Herps Still High on the Heap
Selling reptiles and related products in the economic downturn can continue working.
By Petra Spiess
Although the U.S. economy has recently had its share of woes, consumers are still interested in herps and herp products. Several different trends are apparent in herp enclosures and accessories and herp sales, and in the methods retailers use to deal with challenging economic conditions.
Enclosure and Other Products
The trend in naturalistic enclosures is continuing, prompting sales in natural-looking substrates, such as coconut fiber, and decorative elements, such as mosses. James Brumley, owner of the Exotic Reptile & Amphibian Center in St. Louis, has noticed there are more vivariums now and that customers are using live plants.
Enclosures well suited to these displays are also popular, such as the glass front-opening enclosures. These enclosures are used in an unusual way at the Exotic Reptile & Amphibian Center.
“We turn them around and paint the front; we use the front as the back and the back becomes the display,” Brumley says.
Customer interest in naturalistic enclosures means greater demand for natural-looking water dishes, hiding spots and water features, such as waterfalls and the pumps to create those effects.
Many herp retailers are still doing brisk business with glass aquariums. Mike Faglie, manager of Herpeton Exotic Pets in Austin, Texas, says customers are drawn to this old standby because they are cost efficient.
The general green trend in animal products has extended to the herp market, with popularity of environmentally friendly enclosure-cleaning products and substrates made from renewable or waste sources, such as wood pulp.
Tips for Herp Retailers
• Breed your own animals; it lowers costs.
• Offer package deals that are slightly discounted.
• Have a booth at local reptile shows.
• Have a website or sell online in addition to a retail store.
• Set up impressive display vivariums in store.
Oldies are still goodies in the live animal herp market. The most popular herps are the small, more docile animals, such as bearded dragons, leopard geckos, ball pythons and corn snakes, says Brian Robenhorst, manager at Reptile Emporium & Aquatic Center in Highland, Ind.
The prices of interesting morphs of popular species, such as albino leopard geckos and ball pythons, have now come down enough so retailers can offer some of these more specialized animals in store. These different, pricey morphs can draw a more sophisticated hobbyist.
Brumley says different small lizards for vivariums are also popular, as are other herps that work well for naturalistic displays, such as day geckos and dart frogs.
Many retailers are cutting costs by breeding their own animals, which they can then sell both retail and wholesale. Brumley says that method is the only thing that’s kept his store alive.
“Lots of people want to open a reptile shop, and I’ve told them all the same thing: You can’t make it just buying things and reselling them,” he says. “There’s not enough of a markup and too many expenses. Anything you can produce on your own is going to help because you can sell them a lot cheaper, and it reduces animals taken out of the wild.”
Robert Bissell, co-owner of Auburn Reptile Co. in Auburn, Calif., says he produces many of the bearded dragons he sells in his retail store.
“Cost on everything is going up,” he says. “The fact that we’re breeding a lot of animals lowers our cost.”
The downturn in the U.S. economy over the past year has been felt by many herp retailers.
“I’ve had this outlet open for 20 years, and we’ve had bumps in the road before, but this is probably the worst impact,” Robenhorst says.
Not all retailers are having the same problem, however.
“We are busier than usual,” Faglie says. He attributes this to the economic stimulus checks sent out by the government.
Faglie also points out another possible plus for pet retailers in the down economy.
“People can’t afford the gas to go on vacation, so they’re staying home and buying their kids animals,” he says.
Robenhorst sees another decidedly negative trend in the herp market.
“The trend I see is a lot of legislation and negative spin on reptiles,” he says.
The Farm Act has become a popular way for the federal government to regulate pet industry-related issues. Last year, an amendment to the Farm Act calling for the determination of the “prevalence of salmonella in each species of reptile and amphibian sold legally as a pet in the United States” could have effectively banned the sale of all reptiles and amphibians. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council opposed this amendment, and it was removed before Congress approved the final version of the bill.
This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a Notice of Inquiry seeking biological and economic information about captive snakes in the genera Boa, Python and Eunectes. These genera contain a large number of commonly kept and bred snake species in the commercial reptile trade.
The USFWS explained that it is evaluating the potential environmental impact of captive snakes in these genera if irresponsible keepers release them into the wild, since released Burmese pythons have become an issue in parts of Florida. Although this does not mean a ban is imminent, it is a process retailers should be aware of.
“This [legislation limiting reptile keeping] is probably the biggest problem in the whole pet industry, because some knucklehead could let something go and it could become a problem,” Robenhorst says.
Although herp sales can be challenging, Robenhorst summarizes the state of the industry well.
“If you love what you do, you make it work,” he says. <HOME>
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