It’s a Jungle in There
Bob Smith puts a new spin on tackling the reptile world.
By Lizett Bond
Like so many people in the reptile industry, "Jungle” Bob Smith’s passion for scaley critters started at a young age.
As a child in Manhattan, Smith saw some neighborhood kids screaming and pointing at something in a lawn. It turned out to be a snake.
"Rather than flee from it, which was the norm, I gravitated toward it,” he said. "I don’t understand why, but it really started a lifelong fascination with snakes, reptiles and all wildlife.”
While some herpers immediately headed down the retail route, Smith took to staging reptile shows in an effort to educate people about his favorite creatures. It wasn’t until 2009 that he decided to open his own store, buying a shop where two previous owners had failed.
Where other store owners could not succeed, Jungle Bob has carved out a niche for his Long Island, N.Y., store, Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, by combining his penchant for entertainment and education with a high level of business savvy.
Bob Smith's love of reptiles has branched out into a career as Jungle Bob. Courtesy Jungle Bob's Reptile World
"I have intertwined these two disciplines: education and retail, and they have made a dynamite combination.”
Prior to owning a reptile store, one of Jungle Bob’s businesses involved organizing reptile shows for everyone from boy scouts to senior citizens. Since opening the store, he has continued to make appearances, but at the end of each show he hands out flyers for the the store. Last year alone he made 161 appearances.
"The Yankees played 162 ball games last year,” he said. "I did the same thing, but with no relief pitchers.”
The novel marketing approach has helped the business succeed where the previous two owners had failed.
"It was a real herpers store before,” he said. "People would come from all over the tri-state area just to check out the animals. But I told them, ‘You’re not just hanging here.’ We want to make this more family oriented.”
Though it’s Jungle Bob’s first crack at a retail shop, his business background has given him a leg up on the competition.
"First crack at a retail store in my life, but I’m not afraid of it,” he said. "I’m not coming from the ‘Wow, 30 years ago it was better than today’ [perspective]. I wasn’t around then. I wasn’t in this industry.
"I see a lot of my pet colleagues don’t have that kind of business background,” he continued. "I was in the computer business before. But whether you’re talking about light bulbs or $3,000 computer components, once you learn [business practices], you can apply them to any industry.”
Jungle Bob's welcoming front entrance. Courtesy Jungle Bob's Reptile World
Nonetheless, the shift to retail has been a challenge for Jungle Bob.
"Since we opened, my feet grew one entire shoe size,” he joked. "It’s nonstop action on your feet all day. Sure, you take days off here and there, but you’re really going seven days a week in retail.”
While the persistent schedule has been Jungle Bob’s biggest life change, his biggest challenge has been finding competent staff.
"A biz like mine tends to attract a younger employee,” he said. "I wish we had the revenue to attract a seasoned veteran.”
Still, the employees he has found have become knowledgeable workers. Jungle Bob said he’d pit his staff’s reptile knowledge against that of any other store. But he’s still looking for someone he could trust to manage an entire store.
"I’d venture I could open three more stores in the New York area in a year (with the right staff),” he said. "The model is successful, but I don’t have the horses to do that.”
Despite having three big-box pet stores within a two-mile radius of his store, Jungle Bob’s has thrived in part by staying in its niche.
"They have not really posed any threat competitively to what we do because we trounce them on this one subject: reptiles," he said. "There’s not a lot of reptile-only store competition in the area, though a couple of copycatters have popped up.”
Rather than expanding into different animals, Jungle Bob has focused on transforming his store into an entertainment destination. It started as a 2,000-square-foot retail store, but Jungle Bob annexed a 2,200-square-foot lot in the backyard and another 300-square-foot area that he turned into a gift shop that sells everything from wooden snake and lizard sculptures to fossils and bracelets.
"People who like reptiles generally like nature and biology in general,” Jungle Bob said. "The pet store is almost a destination now. Some people just come with the family to enjoy what’s here.”
During the summer months, Jungle Bob even operates a small snack bar for patrons who come for events, shows or just to feed the turtles that live out back. Jungle Bob has turned the store’s focus toward the live creatures and vivarium setups, trying to entice shoppers to create an environment space rather than just an animal in a fish tank setup.
Meeting Jungle Bob's desire to transform his store into an entertainment destination. Courtesy Jungle Bob's Reptile World
"Being in a niche is not a bad thing,” Jungle Bob said. "With everybody out there, you’re going to get slayed if you don’t have a huge capital budget. It’s been a great business decision to concentrate on one thing rather than trying to conquer all these markets.”
In addition to advertising through his appearances, Jungle Bob has tried several other forms of advertising with varying success.
"We’re in reptile-related magazines and national websites and some local ads, but we mostly stay away from print,” he said.
In 2012, Jungle Bob started an email campaign for those who signed up in the store, but didn’t enjoy a great deal of success. After that, he moved on to a text-message campaign but found people were reluctant to give out their number. Jungle Bob’s biggest success has come from social media.
At a Glance
Jungle Bob’s Reptile World
Location: Long Island, N.Y.
Owner: "Jungle” Bob Smith
Size: 4,500 square feet
Employees: 2 full-time, 7 part-time
Year in Business: 4
Products and Services Offered: Live reptiles and supplies, feeders, heaters, lights, bedding, tanks, reptile shows, guided travel.
"We went all in with social media, and at last count we had over 4,000 friends on Facebook,” he said. "We’ve adopted Twitter and have part-time people sending out tweets, and we’re also looking at Pinterest.”
At his most recent appearance at an elementary school, Jungle Bob asked the kids to hashtag any pictures with #junglebobs.
"I looked at my cell phone tonight and saw someone already had made a post,” he said. "It’s not viral yet, but it’s picking up speed.”
Social media is a new endeavor for Jungle Bob, but it’s one area where his relatively young workforce has come in handy.
"They do it like turning on the radio,” he said. "I’m not only learning about how to do it, but also about the effectiveness of it.”
Jungle Bob plans to stick with the social media strategy over the long haul.
"Spreading your money around in print is a death trap,” he said. "I haven’t found one [method] that can quantify the results like this social media business.”