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April 4, 2018

Animals have to eat. There’s no way around it, no way to avoid it, no denying it. The only way to have a pet is to feed it, which means that any savvy pet retailer knows well enough to carry several varieties of food for the various animals carried within their store.

I’ve mentioned in past articles that demonstrating the value of deeply discounting reptiles in favor of carrying subsidiary products, thereby using the new pet itself as a way to establish an ongoing relationship with a customer, is an option. Once that relationship is established, customers continue coming back for necessary supplies: bedding, caging, lighting and, of course, food.

However, when stocking food, retailers have seemingly voluminous options. While stocking pellet-style food is generally easy and has become a mainstay within pet stores, retailers have a series of difficult choices to make when it comes to live food or packaged food.

On a general level, live food refers to precisely that: a living animal specifically kept for the purpose of feeding a pet. In most cases, these might range from something as simple as crickets and mealworms, to mice or goldfish, all the way up to large rats. Live feeder animals larger than rats, such as rabbits, are generally not carried within stores, due to the lack of demand within most commercially-sold pets. However, online stores may consider selling larger feeder animals, catering to zoos, breeders and museums.

Packaged food, by contrast, is a general term that can refer to a number of different food types which require some degree of preservation. This might include “actual” frozen food (i.e. food that must be kept below 32ºF), refrigerated food (food that must be held at a lower temperature than room temperature) or freeze-dried food (food which has been preserved in some manner).

Stocking live food is, undoubtedly, more difficult than packaged food, though live food can carry significant benefits for pet reptiles as well as a retailer’s bottom line. Firstly, live food generally represents the closest available diet to that which a reptile would be eating while out in the wild.

“Most reptiles are predators,” said Clay Ghann of Ghann Crickets. “Reptiles want to hunt, capture and eat prey, not something out of a can.”

As such, some breeders and collectors consider them a superior option, further enhanced by new advances in technology. Insects have especially advanced in this regard, with gut-loaded insects and insects pre-dusted with vitamin supplements to provide additional health benefits for hungry animals. Further advantages lie in terms of increased store traffic. A customer that purchases live food likely can’t “stock up” on this type of food, which means that they’ll likely return to your store to buy additional food, in addition to any other subsidiary purchases made during the visit.

Andy Petitt, sales manager over at Timberline Live Pet Foods, is quick to echo Ghann’s thoughts on live food, noting that “live food replicates natural nutrition” and that an animal’s hunting instincts “provide a source of exercise for pets as well.”

In terms of profits, Petitt is quick to note the advantages of carrying live food. “Live food typically lands among the top five SKUs at full-line pet retailers,” he said. “Live food tends to be one of the highest margin items at a retailer,” only falling into a less-impressive category when misunderstood.

However, live food does come with certain challenges. Firstly, even feeder animals need to eat. Stocking feeder animals means providing them with enough food and other supplies necessary to keep them alive. Not only does this mean stocking food for your feeder animals, but also necessary housing, as well as a display to hold those animals. Further, live food requires care—additional man-hours may need to be allocated to take care of these feeder animals, in addition to the time necessary to educate your staff members on how to care for those animals.

For crickets, this can be easy: Ghann notes that “five minutes a day is all it takes to be sure the display is clean and ensure the crickets have ample food and water,” though larger animals do take additional effort and care. Pettit further notes that Timberline carries “the best cricket display case on the market,” one which promotes natural air-flow, is easy to clean, and can provide space for up to 5,000 crickets. Such a display can provide an easy spot for customers to pick up their crickets at a moment’s notice.

Finally, a few customers may object to providing live food for their animals. While this might simply be a squeamish factor, there are anecdotal accounts of some pet animals being harmed by the live food, specifically rodents, offered to them while in a cage. Always be sure that staff members and customers carefully observe the feeding process while offering live rodents so that the feeding reptile isn’t injured as they feed.

Because of these drawbacks, many retailers have oriented towards offering packaged foods instead of live. Packaged food’s primary advantage over live comes in terms of convenience. It’s simply much easier to keep a shelf, freezer or refrigerator full of feeder food rather than live animals. This convenience further extends to your customers; it’s much easier on your customers to be able to take home a box of frozen pinkie mice or a container of freezedried mealworms than taking home live animals. Further, these items make for particularly easy sales. Pre-packed greens or fruit fly larvae can make for easy grab-and-go items. When pre-packed items are placed by a register or on an aisle-display, customers can easily grab a container on their way through the store. Food producer Timberline has taken this concept into a new arena, providing “Reptile Lunch Boxes,” containing pre-packed, date-stamped boxes of crickets, complete with all the necessary items to keep those crickets alive.

No matter what your preference is, I strongly encourage you to at the very least carry live crickets and other simple, live feeders such as mealworms or superworms. With a little time and effort, you will notice your customer base will grow as well as your bottom line!

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