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Herp Marketplace: Matching Herps to Homes

Posted: November 25, 2013, 2:30 p.m. EDT

Proper presentation and education are the two keys to sales success, animal health and happy customers.

By Audrey Pavia

Selling live animals takes much more consideration than selling those animals’ accompanying supplies.

Along with the responsibility of caring for livestock in the store, retailers also must ensure that customers are well educated before they take a pet home.

Presenting livestock in a way that is attractive to customers and also comfortable for the animals is crucial, said Robert Smith, owner of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Centereach, N.Y., a boutique pet store specializing in reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.

"Reptiles in my store are all displayed in natural vivaria,” he said. "Enclosures are fully decorated with real and fake plants, rock walls, waterfalls where appropriate and a wide variety of exotic wood, stones, hide boxes and bowls. The animals feel secure and are less stressed when they are in these types of enclosures, but it does sometimes present an issue when customers want to view them to purchase.”


Smith believes he has found a good balance between animal comfort and customer convenience, and simply removes the animal from the cage for sincere buyers.

"The reason we do this, rather than keep them on newspaper at the bottom of a glass tank, is the well-being of the animal, period,” he said. "It is a far more expensive way of presenting, but it is how we have separated our store from the competition.”

Chinsu Kim, owner of the La Habra Reptile House in La Habra, Calif., which concentrates on exotic reptiles and amphibians, also uses a natural approach to display.

"We house most of our specimens in individual cages that share a common wall or floor,” he said.
"Whenever possible, we try to create a natural cage setup with our animals. An example of our natural terrarium housing for dart or arrow frogs includes coconut hiding places, coconut fiber for a substrate, mossy areas, a water bowl or waterfall and live plants, such as pothos.”

Keeping most animals in a natural setting to reduce their stress is important, added Kim.
"This provides better, healthier pets that require less time to acclimate to new surroundings,” he said.

Displaying herps in a natural setting is not only good for the animals, but also helps sell products.

Emmanuel Van Heygen, brand and product manager for Rolf C Hagen’s Exo Terra division in Mansfield, Mass., advises retailers to use the terrariums they sell in the store as a display system. Exo Terra Natural Terrariums can be placed in a racking system and combined in different sizes, depending on the sizes and requirements of the animals on display, he added.

"Being able to replace or remove one terrarium at a time eases the maintenance of the entire unit,” he said. "Once a terrarium is empty, or when new animals arrive, one terrarium can be exchanged, cleaned or redecorated without stressing out the animals in the rest of the system.”

When a display is decorated properly, it inspires customers to become creative with their own terrariums, said Van Heygen.

"They can buy everything they need at your store,” he said. "The ability to inspire and fascinate is what brick-and-mortar stores have over every online store, and they should use that to their advantage.”

A well-decorated terrarium is important when selling live herps, agreed Nick Kornblith, senior product manager of United Pet Group Aquatics Division in Blacksburg, Va.

"It is always nice to see naturalistic vivaria in a pet store,” he said. "It helps sell other supplies and gives customers something to aspire to.”

He adds that for some customers, visiting a pet store is like a visit to a miniature zoo or a nature center.

"An appealing display is an attraction that entices customers to want to visit,” he said. 

Customer Education
When selling live animals, customer education is a must, said Danielle Somes, sales associate for Pets and Things Reptile Emporium, a specialty retailer offering a unique selection of captive-bred animals, in Utica, Mich.

"We truly care about the pets we sell and the type of homes they go to,” she said. "We will recommend just the right pet for a customer, even though they may come in seeking something else.”

The staff at Pets and Things is smart and knowledgeable, added Somes.

"We help each client as an individual,” she said. "Whether it’s their first pet or if they’re adding to their collection.”

At the Arizona Reptile Center in Mesa, Ariz., manager John Brophy also emphasizes the importance of customer education when selling live herps.

"We have a high level of commitment to our customers and educate them by offering access to our staff of reputable experts,” he said. "We also advise them to be cautious when using the Internet or Craigslist because, while the prices are attractive, you never know what you’re going to get.”

La Habra Reptile Store also works to educate customers before they buy a herp.

"We strive to keep customers informed and to train our employees about essential items, such as water, vitamins, calcium, UVB lighting and heat,” said Kim. "We include a free book with most of our custom cage setups, or we take the time to inform the customers as much as we can before they leave the shop.”

The store also is involved in the community and hosts visits from the Cub Scouts of America, Montessori preschools and other schools, said Kim.

"Basically, if I have the time and can schedule a tour or visit, I say yes when they ask,” he said. "We also recommend websites for care and provide basic caresheets for commonly purchased animals. Select animals that have special requirements are always sold with main essential items.”

Although some customers don’t appreciate this requirement, Kim said, store associates try their best to educate them before they take home a live animal that requires more than just food and water.

Education is a huge part of Jungle Bob’s business plan, said Smith. The store goes beyond just educating the customer at the time of the sale, having hosted more than 160 lectures in the past year. Jungle Bob’s also sponsors outreach programs to schools, camps, libraries, scout organizations and senior citizen centers.

"In our lectures, we dispel the myths that often surround our animals,” he said. "With a safe hands-on approach, attendees of our lectures learn simple facts, like snakes are not slimy, toads do not give you warts and tarantulas are not deadly.”

His store’s education department is the single most effective advertising tool he uses, Smith added.

"It consistently brings new faces to the store,” he said. "We have no illusions of selling everyone we meet a snake, but a good percentage of people we meet at these lectures wind up being a customer. Plus, the lectures themselves are a growing revenue source for our organization.”

Besides providing the animal with the chance to survive through customer education, teaching customers how to properly care for their new pet is good business.

"It is any store’s duty when a reptile or amphibian is sold to educate the buyer about the animal’s needs and requirements,” said Van Heygen. "If your buyer is unsuccessful with the animal purchased, you might lose him as a customer; he will probably lose interest in the hobby; and the industry will lose a consumer as well. But when that same person is successful, you have a customer for life.



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