The reptile industry reports a pattern of exciting growth in food offerings and sales.
The push for natural, organic and whole-food diets is not just for mammals. Reptile experts report a surge in demand for natural options, quality ingredients and whole foods for cold-blooded pets.
“There seems to be a bigger push for natural and whole foods, feeder insect quality, grass seeds, and plants to grow for their pets’ diets, like home gardens that provide food for pets,” said James Severts, reptile manager and specialist at Pet Paradise in Virginia Beach, Va.
Armstrong’s Cricket Farm has been in business for 70 years, and Brandon Armstrong, operations manager for the West Monroe, La.-based company, said that as pets are treated more like family, owners—including reptile owners—prefer to feed them natural, organic food and items the reptiles would catch in the wild.
Insiders also said that product quality and convenience rate high in priority for herp customers.
“All of the big-name companies have dry foods available, and I think the quality of them has really improved,” said Brian Potter, co-owner of Chicago Reptile House in Orland Park, Ill. “Back in the day, you had canned-cat-food-style stuff that was low quality. Now, the ingredients are much improved, and the variety is way better.”
Loren Leigh, founder and owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co. Inc., which has locations in Southern California, agreed.
“There was a time when people just fed one food type week after week to their reptiles, and with modern foods and new live options, people are varying diets more than ever,” he said. “These trends are coming from people seeing animals acclimate more to their environments and thrive more than ever.”
Leigh added that easy access to information about proper diets for specific reptiles and the availability of better and more nutritious foods for all categories of reptiles are pushing these trends.
Sustainability has increased the availability of a wider variety of insects, according to Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand, maker of Healthy Herp products, in Newark, Calif.
“Insect consumption by humans is on the rise worldwide, due to it being one of the more sustainable sources of animal protein, as well as being believed to have less of an environmental impact than aquaculture,” he said. “This has made ingredients containing insect proteins from a wider variety of insects available.”
On the convenience side, Severts has seen a surge in sales of the company’s pre-rinsed and chopped veggies as well as replacement gels. He attributed this increased interest to the convenience these products offer.
“We premade the replacement gels in 2-ounce cups so [customers] can try them or just buy it and make it themselves,” Severts added. “It ups the sales and the quality of keeping animals.”
Encouraging Health, Sales
Educating customers about reptile food is undisputedly important, retailers and manufacturers agreed.
“If they don’t have the right information, they don’t have success with their pet and the hobby,” said James Severts, reptile manager and specialist at Pet Paradise in Virginia Beach, Va.
Industry members note that diet and food quality hugely impacts the pet as well as the owner’s enjoyment.
“Feeding herps the wrong food, not supplementing properly and not providing the proper environmental conditions can have a negative impact on herp health,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand, maker of Healthy Herp products, in Newark, Calif.
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc. in Hayward, Calif., added, “upgrading the food choice can not only make keeping a reptile more enjoyable—it can reduce the odor and make the pet healthier.
“Retailers have to remember that no petkeeper is really looking for the cheapest food for their pet,” Clevers said. “They want the best, provided they can afford it, and when product benefits are clearly explained and understood, price doesn’t come in to their thought process.”
Sharing and demonstrating firsthand experience can be a highly effective way to drive sales in this category, said Loren Leigh, founder and owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co. Inc., which has locations in Southern California.
“Nothing breeds consumer confidence in foods [better] than to see them actually in use and animals eating them,” he said. “We also discuss how these products work, how important it is to give your reptiles variety and the benefits of this varied diet.”
One-on-one communication is the most-recommended way for retailers to coach reptile owners on dietary decisions, according to sources. Offering samples follows closely behind.
“The best way is one-on-one talking in person or on the phone,” Severts said. “We offer guidelines, care sheets and free samples, and we show customers how they work—like the gels.
“We have cooking/gel-making classes or seminars to make sure they have all the info they need. We even help them read the labels.”
Because consumers often turn to online information, Brandon Armstrong, operations manager for Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe, La., said that “forums and blogs are good ways to spread informative material.”
Promote Through Presentation
To boost sales of herp diets, manufacturers recommend that retailers use endcaps and subtly endorse products by using them in-store.
“Insects make great endcap displays,” said Brandon Armstrong, operations manager for Armstrong’s Cricket Farm in West Monroe, La. “Live herp food is usually lively, active and packaged with color. Crickets are always eye-catchers because they are constantly moving.”
In addition to an endcap, Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand, maker of Healthy Herp products, in Newark, Calif., said retailers should “use the foods they sell in-store and leave the packaging in a place where it is visible so people see they are using it.”
Most retailers reported doing just that.
“We encourage our staff to not only use the foods in our stores, but also on their own animals,” said Loren Leigh, founder and owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co. Inc., which has locations in Southern California. “When they have confidence in the products, they will be more eager to suggest them as well.”
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc., based in Hayward, Calif., suggests having a new-item area that clearly defines new store offerings “with signage on why you feel the product is relevant to your customer.”
Similarly, Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager at Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass., said that accessible point-of-sale add-ons can help turn consumers on to new or pre-existing diets.
The Internet’s Influence on Reptile Food
Drawing on more than a century of combined herp experience, the retailers and manufacturers interviewed have seen remarkable changes in reptile diets and report excitement in the niche’s evolution.
In the category’s infancy, Loren Leigh, founder and owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co. Inc. , which has locations in Southern California, said there were just a few simple food options for the most popular reptiles, which was about seven to 10 animals.
“Today, we are keeping hundreds and hundreds of species of reptiles, and a lot of that is because of our better understanding of reptile nutritional needs,” he said. “We also are making foods specific to certain animals. For example, diets made just for crested geckos catapulted them to one of the most popular reptiles of the time because of the ease of having a complete food available over the counter that could be mixed and made as needed.”
Seeing it as one of the few categories with consistent growth over time, Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA Inc., based in Hayward, Calif., reported seeing the herp industry blossom “from a niche business with a limited number of products and options for consumers to an important category in the pet industry offering a bevy of items that meet the needs of a wide variety of herps.”
Several sources credit the internet to helping grow and improve the reptile hobby.
“I was a part of the dot-com boom in the mid to late ’90s, [and] it was during this internet renaissance that we saw a large shift in the hobby,” said Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager at Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass. “The processing and dispersal of new information cannot be understated during this time. Coupled with consumer shows throughout the U.S., enthusiasts and hobbyists were exposed to new products that had never been seen before.
“New types of feeder insects have become more available, like goliath worms and silkworms,” he added. “Currently, we’re experiencing a number of feeder roach species—which can be cleaner and easier to breed than crickets.”
James Severts, reptile manager and specialist at Pet Paradise in Virginia Beach, Va., agreed.
“The internet has also helped people find the information they’re looking for, and all that information has pushed people toward better foods and products,” he said.
Quality, Variety and Convenience
When selecting herp foods to stock in their stores, retailers rated quality, palatable ingredients as the most important features that consumers are seeking.
“We test everything we carry on our animals and personal pets,” said James Severts, reptile manager and specialist at Pet Paradise in Virginia Beach, Va. “If it doesn’t work, we don’t carry it. As long as it works, we happily carry and endorse it in our shop.”
Retailers also value variety when selecting reptile diets.
“I am a big believer in variety, and the more variety for your reptiles, the better,” said Loren Leigh, founder and owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co. Inc., which has locations in Southern California
Innovative feeding methods and unique ingredients are the focus of Mansfield, Mass.-based Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp.’s newest products. In the first quarter of 2017, the company launched Exo Terra Crested Gecko Food, a diet premixed and dispensed in single-serve cups.
“Imagine miniature yogurt cups with tear-away lids,” said Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager, adding that the manufacturer has provided a variety of methods for placing the cups so they can be cleaned and reused or recycled. “The consistency and stability of the diets also reduces evaporation; and the size and placement of the cups prevents geckos from tracking food all over the glass of your terrarium.”
The company also has plans to introduce Dragon Grub. It uses soldier fly larvae in pellet form and will come in Adult and Juvenile formulas for bearded dragons and other insect-eating reptiles, Sotelo said.
“The source insects are raised in an eco-friendly facility using renewable resources, and the diets include fruits and vegetables that are very beneficial to a bearded dragon’s growth and maintenance,” he said, adding that the product “bridges the gap between mixed diets and ready-to-serve pellets.”