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Herp Marketplace: Reptile Diets Redux

Posted: October 22, 2013, 1:15 p.m. EDT


Herp owners no longer have to keep live crickets and mealworms or offer live mice and rats to their animals to keep them healthy.

By Kristin Mehus-Roe

Not too many years ago, turtle owners fed their pets processed dog food and snake owners had no choice but to offer live rodents for dinner. Times have changed.

"Some of the most notable breakthroughs in the past few years are due to improved knowledge of dietary requirements for various species,” said Daniel Kopulos, owner of Fauna, a pet store specializing in reptiles, birds and fish in New York. "Many new products joining the market have greatly aided in the overall health, longevity and ease of care for many of the herps kept as pets.”

Now owners can use live-prey food and select frozen and dehydrated whole prey foods, and even packaged foods for some animals.

Plenty of options exist in vitamin and calcium dusts, and gut-loading supplements for prey foods—as well as products designed to make feeding and keeping reptiles and their prey easier, less messy and more efficient.

"Frozen [prey were] not really available 10 to 15 years ago on any large scale,” said Mike Carson, owner of North Vancouver Pet Boutique in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. "But now that it is available, it opens the market to folks who wouldn’t have dreamed of owning a snake then.”

New and Noteworthy
Some of the new products on the market that stand out to merchandisers and manufacturers are the omnivore-specific foods, such as crested gecko foods made of powdered fruits, and gel foods. With both, "you just add water and it forms a paste,” said Carson.

"Our newest foods, the Crested Gecko Food and Pacman Frog Food, are powdered meal replacements that make keeping and caring for these pets more convenient,” said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education coordinator for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Kopulos also is enthusiastic about the new gel foods for omnivores, such as Repashy Superfoods from Repashy Ventures in San Marcos, Calif.

"Personally, the most helpful items have been the gel-type foods for omnivores,” he said.

Other new convenient products include pre-gut-loaded crickets, called Vita-Bugs, from Timberline Live Pet Foods.

"These crickets are fed a newly patented Timberline food that produces significantly higher levels of vitamins E and A, beta carotene and enhanced omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies,” said Bobby Blood, director of sales for the Marion, Ill., company. "This eliminates the need for dusting or gut-loading feeders with vitamin supplements. Vita-Bugs soon will include mealworms, superworms and waxworms.”

Despite the innovations in herp food and feeding, there are some notable absences in what’s available, according to some retailers.

"No one’s really come out with things like raw foods for dogs and cats,” said Carson. "I’ve thought of potentially doing something like that on my own in-store for the vegetable-eating guys.”

It’s Alive!
Reptile owners who once had little choice but to feed their animals live food now have a number of options, including frozen mice and rats, freeze-dried crickets and mealworms, packaged mixes and pellets, and even snake sausages.

Proponents of the new options say that nonlive food is more convenient and less dangerous and disturbing to some.

"The frozen food is actually better for them—and then they don’t have to come and visit me every week, said Pet Boutique’s Carson. "Parents don’t like the live food,” he added.

Nonlive food has opened up the idea of snake and other reptile ownership to many who never would have considered a pet reptile, according to Carson.

Fauna’s Kopulos sells live crickets and worms but doesn’t offer live rodents in his store.
 
"There is a great amount of added care and the possible risk of bite wounds when feeding live,” he said. "We find that most species can be easily trained to eat frozen/thawed rodents.”

San Francisco Bay Brand in Newark, Calif., sells freeze-dried crickets and mealworms, which have been a harder sell for many reptile owners than the switch from live to frozen rodents.

"You have to train animals to eat freeze-dried—some people don’t have the patience; feeding live animals to other animals is always risky,” said Andreas Schmidt, company president.

Steven Carlsen, owner of Reptile Food Depot in Everett, Wash., believes there is still a strong interest in buying live food for animals.

"We sell crickets, mice, rats, all the worms, Turkish roaches; we only sell a few dried foods like freeze-dried crickets and mealworms,” he said.

Timberline’s Blood is equally bullish on the future of live foods.

"We are committed to producing the best live food possible,” he said. "It’s difficult to duplicate the vitamins and nutritional variety of a ‘wild’ diet.”

Marketing and Education
Many herp food manufacturers and live food dealers are small, or their herp products are only a small part of their line; marketing efforts tend to be limited.

Larger manufacturers, such as Zoo Med and Timberline, do traditional marketing, such as advertising, trade shows and point-of-sale materials. They also are delving into social media, with active Facebook pages and online videos.

"Our YouTube videos are a good resource for educating retailers and consumers,” said Rademacher. "They’re available on the Zoo Med Labs YouTube channel and linked to our product web pages. We also made them available for training.”

Zoo Med regularly sponsors trade and reptile shows, at which attendees receive a show bag with a catalog, samples, stickers and other promotional items.

Timberline also attends and sponsors reptile shows, and offers next-day delivery and live customer service agents.

Most marketing is done through education. Few retailers do extensive advertising; most find their best sales come through educating customers.

"They come here because they get to see the food, they get the quality—they want to look at animals,” said Reptile Food Depot’s Carlsen.

This also allows Carlsen and his staff to direct customers toward vitamin and calcium supplements when they are buying crickets or mealworms. 

Pet Boutique’s Carson agreed that showing customers what their animals need, and then providing them the opportunity to buy those products, is the best way to make sales in-store.

"We tell them all the things they’ll need, it makes it easier to explain it, and that way you have everything right then,” he said.

"We’re always asking if they need any more dust today. If they’re just getting crickets, we ask if they want to try a worm,” Carson added.

"Education is our primary objective, and the business follows,” said Fauna’s Kopulos. "We plan feedings and other maintenance so customers can take part or observe. We encourage feedback by asking customers how their pet liked an item or if changing the way they offered the food resulted in new responses. Through that involvement, our customers will try new things and explore.”

Carlsen said that few manufacturers or dealers he works with are large enough to provide sales support; Carson declines manufacturer support. Instead, both focus on customer education while offering deals when customers buy in bulk or multiple items at a time.

Kopulos would welcome additional support and education from manufacturers.

"It seems we rarely see our sales representatives unless we attend a trade show,” he said. "We’d like in-store training from our suppliers regarding nutrition and marketing. Videos would be helpful; we would certainly use these at staff meetings and during new employee training. Because we are a full-line exotics store, we have general staff meetings monthly and regular department meetings where we introduce and discuss products as well as animal health and behavior.”

Price Point
San Francisco Bay Brand’s Schmidt finds the reptile business to be frustrating from a price perspective.

"We have an all-natural product line that we tested for three years before bringing it to market,” he said. "Everyone wants to buy American-made products, but do they want to pay for it?”

The company recently scaled back its reptile food products.

Some retailers find that educational marketing isn’t sufficient in the Internet and big-box age.

"Many people take our advice and then go to big-box stores,” said Carlsen.

Online retailers can’t provide education and experience like a brick-and-mortar store, he said, but they can provide deep discounts.

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