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February 27, 2015

For retailers seeking to jump on the bandwagon and carry and/or breed these pocket exotics, the rewards can be ample but the red tape can be sticky. That’s because in the interest of protecting local ecosystems from potential damage caused by these breeds if released in the wild, many state and local municipalities have restrictions on ownership of these animals. For example, hedgehogs are currently banned as pets in Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and the five boroughs of New York City. Some states and jurisdictions require retailers to apply for and purchase a permit to carry particular exotic species.

Mighty Market for Mini Mammals

The good news is that pocket exotics can be significant profit centers for your store—as long as you’re lawfully allowed to sell them. Just ask Donnie Cook, owner of Lou’s Pet Shop in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. He began offering pocket exotics like sugar gliders, hedgehogs and degus seven years ago, breeding them himself in the store. During the last two years in particular, interest skyrocketed and strong sales followed. Now, Cook is able to realize up to a 40 percent profit on a sugar glider or hedgehog. Plus, with so few competitors offering food and supplies for these rarer species, he’s built up an impressive clientele of loyal customers who regularly stock up at his location.

“There’s a stronger market for these animals than you’d expect and they provide a great opportunity for you to build your overall small mammal category,” said Cook. “Customers fall in love with their cuteness factor and the way they bond with owners, especially sugar gliders, which are highly social.”

Solutions to Finding Scarce Products

Cook cautions however, that retailers need to do their homework carefully before investing in pocket exotics. Thus far, very few pet supply manufacturers have committed to this category by offering foods and accessories custom tailored to niche species like degus, sugar gliders and hedgehogs, which means that pet stores have to thoroughly educate their staff on the proper feeding, housing and care of these species to ensure a healthy stock and a happy customer to whom they can pass on their knowledge.

For example, sugar gliders have challenging dietary needs and require a careful balance of calcium and phosphorus in their diet. Well-researched retailers can offer a customized food-making kit for sugar gliders or print up recommended recipes containing ingredients that shoppers can gather from a local supermarket.

Luckily, a few companies have the unconventional dietary needs of these critters on their radar. One is Vitakraft Sunseed, which provides a range of foods and treats for exotics, including its Vita Prima Exotics line, with separate formulas for sugar gliders, degus and hedgehogs, and its Wigglers & Berries Trail Mix for hedgehogs. Another option is 8 in 1 Ultra-Blend Select Complete Nutrition Hedgehog Diet.

Although pet supply makers have yet to introduce any notable toys specifically marketed to these pocket exotics, Cook said most hamster toys are fine for degus and prairie dogs, while sugar gliders often appreciate challenging tunnels, ropes and even foraging toys for birds. Hedgehogs tend to enjoy most cat toys.

Regarding habitats, many of the same size-appropriate cages designed for chinchillas, hamsters, guinea pigs and the like are just fine for most pocket exotics. Cook bundles together a beginner’s kit in his store that includes a My First Home large starter cage and Comfort Wheel exercise toy, both by Super Pet, along with a food dish, water feeder, bedding and other accessories. He then customizes each kit for an individual animal by adding in extras, such as a Fluker’s Ultra Deluxe Premium Heat Mat, which can benefit sugar gliders and hedgehogs.

Recommendations for Register Rings

Agreeing that offering a starter kit builds good rapport with new owners, Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist with Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc., thinks there are additional things pet retailers can do to increase interest and sales in this category.

“For instance, if the store sells these animals, it would be fun to allow customers to help feed them treats for sale, which makes the customer aware of the product and how well the animal likes it,” she said.

Merchandising accessories for small exotics can be a challenge for some retailers, depending on available real estate, said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health, makers of the Timothy CLUB habitats (made from100 percent hand-woven timothy hay), which are ideal for many pocket exotics.

“We encourage them to find a dedicated space for these important items,” he said, “as creating a section for these products creates a focus for them and allows sales associates to highlight [their] importance.”

Stock added that accessories can make great BOGO items.

“When possible, retailers should consider running promotions by offering a smaller accessory as a free item when purchasing a higher value item such as a large food or hay.”

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