January 5, 2018

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.

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