapped out with different Kaytee perches. “Bird owners love the value of getting a toy and a swing or a toy and a ladder with just one purchase.”
Hagen’s Living World has also embraced the swap-out concept in the form of a unique do-it-yourself toy kit it calls Create Your Own Bird Toys. The kit is comprised of 31 assorted acrylic pieces, four clasps, two leather ropes, one cotton rope and one sisal rope that can be mixed and matched to make at least four unique bird toys.
Sweet Feet & Beak, a Cleveland, Georgia-based hard goods manufacturer that won a best new product award at Global Pet Expo for its line of cardboard and cotton rope toys, has been able to expand its offerings and please the public thanks to an inexpensive and readily available material: industrial cardboard.
“We’ve taken a readily available and inexpensive bird-safe resource and created a new line of toys for the pet market that is both affordable for owners and entertaining for pet birds. And because they can be shredded up for nesting material, they’re also great for nesting birds,” said Jason Bohannon, sales manager for Sweet Feet & Beak. The company’s newest cardboard and cotton rope product is the Pic-A-Roni Pizza—a round chew-and-shred toy that looks like a mini-pizza.
The success of companies like Sweet Feet & Beak demonstrates that consumers are gradually gravitating away from private label brands carried by a lot of the big box stores “in favor of boutique and unique pet brands in the industry,” Bohannon said.
Brands boasting natural materials seem to be garnering more attention, too. Several of Prevue Pet Products’ newest items fit this description, including its Naturals Gorilla, consisting of banana stem rope, sisal rope, coconut shell, bamboo and mangrove wood. A&E Cage Company’s Chunky Monster, a multicolored java wood toy with sisal rope, various wood blocks and round wicker balls, is another example.
Overall, the bird toy segment is evolving and expanding primarily due to one important factor, the experts say.
“Bird owners today are more educated. They’re eager to improve the bird’s environment and provide them with a good quality of life,” McGrath said.
Turn Play into Profit
To help your register ring more routinely with toy sales, train your staff to divvy out more TLC to patrons. Kay’s crew, for instance, personally escorts shoppers to the toy section and offers recommendations to guide the purchase.
“Listen to your customers attentively, and ask them important questions like what type of toys they currently have in the cage, how often their bird plays with the toys, how quickly before the toy needs to be replaced and what toy colors their bird prefers,” Kay suggested. “Remind the consumer that the toy needs to be chosen for the pet, not the person.”
When explaining the value of a toy to a customer, “talk about how the product helps satisfy the bird both mentally and physically,” said Mary Wyld, owner of Wyld’s Wingdom, a Norfolk, Virginia-based pet bird supplies distributor. “Explain how their little brains need to be engaged and their bodies need to move for optimal well-being. Remember that taking the time to discuss the pet and its needs increases sales and enjoyment for the birds.”
When it comes to ideal toy placement and stocking considerations, ponder your options carefully.
“Organize toy products according to bird size and/or product type. Discount slow-moving SKUs, and replace them with new products every two to three months, which coincides with most owners’ food-buying cycle,” McGrath advised. “Also, don’t allow empty hooks or holes in your set. And do a reset once a year—preferably before the Christmas holiday shopping season.”
Lastly, appeal to your clientele’s mobile- and social media-minded sensibilities.
“Try offering a store discount to any customers that record and share videos of their birds playing with the toys you carry and who allow these videos to be shared with your social media followers,” Bohannon recommends. “Nothing sells a toy better than watching a bird have a blast in its cage with it.”
Crunch Time for Small Animals
Here’s some food for thought: Consumers are no longer content with the fast-snatch grab-and-go approach to small animal food shopping. Today, they care about the contents, and they’ll spend more time in your store reading the label on a package of edibles, according to the experts.
That makes it all the more important to carefully select the brands you want to stock and the message you want to convey to patrons increasingly on the hunt for healthier primary diet products.
“People nowadays seem to be paying a lot more attention to nutrition when it comes to their pet’s diet. They’re leaning toward products that have shorter, more recognizable ingredient lists. And they’re more aware of specific ingredients that may be ideal for their pets,” said Phoebe Stanley, associate marketing manager for Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc., a Bowling Green, Ohio-based maker of over 500 products for small animals, birds, horses, dogs and cats.
Nick Kuhn, owner and manager of Pets & Such, a solo pet store in West Valley City, Utah, agrees.
“After price, the primary factor that sways a customer to purchase a small animal
food is the contents inside,” said Kuhn, whose biggest seller is Kaytee’s Forti-Diet Pro Health line. “They’re looking for more natural ingredients. To respond to this demand, more manufacturers have revamped their packaging to promote this. They’ve made their labels more appealing to the eye, and many now offer clear packaging so we can see exactly what’s inside the bag.”
They’ve also promoted preferred nutrients more prominently on the label and marketing materials. For instance, Mazuri’s Rabbit Diet with Timothy Hay touts Lactobacillus and Enterococcus strains of probiotics, natural vitamin E and omega 3 fatty acid-rich flaxseed. The carefresh Complete line boasts of “10 real fruits and vegetables like you’d find in a farmer’s garden,” including carrot, sweet potato, zucchini and peas. And Exotic Nutrition’s Pasture Plus+ Guinea Pig Food advertises its vitamin C-enriched formula containing natural flowers and herbs.
Lucas Stock, communications manager for Murdock, Nebraska-headquartered Oxbow Animal Health—the first company to introduce Timothy hay as a staple in the diet of small herbivore
s—says small pet owners want to invest in a primary diet they believe in.
“In most cases, this means a product with high-quality, recognizable ingredients,” said Stock, whose company recently launched Garden Select—an all-new food line that’s 100 percent complete and Non-GMO Project Verified. “For some, this means purchasing a brand that models their own nutritional preferences, such as an organic or non-GMO food.”
They say variety is the spice of life—and offering more variety may spice up your food sales, too.
“The more nutritionally correct options pet parents have in the aisle, the better chance they’ll make a choice that benefits both the immediate and long-term health of their pet,” Stock said.
On the other hand, retailers and their clientele alike may also benefit from the Costco approach to merchandising: stocking only a limited selection of carefully chosen SKUs.
“It’s easy for shoppers to get overwhelmed by too many choices on the shelf. So we weeded out the food products that didn’t sell much,” said Ryan Jutz, manager at Chuck & Don’s Pet Food and Supplies, a chain with 24 stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. “Now, we only carry three different brands, including Oxbow Essentials, Supreme Russel Rabbit and L’Avian Plus. This makes it easier for the customers to pick from. Limiting diets to only a handful of key brands also makes it easier to train staff and recommend the right foods.”
Whatever brands retailers are considering adding to their set, it’s probably smart to offer choices from both major types of edibles: pelleted-only diets and all-in-one diets, Stanley suggests.
“Pellet-only diets are for pet parents that like to focus their companion’s diet on pellets that can be fed separately from hay and treats, while all-in-one diets focus on complete nutrition and convenience,” Stanley said.
She cites Sunseed’s Sun-Fun All-in-One—with its fruits and veggies, fortified pellets, and oven-baked cookies serving as appetizer, main course, and dessert in one meal—as an example of the latter.
A recent trend in all-in-one diets is to the rise of “gourmet” and “premium” tiers of products. Case in point: Brown’s makes an Encore Gourmet Foraging Feast for hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits, filled with “delicacies” designed to be irresistible and stimulate the pet’s natural foraging instinct.
Be careful not to overlook hay as a shelf staple, either. Guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas require high-
fi ber long-stem Timothy or alfalfa hay for ideal digestion and maximum nutrition. While some brands include hay in their formula—like Sunseed Vita Sunscription Natural Timothy for cavies and rabbits—many do not. That’s where supplemental edibles like American Pet Diner’s Timothy Gold, Timothy Fiber and Mountain Grass come in handy.
Sales Tips To Chew On
To move more of these munchies off your shelves, train your employees thoroughly on what products, ingredients and nutritional benefi ts to recommend, and encourage them to use these products personally.
“There’s no better real-time testimonial than a store associate who’s willing to share with a customer why they use the product that they’re holding in their hand,” Stock said. Additionally, use shelf talkers provided by manufacturers and suppliers that can be displayed alongside primary diet goods, according to Stanley. “Gondola headers and instant redeemable coupons are other excellent resources that brands may have to off er retailers to help boost sales,” she said.
Jutz recommends capitalizing on special promotions and freebies off ered by companies whenever they’re available.
“We partner with Oxbow on its frequent buyer program,” Jutz said. “Customers who buy six bags of hay or food get a seventh bag free.”
Lastly, remember to keep a neat and tidy food section in your small animal aisle/area. Ripped bags, shelf clutter and items that are not clearly marked/priced can leave a bad impression on patrons. And hard-to-find foods can dissuade shoppers from repeat purchases.
“We keep all our small animal foods in one tight section across three shelves,” Kuhn said. “Premium products are on the top shelf at face level, and cheaper SKUs are on the lower shelves.”
Back in 2009, Disney had the foresight to tap into the snowballing small animal ownership craze when it released the live action 3-D film “G-Force.” The movie’s heroes—we are talking guinea pigs, hamsters, moles and other CGI-animated mammals—escape from their cage to save the world from a dastardly evil with the help of high-tech exercise balls.
The flick may not have broken box-office records, but it helped increase awareness of the importance of fitness for these cuddly critters—a movement that certainly hasn’t lost any traction eight years later.
Companies and brands have since proliferated the market with a bevy of wares designed to keep these pets healthy, stimulated and in better shape. And while the simple and classic exercise wheel remains a mainstay on many store shelves, they’ve also “reinvented the wheel” in other ways by creating newer and more innovative on-the-go-geared goods.
Exhibit A is the new LED Run-About Ball, a seven-inch exercise orb illuminated by a soft LED light enclosed in a protective lens cover. Kaytee—a Chilton, Wisconsin, pet supplies company now celebrating its 150th anniversary—won “Best in Show” for this creation in the small animal category at Global Pet Expo 2017.
Exhibit B is the recently introduced Silent Runner wheel from Exotic Nutrition, a family-owned business based in Newport News, Virginia, that’s known more for its exotic pet feeds. Available in three sizes, the Silent Runner eliminates the noisy and chancy center axle from the design of its exercise wheel and implements dual ball bearings for a smooth and quiet operation.
“We know that it’s critically important for small animals to have opportunities for physical activity, but retailers also have a responsibility to educate customers on the benefits of providing this exercise, especially with a new pet purchase,” said Melanie Allen, product specialist with Hagen Group in Mansfield, Massachusetts, which first launched its Living World brand in 1972.
Terri Hallberg, owner of a Petland store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees, noting that her staff is trained to walk new small animal customers through the department and point out the value of purchasing exercise products and toys.
“These are often items that need to be a suggested sale because many customers don’t even know these fitness-focused products exist. So we get our staff to recommend these as essential add-on purchases,” said Hallberg, whose biggest sellers in this subcategory are made by Kaytee: the Silent Spinner wheel, Puzzle Playground jungle gym and FerrTrail Flex-E Funnels. “Fortunately, manufacturers are making these products more colorful and in interesting shapes and sizes.”
The other good news is that kids—as they are with computers and electronics—are quick to remind mom and dad that fun-and-fitness accessories are must-haves just like food and litter. But consumers of any age still need to be enlightened about the right kind of exercise equipment for their particular breed.
“Small animals with tails, like mice, hamsters and gerbils, do well with most exercise products because they’re very kinetic in their daily lives. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are more laid back and don’t do well with rolling balls or spinning wheels,” said Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Hayward, California-based Kordon LLC, known for its Oasis Pet Products line. She notes that retailers can help spread the gospel about appropriate exercise by recommending a right-sized cage to customers—a habitat large enough to encourage movement and accommodate fitness accessories.
“For example, guinea pig habitats should be at least 36 inches long, as they often jump straight up into the air and take off in a short burst of speed,” Morehouse said. “Chinchillas and sugar gliders do best in tall cages with branches and perching platforms they can jump on and off, while rabbits need a cage large enough to allow several bouncy steps in any direction.”
Working out Anywhere
Moving small and large rodents and lagomorphs alike out of the enclosure and into an open but controlled environment should also be encouraged. That’s where portable playpens and harnesses/leashes come in handy.
In the former category, MidWest Homes for Pets has made a name a la its Critterville, a flat-folding product that provides six panels and a play area exceeding nine square feet. Marshall Pet Products put a different spin on this concept with its Pop N Play Ferret Ball Pit, which can keep the pet running in circles with Marshall’s Super Thru-Way 15-foot tunnel attached to the pit’s two entrances.
More manufacturers are also making it easier to take furry companions for a short walk by offering handy accessories, such as Ware’s Jog-NWalk extendable/retractable leash. Living World’s Harness and Lead Set, meanwhile, features an easy-to-slip-on design and a breathable and stretchy polyester fabric harness.
In-the-cage accessories that inspire action also demand shelf space. A fresh take on an old concept is the new Double Coconut with Ladder: a suspended rubberwood bridge ladder connected by two coconut shells at either end, courtesy of Chicago-headquartered Prevue Pet Products—first founded in 1869. And while a hamster (if it could talk) would argue that you can’t do much better than a cardboard tube, it likely never tried the Puzzle Tube, an interactive chew-and-exercise toy made from seagrass and java wood by A&E Cage Co., a hard goods manufacturer from Burlington, New Jersey, with over 30 years’ experience in the pet biz.
To boost sales of exercise and fitness items, think outside the box.
“Any new products should be near your front door, with well-worded signs and short, easy-toread messages,” said Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, New York—the world’s largest breeder of ferrets that’s been making pet products for 21 years. “These products should also rotate around your store as new merchandise becomes available. Arranging your display by use rather than category can also increase sales in more than one category.”
That means not only trying to bundle fitness/exercise SKUs together, but also attempting to pepper in a few other items within that real estate that are slightly different—such as chew toys—Juszczak adds.
In addition, take your merchandise out of the box, use it in your live animal displays and generate excitement by hosting interactive pet-and-play events with patrons.
“We set up exercise pens in the store and put a few rabbits in there, and the customers love it,” Hallberg said.
Old McDonald’s farm isn’t the only place where contented egg layers, colorful quack-makers and other pleasant pheasant-like feathered friends can be found. Today, all manner of urban poultry pals have found a home in the backyards of animal lovers living in the boondocks as well as the big city. And pet retailers who want in on the action stand to make more than chicken feed, according to the pros.
Consider that there are at least 5 million chicken keepers in the U.S., per research conducted by ChickenGuard, the Fulbourn, England-based makers of automatic coop door openers and closers. But chickens aren’t the only domesticated poultry that’s garnering more attention. From Cayuga ducks to royal purple guinea fowl to white Chinese geese, farm fowl are becoming increasingly popular as pets. A big reason is one of the extra perks of ownership: ready-to-eat fresh eggs.
“A hundred years ago, it was common for families to raise and keep chickens, and most everyone had some experience with poultry,” said Tiffany Denter, poultry and wild bird buyer for Tractor Supply Company, the Brentwood, Tennessee-based retail chain founded in 1938 that has over 1,600 stores in 49 states. “Over the years, people gave up their chickens for supermarkets, but now families are taking a bigger interest in their food and the average person’s familiarity with backyard fowl is growing again.”
Breeds That Succeed
Austin Johnson, founder of eFowl, a Denver-headquartered online supplier of live poultry and related products, says the top pet chicken breeds these days include Easter eggers (a hardy species and prolific layer of blue, green, cream, brown and pink eggs), Rhode Island reds (offering a cross between red malays, brown leghorns and Asiatic native stock), black Australorps (known for their calm demeanor) and welsummers (kids love the chocolate-colored eggs they lay).
“There’s also been a greater demand for ducks, which some owners choose because they’re allergic to chicken eggs,” Johnson said. “And white guinea fowl as well as heritage breed turkeys like the Rio Grande or Narraganset are gaining traction, too.”
Because of their docile natures and relative tolerance for being handled and held, these and other urban poultry breeds are preferred to other birds.
“Ducks, for example, can be very affectionate. And we’ve seen more people using chickens and other poultry as therapy animals,” said Frank Cardaropoli, owner of The Chicken Fountain in Davidson, North Carolina, which has been making its Chicken Fountain automated poultry watering systems by hand since the company launched in 2011. “This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum and individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
A prominent trend in this subcategory includes enhanced emphasis on a healthier urban poultry diet.
“Many customers want organic feed options for their flocks today. Improved diet is important because these animals can produce food for the family, and with proper care, a chicken can live to be up to 10 years old,” said Denter, who notes that Tractor Supply is catering to this clamor by recently carrying DuMOR Poultry’s line of Organic non-GMO grower, starter and layer feeds, each boasting no herbicides or pesticides.
Another player capitalizing in the organic ingredients arena is Scratch and Peck Feeds, a Burlington, Washington-based maker of organic chicken feed, which offers a healthy assortment of Naturally Free brand products.
Perhaps the biggest name among diet providers is Purina Animal Nutrition, a wholly owned subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, Inc. in St. Louis, known for its Layena Plus Omega-3 complete feed, Organic Layer Pellets or Crumbles, and Gamebird & Turkey Startena.
Owners like the healthy consumables, but they also want to pamper their poultry with fun snacks, too. Notable treats in this space include Hentastic brand Mealworm Pie, Peck ‘n’ Mix Herb Surprise, and Chick Sticks with Mealworms, Sunflower Hearts, and Oregano with Probiotics, all by Chicken Snacks in Travelers Rest, South Carolina.
“People used to laugh at the concept of treats for chickens,” said Edward Gates, director of sales for San Antonio-warehoused Happy Hen Treats, whose Sunflower and Raisin Party Mix, Mealworm & Sunflower Treat Square, and Mealworm Frenzy treats are sold in over 2,000 stores nationwide. “But in the past year, people have become more accepting of treats and accessories for backyard poultry.”
Home Cluck Home
There’s also a wider array of coops on the market nowadays compared to years ago.
“People want more options for customized coops that suit their home or yard and that offer more protection from natural predators,” said Denter, who cites the Big Green Coop by Innovation Pet, which houses 15 birds, as a big seller.
Martin Hodson, head of sales and marketing for ChickenGuard, which has sold over 35,000 of its units worldwide over the past four years, agrees.
“Coops have become more than just housing for chickens,” Hodson said. “Custom designs and aesthetic appeal are very important for owners.”
Consumers who lack significant backyard real estate also have more size options today. Case in point: Chilton, Wisconsin-based Kaytee recently rolled out a Chicken Coop with Nesting Bob, ample enough for up to four chickens. The igloo-shaped Eglu Go, by Wilmington, Delaware-stationed Omlet—first conceived in 2003 by London art students—is another popular compact plastic coop, complete with a fox-resistant chicken run.
For those desiring more wing room, Trixie Pet Products makes a two-story coop with an outdoor run as well as the Coop Deluxe, with two nesting houses that accommodates six chickens.
Customers will Crow
If you’re going to offer urban poultry livestock in your store, it’s important to choose a reputable source.
“Connect with local farms and nearby hatcheries as trusted breeder sources that can create a healthy ecosystem for any live urban poultry you sell,” Johnson said.
Be a responsible retailer, too—one that does more than simply stocking the necessities.
“Education is so important for urban poultry owners, which is why offering classes and workshops at your store is a must. It’s a perfect time to also demonstrate all the products they’ll need to successfully care for these pets,” Hodson said. “In rural areas, farm and feed retailers provide these educational opportunities regularly.”
Want a surefire crowd-pleaser that can both train and entertain?
“Hold a ‘chick days’ event where you showcase baby chicks and let customers hold, pet and learn about them, and you’ll see sales skyrocket,” Cardaropoli said.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,” Morehouse 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 means 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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,”
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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”