The Scale Count: Your Pet’s Legality

By the time this column is printed, we should know if a beautiful icon of reptile keeping is now lost to American hobbyists forever.  That animal is the common boa constrictor.

The red tailed boa constrictor has proven over decades to be a great pet for intermediate to advanced hobbyists, but now she is on the chopping block, thanks to some shoddy science, the USFWS and the misguided agenda of a couple off-the-wall animal rights groups.

I remember as a child catching and keeping many colubrids like garter snakes and rat snakes, but when I was old enough and educated enough to move on to something more exotic, the boa constrictor was my new found love.  I would eventually go on to keep and breed Burmese and reticulated pythons, both of which are more than capable of being very calm and amusing pets when kept by responsible keepers with the proper space to house them correctly.  Both, unfortunately, are under or have fallen to the same persecution as the boa.

Ruby was one of my first loves, and to this day remains the reason I am still enamored with large constrictors.  Even my mom, who was not crazy about snakes in general, found the beauty in Ruby’s pattern and was very pleased by her slow, deliberate movements as opposed to the many wriggling, writhing colubrids I’d brought home before.

I got Ruby as a yearling when I was 9 years old. Sadly, she passed away when I was 31. For 22 years, I enjoyed walking around with her, sitting in the living room with her, and educating those friends and family who had irrational fears of snakes. I used her as an ambassador animal in school presentations and even as a therapy animal at some retirement homes. Ruby helped many people get over their fears and never struck at anyone in her 22 years. She was an old, trusted friend whose memory will never be lost, but I am not sad in her passing because that is part of the education you get when you do decide to keep animals. What makes me the most dismayed is that my sons may never know what it is to enjoy a boa constrictor as a pet for themselves.

There is a huge problem in our beautiful country right now, and that is the under education and misguidance of the public by underfunded biologists looking to collect bounties by signing off on any study with a paycheck attached to it.  There has been an enormous controversy over the Florida Everglades and some Burmese pythons that escaped during a hurricane, the majority of which Mother Nature dealt with herself. Of course, animal rights groups painted that as a pet industry problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for responsible keeping of animals for the safety of people and the animal. What I must oppose are the crooked agendas of organizations who decide to make a living by stripping the rights of fellow Americans to enjoy their boas, frogs, and dare I say, cats and dogs. These people have strategies and decide which section of the pet industry to attack on their way to snuffing out the whole thing.

Their newest attack seems to be on the constrictors, with another proposed federal ban being presented to Congress again. They’ve already been victorious with several of the largest animals, and so they continue down the line now with reticulated pythons and boas. And after that, they set their sights on ball pythons. Ball pythons? The barely 4-foot shy serpents who’d rather roll into a ball than fight, ball pythons? Yes, those ball pythons. Now you see the problem with shoddy science.  While I realize many of you reading may not keep or even like our scaly friends, we must stand united. We must work together because, today, it is all the large beautiful constrictors we’ve kept for decades without problems. Tomorrow it is goldfish, hamsters, and then cats and dogs.

In my opinion, there are no bad animals, only bad keepers. But like any other industry, we cannot allow the few rotten apples to ruin the barrel for the vast majority of responsible, amazing hobbyists with whom I am proud stand with.

As a member of both the reptile community and pet industry for more than 20 years, I must implore all animal keepers, pet store owners and pet professionals, even dog walkers and groomers, to help in the struggle the reptile community is in right now. We must show a unified front as animal lovers, and when they come for your birds, we’ll be there and when they come after the cats and dogs, we’ll be there, too.

Please contact United States Association of Reptile Keepers at www.usark.org or the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council at www.pijac.org, to find out more information on proposed laws and how you can help. Your pet’s legality may depend on it.

– Rob Stephenson

Keeping the Right Inventory to Avoid Lost Sales

Last issue, we examined how to properly price your reptiles, ensuring that your store makes a profit from not just your sale of reptiles, but also to ensure repeat business through food, equipment and other secondary sales. This time around, let’s take a look at how to maintain your inventory so that you can avoid lost sales.

Inventory in the reptile trade means walking a tenuous balance. If you keep too few reptiles in your store, your store will sell out quickly, leaving open cages and lost sales until those cages are full again. If you stock too many reptiles, you run the risk of your animals sitting on the shelves, becoming the dreaded “store mascots,”or even dying, if your staff is not adequately trained to care for the influx of reptiles.

The key to walking this balance lies in your ordering. Consider regularly ordering your reptiles every   7-14 days, if priced in the manner we discussed last issue. While this might seem excessive in terms of shipping cost, the cost to have reptiles shipped to your store is decidedly less than the aggregate cost of extended care and feeding for a reptile that’s been in your store for more than 3-4 weeks.

Small, frequent orders allow you the flexibility to adjust to customers’ buying trends, and ensures that your cages are always full. Less regular shipments can result in imbalanced displays as customers buy out the popular animals and your store is left waiting to sell off the last few reptiles. Empty displays equate to lost sales. Smaller, regular shipments keep those displays well-stocked and attractive to potential customers.

Also, consider the structure of your reptile sales. Our recommendation is to keep approximately 80 percent of your reptile stock as “standard,” with the remaining 20 percent rotating or seasonal. This provides both a sense of newness for your customers, who will ideally be back in each month for food or the like, and are interested in checking out the new stock, while providing all the basics that a new reptile owner would need to begin. Further, having a set core of animals allows your staff to learn and adapt to care for those animals easily.

Once you have such a pattern established, a savvy store owner will shape their reptile supplies around items meant for those core animals. Keep food and other supplementary materials for those animals always in stock, as your store will make significant profit from these materials.

Again, staff training is key here. If a corn snake, for example, needs a specific heating coil in the cage, your staff should be knowledgeable enough to make that sale to a new reptile owner. Only after your core animals are established should you consider changing out displays for seasonal sales or promotions.

Sales and promotions offer a particular challenge. While a sale on a given animal may double or even triple sales, sales also require more frequent restocking and reordering. Note that restocking does not simply end with the reptiles themselves.  Be sure to have plenty of food, tanks, heating and lighting options, and more before offering a major promotion. Those sales mean just as much as the reptiles themselves!

This flexibility must also carry over to your reptile habitats and displays. Consider using multipurpose caging that can easily be changed out, based on the reptile’s needs. If you run out of a certain species early, it can be an easy matter to change over that empty cage and display another animal. Key to this strategy is ensuring that your staff knows how to properly care for the given animals. Efficient training in best reptile practices encourages your staff not only to do their job better, but also allows them to be a resource for your customers.

One last danger, regarding reorders and stocking, is that of how to properly keep your reptiles while in your store. While some animals can be kept together, many cannot due to safety concerns.  Care is of the utmost importance here.

Bearded dragons, for example, can usually be kept together. But if your bearded dragons are not fed on a regular schedule, they can, and will, nibble at one another’s toes and tails, leading to injury. King snakes often feed on other snakes, so caging them with others, even of the same species, will result in disaster.

Our next article: The Veiled Chameleon, an often-misunderstood reptile that can do big things for your bottom line.

Colorful Foundations

Got a listless lizard in your store? Instead of being tired or sick, maybe he just woke up on the wrong side of the substrate. Which begs a bedding question: What reptile cage bottom contents are you using in your retail displays and recommending to customers?

Reptile bedding materials have come a long way from the days when chocolate and vanilla, aka bark and sand, were the only two primary options for sale. Today, there’s more variety than ever before, as reflected in expanded product choices, brands, natural sources and colors.

Case in point: glow-in-the-dark calcium carbonate sand, as offered by RepTerra. The newest color in the manufacturer’s premium sand series really pops when the lights go out, perfect to create a buzz with kids and families.

Also available in permaglo pink, granite red, slickrock red, white, black, purple, green and blue, this product is designed to reduce impaction problems common among reptiles that are housed on silica sand, wood shavings and other substrates, and is safe for desert species of snakes and lizards, along with tortoises. The right colored sand can create eye-catching contrast in a habitat and liven up an otherwise bland display.

Natural Options

Herp bedding has long focused on replicating naturalistic substrates that mirror the animal’s native environment. It’s a big reason why, for example, sand isn’t going out of style anytime soon for adult desert species. But manufacturers are also incorporating more eco-friendly features in their offerings nowadays, as evidenced by an increase in biodegradable bedding products and substrates made from sustainable materials, such as paper pellets sourced from recycled newspaper.

Zoo Med’s Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Substrate, for instance, ties into the naturalistic terrarium theme. Boasting an “all-natural green product,” this bedding is made from the husks of coconuts and can be safely recycled into gardens or potted plants, or composted.

Another example is Exo Terra’s Coco Husk Terrarium Substrate, ideal for tropical terrariums housing salamanders and frogs, and comprised of compressed coconut husk from tropical Asian plantations. The product not only increases humidity in the habitat, but stimulates natural burrowing and digging activity.

Zilla makes a worthy sand alternative that can also be easily composted. Ground English Walnut Shells Desert Blend for desert critters serves, which serves as an outstanding heat conductor, while also encouraging instinctual digging and burrowing behavior. If you’re worried about herps walking on jagged walnut shells, relax, the shells are ground to a uniform size.

Everyone Has a Favorite

Ask Charlie Soto, manager of Jules Pet Shop in Chicago, which reptile substrate he prefers using and stocking and he’ll tell you it’s Aspen all the way. These scent-free shavings remain the utilitarian cage liner of choice for many retailers and pet owners alike. The likners are highly absorbent for easy cleaning, applicable for most species of lizards, snakes and tortoises sold by pet stores, almost entirely dust-free for hypoallergenic safety, and void of any hazardous oils often found in other wood-based bedding.

“Yes, there’s a lot more substrate choices today than years ago, but Aspen is the top seller in our store,” Soto, said., adding that his customers are shifting from bark and sand to Aspen in growing numbers. “In our store, attractive substrate colors and hot new bedding products on the market aren’t what excite pet owners; they’re more concerned about low price, which can make Aspen appealing.”

Douglas Matuszak, owner of Boa Basement, a Cleveland-based reptile breeder, agrees that Aspen is a safe, all-purpose choice.

“It’s an effective moisture absorber, and it makes spot cleanups easy within the cage. Our animals seem to thrive on it,” Matuszak said. “But whatever substrate you use or carry, you want to stay away from any large chunks with coarse edges, as they’re not conducive to nesting and breeding and can cause impaction. Do your homework, as certain species can react badly to certain bedding materials.”

Owners can react badly to substrates, too, which is why Robert Walter, co-owner of Reptile Island, a retailer with three locations in Southern California, recently switched from alfalfa pellets to paper pellets for desert species.

“When water spilled on the alfalfa pellets, it would sometimes get moldy and smell bad, which you don’t want in your store,” Walter, whose top selling substrate is Zoo Med’s Repti Bark, said.
Soto says it’s smart to showcase different substrate products in your setups and live reptile displays.

“The customer’s got to see it in use,” Soto said. “Plus, it’s a good way to show off a bit of color. But it’s important to change your bedding around, don’t use the same thing all the time in the same displays. And make sure your staff is educated about the features and benefits of these products in case shoppers ask.”

Walter said that, although bedding is not the most exciting product in a retailer’s lineup, “it can be a strong seller for you if you promote it right. You should try to offer a good variety of brands and be in an educated position to know what’s best for the animal, not just the products on your shelf that you want to push.”

The Scale Count: An Interview With Ramy Guirguis

This month I want to cover what has become an integral piece of the reptile hobby, the reptile show. While a huge hit amongst hobbyist, reptile shows around the nation have become an enemy in some retailer’s eyes. So I thought I’d interview the promoter of the largest reptile shows in the U.S., and also a former store owner, to get his take on it and try to bridge the gap between local shows and local stores.

Ramy Guirguis is the owner/promoter of the Reptile Super Shows on the west coast and also former owner of Reptile City in the San Diego area.

Rob: How did you get your start?

Ramy: When I was 15 years old I bought my first red tail boa and was hooked for life. I never looked back.

Rob: Do you still keep reptiles? What are you keeping?

Ramy: I had the largest collection of chahoua geckos in the country at one time but now I keep leachianus geckos and Spanish ribbed newts.

Rob: How many stores did you have and how many shows do you have?

Ramy: I had two stores called Reptile city for 10 years and I have three shows a year for the last 6 years.

Rob: As the owner of the Super Show, what do you feel is the relationship between shows and stores?

Ramy: I would hope it’s a positive. A lot of store owners actually set up booths at my shows and aside from that it’s a great place for them to buy more rare animals than they find on wholesale list and most are captive bred. It’s also a great place to connect with potential customers in a niche environment. Kind of like Comic Con, you have a lot of passionate people there.

Rob: What positives do stores gain though?

Ramy: Education. A lot of manufacturers have started showing new products at shows, you can see the latest animals and morphs and ask questions right to the breeders. You can meet authors.  I remember reading books by Phillipe DeVosjoli as a kid learning about reptiles, now I can’t believe he’s behind a booth at my shows. I sometimes look at his hands in amazement, like right there, those are the hands that wrote hundreds of books and started so many careers, man…

Rob: What are the most important things you do as a very successful promoter?

Ramy: You know, I take care of my vendors and my customers and I take care of ‘em right. After owing the stores for so long, I’ve learned that customer service is always number one. Also, you know what’s the most important? The kids. They are the future.

Rob: Ram, you’re starting to sound like a Whitney Houston song.

Ramy: No but seriously bro, stores and breeders and anyone involved in the hobby of reptile keeping need to band together and educate our children on nature and the animals. They’re who pumps life into all our businesses. They’re also who will take care of the planet when we’re gone. Do you know there were over 280 videos on you tube for the super show and a lot of them were made by kids. That gets me pumped.

Questions or comments? Feel free to contact Rob at thescalecount@gmail.com.

– Rob Stephenson

How to Properly Price Your Reptiles

Last issue, we took a look at which reptiles are best suited to a beginning reptile retailer.  While including any new department to your store can be daunting, choosing the right reptiles goes a long way towards ensuring that your store is able to sell reptiles efficiently, safely, and profitably.

However, pricing those reptiles can prove to be a challenge in and of itself, requiring a delicate balancing act between ensuring sales through lower prices and maintaining a profitable markup.

In most cases, I recommend a 100 percent markup above the total purchase cost (Keystone or cost x 2), and actively encourage stores to be more aggressive on their pricing.  By lowering prices to sell at a higher volume, stores can see an approximate 70 percent increase in sales over one year.

By being aggressive in pricing, you can avoid a frequent pitfall of many small pet stores, stores that overprice reptiles often have trouble selling reptiles, leading them to become “store mascots” rather than salable pets. With private breeders and reptile shows all over the country, stores simply cannot afford to overprice their reptiles.  Rather, stores with an aggressive, competitive pricing strategy, again, around 100 percent markup or less, experience sales two to three times higher than their higher-priced competitors.

The key thing to remember, though, is that each reptile represents not just a sale of a given animal, but rather sales of the food, accessories, heating, substrate, lighting and housing.  As long as your store is prepared to provide those items at reasonable prices and a quality customer service experience, you can ensure repeat business from those reptile owners.

Further, the purchase of a reptile only rarely proves to be an impulse buy.  Because of those necessary items and the ability for consumers to research prices, overpriced reptiles can leave a bad taste in a customer’s mouth for your store in general.

However, those very specialty items represent a distinct advantage for specialized pet stores over their “big-box” competitors.  Larger stores tend to cater to a more general audience and simply don’t carry many of the items necessary for reptile care.  Items like substrate, heating elements, and lighting options represent avenues for repeat business through which your pet store can easily take advantage.

Even more so, reptiles’ unique feeding requirements ensure not only business from food sales, with significantly lesser competition. Large grocery store chains simply do not carry common reptile foods like mealworms and crickets. Even certain larger pet stores refuse to stock live/frozen feeder mice or ‘pinkies’, which are common food items for many snakes. By taking advantage of this gap in the market, you ensure additional food traffic through your store on a regular basis.  Every time their reptile needs food, money gets spent in your store.

Each time that a customer comes in your store to buy crickets, mice or a new heat lamp represents a two-fold opportunity.  First, by providing specialty items with a quality customer experience, you ensure repeat business through your reptile sale.  Second, that positioning allows you to take advantage of multiple-pet owners.

The American Pet Products Association’s most recent survey claims that households with multiple pets is at “an all-time high with 44 percent of pet owning households in the U.S. owning more than one pet, up from 42 percent of households in 2010.”  With the increased foot traffic brought in through reptile-based necessities, it becomes increasingly likely that a repeat customer will choose your store for their other pets’ needs, resulting in more overall sales for you.

However, the key to ensuring all of these subsidiary sales is to get a reptile into the customer’s home in the first place.  And, naturally, the key to achieving that original sale revolves primarily around the reptile’s original price point.  By pricing your reptiles properly, you ensure a high turnover for your reptiles, providing the building blocks for hundreds of new sales in the future.

Lighting the Way Forward for Reptile Retailers

When a good idea pops in your head, the proverbial light bulb goes off. Judging by the number of inventive and eye-catching new reptile lighting and heating products that made their debut in the past several months, the year 2013 was a bright one for retailers who have been eager to offer patrons more and better options in this category.

Illuminating Introductions

Reptile owners enjoy gazing at their scaly critters in their caged environments. But, how often do they look through the eyes of a lizard to appreciate what the animal sees? Enter Exo Terra’s Reptile Vision bulbs, which produce the correct visual light output that reptiles’ eyes are sensitive to.

“Reptiles communicate visually and physically, but for years we’ve always placed them under lights that were visually pleasing to us,” Steve Sotelo, division manager for Exo Terra in Mansfield, Mass., said. “The Reptile Vision bulb improves perception and stimulates breeding and appetite by offering a pleasing light spectrum.”

Another notable improvement observed in recent months is bulbs that have been tweaked to output stronger intensity UVB and UVA light, such as Zoo Med’s Reptisun T5 bulb. This bulb is just right for larger and taller tanks because they offer UVB penetration at longer distances and are available in 5.0 and 10.0 configurations and in 22 inch, 34 inch and 46 inch lengths. The manufacturer has also introduced a new Reptisun High Output T5 low profile fixture compatible with the new bulbs and available in 24 inch, 36 inch and 48 inch sizes.

Lights that help make a herp habitat smell better is not the stuff of science-fiction; it’s already here via Exo Terra’s new Natural Light Ion deodorizing compact fluorescent light. This bulb’s built-in ionozer helps reduce or eliminate harmful airborne particles that cause odors.

Cutting Through the Clutter

Choosing the correct reptile lighting and heating elements can be tricky sometimes with so many options available to consumers today, said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Labs, Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

The solution? Value-added bundles.

“Combination packages offered nowadays make it easier for customers, especially newcomers, to choose the products they need,” Rademacher said.

Zoo Med’s Reptisun mini compact fluorescent UVB lamps come standard in several different lighting packages that each offers a mini deep dome lamp fixture and a spot, UVB and/or basking lamp. Case in point, the Desert UVB and Heat Lighting Kit  combines a mini combo deep dome, basking spot lamp and a 10.0 mini-CFL UVB lamp, while the Aquatic Turtle Lighting Combo bundles a mini deep dome and a Turtle Tuff splash-proof halogen basking lamp.

Another way to make shopping simpler is to roll out all-in-one light and heat sources. Exo Terra’s Sunray uses metal halide technology to produce such a solution — combining UVA, UVB, infrared heat, the aforementioned Reptile Vision feature and a light bracket in one product.

“New lighting and heating products that combine several features into one showcase well because the shopper can see that the cage has fewer wires and bulky fixtures attached to it,” Misia Shumway, manager for Austin Exotic Pets in Austin, Texas, said. “It also makes for a cleaner, simpler look that merchandises well.”

To help consumers make a more educated, but easier choice, manufacturers are also providing user-friendly apps designed to find the ideal lighting/heating product. Exo Terra recently launched its UVB Buddy app for iPhone and Android, and Zoo Med’s Mobile App for Android provides quick access to its various products.

Warming Up to Innovation

Ask your share of pet retailers how satisfied they’ve been with the latest reptile lighting/heating merchandise, and you’ll likely get positive responses.

“Today’s heating and lighting products are manufactured to a higher quality than in years past and are offered in greater varieties and packaged better to get the shopper’s attention,” Shumway said.

Bruce Delles, owner of Twin Cities Reptiles, Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., agrees that the push lately has been toward energy savings and compact design, as evidenced by the influx of high-output bulbs available in smaller sizes as well as LED lights. While the latter doesn’t offer UVB/UVA benefits, they are ideal for species like snakes that don’t require ultraviolet.

“These LED bulbs are very small and more streamlined, and they can save big money on electricity,” Delles said.

Modern mini halogen bulbs are also competing well with their fluorescent competitors and large domes as primary heat and UVB sources for many herps, he said.

“Thanks to these more compact light designs, retailers can save more space in their stores, especially with vertically stacked setups,” Delles said. “I can now fit 5 tanks on my vertical shelving where I could only fit four previously, thanks to these smaller light fixtures replacing standard fluorescent aquarium hoods.”

Smaller lighting and heating elements also mean greater visibility for prospective purchasers, who can now see more of the habitat and its occupants when they visit the store.

Getting On the Same Page

Colorful new SKUs energize owners, but sales goals can backfire unless you train your employees to talk to customers about the latest heating and lighting products, Shumway says.

“Your shoppers have to be able to see the benefits in replacing their older fixtures with more energy efficient, space-saving ones on the market today,” Shumway said. “And that means training your staff and making sure they know how to upsell and promote the advantages of certain products over others, even if they are more expensive. If you can demonstrate to customers that they’ll save more money in the long run, they’ll take a closer look at those products.”

Reptile Must-Haves

Last issue, we discussed the history of the reptile trade, particularly in terms of its vital importance in any modern pet store. With the advent of captive breeding as a regular practice, pet stores can better stock and supply these in-demand animals.

However, the question remains, as a would-be reptile seller, where do you start?

There are several key elements to assess when looking at stocking reptiles for sale. The biggest of these are likely price point and care requirements. Many stores often overlook the second of these, in favor of focus on pure cost, which can prove to be a major mistake.

In the past, many pet stores chose to stock iguanas, citing their relatively low price point and their popularity, as iguanas were one of the first reptiles to be farm-bred.  However, iguanas are notably difficult animals to properly care for, particularly for a first-time reptile owner.

Not only does this mean that iguanas require more significant in-house care, but also that would-be customers may shy away from such an animal or even return it after purchase, resulting in overall loss.  By contrast, the bearded dragon makes for a much better “introductory” reptile.

They have much lower care requirements than iguanas, while maintaining a similarly low price point.

Proper Needs

Care requirements are of particular note, because of their two-fold nature. Many of your customers will likely be first-time reptile owners, only starting to learn how to properly care for their chosen reptile.  One way to assess your store’s reptile needs is to think in terms of stepping stones. Start off with easier-to-care-for, elementary animals to establish a sales base in your community before moving on to more advanced reptiles.

For lizards, consider providing a combination of green anoles, bearded dragons and leopard geckos to start. The bearded dragon is particularly easy to care for and sells well in today’s market.

Leopard geckos, similarly, are relatively easy to care for and can even be housed two to a 10-gallon cage, making care easier on the store level.

Veiled chameleons provide a quality advanced option, though they require more advanced temperature and humidity regulation than either the leopard gecko or bearded dragon.

In terms of frogs, consider starting with a White’s Tree Frog. They are hardier than many other frog varieties, making them an ideal starting animal for a would-be reptile owner. Further, the White’s Tree Frog can be fed with small crickets, making their overall care relatively easy, especially when coupled with reptiles that feed on similar insects.

The Pacman Frog, also known as the Horned Frog, provides an easy entry for a beginner frog owner, though be sure to note that the Pacman Frog can grow to upwards of 7 inches in length, which may be a detraction for some buyers.

While popular and visually appealing, the various species of poison dart frogs should definitely be considered as advanced pets due to their small size, their humidity requirements and their delicate skin.

Snakes, too, require careful consideration when deciding upon beginner stock.  One popular starting point for many stars is the colubrid family, which includes King Snakes, Corn Snakes and Milk Snakes.  Colubrids have relatively simple requirements for feeding and cleaning and come in a variety of colorful morphs and patterns.

Ball pythons also have relatively light care requirements.

In terms of tortoises and turtles, consider entering with Russian Tortoises or Red-Footed Tortoises. In both cases, care requirements are relatively light.

A great reptile sale is a matter of matching up the right customer to the right animal.

A good fit results in a customer that returns, creating repeat business for your store and continued patronage.

Of Scales and Sales

Unless you’ve been living under a rock with the other anoles, you know that stocking herps can be beneficial to your bottom line today. After all, the number of U.S. households that own a reptile has increased from 2.8 million in 1994 to 5.6 million today, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Yet, simply jumping on the bearded dragon and ball python bandwagon isn’t enough to ensure successful sales in 2014 and beyond. Wise pet retailers understand that reaping profits from reptiles involves careful strategizing and hard work, say the experts.

The Price Is Right

For example, take Jim Gentile, owner of The Pet Shop in Allston, Mass. Like many small, independent operators, Gentile has learned that you have to be choosy about what herps you carry, which is why he downsized his inventory of exotic species considerably from years ago.

“Today, I stock common, popular species like ball pythons, leopard geckos, baby red tail boas and tortoises,” Gentile said. “It’s often harder to compete financially with the breeders and vendors who can cut out the middleman and sell exotic morphs directly for cheaper at area reptile shows and expos. So nowadays, you’ve got to have cages that turn over quickly in your store. And that means pricing [reptiles] right.”

Paul Barclay, sales and marketing manager for Reptiles by Mack, a Xenia, Ohio-based reptile breeder/wholesaler, agrees that hitting the price tag sweet spot for customers can make or break your reptile sales.

“Pet stores that price their reptiles too high don’t get good turnover, and it slows down their ability to sell other products,” he said. “They may mark the animal up 300 to 400 percent from what they paid for it, which can lead to the reptile becoming a store mascot that never gets sold. We typically recommend no higher than a 200 percent markup. In fact, we’ve seen many retailers sell at cost. While that’s a loss leader, it can lead to a huge surge in customers because it sparks sales of cages, lights, food and other accessories.”

Clean and Healthy

Cleanliness is essential. It’s also next to impossible to entice customers when they perceive a lack of cleanliness in your cages, or throughout your store.

“Retailers have to keep their reptile habitats clean and well maintained,” John Mack, owner of Reptiles by Mack, said. “That requires keeping the glass clear, changing the water and food dishes regularly, and ensuring that the animals are healthy.”

The latter involves building a solid relationship with a breeder or supplier you can trust.

“Having even one sick animal in a cage can drag down your whole image,” Mack said. “That reptile needs to be taken out so that it can be nursed back to health and not over-stressed in the display environment.”

One-Stop-Shopping

In addition to stocking the ideal species, pricing them appropriately and maintaining a tidy appearance, carrying regular supplies as well as eye-catching accessories is a no-brainer.

“It’s probably easier to sell the accessories than the animals themselves,” Gentile says. “You have to at least stock the basics to make it easy for first-time buyers.”

Like many retailers, Gentile displays starter kits for several popular species comprised of items that he bundles together for a discount. The goal, he says, is quick, convenient one-stop shopping with simplified pricing that creates an incentive for repeat business.

“Customers like new and innovative products,” Kim Bell, owner of Reptile Industries, a herp breeder in Naples, Fla., said. “So while it’s important to have the essentials like heat mats, lighting, water dishes, hide huts and bedding, you should also keep up with new products that major suppliers come out with.”

Catching Their Eye

Getting the shopper’s attention, especially in a tightly packed store like Gentile’s where many cages, supplies and other elements visually compete with each other, should be another primary goal. Employ creative signage, posters and merchandising displays, which manufacturers often provide, to lure a prospective buyer.

“Also, move your colorful species and hot sellers toward the front 20 percent of the store, instead of the back of the store, for better visibility,” Barclay said.

In addition, avoid cluttered displays and habitats that have so many accessories in them that customers cannot see the animals.

“If they cannot see them, they may just walk away,” Bell said.

Be An Informed Resource

Lastly, you want to leave a lasting positive impression upon patrons, whether they purchase or not. That means making sure that your employees are well educated about the different reptile species you sell.

“Staff must be knowledgeable about the animals and the care needed for them so that they can educate customers and help them pick a reptile that is best for them,” Bell said. “Employee training is crucial, as customers will rely on them to help suggest the appropriate supplies needed. It can also be very beneficial to have care sheets for [reptiles] stocked in the store.”

Ultimately, what separates you from other retailers and pet providers is your level of knowledge and service, explained Gentile.

“When customers come into my store and buy my animal, I want them to know that they’re also buying everything I know about that animal and that they can continue to rely on me as a trusted resource of information on that pet,” Gentile says. “If they have questions or a problem, they can come right back and see me for solutions.”

The Scale Count: An Interview With Tom Crutchfield

Happy New Year!

As we embark on 2014 together, I am hoping this monthly article will serve to shed some light on the inner workings of the reptile segment of our industry as well as allow me to share some adventures from the field and the various personalities I come across. We’ll tackle some issues and topics relating to reptile keeping and the reptile influence on the pet trade as well.

As for who am I, I have been involved in the pet industry for most of my adult life, most recently with two of the largest product manufacturers in the world. I have been obsessed with keeping and studying reptiles all my life.

In fact, much of my childhood was filled with chasing, catching and keeping the reptiles and amphibians that I found in the wilds of upstate New York, or trying to con my parents into letting me have one of the various creatures I’d see in our local pet shop.

For our inaugural segment I thought it would be best served by interviewing a true of the reptile industry, as well as a close friend, Tom Crutchfield. He is without a doubt one of the most storied individuals in the business with a long and colorful life story surrounded in reptiles.

Crutchfield lives in his native Florida where he breeds albino iguanas amongst hundreds of other species of obscure and rare reptiles. Lately, he is also involved in many serious conservation efforts and educational lectures around the globe.

Rob: Hi Tom, thanks for doing this interview, there are so many questions but I guess we’ll start by asking when and where did you get your start?

Tom: Well, I’m a sixth generation Floridian who was raised in Marianna, Fla. When I grew up we were very poor like everyone else and didn’t really have much more to do than chase animals and adventure.

As a kid everyone thought I was an idiot out their chasing reptiles. There was a TV program when I was little in the 50’s called “I Search for Adventure” with Jack Douglass that made me want to see the world and have the same adventures he went on, so I did, and more than I bargained for.

I guess, I got my real start catching snakes for the Snakeatorium, which was a tourist attraction where I also wrestled alligators and milked venomous snakes for the public to see. I then also worked for Ross Allen’s Reptile Land in Panama City doing the same.

Rob: Who were some of your mentors, or heroes growing up?

Tom: Well, Denny Sebolt, Ross Allen of the Reptile Institute in Silver Springs and Bill Haast of the Miami Serpentarium. Denny was a true mentor as I worked quite a bit with him but they all influenced me.

Rob: What originally sparked your interest in reptiles?

Tom: Dinosaurs, I loved reading books about dinosaurs and alligators. I had my first pet alligators at 7 years old, you know?

Rob: Well, that being said, what were your favorite pets growing up?

Tom: Believe it or not I loved ringneck snakes and salamanders that I’d catch outside and baby gators. My mother used to work at Greyhound and someone had found a dead female on a nest of hatchling babies and brought some to the terminal. My mom brought some home for me and I kept them until I was 18, then I gave them to Ross Allen to put on display.

Rob: So, that explains your beginning interest in the hobby but where was your first professional start?

Tom: Oh, I guess I started at Waltzing Waters Aquarama in the 70’s.  This was like an aquarium that wanted to have some reptile exhibits, so I set those up and then helped design and write curriculum for their environmental education classes and pamphlets for alternative education classes.

After that I went on to open my own crocodilian farm and then reptile wholesale company.

Rob: I know, I remember waiting for those brightly colored pricelist to appear in my mailbox. So, now for the good stuff, what are you best known for?

Tom: Rarities. I’ve always looked for the rare and obscure.

Rob: That’s probably why we get along so well, but what I mean is what animals were you responsible for bringing us?

Tom: Well, as I said, I’ve always looked for the rare and hard to breed and tried to breed them, and I was pretty successful too. I was first to bring in Albino Burmese pythons, Veiled chameleons and one of the first to bring in Bearded Dragons. I brought in 300 to start.

I was first to breed Indian pythons. I was one of the first, if not the first to breed Rhino Iguanas in the 70s. In 1984, I was first to breed Grand Cayman blue iguanas and in 1985, I was the first to bring in and then breed Sri Lankan star tortoises.  There are more, I just forget.

Rob: As a very notable breeder, what do you see as the role of breeders in the industry?

Tom: Well, there is an art to breeding and it’s not something that should be used solely on chasing morphs or just to make money. Don’t get me wrong, the morph thing is cool and everything, I just think there should be a large effort to try and also breed for purity. Imagine how nice it would be if every herper picked just one species and bred them to try and take pressure off the wild populations and to ensure the species doesn’t go extinct.

In the 70s I coined the phrase “conservation through commercialization,” and everyone laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now are they? To borrow the title of one of my favorite books, the world would be a poorer place without the monsters of god. With education and responsible harvest and captive breeding, we can help conserve all the beautiful animals.

Rob: Wow. What do you see as a pet shop’s role in reptile keeping?

Tom: Many times, that is right where it starts. A good store puts reptiles in homes like they do with tropical fish. By displaying and educating their customers on some of the friendlier, easier to keep species, they bring nature to people who might otherwise find it hard to appreciate and help conserve.

Rob: Great points. Any tips you might throw out there to stores carrying live reptiles or contemplating it?

Tom: Buy and sell animals your store and employees can keep. Strive to gain knowledge of perspective charges before you acquire them. One of my biggest regrets and the reason I stopped wholesaling  was having to buy and sell animals that had high mortality and were hard to keep alive back then.

Rob: Tom, what do you think of the reptile industry and where do you see it going?

Tom: It is far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It’s absolutely amazing. We had no calcium powder or UVB bulbs. The only heat we could offer was from regular light bulbs from the hardware store, and heat is essential, I mean that’s why lizards like Bearded Dragons are flat after all, to soak up the rays. Now there are so many options available, so many companies and so many great products. Every year I’m blown away more and more.

As far as the hobby, I’d love to see unification and more education. It would be great if breeders and businessmen could unite with zoos and academia to work for the greater good. Some of the organizations like U.S. Ark and PIJAC are doing a good job to do this but we need more help.

– Rob Stephenson

Retailers Cannot Afford to Ignore This Growing Category

Reptiles have only recently begun to come into vogue within the domestic pet trade, but in a few short decades, The American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey shows that over 5.6 million homes in the United States have at least one scaly friend within their walls.

Reptilian pets number over 11.5 million in the U.S. alone, demonstrating massive growing interest in frogs, snakes, lizards and more as pets.

The reptile trade has come far since its early years. Less than 50 years ago, the vast majority of the reptile trade came simply through catching animals native to a given region. Pet stores at the time primarily sold wild-caught or imported animals, which were wild-caught themselves. Even zoos and other wildlife refuges were only just beginning to captive-breed reptiles, and few had the facilities or expertise to begin a well-designed captive-breeding program.

However, captive breeding was about to explode and change was swiftly appearing on the horizon.

Individuals interested in reptiles and amphibians were once relegated to small society meetings and hobbyist herpetological societies meeting in people’s homes and in local halls, but soon began spreading into larger and larger venues.

One example of this is the All Ohio Reptile Show, which started in a compatriot’s basement, eventually growing to take up a local VFW hall, then a National Guard Armory, now filling the Lewis Center in Columbus, Ohio once a month with reptiles of all shapes and sizes.

The Early Days

During those early individual meetings, members often attempted to cross-breed animals, seeking rare or even new colorations, patterns, and morphs. Color and pattern has always been a large part of the reptile trade. As an enthusiast, even on a rat snake you’d look for unique patterns or desirable traits that these animals might have.

The ends of these hobbyist herpetological meetings became “mini swap meets” where would-be breeders would trade animals in the hopes to create a truly unique new animal. These breeders began to sell their excess to local pet stores, as well as other reptile enthusiasts.

As one of these breeders, I began expanding my own practice during this period, initially focusing on  Colubrids, a group of snakes which include corn, rat, and king snakes, then expanding into Burmese pythons and beyond. While most breeders tend to focus on one or two species, expansion boomed when I branched into selling leopard geckos in the early 1990s.

With a boom in the market, numerous reptile breeders were able to expand from simply a part-time hobby into a full-time business.

Much of this success came by establishing protocols for breeding animals throughout the full year, rather than seasonally. Reptiles by Mack was one of the first companies to breed leopard geckos year-round, rather than relying on natural cycles. This practice allows breeders to keep up with pet store demand at all times of the year, expanding their market presence to even the largest of pet store brands, while still catering to smaller, home-owned, retailers.

Reptiles by Mack, in that time, has become one of the world’s largest breeders, wholesalers, and suppliers of reptiles in the industry.

Increased Interest

Demand for reptiles since the 1990s has skyrocketed.

Herpo Productions currently lists over 100 active herpetological societies in the United States alone; while APPA reports a 68 percent growth in reptile sales from 1994 to 2008, nearly double that of any other kind of pet over the same period.

Reptile shows have boomed over this period, taking up major convention centers in cities across the country.  Considering this rise in demand, plus a current boom market for ball pythons, a serious retailer cannot afford to overlook reptiles and reptile supplies in their store.

Brian Potter, who owns a reptile store in Orland Park, Ill., said a “surge of sales” at his store immediately following the North American Reptile Breeders Conference, held in nearby Tinley Park, “particularly in terms of specialty food and caging.”

Selling reptile supplies is often far more profitable than selling the animals themselves; one could compare the practice to that of a home printer:  Even if you’re not making money selling the printer, you’ll more than make up for it on the ink.

The reptile industry has certainly come far since the days of small meetings and one-on-one trades for animals.  As the demand for unique reptiles and amphibians stretches worldwide, a wide variety of reptiles is a must-have for any pet store.  Over the coming series of articles in this column, we will specifically examine all parts of the reptile trade, such as various reptile groupings, housing options, lighting, food sources, and more.

As the Rodent Industry Grows, So Do the Standards

“You are what you eat.”

An over-used phrase, perhaps, but one that rings true to Vin Russo, professional snake breeder and author. Like many who have been in the reptile business for a while, Russo started breeding rats and mice to feed his own collection of snakes.

“In the beginning I used trial and error to cover the trilogy of rodent production: breed, feed and clean,” he said. There really was no set of standards.”

Over the past 25 years, the feeder rodent industry has grown substantially, moving from basements and garages to full scale production and distribution facilities that produce millions of “pinkies, fuzzies, hoppers and pups” for the pet industry. Many reptile breeders produce rodents to feed their inventory while others send animals to retailers, zoos and wildlife rehabilitation facilities.

“The importance to the reptile industry of a steady supply of quality rodents of the right size at the right time cannot be over-emphasized,” Eugene Bessette, a ball python breeder in north Florida, said.

Maintaining that steady supply of rats and mice doesn’t just happen. Russo’s “feed, breed and clean” requires attention to detail in the dietary needs of rodents, putting the right mix of males and females in the right enclosures, and keeping a whole lot of tubs, tubes, walls and floors clean.

At the commercial level, “your reptile colony is, in reality, a direct reflection of your rodent colony,” observes Russo.

In the Community

The feeder rodent industry may be the lifeblood for snake breeders and snake keepers, but it also serves animal collections at zoos and museums and some ravenous raptors at wildlife rehabilitation facilities.

Dino Ferri, general curator of the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, reports an annual budget of $14,000 for rodents to feed their reptiles and birds. At the Humane Association of Wildlife Care and Education near St. Augustine, Fla., an assortment of raptors and other birds regain their health feeding on rats and mice.

“Our bald eagles will eat 15 frozen mice in a sitting,” Melanie Cain-Stage, HAWKE president, said. “We also have crows and swallow-tailed kites with a taste for pinkies.”

Realizing the critical link between quality rodents and the health of hundreds of thousands of snakes in homes across the U.S., the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council has published a comprehensive set of Best Management Practices for the production and distribution of rats and mice. It reflect the wisdom of some of the prominent rodent producers and serve as excellent guidance for those contemplating a dive into the feeder rodent pond.

Going beyond the formulas for keeping healthy breeders in a clean setting, PIJAC’s Best Management Practices address the important matter of transmission of disease to humans.

“Although it is uncommon for humans to contract diseases such as salmonella and LCM, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, from feeder rats and mice, it is still important to take precautions at the production facility, in the retail store and in the home,” Dr. Thomas Edling, Petco’s vice president for veterinary medicine, said.

In the unusual event of an outbreak of human illness, the BMP outline steps to identify the sources and prevent further transmission.

“These Best Management Practices represent another example of the pet industry establishing its own standards. In this case, we have set the bar high,” Mike Canning, CEO of PIJAC, said.

Russo puts it succinctly: “this protocol … is of utmost importance to anyone that wants to breed reptiles successfully and properly.”

The BMP document is available for download as a pdf at the PIJAC website.

– Special from PIJAC

Snake Charmers

Snakes have been tempting impressionable mortals since the Garden of Eden. Yet, they’re more popular today as pets than ever before, especially family friendly captive-bred species like ball pythons, corn snakes and king snakes, which are colorfully diverse, simple to maintain and safe to handle.

With their increased popularity as companion critters, manufacturers are offering an increasingly wide array of habitats, accessories and other products to appeal to consumers and making retailers coil up and take notice.

“Most pet stores today are selling the same basic species, as well as a few varieties of garter snakes, exotics, designer snakes and color morphs,” Frank Indiviglio, herpetologist, industry blogger and consultant to That Fish Place — That Pet Place, a pet retailer based in Lancaster, Pa., said. “But what’s different today is that there are newer products that let you do more to create a better environment for snakes.”

When snakes first became popular as pets a few decades ago, what was typically available amounted to little more than a glass cage, hide box and a top light, Indiviglio said.

“Now, there’s much more sophistication from manufacturers and a more educated consumer,” he said. “And there’s an increasing interest in conservation and home breeding.”

To accommodate this demand, “there are deluxe terrariums with sliding glass doors, ceramic heaters, misters and more products today that let you create complex environments.”

Available Products

Indeed, a variety of new habitats are now on the market that showcase more spatially efficient designs and interesting amenities.

Exo-Terra’s Congo Reptile Terrarium Kit includes a detailed Congo rainforest theme, a compact top canopy and all the basic accessories you’d expect with a starter kit. The vertically oriented Nano Glass Terrarium, also by Exo-Terra, boasts front window ventilation, dual doors for escape-proof access, and a waterproof bottom with a raised frame.

For those desiring a cube-shaped snake domicile, Penn-Plax makes a Classic Glass Habitat (18” x 18” x 18”) with front sliding doors and a locking tab for simpler maintenance and feeding as well as a deep fixed front window to accommodate a thicker-than-normal substrate or aquatic layer.

“Manufacturers are also using more native, realistic substrates that create a more natural look,” Indiviglio says.

Case in point, Fluker’s Aspen Accents, which give owners the ability to replace existing snake bedding with a colorfully fun substrate that doesn’t bleed when wet or contain toxic oils.

This green product, made from renewable resources, is easy to spot clean and is safe for all snake species.

Sarah Cunningham, director for the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education and assistant professor of Captive Wildlife Care and Education for Unity College in Unity, Maine, said it’s important to foster a snake habitat that’s conducive to natural behavioral opportunities and enrichment.

“This means providing a variety of surfaces and textures for the animal, from climbing vines and driftwood to rocks and natural objects,” Cunningham said.

Such supplies are abundant nowadays.

Mac’s, for example, makes a Creatures and Critters Grapevine Jungle Gym comprised of knotted, twisted grape driftwood. Zoo Med offers a Natural Full Cork Round Reptile Hideaway, essentially a small hollowed out log, that can be cut to any desired length or shape. And, Zilla features a Herp Hotel that provides ample spaces for basking and solitude in an eye-catching prehistoric rock design.

It’s best to practice what you preach to customers, too, by assembling in-store display habitats that incorporate naturalistic elements and a range of textures and surfaces, as well as simplified starter setups.

“That way, you can show shoppers that they can either go the simple route, if they’re on a budget, or complex,” said Indiviglio.

Change It Up

Whether it’s an in-store display cage or a starter terrarium you’re pitching to a customer, Cunningham says it’s also important to remind staff and patrons alike that cage contents need to altered from time to time to mimic the snake’s ever-changing indigenous landscape.

“Don’t leave a caged environment static forever,” he said. “Move objects around and create an exploratory opportunity for that animal to encourage a more active pet, which is also more attractive to customers. Also, try to create a bit of a hunting enticement for the snake by dragging its food around the habitat and making a scent trail that it can follow.”

Remember, Cunningham added, “that when animals can’t perform behaviors that are natural for them, as often happens in a captive environment, it can affect their health and well-being.”

When it comes to stocking food staples for slitherers, pre-frozen mice, including “pinkies” (newborn mice) for smaller snakes, continue to be a must. In addition, Indiviglio suggests carrying earthworms and live fish like shiners, minnows and goldfish for garters and other species.

Lastly, Indiviglio recommends promoting your pride as a retailer for carrying captive-bred species via signage and in sales literature.

Selling the Right Reptile

Smart herp retailers know that a good customer/reptile match will lead to a happy, and repeat customer. They also know that where that reptile came from can make all the difference in the world.

And, it all starts with selecting trusted reptile breeders/suppliers, continues with stocking a suitable mix of species, and ends with providing quality customer service that involves pairing customers with the right pets.

Breeding a Good Reputation

“Buying a pet is, for most people, a decision based on emotion,” Ron E. Smith, owner of The House of Reptiles, a herp retailer in Jacksonville, Fla., said. “A happy, healthy animal from a reputable supplier or breeder could be the difference between a returning customer who leaves satisfied and a disappointed person who leaves with a negative experience. Providing quality animals increases the quality of the pet trade as a whole.”

Additionally, stocking unhealthy animals requires time, labor and other expenses to treat and bring them back to health, which is why partnering with a dependable breeder is crucial.

“Often, paying a bit more for quality livestock is more profitable in the long run than simply price shopping,” Mike Tuccinardi, marketing director for Segrest Farms, a wholesale pet distributor in Gibsonton, Fla., said.

Many retailers find trustworthy reptile purveyors via word of mouth from vendors they do business with, including dry goods and accessory suppliers. Others hunt online or at trade shows for worthy breeders.

Once you find a candidate, “make sure they are a licensed business,” Tuccinardi said. “There are lots of questionable garage, or basement, type breeding operations out there that can be a risk for retailers to buy from. Go inspect their facility if you can or ask for photos. Is it clean? Are all animals in visible health?”

Red flags include breeders who are unwilling to respond to emails or phone calls, are reluctant to disclose where their animals originated from, wild vs. captive bred, offer animals at too cheap a price, and don’t provide buyer protection, for example, a three-day money-back guarantee of health.

Stocking Smartly

Equally important to picking a reliable reptile provider is carrying the proper assortment of animals that your customers prefer.

“You need a good mix, not just one hot-selling species,” John Mack, owner of Reptiles by Mack, a Xenia, Ohio-based reptile breeder/wholesaler, said. “You definitely want to stock hardy animals that are priced affordably so they can turn over quickly. Price them too high and they’ll remain unclaimed, and you’ve got yourself a permanent store mascot.”

Paul Barclay, sales and marketing manager for Reptiles by Mack, said the current top six-selling species he recommends all pet stores should consider carrying are, in order, bearded dragons, leopard geckos, ball pythons, corn snakes, water turtles and crested geckos.

Smith also vouches for the popularity of blue-tongued skinks due to their docile, friendly dispositions.

“Although you might not be able to mark up a leopard gecko or corn snake the way you would a high-end exotic, what you lose in profit can easily be made back in volume,” Tuccinardi said. “However, there isn’t one profitable species or group of reptiles that will ensure successful [sales], instead it is your overall product mix that is most important.”

Smith suggests stocking captive-bred baby animals for better sales.

“People are just naturally attracted to babies, so they are wonderful investments,” Smith said, who adds that older adult reptiles are typically the slowest sellers and offer the lowest return on investment.

Additionally, talking to your customers about what species they like and conducting polls on the topic via your web or Facebook page can generate valuable feedback that factor into your stocking decisions.

Recommending a Good Fit

Successful retailers quickly learn that simply showcasing cute, colorful breeds in well-maintained habitats isn’t enough to excite patrons and ensure customer satisfaction. Working closely with the shopper to determine which species is the right purchase for their needs is strongly advised.

“Listen to your customer, and ask what they’re looking for. A pet? A display animal? A conversation piece? Then, show them the possibilities of what animals meet their criteria,” Tuccinardi, said. “A successful live reptile sale can mean years of food, lighting and accessory add-on sales. But if the customer gets persuaded into buying an animal that isn’t a good fit, it could wind up back in your store in a few weeks.”

Smith says the customer should also be a good match for the reptile in terms of being a reliable, responsible owner.

“If you think they won’t meet the animal’s needs, point them to a similar animal that will more adequately fit their ability to care for it,” Smith said. “Educate your customers. It’s our responsibility as retailers to ensure that our customers leave with a thorough understanding of that animal’s individual requirements.”

– Erik J. Martin

Socializing Reptiles Is Easier Than You Think

Scale-skinned critters and shellbacks can’t be expected to go fetch your pipe and slippers like a dog or rub up against you with a purr like a contended cat. But many species can benefit from greater social acclimation with caring humans who practice proper and consistent handling, the rewards for which can include a tamer, more relaxed pet.

Laurie Hess, DVM, owner, Veterinary Center for Birds and Exotics, in Bedford Hills, N.Y., encourages pet store retailers and their customers alike to follow appropriate socialization techniques, which means handling reptiles with extreme care.

“We encourage approaching reptiles slowly, picking them up gently and maintaining a gentle but firm and constant hold to prevent them from jumping or wriggling out of your hand,” Hess, who advises washing your hands to prevent the spread of bacteria, said. “A lot of reptiles aren’t used to being handled as much as small mammals and other fuzzy pets, but owners often don’t pick them up and touch them as much as they could.”

For many species, Hess says holding, touching and letting the animal rest next to your body promotes healthy socialization and owner-pet bonding.

“The best species for socializing are smaller lizards like geckos and bearded dragons, turtles like red-eared sliders, and docile snakes such as ball pythons,” she said. “Larger snakes and lizards may not be as amenable to socializing but can get used to handling if they are properly fed and are not about to shed, a time when they may be irritable and not want to be touched.”

Because reptiles normally don’t live in groups, housing more than one of the same species together, especially when a tank is loaded with too many animals, can cause a stressful environment that can lead to fighting, spread of diseases, illness, injury and even death of one or more of the inhabitants.

An overcrowded habitat in a pet store also makes a bad impression on customers and can make it more difficult to sell its overstimulated occupants. However, some reptiles can be paired together in the same enclosure, including water turtles and geckos.

“Retailers should educate consumers as to what they’re getting into and demonstrate proper handling and socializing approaches,” Hess said.

She also recommends the technique of positive reinforcement whereby the herp is given a special treat shortly after being taken out of its cage and being handled. Consistent repetition of food rewards and positive attention can condition the animal to relax and behave appropriately.

Helping Sales

Jacqueline Anderson, a store manager for Austin Exotic Pets in Austin, says she recommends a good rule of thumb to her reptile buyers: Take the pet out of its cage for at least 15 minutes a day to foster healthy socialization.

“Pet retailers should also show off their reptiles more often in the store by taking them out of their cages,” she said. “Not only does it showcase the pet to its potential owner, but it gives the reptile some needed away time out of the cage. However, you need to train your staff on how to pick up, hold and handle these animals properly so they can demonstrate the right techniques to customers. Your employees need to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about interacting with [reptiles].”

Selecting an appropriate habitat for that herp, an enclosure that is well-designed for safety, visibility ease of cleaning and size and also amenable to easier, less-stressful access to the pet, is also important.

“Most tortoise owners, for instance, have traditionally used glass aquariums to house their pets,” Paul Demas, project manager for Penn-Plax in Hauppauge, N.Y., said. “But these are not ideal due to lack of floor space, poor ventilation and their tendency to not recognize the glass and repeatedly run into it, causing injury. But new cage designs allow for greater interaction with many reptile species.”

One good example is Penn-Plax’s Reptology Tortoise Palace, ideal for Russian and Greek tortoises and box turtles. This horizontally spacious enclosure features a highly visible front glass viewing area, a built-in hide areas with access door and wire top with locking hinges for simple and quiet cage opening/closing.

Anderson says she prefers these types of terrariums that provide easy-to open sliding or hinged doors instead of traditional screen tops.

“A lot of cages are completely covered on top with fixtures and heating elements that you have to take off when you want to open up to get the animal inside,” Anderson said. “All that commotion and activity can disturb the reptile, so a habitat with an easy-to-open door is better.”

Human/Reptile Bond

Anderson also suggested promoting products that encourage owner-pet bonding.

T-Rex offers a Reptile Comfort Leash that securely harnesses iguanas, geckos, monitors, anoles, tegus and swifts and features an adjustable cinch that enables a gentle but firm control of the lizards allows you to gently but firmly secure the lizard.

A pivoting safety clasp can also be tethered to a belt loop or button hole, or it can be tied to a branch to allow the lizard to bask in the sun without worry.

Other products that encourage closer interaction between owners and their reptiles include climbing vines, ladders and hammocks that increase visibility of and access to the animal.

Several manufacturers make quality vines for cages, such as Exo Terra’s twistable and bendable Jungle Vine, Fluker Labs’ Small Animal Bend-A-Branch Pet Habitat Decor and Lee’s Vine Herb Habitat Décor.

Additionally, Zoo Med has a Lizard Ladder with a soft nylon mesh that attaches to the back wall of a terrarium to give reptiles more area to climb, as well as a mesh Reptile Hammock (14- or 17-inch) that creates an instant perch on which reptiles can rest.

Shell Game

Slow and steady wins the race,” may be the adage that turtles and tortoises live by, but smart pet retailers who aim to beat their competitors in the sales game may want to move quickly in stocking the newest foods and supplies for these animals.

Float-Friendly Food

One increasingly popular category is extruded foods for tortoises and turtles, which continue to be offered in greater variety from manufacturers. These edibles allow the feed to float on the water’s surface for aquatic species and generally increase palatability and digestibility compared to pelleted diets.

The newest example is a low starch tortoise diet by Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, expected to launch in January 2014. This complete diet requires no additional supplementation and is designed using natural preservatives and vitamin E. The grass hay-based food provides high fiber and low starch—making it ideal for plant-eating land-dwelling tortoises of all species.

“Most other tortoise diets on the market are not extruded—they’re only pelleted. Using a combination of hot steam and pressure to cook the particle gelatinizes the starch component of the feed,” Carrie Kuball, Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition technical support and national sales professional based in Arden Hills, Minn., said. “This is helpful for animals who typically do not consume starch because they lack the proper enzymes required to digest it.”

Dr. Troy Tollefson, a Tampa, Fla.-based PhD nutritionist for Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, has noticed a disturbing trend lately related to tortoise diets: The habit of many owners offering their pets mixed salads without complete pellets or extruded particles.

“Unless you have a very good grasp of nutrition or get lucky, this could easily cause a nutritional deficiency,” Tollefson said. “(This) could lead to a lowered immune system and unthriftiness, or even more serious problems like metabolic bone disease.”

Pet retailers can make a difference here by recommending a well-balanced tortoise or turtle diet, one, for example, that is rich in fiber for omnivorous type species and high in protein for  animals that consume more insect-based or carnivorous diets in their native environments.

Filtering Out Better Options

When it comes to the health of aquatic turtles in particular, another important consideration that retailers should stress to consumers is water quality. Stocking higher-end filters can make a good impression.

Zoo Med offers two relatively new filters, the Turtle Clean 50 and 75 models (for 50- and 75-gallon tanks, respectively), that combine cutting-edge mechanical, biological and chemical filtration technology.

The filters’ double filtering system with internal biological recirculation increases efficiency of the biological filtration, and the included spray bar helps to increase oxygenation. The slimline design also allows the filter to fit into tight spaces, and the easy priming feature makes it user-friendly and simple to use.

Play Spaces

Turtle and tortoise owners are also continually on the lookout for distinctive and exciting habitats for hardback herps, according to Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Labs Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“Some owners like to move their turtles and tortoises outside during the day and back inside at night,” Rademacher said. “In these cases, you need an enclosure that is versatile and gives the (pet) the experience of natural sunlight and weather while still being protected.”

Portable habitats are the ideal answer. Zoo Med makes a Tortoise House, featuring sturdy wood siding for privacy and security, a private weatherproof sleeping area, lockable wire safety cover and modular design that allows for expansion.

Other notable products in this subcategory include Zoo Med’s Tortoise Play Pen, a lightweight enclosure with an open bottom that can be placed on your lawn, enabling the pet to feed on grass, as well as Penn Plax’s Reptology Life Science Turtle Topper above-tank basking platform, which fits most standard tanks up to 55 gallons.

This tank topper features a see-through cover for easy visibility, basking platform and underwater resting platform with an easy access ramp with a maximum water level indicator.

High ROI

Ron Soucy, manager for Pet Kingdom, a pet retailer in San Diego, sells up to 40 different turtle and tortoise species, ranging from $15 to $1,700. He says these animals hold their value better than almost any other reptiles he carries.

“They offer a tremendous return on investment for retailers,” Soucy said. “Your initial $5 to $10 investment in a (less expensive species) can yield a couple hundred dollars by the time a customer buys it and all the accessories.They’re also very low-maintenance, kid-friendly animals with a lot of personality  that make great family pets, so you can feel good and confident recommending them.”

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