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Substrate Savvy Impresses Customers

Posted: June 21, 2011, 3 p.m., EDT

A knowledgeable staff, inspirational displays and safe biodegradable bedding go a long way toward gaining the confidence of herp customers.

Becoming a respected destination store for herp substrates takes a strong team of expert employees and a multifaceted approach to merchandising and display.By Cheryl Reeves

Becoming a respected destination store for herp substrates takes a strong team of expert employees and a multifaceted approach to merchandising and display. Further, by raising reptile-owning customers’ awareness of good husbandry practices, retailers can enhance the shopping experience through education while growing both revenue and reputation.

“Substrates play a large role in husbandry and sometimes the importance is overlooked,” said Andrew Quinn, the education coordinator and national sales assistant at Zoo Med Labs Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Manufacturers agreed it’s essential for retailers to recommend the right substrate for each animal according to natural habitat requirements.

Steve Sotelo, the Exo Terra division manager for Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass., said reptile bedding has evolved considerably over the years, with noticeable trends revolving around natural products and functionality. He also revealed that Exo Terra plans to launch a number of innovative substrates in the coming months.

Plantation Soil and Coco Husk, for example, are hygroscopic and readily absorb and retain moisture. This is especially important for rainforest habitats that require high levels of humidity, Sotelo commented.

“Subsequently, coconut fiber absorbs nutrients and is resistant to bacterial and fungal growth, both of which can be problems in tropical habitats that have excess moisture,” he said. “Plantation Soil and Coco Husk can also both be used as a 'soil’ for live plants housed in the terrarium.” 

Industry Voices

How can retailers merchandise and display substrates better?
“It’s good idea to have a wide selection of substrates to suit the needs of various reptiles and amphibians. Try to merchandise these substrates according to environments such as tropical, desert and temperate. Another alternative is to brand the substrates. Manufacturers generally try to create packaging that creates a look of uniformity, where product information and features are easily visible to the consumer.”
--Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp.

“Display by type of bedding. Customers typically are interested in using what looks best with their color reptile and what is safest as well as most economical.”
--Steven Spitz, owner of Big Apple Herpetological Inc.
To further hasten the spread of proper herp care, Zoo Med expanded its website’s care sheet section to help owners more easily learn about the right products for their pet, Quinn said. What’s more, he said, a Reptile Care Flip Book geared for everyone from beginners to seasoned keepers was launched recently.

“The new Flip Book is designed to be merchandised on the shelf of your reptile section and will act as a product guide for 15 of the most popular reptiles and amphibians,” Quinn said.

At Menagerie Pet Shop in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, employees must have herpkeeping experience.

“Safety is the top concern in substrates and our staff is required to know what to recommend for each type of animal,” said Liam Grin, the store’s reptile expert. “In substrates, a natural aesthetic is very important. Bedding that’s easy to keep clean is also a priority.”

Alan Botterman, president of T-Rex Products, a manufacturer in Chula Vista, Calif., said that whatever substrate products retailers expect to sell on their shelves should be used in the store so customers can see and learn.

Moreover, he said, retailers can increase sales by putting more thought into their substrate displays.

“Don’t rely on plain-Jane displays,” said Botterman, who once owned a pet shop that consistently won accolades for its innovative merchandising techniques.

For example, he said, to engage his store’s staff and pump sales, he initiated an employee terrarium decorating contest with the goal to cleverly make merchandise stand out.

“I gave the staff a budget plus five tanks and challenged them to get as creative as possible in designing these habitats with substrates and accessories,” he said. “Substrates were blended appropriately for various reptiles using a mix of textures, layers and materials.”
Customers loved the results and bought what they saw in the terrariums so they could re-create the look at home, Botterman said.

Sotelo reminded retailers that properly merchandising substrates may lead to sharp increases in reptile product revenue.

 “Often times,” he said, “bedding is either left on the bottom shelf of the reptile aisle or mismatched altogether. Keeping the substrates properly maintained--dusted, etc.--also helps with presentation and overall visibility.”

Naturalistic, biodegradable substrate blends that work to minimize odor are popular at East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., co-owner John Emberton said. He cited T-Rex’s Cypress Bed, a mulch that replicates a forest path with all the complexity of what animals would enjoy in the wild.

Menagerie Pet Shop's Grin reported that at his store, Zoo Med’s Eco Carpet and Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber are hot substrate sellers among reptile-keeping customers who value the greenest bedding.

Indeed, bedding is so important that Steven Spitz, owner of Big Apple Pet Supply in Hauppauge, N.Y., provides videos of every substrate type he carries to explain their use and set-up.

“Our best-selling substrates continue to be the basics,” said Spitz, who listed aspen, fir bark, cypress, coconut fiber, calcium carbonate and sand.

Botterman said the bigger the substrate aisle, the better. He also suggested that retailers post a chart that spells out which substrates work with each type of animal and promotes good, better and best options.

When stocking an assortment of substrates, most manufacturers and retailers agreed that offering a choice between economical bulk bedding and packaged brands is a good idea as long as the bulk substrates are clean and free of dust and mites.

“For those herpkeepers on a tight budget, quality bulk should be available so good animal husbandry practices will be adhered to,” Botterman said. “Savings will also encourage add-on purchases.”

Customers respond to what they see with their eyes, reported Jill Griffith, owner of Leaping Lizards Reptile Shop in Burnsville, Minn.

“I use the substrates that I know work well in my store, and the customers see the product being used,” she said, adding that Zoo Med’s ReptiFresh Odor Eliminating Substrate continues to rank as one of her top-selling substrate products.

To make sure her customers are fully informed, Griffith does a lot of individual customer education, especially with new reptile owners who have lots of questions.

“Making sure they use the right substrate for the right animal is a big concern as even one tiny piece of sand can get in a lizard’s eye and cause problems,” she said. “Also, substrate needs may change as the animal goes from baby to adult.”

Getting a new herp owner set up with the right substrate not only lays a good foundation for pets but establishes one between the retailer and customer.

“We customize starter kits, including substrates, very specifically for each animal,” Grin said. “Customers like to be in the hands of experts who can answer all their questions with authority. Then they gain confidence and can enjoy their pet with less worry.”

Industry Voices

Which cage cleaners do you recommend that retailers stock and promote?
“Wipe-Out is an excellent terrarium disinfectant, cleaner and deodorizer. Wipe-Out kills bacteria such as Salmonella and can reduce the spread of bacterial infections among animals.”
--Andrew Quinn, education coordinator/national sales assistant at Zoo Med Labs Inc.

“We always recommend scoopers as well as Quat Plus cleaning solution.”
--Steven Spitz, owner of Big Apple Herpetological Inc.

Zoo Med's Quinn recommended specific animal merchandising using endcaps. To illustrate the point, he noted that his company offers retailers the Turtle Shop End Cap, which is most popular in the spring and summer.

“The display also serves as a handy educational guide that tells a story about the needs of the animal while showing the consumer what is appropriate,” he said.

Sotelo noted that information on how to properly set up and maintain a Natural Terrarium can be found on Exo Terra's packaging and on his company's website.

With the economy still sluggish, retailers noted that some customers think they can save money on substrate by using newspapers and paper towels. While this may work fine for some babies, most reptiles need more natural and interactive substrates.

“Many commonly kept reptile species are fossorial,” Quinn said, “meaning they live in underground burrows or rock crevices. Using a substrate such as newspaper does not accommodate this type of lifestyle. Underground retreats are imperative for thermal regulation and to reduce stress by providing cover.”

Further, he added, retailers cannot emphasize enough the importance of the right substrate. That is especially true for customers who plan to use Under Tank Heaters (UTH), which are often used as supplemental heating for reptiles.

“Many UTHs require a substrate layer to properly distribute heat within the terrarium,” Quinn said. “Without substrate, animals can get too close to the glass and potentially burn themselves. Paper towels or newspapers should never be used with an UTH.”

Newspaper is not convenient or attractive, Spitz added. He pointed out that once a reptile eliminates waste, everything in the cage has to be lifted and new paper put down.
“This is much less convenient than simply scooping out the bedding that is dirty,” Spitz said.

As the reptile hobby continues to grow, retailers have the opportunity to merchandise strategically and teach customers about the best species-specific and environment-specific products.

Keep in mind, Sotelo concluded, that “the ultimate goal is to provide hobbyists substrates that are both aesthetic and functional.”


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