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Slither to Success

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Since the Garden of Eden, snakes have tempted humans with their sleek moves, colorful scales and sinuous charms.

Today, they’re more popular than ever before, as evidenced by continued brisk sales of ball pythons, king, milk and corn snakes, and a myriad of eye-catching color and pattern morphs. And retailers who haven’t yet capitalized on this trend are letting substantial profits slip from their hands like a slippery boa, say the experts.

Whether you’re a full-line pet shop primarily focused on dogs and cats or a reptile specialty retailer, it’s never too late to make space for a healthy assortment of live serpentine stock, said Matt Nall, owner of Critter County Pets in Tampa, Fla., which carries up to 30 snakes for sale at any given time.

“Snakes can generate a good profit margin, especially if you can breed them yourself or obtain them for a good price from a reputable breeder, supplier or wholesaler,” Nall said. “But the best profits are generated from happy snake owners who come back to your store for the food, supplies and accessories, which is where the real money in snakes can be made. You want to build a loyal repeat customer.”

The Right Species and Supplier

When it comes to choosing which species to stock, John Mack, CEO of Reptiles by Mack, a Xenia, Ohio-based breeder, agrees that ball pythons and corn snakes are safe bets.

“These sell particularly well at pet stores, and their prices have come down significantly in recent years due to the demand and increased availability,” said Mack. “We’ve also seen an uptick in demand for western hognose snakes and gray-banded kingsnakes. Additionally, although there’s still a strong market for large pythons and boas—especially with their numerous unique morphs—customers are looking for more variety and are becoming more discerning and educated in their purchases. Consequently, there’s been a demand for slightly smaller snakes, such as colubrids, which come in great variety and are easier to keep long-term.”

However, Nall cautions that, unless you’re a reptile specialty store or determined to become one, it’s best to start out with a modest supply of snakes for sale.

“Keep your livestock small and simple, and consider carrying the popular, family friendly breeds that are easy to handle and in healthy condition,” said Nall.

When choosing a supplier, insist on animals that are high-quality and healthy, and select a source that is willing to back up its product.

“We recommend choosing a supplier large enough to provide a constant variety of species throughout a given year,” Mack said. “Additionally, look for suppliers that understand how the wholesale business model works, particularly understanding markup on the store end, which ensures that a pet retailer can make a profit successfully.”

Supply Side Economics

Carrying the right accessories is just as important as carrying the right snakes, so ensure that retailers offer all the items needed to support a given species. For snakes, this means selling both frozen and live food, as necessary.

“The last thing you want to do is send your customers to another pet store to buy food for the pet they just bought from you,” said Mack.
Just as a retailer should seek to establish good business relationships with a supplier, reach out to key manufacturer reps, too, who can make retailing responsibilities a lot easier, said Nall.

Although many top-selling snake species particularly appeal to kids and families, Nall says he’s observed a resurgence in middle-aged customers purchasing snakes today.
“My hunch is that many of these people got out of the hobby in the past few years or after the recession hit and are now eager to get back into it,” said Nall. “I’m also noticing a lot more women buying and owning snakes in recent years, particularly docile breeds like corn snakes.”

Setting Up Shop

The days of hiding snakes in a back room for fear of spooking most shoppers are long gone. Nell advises showcasing snakes in clean, presentable and well-staged enclosures that prominently display the reptile, perhaps situated near the middle of the store – not too far back but not up front, either, so as not to scare away snake-phobic patrons.

“Place snakes generally at eye level above larger, ground-dwelling animals such as turtles, but below tree-dwelling lizards like chameleons,” said Mack. “Use contrasting colors and elements that you sell within your store to draw customers’ eyes toward the cages. And always accompany a display with a picture tag of the animal within, so that patrons know precisely what they’re looking for.”

Lastly, pet store employees should be well trained and educated about any snakes you sell to be able to provide proper care advice and answer questions, says Justin Guyer, owner of Guyer Genetics, a Hutsonville, Ill.-headquartered breeding operation and host of a weekly Internet radio program about reptiles called Herpin’ Time Radio.

“Retailers should talk to their customers and try to get a feel for what their level of knowledge and experience is,” Guyer said. “If a customer is not ready to care for a particular species, you should provide quality information about that species or suggest a different species that fits in better with the customer’s knowledge and experience level.”

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