The Best Beginner Reptiles
As part of my ongoing “Back to Basics” articles, it’s high time that I discuss what will likely become the most important (and possibly the most frequent) question facing reptile retailers: the enigma of the first-time reptile owner. While repeat customers are always the end goal for any retailer, helping customers choose the correct reptile on their first time out can create a lifetime of friendship and patronage.
I’ve recommended a number of specific species suitable for first-time reptile owners throughout prior articles. Among these, species such as bearded dragons, ball pythons, corn snakes, crested and leopard geckos, and the White’s tree frog all can make for ideal starter animals for any individual interested in reptiles and amphibians. Further, they make for ideal starter animals for you, as a store owner, as you proceed to educate your staff in proper reptile care, proper cleaning procedures for reptile cages, and best practices in terms of educating your customers on their newest pets.
One of the most important things that both you and your staff must remember is that every member of your staff must be providing the same outward-facing message. Consistency in your overall message ensures that your customers receive the same level of care and the same expertise in knowledge each time they walk into your store. This can, admittedly, be a difficult thing. With the difficulties inherent to staff turnover and the time needed for staff development, providing a consistent message can be particularly difficult.
One of the best ways to ensure consistency is through your care sheets. By using a standardized care sheet—whether unique to your store or through some of the resources made available via PIJAC or another organization—you ensure that the resources your staff are using to make recommendations to your customers are singular and primary. However, in making those resources more palatable for your customers, consider reformatting these care sheets to provide visual and graphic cues to your customers. Many of your first-time customers will likely be children, so being able to hand the customer and their parents a care sheet that’s easy to understand can go a long way toward ensuring that their new reptile has a happy, healthy life and you will maintain a relationship with those customers for years to come.
Younger customers also bear a further note: that of the inherent risks that go along with reptile ownership. Reptiles, like all animals, carry an inherent risk of disease. The most significant of these diseases, in terms of reptiles, comes from salmonella. The risk of salmonella, in many ways, shaped the current market for turtles, as breeders and retailers are now required to adhere to the “4-inch rule,” which stemmed from the possibility of small children placing a turtle into their mouth, thus infecting themselves with salmonella. Further risks from claws or bites may also be of note, particularly if a new reptile owner is untrained in proper reptile handling.
As such, your new customers must absolutely be trained in how to properly handle their new reptile pet. Of course, not all reptiles appreciate being held or handled. Ball pythons may enjoy being held, though chameleons often do not. As you or your staff members meet with a potential customer, work toward assessing their wants and needs in terms of animal handling and affection.
For that matter, the lifestyle and desires of prospective reptile owners should be forefront in both your mind and theirs as they pursue their first reptile. Is your customer awake and alert during the day or are they night owls? Do they want their pets to match that lifestyle? How often does your customer want to interact with their reptile pet? Do they want to feed it daily, weekly, or less? Is the customer comfortable with providing live or frozen food to their pet, or would they prefer something less “icky”?
A customer’s personal preferences in regards to living with a pet may result in ruling out some animals that simply don’t fit, despite earlier preconceived ideas. These lifestyle nuances will factor directly into the caging, substrate, lighting and other necessities that your customer will require in setting up their reptile’s first enclosure. And, of course, your care sheets for any given animal should comprehensively cover the specific needs for the given reptile.
Customers must know a variety of care aspects, including if a certain reptile requires ultraviolet lighting, if it needs a specific type of substrate, if it prefers live food over frozen, before any purchase is made and before any steps are taken. Clarity and forthright honesty should become your absolute watchwords.
Unfortunately, taking this approach—being upfront and honest with your customers—may cost you some sales. Inevitably, there will be a customer who will want an exotic, hard-to-care for animal that they may simply not be ready to take on yet. However, your focus should always be upon providing the best fit for a customer and their new pet, ensuring that whatever animal you sell lives out its days in a healthy, happy environment.
The customers that you walk through that process will always appreciate the care and detail you provide them and will easily become lifelong repeat customers. Stay focused on the long term and reap the rewards of good word of mouth.
New pet owners will always provide challenges to those within the pet trade, but it’s our job as pet retailers to be that resource, to be that first point of educational contact to match the best pet with the best possible owner. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that’s absolutely worth doing.
Reptile Habitats are the Key to Long-term Success
One of the major points that I’ve tried to hammer home throughout my past articles has been the concept that your relationship with a customer does not, and should not, end with the sale of a given animal. In fact, the vast majority of your profit actually lies with subsidiary purchases, such as food and substrate.
However, the largest of those purchases—one that literally may make or break the purchasing process for your customers—is the housing for that given animal. Cages and enclosures are often overlooked when considering reptiles as a point of sale, but the right cages can make all the difference when selling your reptiles.
The first and singularly important thing to remember is that if you carry a given animal within your store, you must carry the appropriate housing for that animal. While this is easy to pay lip service to, not every cage or enclosure is made equal. As a retailer, you must consider your animal’s species, size (especially sizes in the future) and humidity needs before stocking both reptiles and their enclosures.
Various species of animals simply require different enclosures. Most snakes, for example, tend to do poorly in mesh-walled enclosures, as they can catch their scales against the mesh, leading to potential injury. Aquatic reptiles, obviously, can’t be held in a mesh enclosure; while species that require specific humidity controls must be kept in an enclosure that best suits their humidity needs. If you live in a particularly dry area, species like bearded dragons or banded geckos may thrive in an open, mesh cage. However, if your area is particularly cold, you may find that open-air enclosures are simply inappropriate for your climate, even indoors.
Animal sizing matters greatly in terms of enclosure choices. While given enclosures vary, based on their actual dimensions, there are a number of easily-found guidelines for various reptiles, based on their family. However, retailers should keep in mind the growth of a given reptile over time. Turtles such as red-eared sliders and various species of iguanas can grow particularly large. While a customer may think they have a large enough enclosure at the time of purchase, they may swiftly find that their new pet quickly outgrows their home.
As a basic rule of thumb, consider most lizards requiring an enclosure at least two to three times longer than their full snout-to-tail length, while turtles would require housing around five times their snout-to-tail length. Snakes tend to be a bit trickier, though in most cases one should consider a cage of at least ¾ of the snake’s overall length.
Depth of an enclosure, however, often depends upon the nature of the given species. A species known for climbing, like most geckos and chameleons, often requires a taller enclosure, while a bearded dragon might not require the additional height. Snakes, similarly, require height based upon their propensity to climb or maneuver vertically. In the end, you simply have to know your animals and effectively communicate that knowledge to your customers. Finally, humidity comes into play for so many reptile species. As a general rule, the more humidity—or, the more control an animal requires for its humidity—the more likely that animal will require a glass or plastic enclosure with solid walls. Animals that thrive in lower humidity will generally do better in open-air, mesh enclosures. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but in both cases, you—as a retailer—must know your animals and understand how to serve them best.
And, as I’ve advocated in the past, any information or education that you gain when choosing your animals’ enclosures absolutely must be disseminated throughout your staff and your customers. While it may seem easier just to keep all of your animals in similar enclosures prior to sale, their needs may diff er significantly; both your staff and your customers must be aware of these nuances to best serve the animals themselves.
Making the Sale
When it comes to selling enclosures, the uptick in overall reptile sales has given rise to a number of intriguing trends. Universal Rocks’ Jason Wilson spoke about some of the interesting things he’s seen within the realm of enclosures. Founded by Stuart Dunne in Australia, Universal Rocks moved to Dallas in 2007 and provides a fantastic variety of artificial stones, plants and other enclosure materials for reptile enthusiasts.
Wilson was quick to note the rise of “round tanks, smaller enclosures, coffee tables and stands,” noting that “we are seeing a trend toward smaller reptiles and amphibians.” This is leading customers to find more varied, unique ways to display their pets, he said.
Wilson encourages pet retailers to provide “clean, bright, and colorful setups” within their stores, noting that store owners should think of their displays as “something they should put in their highest traffic area.” And, he was quick to echo Reptiles by Mack’s own thoughts in regard to stocking procedures: “In the end, be smart, be practical, and don’t be afraid to think outside the box.”
An enclosure will likely represent, for customers, the single largest purchase they will make for their pet outside of the pet itself. And, in some cases, that enclosure may outstrip the cost of the pet several times over. It is your duty to ensure that your customers make wise choices when deciding upon where their new pet will live. Be sure that they have all the right tools to do the job!
Replicating Natural Habitats
When examining what goes into a cage or enclosure, a major aspect is the substrate and caging material that comes with keeping a reptile.
Substrate, as a general term, refers to the surface upon which a given organism lives. For our context, this refers to a material placed in the bottom of an enclosure, serving as a combination of flooring and bedding for your reptiles. There are a number of various forms of substrate available to consumers, ranging from sand and gravel, to processed wood and paper products, to soil and moss, to artificial surfaces including artificial grasses and even linoleum and tile.
As with caging, much of your—and your customers’—choices in substrate will rely upon the type of reptile chosen. Playground sand, for example, is a poor choice for most snakes, as the fine grains can be accidentally ingested or clog various bodily openings. Similarly, gravel is rarely a good choice for species that require high humidity, as the stones will not hold moisture. However, stone may make a phenomenal choice for species that require a good deal of dry heat, mimicking their natural environment.
In all cases, special care and attention must be paid to a given reptile’s natural habitat, and your first instinct should always be to replicate that environment’s climate as best as possible. Many reptile owners—and even some breeders—often try to get away with the cheapest available option in this regard, sometimes relying on old newspaper, cedar shavings or even cat litter, but doing so can definitely harm that reptile’s longterm health. Particularly, substrates like playground sand, mulch from hardware stores or even newspaper can contain toxins, fertilizers or other chemicals that can be harmful to a reptile’s skin, digestive system or respiratory system. Walnut shell litter is particularly of note as harmful, as it is not only sharp to the point of being able to pierce more thin-skinned reptiles, but also provides a breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, leading to a higher chance of infection. To be sure, quality substrate is well worth the investment.
On the forefront of substrate technology stands Brian Barczyk, owner of BHB Reptiles in Michigan. In addition to breeding and selling reptiles, Barczyk manages his own YouTube channel, AnimalBytesTV, which serves more than 630,000 subscribers, with a legion of videos ranging from animal handling tips and species analyses to superlatives featuring massive snakes, spiders, and other unique animals.
Recently, Barczyk has branched out into substrate production via a brand known as Reptile Prime. He describes this new product, made from dust-free Coco fiber, as “a blend perfect for snakes, lizards, arachnids, and tortoises, which require a slightly higher humidity.”
He has his reasons for his choice of fiber over a more-prevalent moss.
“We feel that processing a bedding like coconut fiber to take the dust away really improves absorbency as well as ease of use,” Barczyk said. “With our patented process of separating out the three layers of a coconut shell, we can offer a bedding that is more suited to the specific needs of your reptile. Historically, the process would be to grind up all three parts into whatever size desired, but this leaves dust and other unwanted parts for your reptile. By separating the three parts out, we increase the absorbency by close to twice the industry standard, which means it holds humidity for much longer as well as removes the dust which is the ‘dirty’ part of coconut fiber.
“We are also working on a few other bedding products that will be an alternative to using sand as a bedding,” he continued. “Sand can hold bacteria and be abrasive to a reptile; we have a product on the horizon that will look similar and act similar but not have any sand in it whatsoever. We will continue to use technology to produce bedding products that will make keeping your pet reptile easier while keeping the health of your pet at the highest standard.”
Barczyk advocates that a reptile owner do a full change of substrate and bedding once per month to keep the reptiles happy and healthy. In doing so, he also recommends breaking the cage down fully and disinfecting the cage itself to prevent any outlying growth of bacteria or fungi.
“If we can provide bedding that reduces your work, it gives you more time to enjoy your pet and less time worrying,” he said.
As with so many of my articles, the key here is to communicate this knowledge to both your staff and
your customers. Your staff should be well-acquainted with the practice of changing out reptile bedding
and substrate, and this procedure should be performed on a regular schedule. By no means should anyone on your staff ever simply put a new reptile into a recently-vacated cage without thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing that cage first. Similarly, your customers must be made well aware of the necessity of proper clean substrate, as well as the procedures necessary to clean out their new pet’s home. Education is paramount. Substrates may not be the most exciting or enthralling topic for many
reptile owners, but they remain a critical element of any reptile owner’s equipment. And with new innovations like Barczyk’s Reptile Prime on the horizon, it becomes easier than ever to keep our scaly friends happy and healthful.
Extreme Weather Shipping for Reptiles
If there’s one thing (other than reptiles) that we know at the Reptiles by Mack headquarters in Xenia, Ohio, it’s severe weather. Xenia has been the site of several massive tornadoes in the past 50 years. Our headquarters on Detroit Street, luckily, has not seen much in the way of damage, though we’re more than acquainted with severe weather.
Ohio is subject to hot, humid summers and winters that bring knee-deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. Especially in recent years, we’ve dealt with weeks of frigid temperatures, which can make the act of transporting reptiles particularly difficult!
Reptiles are exothermic (or, cold-blooded) creatures; in order to maintain body temperature, they need an external heat source, typically a heating pad or a heat lamp. If a reptile gets too hot or too cold, they are incapable of regulating their temperature and can suffer ill health effects or even die. As such, maintaining reptiles’ appropriate body temperature becomes paramount, especially during months in which the elements themselves provide a hazard.
Without our own practice, this means that if a nighttime low temperature would dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at either our location or your own, we include heat packs in the shipping material so that the reptiles within stay warm enough to survive the journey. However, these heat packs are meant to operate in cold weather; in a room temperature environment, the additional heat provided by the packs can easily overwhelm the reptiles and even kill them.
We cannot stress this enough: when receiving your reptiles from a wholesaler, remove them from their packing material immediately, and allow those reptiles to slowly acclimatize to the room’s temperature. It may take a few hours for a reptile to fully acclimatize, but give them the time they need; resist the urge to “warm one up,” as doing so can harm the creature.
From the logistical viewpoint, you must further make sure that when inclement weather seems to be on the horizon, you have the inventory of reptiles, reptile food and subsidiary materials to keep your store shelves full and your reptiles happy and healthy. This means that you may need to look at keeping additional stock in your store, making largerthan-normal orders, if you know that a snowstorm or a plunge in temperature is on the horizon. Even when in the depths of a snowstorm, both your store’s creatures and those of your customers still have to eat! Be sure to order enough material to keep your store and your customers sustained, regardless of the weather. During particularly difficult weather, you may have to make additional concessions when procuring reptiles; more specifically, you may have to travel to a dispatch location to pick up your reptile shipment.
During inclement weather, it may be simply too hazardous for a semitruck to take to the road, though shipping containers for reptiles are not meant to be long-term solutions by any stretch. If requested to meet at a dispatch location, do so with all haste that safety will allow.
If you do not, your reptiles’ lives are at significant risk. Leaving your reptiles in a cold box truck all day may prove hazardous.
While you can be particularly careful while receiving your reptiles, do not overlook the inverse: during inclement weather, your customers must be well-informed and educated in these very same processes, even if they live nearby.
One issue we often see is a new reptile customer keeping their new-found pet covered and warm while out in the weather, only to rest that same reptile near a car vent, with hot air blowing on or near the poor creature. Though it may not seem that way, keeping a reptile so close to a hot vent can actually cause more damage than brief exposure to cold. While a reptile exposed to cold can often recover, provided that the temperature does not dip too low, overheating a reptile can be deadly.
One potential workaround is to invest in materials within your own store to keep reptile storage and transport supplies on hand for your sales. Sealable deli cups are ideal for transporting reptiles and are staples of any reptile show; avoid using cardboard boxes, however, as snakes can easily slither between the folds in the cardboard, making a quick escape.
An inexpensive investment in small plastic cups and foam containers can not only keep your reptiles safe as your customers transport them home, but also serve as a point of education for your customers. Boxing up a reptile can serve as an important point of communication with your customer, instilling them with the knowledge that you truly care for your reptiles and want to see them thrive, even when out of your store.
As a final point, be sure that your staff is up to date and educated on how to take care of reptiles during inclement weather. Your staff are your direct representatives to the customer; be sure that your staff speaks with the voice you want representing you.
While Mother Nature is truly outside of our control, the best reptile retailers build contingency upon contingency to ensure that their store can operate even in the most adverse of conditions. And, of course, those same retailers are the ones with happy repeat customers, even as the snowflakes fall. Prior preparation will win the day.
Tapping into Reptile Trade Shows can be Profitable
With all that goes on during any given day in the pet trade, it can be very easy for a store owner to get into a mindset where their nose is always to the grindstone, finding ways to make their store better from within that store. Juggling day-to-day duties like animal care, scheduling, shipments and more can really wear on a person. However, getting out of your store can be just like coming up for air after a deep dive. And truly there’s no better place to do this than to head off to a reptile trade show!
The Show’s Starting
Reptile shows are held all across the U.S., with nearly every weekend filled with events for reptile lovers. Kingsnake.com, in fact, lists approximately 150 events for 2017 alone. ReptiCon, the largest reptile show organization, holds 36 of its namesake events during 2017, scattered primarily across the American South, with a few additional northern shows in Baltimore and Chicago. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is literally a reptile show each and every weekend across this country of ours!
But why should you attend these? Traditional wisdom has often put pet retailers and reptile shows at odds, each viewing the other as a competitor. However, the benefits of attending reptile shows as a retailer cannot be overstated. They do, though, have to be split into two primary roles: that of you as an attendee and that of you as an exhibitor.
As an attendee of a reptile show, you gain two primary advantages. First of those advantages is the ability to network. While attending a reptile show, you gain the opportunity to interact with a number of exhibitors and other reptile enthusiasts at your leisure. While doing so, you are free to examine prices; check out new species, morphs, and colorations; and talk to reptile retailers and breeders, suppliers and wholesalers.
Any good exhibitor worth their salt always carries business cards or other promotional items so that visitors will remember their store in the future. If you are looking to change suppliers or add new reptiles to your store, a few conversations with the exhibitors at a reptile show may give you the information you need to make an informed decision as you move forward.
Secondly, as an attendee, you gain the ability to mine for ideas. Wandering around the floor of a local reptile show, you can see what other retailers are holding in stock, what attendees are buying and what new housing and feeding materials are on the market. Online research is all well and good, but the best way to determine what sells in your area is to actively take a look around outside of your own store. While your evidence may be colloquial, there’s no better way to understand the customers in your area than to watch them as they shop, especially with the amount of variety found at a reptile show.
An Inside Look
Want to see what’s selling? Keep your eyes open and talk to some of the other exhibitors. See a new morph that you’re not familiar with? Chances are that the people who breed that very morph are on site. Need to find a new supplier for colubrids? Reptile shows are your chance to find someone who specializes in those very snakes in your own backyard.
While there is much to be gained from attending a reptile show, you may gain even more by acting as an exhibitor at such a show. Loren Leigh, the owner of LLLReptile and Supply Company, has taken this concept to be part and parcel with his normal business practice. In addition to his five brick-and-mortar stores, Leigh regularly attends reptile shows as an exhibitor, often attending two or three shows per month.
“I personally find visiting trade shows really opens my eyes to the pulse and direction of our industry and the networking has always proved to be valuable in all aspects of our business,” Leigh said. “I have been in this industry for 23 years and have personally attended almost every show we do (over 30 a year) for this entire period of time. I find reptile shows to be the most valuable source of information for the success of our business.”
Exhibiting at a reptile show can have some difficulties attached to it. Firstly, there are the issues of staffing: while you could close down your store to attend a reptile show, a more likely scenario would mean having staff cover the store while you attend the show, or vice versa. This means additional manhours and additional payroll expense.
Further, exhibiting at a show means overcoming several logistical hurdles. In all likelihood, you will need to transport a significant portion of your reptiles and other materials to and from the show. In extreme weather— the heat of summer or the sub-zero temperatures of winter—this adds additional problems, as you will need to ensure that your reptiles arrive in prime condition.
While exhibiting at a reptile show, be sure to care for yourselves as well. Hours at a show can run long, with little opportunity for breaks or refreshment. Ensure that your booth has comfortable chairs and easy-to-transport snacks and drinks to keep yourself and your staff members ready to go throughout the show. Also, you’ll need to ensure that you have everything you need to effectively run your store from this remote location. If you don’t have an easily transportable point-of-sale system, you may need to set up a cardreader device so that you can take credit card orders from your booth.
Leigh actually suggests new retailers try setting up their booths outside of the convention atmosphere, just to “insure you have everything covered.” This can often trigger smaller items in your mind, such as table covers, power strips, or other necessities for exhibition. He also notes to “make sure to understand details of setup times, load-in locations and location in the hall. Set-up can be hectic and overwhelming; the more prepared you are, the better the set-up will go.”
In the lead-up to your exhibition, make sure that you have an active sales strategy and have the materials to execute that strategy. Be sure to have promotional materials—business cards, flyers, care sheets and other information—ready to hand to your potential customers, and be sure that your brand and logo are easily visible to anyone passing by. Consider also offering coupons, both for those who make purchases at your booth and for those who just stop by to browse. A coupon for a free pack of crickets or mealworms for those who visit your brick-and-mortar store can go a long way toward establishing a great relationship with a group of engaged, knowledgeable reptile lovers who may just become your best new customers.
“Any snake sold in that show could be a weekly customer to your shop for a feeder, not to mention the bedding needs, light bulb needs, just to name a few,” Leigh said.
While both attending and exhibiting at a reptile show can be an exhausting affair, the benefits of even a one- or two-day show can truly pay dividends in your store’s overall strategy. Sponsoring the show may also pay big dividends as all these reptiles will need food, habitats and accessories. Check around for a show near you and see what’s going on in your area. The sky’s the limit!
The Eastern Market Impact
Throughout my time writing for Pet Age, I’ve often assumed that my primary audience has been in the U.S. However, I know that we don’t live and work in a vacuum. The internet has made instantaneous communication, international trade and global publishing daily parts of our lives. Because of this, I can’t necessarily think only in a local, regional or even national point of view.
Therefore, it’s time to expand my scope.
The pet trade on the whole has been in an era of massive expansion outside of the U.S., most notably in China and Southeast Asia. The pet trade in this region has grown by leaps and bounds, which can provide both challenges and opportunities to those of us stateside.
In the past few years, the market for pets in China has expanded dramatically. According to a May 2017 market research article from Daxue Consulting, the market expenditure for pets and pet accessories in China exceeded $17.7 billion, compared to the estimated U.S. expenditure of $66.75 billion. While China’s amount is much lower, current forecasts indicate its growth rate to be nearly 21 percent, with potential market expenditure nearing $30 billion in the coming years. With that level of growth, it’s unwise to underestimate China within the pet trade.
To what can we attribute this growth, though? Daxue Consulting links the growth in the pet trade to an overall increase in discretionary income, especially for people living within Tier 1 and Tier 2 Chinese cities. The expanding middle class in China has led to additional leisure time, more money to spend on leisure items such as pets and a better standard of living for many Chinese. The company further attributes the increase in pet ownership to increased celebrity profiles in China. Chinese celebrities, such as Fan Bingbing—the actress who played Blink in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”—have been noted to have pets, leading to their fans to follow in kind. Pets are viewed not only as companions, but as status symbols: having a pet represents having ‘made it’ within the transforming Chinese culture.
Forbes magazine, in fact, has made even more drastic predictions for China’s increasing pet market. Citing a Euromonitor research forecast, Forbes contributor Marianna Cerini estimates China’s pet industry to grow by more than 50 percent by 2019, rapidly outpacing U.S. with a 30 percent annual growth rate in the pet food market, worth $50 billion on its own. Cerini cites further interest in large pet fairs, such as Pet Fair Asia and the Shanghai International Pet Expo, which can draw crowds of over 50,000 attendees.
However, what does this mean for U.S. pet retailers? Firstly, let us look at the basic economic concept of supply and demand. With demand increasing for all forms of pets within Southeast Asia, pet retailers must pay even closer attention to breeding trends and seasonality. If an overseas trend sees a spike in sales for ball pythons or crested geckos, your local wholesaler may not be able to keep up with the demand for these reptiles. This, in turn, may lead to increased prices or outright unavailability for your chosen species.
Counteracting these factors requires significant attention to detail. Firstly, make sure to establish and maintain a positive relationship with your breeders and wholesalers, especially if they have an international sales base. Regular conversations with your wholesaler can ensure that you stay abreast of the most recent trends, breeding schedules and other anomalies within the pet trade at large. Further, they may be able to provide insight into alternative animals that you may look at offering in lieu of higher-priced, harder-to-acquire animals. That relationship with your wholesalers and breeders keeps your finger on the pulse of the reptile world; keep those up at all cost!
This issue of high reptile demand in Asia can be aggravated by the fact that a retailer local to China or Southeast Asia will be more likely to sell to a closer buyer, rather than exporting to the United States. As such, reptiles that would normally be exported to the U.S. are, instead, being sold in China itself. This, too, drives up demand as the global supply dwindles. Keep abreast of major sales trends not just in your own region, but globally. If, for instance, sales of water dragons began to spike in China, that would concurrently make it less likely for a U.S.-based retailer to import them from mainland Asia.
Further, if your store is larger or if you do most of your business online, you may wish to expand your own sales into the burgeoning Asian market and beyond. As I’ve mentioned in numerous past articles, the vast preponderance of a successful reptile retailer’s profit comes not from the sale of a pet, but rather from subsidiary sales such as housing items, lighting, and other necessary items. As such, an online store can provide a substantial source of additional revenue with little more set-up outside of that which you might provide through your brick-and-mortar store’s website.
The biggest hurdle to this, naturally, comes in terms of logistics. If you choose to offer international sales, you will come into conflict with two great bugbears of sales: shipping and customs. International shipping rates can be difficult to navigate, both in terms of cost and in terms of timing. Chinese New Year, for instance, is legendary for its tendency to grind international shipping to a halt. Be sure to check with your shipping company to explore the best possible shipping options, should you choose to offer your wares overseas.
The market expansion for pets in China and Southeast Asia represents a phenomenal opportunity for all those willing to take advantage of it. The increase in reptile sales, no matter the location, is a positive for the entire pet industry. But even if your scope is a little closer to home, it still pays to keep an eye on what’s happening on the other side of the world.
Breeding Season for the Ball Python
One of most amusing things I’ve found online in the past few months has been the “snek” meme. Following the trend of “lolcats” and “doggos,” “sneks” have slithered their way into internet culture with a playful “blelele” and, to their foes, a sassy “heck off!” After so many centuries of fear and misunderstanding, snakes are finally becoming the lovable pets that we’ve known them to be.
Of course, this change in psyche has translated swimmingly over to the pet trade where varieties of snakes have been on the uptick as pets. And sitting atop the snake sales charts is the adorable curled-up ball python. With a loving temperament and ease of care, the ball python should sit among your staple options for reptile sales. Plus, with ball python breeding season in swing just as this issue is hot off the press, there’s no better time than the present to include ball pythons within your reptile displays.
The ball python (Python regius) is the smallest form of African python, originally hailing from sub-Saharan Africa. Even in ancient times, ball pythons were held in high regard, worn as jewelry by ancient Egyptian royalty and given reverent funerals by aboriginal Nigerian tribesmen. Ball pythons rarely grow longer than 6 feet in length, with males reaching maturity at around 3½ feet and females growing to around a foot longer. When properly cared for, ball pythons can live for over 20 years, with some ball pythons living for over 40 years!
In terms of care, ball pythons are prized for their ease and simplicity of care. Ball pythons are noted for their docility and their relative friendliness, in terms of being handled. A ball python will often be at its happiest simply coiled around your arm or draped across your shoulders. Ball pythons also tend to prefer a smaller enclosure, making them ideal snakes for apartment-dwelling pet owners or for those with smaller homes. An adult ball python will be more than comfortable in a 36-inch x 18-inch x 12-inch enclosure, ideally with two hides, each in a different temperature zone of the enclosure.
A ball python enclosure should always be at least 78°F, with a basking location approaching 90°F. Humidity within such an enclosure should be kept around 50-60 percent; be sure that the substrate used within a ball python enclosure does not adversely affect the enclosure’s humidity levels. Consider stocking cypress mulch or orchid bark to handle this issue, as they can help regulate the humidity in the tank.
Another of the key reasons for the popularity of ball pythons is undoubtedly their myriad morphs, patterns and colorations. While most “basic” ball pythons have brown and black markings with a cream colored belly, breeders have created seemingly countless patterns and morphs all across the spectrum. Current counts estimate over 5,200 individual and replicable morphs of ball pythons, creating a huge variety for even the most discerning reptile owner.
Of these morphs, the albino—a white/yellow colored snake with pink or even red eyes—has become increasingly popular, particularly as they become more widely available within the market at large. However, devoted fans of the ball python often seek out the rarer, more esoteric morphs of snake. Among these include pastel morphs (which can sell for more than $3,000) and even the patternless ball python, which can fetch prices in excess of $10,000!
The sheer variety of morphs and colorations provide a two-fisted advantage to retailers: new owners can pick out a snake that interests them without fear of great expenditure, while experienced reptile fans can choose from a massive variety of colorations and patterns.
However, the true advantage of ball pythons—as with most reptiles—comes in terms of their food. Ball pythons are constrictor snakes, feeding exclusively on mice, rats and other small rodents. While some python owners, particularly veteran snake owners or breeders, tend to prefer live food for their reptiles, most pet owners instead opt for frozen mice and rats. Ball pythons typically need to be fed weekly, with feedings dropping to near bi-weekly during the winter months, in which the python would typically be in hibernation. Pythons, like most snakes, do not eat while they are in shed, so save their feeding for after they’ve shed their skin.
It’s in those rodents—live or frozen—that canny store owners can truly show an increase in their store’s profits. Big box stores simply do not carry feeder mice or rats in their pet stock, meaning that, if you can keep a regular stock of feeder animals, every animal you sell can potentially represent years upon years of continued revenue.
When stocking these feeder animals, always be sure to provide as many sizes and varieties as possible. Snakes of various sizes and ages require different sized food, ranging from extra-small pinkies all the way up to adult-sized mice. Be sure that your staff is educated on which sizes are best for a given animal’s size and that they can effectively communicate this information to your customers. A happy animal, of course, is one that’s well-fed!
With the ease of care necessary for a newbie reptile owner and the variety necessary to please a veteran, ball pythons should hold a place of honor within your stores. Provide your customers some options and they’ll be sure to enjoy these wonderful animals!
If there’s one truth in the pet trade, it’s this: all of those critters have to eat. Reptiles, particularly, have diverse tastes in food that can simultaneously give you a throbbing stress migraine while providing the single greatest source of incoming revenue for your store. Staying abreast of new developments and changes within the realm of reptile food may well prove the difference between long-term success and struggle for your store.
Much like any other pet, any given reptile has a personality. Some will crave human contact and attention, others dislike being held. Similarly, some reptiles will eat any food item placed in front of them, while others have finite preferences and tastes. Perhaps your bearded dragon likes waxworms more than mealworms, or maybe your chameleon won’t eat crickets dusted in a certain brand of calcium powder. Providing a variety for your customers—both in actual food items and in supplementation—ensures that customers can find exactly what their pet wants most. Catering to those needs provides a positive customer interaction and keeps those customers coming back to your store time after time.
At the core of any store’s reptile food sales has to be crickets. While these little creatures can be a nuisance, they have two massive advantages that make them an absolute necessity within your store. First, crickets are inexpensive. Crickets have a relatively low footprint upon your overhead costs and can serve as a significant profit engine. Secondly, the proverbial ‘big box’ stores of your area likely do not carry crickets. With the pervasiveness of crickets as a primary food product within the reptile industry—the number of captive reptiles that feed upon primarily crickets is massive!—having a steady, reliable cricket supply ensures that customers will continue to return to their local pet store for a product that cannot be found at the grocery store.
However, alongside basic crickets, additional options remain at your disposal, should you choose to take advantage. One easy way to ensure repeat customers is through simple convenience. Retailers can consider having their staff members pre-bag various sizes of crickets by the 10 or by the dozen. Rather than dropping a current task to assist a customer by scooping crickets from a main bin, staff members could instead simply reach under the counter and pull forth a bag of small crickets, ready to go.
Alternatively, retailers may wish to look into pre-packaged bins of reptile food. Oftentimes, these are more ‘premium’ items, as they will contain gut-loaded insects or insects pre-dusted with calcium or other vitamin powders. Other reptile food suppliers, such as Timberline, have begun producing bins of pre-packaged reptile food suitable for various species. Packaged items like cactus, leafy greens or fruit fly larvae can make for easy grab-and-go items for customers, making life easier on them and ensuring repeat business for the store. Reptile food producer Timberline has even begun providing a “Reptile Lunch Box,” which contains prepacked, date-stamped boxes of crickets, complete with food and water to keep the crickets alive.
Coupled with this is a trend toward pre-packed frozen mice and rats for our carnivorous reptile friends. These frozen mice are often packed individually, allowing a customer to buy as many as they need at a clip, or buy a larger pack for greater economy. Both single packs and larger packages can be kept in a small freezer within easy reach of a register—gone are the days of having to hunt through a bulky deep freeze for frozen mice! Again, the advantage here lies in the niche market; big-box stores, supermarkets and the like will not carry frozen mice and rats. If you can make yourself indispensable to your customers, it becomes increasingly likely the same customer will turn to you for additional needs, such as other pet food, habitat supplies or even new animals.
One of the newer developments in reptile food has been that of hornworms, also known as Goliath worms. The larvae of the Sphinx moth, hornworms are large, softbodied caterpillars similar in appearance to silkworms. Often viewed as a pest insect—hornworms often feed upon tobacco or tomato plants—hornworms have gained popularity with owners of bearded dragons, leopard geckos, chameleons, uromastyxs and other larger lizards. Hornworms have a naturally high calcium content and are relatively low in fat, which makes them ideal feeder insects for creatures that are having difficulty eating. Because of these factors, retailers may be able to bill hornworms as a premium food, particularly as a treat for their hungry reptiles.
One of the biggest questions a retailer must face is that of live food. While many reptile enthusiasts swear by live feeder mice and rats, the additional space, cost and effort necessary to maintain feeder animals within a store may not be worth the aggravation. However, if an area has enough reptile owners that prefer live food, it may well be worth it to meet the demand of those customers. Again, no big-box store or supermarket will encroach on this market, so a wellstocked store that carries live food has the potential to tap into a cornered market. However, stay focused on the overall demand for feeder animals in your area, and act accordingly.
We’ve said it numerous times since the inception of this column, but it bears repeating: the initial sale of a reptile pet is only the beginning. The majority of a retailers’ interactions with customers, and the majority of their transactions, will not come from animal purchases but rather the purchases of food and other subsidiary purchases. Reptile food is at the core of any pet-store/customer relationship; retailers should ensure that they hold up their end of the conversation!
Handle With Care
The veiled chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus), the most popular and best-selling chameleon across the nation, is native to the Middle East, specifically modern-day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Within their natural habitats, veiled chameleons tend to prefer coastal mountainous regions, particularly those with significant rainfall. However, they have spread across the globe, even establishing populations as far away as Maui and as close as Florida.
Veiled chameleons are notable for their color-changing capabilities, with a variety of striped or spotted patterns. They are particularly easy to differentiate by gender, as males have a protrusion known as a tarsal spur on their hind legs. A healthy male veiled chameleon will grow to nearly two feet in length and live for approximately six to eight years. Females are slightly less vibrant, are typically a few inches shorter and have a shorter lifespan, typically living only four to six years. However, both sexes of chameleons can live longer when given a safe, clean environment.
Veiled chameleons—and chameleons in general—often have a poor reputation of being finicky or requiring a more advanced level of care. In the past, this may have been the case, but thanks to advances in captive breeding, veiled chameleons are better acclimated to life as a pet than their previously wild-caught cousins.
However, chameleons typically do not enjoy being handled. Some pet owners may be used to bearded dragons or other lizards that prefer handling, but chameleons can grow stressed or even become unhealthy from excessive handling. When handling a chameleon, retailers should encourage their staff and customers to simply allow the chameleon freedom of movement, letting it proceed across an arm or across hands as it feels comfortable. Chameleons do prefer heights, so don’t be surprised if a chameleon finds its way to the top of your head.
Another contributing factor to veiled chameleons’ poor reputation may stem from their preferred housing. Veiled chameleons prefer screened tanks, which allow for free and easy airflow across the enclosure. However, with many other reptiles thriving in glass-walled enclosures, even experienced reptile keepers fall into error, keeping their chameleons in enclosures that are better suited to snakes or other lizards. This sort of environment fosters respiratory infections in chameleons and poor health overall in the long term.
If you plan to stock veiled chameleons in your store, be sure that you also carry the proper enclosures necessary to house those chameleons. These chameleons require a hot, humid environment with ultraviolet B (UVB) lighting as well. The floor of a chameleon enclosure should be kept bare, however, to prevent the spread of bacteria and fungi. House adult veiled chameleons separately; keeping multiple adult chameleons in the same enclosure can stress out the chameleons and lead to fighting.
Be sure that any enclosure, whether in the store or in the customers’ home, has a good variety of vines and foliage on which the veiled chameleons can climb and bask.
Good choices for plants include ficus and hibiscus, as well as schefflera. These plants not only provide shade and climbing area for chameleons, but also help to maintain humidity within the enclosure. Some chameleon keepers have gone so far as to create drip systems for their enclosures, providing a slow, steady source of both humidity and drinking water. However, avoid water features in a chameleon enclosure; veiled chameleons often use such water sources to defecate, which can turn an attractive waterfall into a potentially toxic mess.
While veiled chameleons do not require a water dish—it’s better to mist them twice a day with a spray bottle of clean water—they do require both a heat bulb to maintain homeostatic body temperature as well as a UVB bulb to generate necessary vitamins and minerals. UVB exposure should be made in conjunction with any vitamin or calcium supplement added to your chameleon’s diet.
A veiled chameleon’s diet provides an advantage for a canny store owner. Chameleons are voracious eaters, requiring daily or every-other-day feedings. With each of these feedings requiring vitamin and calcium supplementation, the profits for a store owner who carries these items should be obvious. A store can thrive upon these necessities, becoming a one-stop-shop for any chameleon owner. Given this, retailers should ensure their stores have a regular, consistent stock of crickets, including gut-loaded or other vitamin-providing insects, as well as necessary supplements. Keeping these items, as well as those that a reptile owner will seek to include in their enclosures, will keep chameleon-owning patrons coming back for more.
And for those who might need another incentive to carry these amazing animals: a single veiled chameleon can easily consume over $600 per year in crickets. Thus, the sale of the pet should not be a retailer’s focus as much as stocking the food and supplies that will result in maximum profits.
A Nice Niche Pet
When customers think of reptiles, most people tend to think of snakes or lizards, chameleons or geckos. However, despite their continual popularity and their fixture-status among reptile owners, turtles are often an overlooked second-cousin to various other species and varieties of reptiles. However, a knowledgeable store owner can easily translate our proverbial “heroes on the half shell” into a bevy of happy customers and an even happier bottom line.
The term “turtles” naturally covers turtles, terrapins, box turtles and tortoises—the 327 reptile species of the order Testudines. Turtles can range in size and scale from tiny aquarium-dwellers to the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. Within the span of our discussion here, however, we’ll focus primarily on freshwater turtles, which are the most prevalent within the pet trade.
Russ Gurley, author of “Turtles in Captivity,” director of the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group (TTPG) and a founding member of the American Federation of Herpetoculturists, had much to say about these creatures. He encourages stores to include turtles in their reptile sales, as “turtles make excellent pets, and in recent years, breeders across the United States are not only providing healthy pet turtles, but they are also helping in the worldwide fight to save turtles from extinction.”
He cites water pollution and habitat destruction, in addition to the use of turtles as food and as part of the folk medicine trade within Asia.
“The rewards of keeping a turtle in the home are diverse,” Gurley said. “Watching these ancient reptiles, from since around the days of the dinosaurs, swimming in a beautiful enclosure in your home, is certainly worth the time, work and expense.”
Turtle species within the pet trade cover a wide variety of creatures. The most common turtles found within the pet trade include sliders, African and Indonesian side-necks, and the various forms of American basking turtles such as map turtles, cooters, softshell turtles, and even captive-bred snapping turtles. While any of these species may make for good pets, a savvy store owner must be sure of several things before offering a given species.
Pet store owners must be aware of the laws governing turtle sales within their country and state. On a federal level, the USDA enforces the Public Health Service Act of 1975, which states clearly that turtles must have a carapace length of greater than four inches in order to be sold as pets.
The reasoning behind this law comes primarily from turtles’ propensity to carry the Salmonella bacterium, due to their aquatic nature. Individual states may also have additional statutes which apply to turtle and tortoise sales. Always be sure that your store is not only up to date, but also in compliance with all state and federal regulations.
Note that Gurley’s organization, the TTPG, has formally submitted a petition to amend the Public Health Service Act to better allow for the breeding and preservation of turtles within the pet hobby. The TTPG has taken great pains to lobby for reptile conservation and for the promotion of captive breeding as a conservation tool. Its work can serve as both a template and a great resource if a store owner is facing legislative difficulties.
Another major issue is that of animal growth potential for captive turtles. Certain species can grow to significant sizes. Softshells, for instance, can grow to be larger than a manhole cover. Keeping these turtles in a smaller tank to control their size can prove to be detrimental to their health, so retailers should consider this when stocking their stores.
Adult female red-eared sliders can grow to be up to 16 inches in length, but they are particularly popular due to their docile nature as well as the numbers being produced at turtle farms in the U.S.
In recent years, however, red-eared sliders have become an invasive species as pet owners unable to care for them turn them loose in local ponds or streams. As with all reptiles, be sure that you are able to properly educate your customers on their pet.
Turtles, on the whole, are amphibious creatures, as they live both on land and in water, though they breathe air and are incapable of breathing underwater. Pet turtle enclosures require a good balance of raised land for basking under a heat and UVB-emitting lamp and a deeper watery area for swimming; as such, pet store owners have a unique opportunity to market materials that are necessary for both portions of a turtle’s habitat.
While turtles are not necessarily the most profitable animals in terms of animal feed, they more than make up for this shortcoming in terms of their aquarium habitats.
“Turtles can be expensive to set up properly,” Gurley noted.
A turtle enclosure requires a suitable tank (typically five to six times the turtle’s shell length is ideal), lighting elements, a water filtration system, raised areas for basking, plus any number of decorations. This can provide for unique opportunities for a creative pet retailer, provided that you’re willing to put in a bit of extra effort for a turtle enclosure.
A beautiful aquatic turtle enclosure may take up a bit of floor space, but the excitement and inspiration for your customers will no doubt pay dividends. While many pet owners are content to relegate their turtles to blank, empty tanks, a bit of extra effort and creativity can really show off the plants, wood and rock hides, and other commercially available decorations that can make an enclosure into a thing of beauty.
While often overlooked in the face of bearded dragons and leopard geckos, turtles fill a phenomenal niche that can’t be overstated. Retailers should consider them when planning their next store attraction!
Staff Training Redux
There’s a fundamental truth in life that many have to come to accept over time: people can’t be everywhere, and they can’t do everything. Even the owner of a small, mom-and-pop-style store is going to want to take a day off at some point. For that, they have their staff.
The staff represents the machinery that keeps a store running, regardless of whether the owner is in the building, out in the city or even out of state. While owners must be personable and treat their staff with respect—they are people, after all—there is some merit to thinking of staff members as interchangeable parts. If one staff member calls out sick, another should be able to step in with the knowledge and ability to perform the sick staffer’s job with the same meticulousness and care.
This “drop-out, drop-in” concept stems directly from a manager’s ability to train the staff in a redundant manner. While a store may have a head cashier or a warehouse chief, every member of the staff should be able to perform the rudimentary duties of every other staff member. For example, a stock person should know how to run a cash register, should something happen to your cashier on staff. And should the regular reptile-care specialist need to call off, another staff member should be able to pick up the slack to keep those pets happy and healthy.
Educate The Staff
One of the best ways to reinforce the “drop-out, drop-in” concept is through staff meetings. Meetings with all staff members should occur at least bi-weekly, if not weekly, to keep staff members up to date on new promotions, new animals, new products and upcoming events.
At these meetings, the staff should receive any new care sheets in addition to the copies that are kept within the store. All staff members should have to handle new animals during this time so that they can get used to the presence of animals that they may not normally consider as pets.
A staff represents the store. Further, staff members represent the store owner. The message that those staff members provide to customers should remain consistent regardless of with which staff member a customer interacts. This is not to say that staff members cannot communicate their preferences to customers; rather, a personal approach often shows expertise on their part. However, it should be made clear that their opinions are exactly that: opinions. The final say on a store’s view on an animal or product is yours, and your staff members should communicate that information at all times.
While staff training can be time consuming, a store owner may be able to cut down on lesson planning by using mandatory video or online training methods, especially for new staff, for whom much of this information may be foreign. Animal Care Technologies has a wonderful series on YouTube, AnimalCareTV, which features basic veterinary techniques. While many of its videos are meant for veterinary students and vet technicians, they are just as applicable for pet store employees who must be on the alert for disease and must be vigilant in their care for animals. HowCast also has a large video series on YouTube which specifically covers reptiles. When training new staff, these may serve as a quality baseline for all staff to understand.
Make It Fun
One concept that any store owner could implement in staff training is the concept of a merit-based gamification. Gamification—the act of turning a task or process into a game—has been shown to have increased success when measuring student retention and progress through material. Consider offering employees tangible rewards based on how many independent training modules they complete. Any owner may consider tying this system to potential pay bumps, preference for promotions, staff discounts on store materials or even outside prizes like gift cards or the like.
Coupled with this, owners may consider implementing a “leveling” system within various specialties in the store. These levels of proficiency provide an easy-to-understand method for incentivized learning.
It’s easy for an employee to say, “OK, I need an additional eight hours of reptile training, plus this online quiz, to reach Level 4 Reptile Mastery. If I do, that increases my staff discount to 30 percent!”
Store owners who implement a gamified training procedure should consider posting progress in a visible area, like a staff break room, and openly praise staff members for taking the initiative to train on their own. This reinforces both the importance of cross-department training and provides a positive atmosphere for employees.
Unfortunately, as with all professions, one of the biggest threats to staff development and training is turnover. Regardless of how welcoming a store might be, how well an owner pays or how hospitable the work environment is, a store eventually loses employees. If or when an employee quits (or, heaven forbid, is fired), the onus falls upon the store owner to ensure that an adequate replacement is found quickly and trained up with all possible haste.
In these difficult times, flexibility remains key. Consider giving remaining employees a chance to move into other areas, demonstrating their proficiency in an area of need.
If a specific team member steps up, a good store owner should praise them and even consider some sort of bonus for them. Letting employees know that everyone is in this together often results in it becoming less likely that the store owners will have to deal with staff turnover on a regular basis.
Simply put, a well-trained, well-vetted staff makes a store better. The more knowledge that passes from owner to employees, the more knowledge that they can pass to the customers. And that means repeat business.
Captive or Wild?
We throw around the terms “captive bred” and “wild-caught” on a regular basis, though we’ve not defined what these terms and categories actually mean. It’s time to elaborate on these two terms and how they impact your store.
Captive-bred animals are those that are bred by a reptile wholesaler. These animals have never known a wild habitat; their entire lives, from hatching to sale date, has been in an enclosed environment. Captive breeders range in size from the local hobbyist up to internationally-noted companies. Many of the “staples” of reptile sales are captive-bred animals: lizards, pythons, colubrids and geckos are typically captive-bred.
Captive breeding has several advantages that should not be overlooked. The genetic make-up of captive-bred animals are often precisely tracked, resulting in unique morphs, colorations and tempered expectations, should that animal be bred in the future. Captive-bred animals also appeal to retailers due to their availability and pricing.
Captive-bred animals have a minimal impact on the local environment. Since they have never known any outside existence, these animals are effectively outside of the local ecosystem.
Meanwhile, wild-caught animals are precisely that: animals that are captured from their natural habitats and then sold within the pet trade. Certain animals, such as Russian tortoises or most iguanas, are difficult to breed in captivity, so catching these species in the wild becomes the viable option.
Several animal rights groups have raised concerns about wild-caught reptiles, stating that over-catching these animals provides a detrimental effect upon their local ecosystems. And when performed irresponsibly, this can be the case, just as with overfishing of certain ocean areas or excess hunting. However, done in a responsible manner, wild-catching reptiles can leave little to no environmental footprint upon the local ecosystem. In fact, in certain areas, wild-catching programs can give communities a reason to protect various species that would otherwise go unprotected, or even be thought of as vermin. Additionally, many wild caught species are carefully monitored by CITES, a worldwide association that governs how these species are removed from the wild.
One major difference to consider when deciding between wild-caught and captive-bred reptiles is the temperament of those animals. Captive-bred animals, as they have been raised with significant exposure to humans, are often more docile. Wild-caught reptiles, in contrast, can sometimes show more aggression or unfriendliness. However, this varies from species to species and even animal to animal. Russian tortoises, for instance, are known to be particularly friendly, even though they are almost exclusively wild-caught.
Also of note is the relative health of these animals. Because they grow up in the natural environment, wild-caught reptiles are often more likely to carry common parasites and have exposure-related diseases or other maladies. Reputable reptile importers have their own veterinarians examine their animals before shipping, but be diligent. Have your own staff perform health checks and thorough inspections on newly-purchased animals before the animals go on sale. The onus of an animal’s health lies upon you.
It is a fallacy to think that a store should choose either wild-caught or captive-bred reptiles. Rather, as an individual store owner, you need to consider which animals work best within your sales market. Likely, you’ll choose a combination of both, which is perfectly fine.
However, do the necessary research before stocking a given animal: find out what that species requires to support it, what food it eats and what elements are necessary to give the pet a proper home. If you’re unfamiliar with a given animal, talk to your suppliers. Maintaining a good relationship with reptile wholesalers can ensure that the animals you receive are the best possible pets for your store and your customers.
Winter Lizard Sales
Selling during the holidays is a relatively easy thing. However, maintaining that momentum into the coming year can really start your 2017 off with a bang.
The most critical element to taking advantage of the winter months is to go in having a plan. As the saying goes, “prior planning prevents poor performance,” and few can deny that this goes double in sales. Consider keeping an annual calendar of events, complete with times set aside to meet with your staff, your reptile supplier and even your local veterinarian. Following this sort of schedule can get your year off to a strong start.
One important thing to remember as the winter months deepen is that reptiles will often move toward hibernation. While many reptile owners are able to keep their pets on a regular feeding regimen and can expect typical active hours, both feeding and sleep cycles can change drastically in colder months, even for captive-bred animals who have never known life out in the wilderness. While hibernating reptiles may not eat during their hibernation cycle, water dishes should be kept filled and clean, as even hibernating reptiles may wake briefly to drink or soak.
After the holidays, people often have a little extra cash on hand, as well as gift certificates or gift cards. If you don’t already offer gift cards in your store, consider these as an additional way to foster relationships with your ongoing customers. Perhaps offer a discount for the purchaser if they buy a gift card or gift certificate for a friend. In this way, you keep your current customers pleased while bringing fresh faces into your store.
You may wish to consider coupling this focus on gift cards and the like with discounts on dry goods. Many wholesalers of enclosures, food, lighting and more offer significant price breaks after the holiday season, which can make offering such discounts increasingly feasible. Consider again offering bundled deals, which appeal greatly to new reptile owners.
An additional promotion to consider is to take advantage of the academic semester. With many schools ending their semesters in January, consider offering a “Pets for A’s” discount program, based on students’ academic progress. You can tier discounts based on a student’s success and stay close with your own community. With any luck, you’ll be able to advertise this promotion in local schools, giving you an inroad to a whole populace of potential customers.
As winter deepens, people tend to spend more time indoors, which means additional time spent building enclosures or considering additional indoor pets. Consider offering discounts on enclosures, substrates, heat lighting and creative elements reptile owners can add to their already-existing displays.
However, that same cold weather makes shipping reptiles from breeders and wholesalers particularly difficult. When the temperature dips below the freezing point, many breeders simply cannot ship out reptiles for fear of the animals’ health. Keep an open line of communication with your reptile supplier and ensure that you’re able to keep open reptile displays full and moving.
Weather can provide difficulties for pet store owners in transferring reptiles to their new owners. Be sure to transfer reptiles in travel boxes with adequate ventilation. However, our scaly friends should be kept away from direct sunlight during their trip as well as kept from heater vents. Direct sunlight, even in winter months, can turn a clear plastic tub into a mini greenhouse while a heater vent may make a reptile’s travel box intolerably warm. Ensure that both your staff and your customers know how to keep reptiles safe during the winter months and, in doing so, give these pets a long and happy life.
Winter poses logistical and strategic challenges. However, with careful seasonal planning, sales initiatives poised to take advantage of post-holiday gift certificates and proper education for both staff and customers, the long dark of post-holiday sales could become your personal winter wonderland.
Corn Snakes: A Brief History
While the bearded dragons from last month’s issue remain at the top of reptile sales, this month’s featured reptile may give those storied lizards a run for their money. Corn snakes can provide your customers with the perfect first herp and become your store’s steady seller.
Corn snakes belong to the colubrid family, alongside rat snakes and king snakes, as the best-selling pet snakes nationwide and worldwide. Their relative ease of care, docility and varied colors and patterns make them a phenomenal choice for any would-be reptile owner, whether novice or veteran.
Kathy Love, owner of CornUtopia and author of both “The Corn Snake Manual” and “Corn Snakes: The Comprehensive Owner’s Guide,” is a leading expert on corn snakes.
“I’ve been breeding them since the 80s, and I’m still not tired of it,” she said. “They’re just so variable. Most other king snakes, milk snakes, and even ball pythons have a great range of colors, but nowhere near the range of corn snakes.”
Corn snakes are often sold when they reach 8 to 12 inches in length, but can grow to approximately four or five feet long. In captivity, corn snakes live for nearly 20 years. However, corn snakes shouldn’t be kept in a single enclosure for any extended period of time; the stress of having a cage mate can cause health issues in your snakes or lead to them attacking one another. Be sure that each individual animal has its own clean, safe enclosure.
“Please, please, please, don’t keep babies in the same cage together!” Love noted. “It’s the responsibility of a good pet shop to set them up one to a cage, in the exact same manner that you’d like your customer to set them up. Treat them the way the customer should.”
According to Love, corn snake sales are often improved by careful consideration of displays. Fish tanks, she noted, are often decorated with products within the store itself. Reptile enclosures, however, are often left barren or with only token hides. She exhorted store owners to “decorate in such a way that your customer can see what’s possible. Show them what they can buy to keep their reptile happy.”
She recommended placing water dishes in a corner of a snake enclosure. Doing so makes the water easier for a young snake to find, particularly if substrate is mounded around the dish.
Of course, the biggest source of revenue for a pet retailer is not the sale of the reptile, but rather the subsidiary materials that accompany that pet. Corn snakes, like their fellow colubrids, subsist on fresh or frozen mice, a food source that local big box stores do not carry. Be sure to carry numerous sizes of mice suitable for all age ranges of corn snakes. Often separated into “pinkies,” “fuzzies” and “adult” mice, feeder mice should be well-stocked, easily accessible and labeled. Be sure to educate your staff on these sizes, so they can assist customers in choosing the correct mice for their reptile’s diet.
Love also stated that the number of morphs and colorations in corn snakes can make identification difficult, if a given snake’s genetics are in question. One of the most striking new morphs is that of the Palmetto corn snake. Originally bred by Don Soderbergh in the early 2000s, the Palmetto features a pale white body flecked with individual scales of brown and gold. A striking, visually appealing animal, the first Palmetto corn snakes sold for over $4,000. However, as this new morph becomes more available, the price will drop to a suitable price for a pet store.
“Palmettos will be the thing that people come in to see and say ‘Wow!’” said Love, adding that another attractive option for veteran snake owners is the tri-color hognose snake. While not directly related to corn snakes, they feature many of the same attractive features: ease of handling, a docile temperament, striking coloration and a small, stout body. Love noted that the tri-color hognose are “a bit slower, so they might be an even more novice-friendly option.”
A Lizard with Appeal
Stumbling upon an interesting article a few days ago revealed information that really bears discussing. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the British Survey of Herpetologists in the United Kingdom, reptiles have now outpaced dogs as pets within the UK.
Approximately 8 million reptiles call the British Isles home, compared to approximately 6.5 million dogs. Some statisticians have estimated that reptiles may soon match cats as the UK’s favorite pets!
Given this news, it’s high time that we take another look at the leader of reptile sales: the bearded dragon. Alongside the veiled chameleon and ball python, the bearded dragon joins a triumvirate of reptiles that any savvy pet store owner simply cannot ignore.
Native to Australia’s deserts, the bearded dragon (genus Pogona) is a typically docile, personable reptile that actively enjoys being touched, pet and handled by their owners. Furthermore, bearded dragons are diurnal, meaning they share active waking hours with their owners. Their natural curiosity, coupled with a mild temperament, can make bearded dragons ideal pets for a new customer.
The bearded dragon’s popularity has led to extensive work by breeders to establish new morphs and colorations. Variations like the German giant, leatherback and silkback bearded dragons provide a significant variety. While most bearded dragons show a mix of gray, green and tan as their primary colors, breeders have produced varieties in red, yellow and even white colorations. In terms of sheer variety, bearded dragons appeal to both veteran and novice reptile keepers.
Bearded dragons prefer an arid, desert environment with generally low humidity levels and a suitable basking spot, which may reach near 100° F. In the wild, some bearded dragons can go for years without being exposed to liquid water. However, consider misting your bearded dragons with a spray bottle.
While water can be offered in a shallow dish, excess humidity can be harmful to them. Bearded dragons also require UVB light, enabling them to synthesize vitamin D3, which helps them properly absorb calcium.
A juvenile bearded dragon can eat between 15 and 20 crickets a day, plus another 10 mealworms and greens. While most owners should shift their bearded dragon over to a primarily greens-based diet as it reaches adulthood, the potential profit on a single bearded dragon purchase should be apparent to a store owner.
If a customer purchases a tub of crickets every 7 days, that level of frequency becomes approximately 50 tubs of crickets in a year. Note that this does not count mealworms, greens, lighting, caging, substrate or any other subsidiary purchase necessary for the care of their bearded dragon. With even a standard profit margin on crickets, the net profit gained from a single bearded dragon sale can prove to be well worth the investment.
One potential hurdle to be aware of involves the risk of salmonella. While all reptiles—in fact, all pets—have the ability to harbor harmful bacteria, bearded dragons have gained some unfortunate press due to a series of contaminations in 2014. Considering that bearded dragons appreciate touch more than most other reptiles, the likelihood for contamination comparatively increases.
Educating your staff of the dangers of bacterial contamination should be one of your store’s basic goals. Staff members are not only the primary handlers of your animals, but also the connection between you and your customers. Staff should wear gloves and protective gear when cleaning enclosures. Also consider installing sanitizer dispensers near reptile displays, allowing those in contact with a reptile to sterilize their hands.
A worldwide leader in pet reptile sales, bearded dragons are worth the time and investment as they form the backbone of a store’s reptile sales.