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Product Merchandiser Focus: Merchandising Live Animals

Posted: August 19, 2013, 1:00 p.m. EDT

Industry insiders weigh in on strategies for selling livestock.

By Hilary Daninhirsch

How much is that doggy in the window? Or that python in the vivarium? Or how about that cichlid in the illuminated aquarium? Though shops that sell live animals are not as commonplace as in decades past, many places remain where consumers can find their new best friend(s), and successful livestock merchandising depends upon many factors.

Courtesy of Cioli/I-5 Publishing

Place, Show and Win
Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., said one of his merchandising protocols is to sell the products necessary to care for every single type of fish he carries—everything from heaters to tanks to food.

Bob Smith, owner of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Centereach, N.Y., carries snakes, turtles, tortoises, amphibians and invertebrates, and makes it a point to carry necessary products in the animals’ enclosures, which are naturalistic vivariums and as close as you can get to the animals’ natural habitat, he said.

"We have a tremendous selection of natural wood, misters and foggers, and every cage is adorned with the products that we sell,” he said.

Placement of those accompanying products should be very deliberate, according to Chris Miller, president of Pacific Store Designs in Garden Grove, Calif.

"There is an 80 percent difference in sellability at eye level versus shin level. If we can get at eye level, there is more of a chance of selling it,” Miller said, adding that cages should not be any higher than five feet off the ground. Nonimpulse items, such as gravel and feeder fish, can be displayed lower.

Pleasing To All the Senses
Making the store visually appealing is a key element of merchandising live animals, insiders reported, particularly the visibility of the animals.

Regarding the animal enclosures themselves, a store "… has to have enough space around them or it will create a traffic stack, an artery plug, and you lose part of the usefulness of that store design,” Miller said, adding that providing larger aisles around the live animal section enables customers to spend more time there.

Store layout is a huge factor in Absolutely Fish’s merchandising success, Donston reported. While some tanks are at eye level, he intentionally places some above and some below, a concept he borrowed from Toys R Us.

"We have aquariums all over the place,” Donston said. "Once you’re in the door, you’re surrounded by fish. I’ve tried to create that feeling of quickly becoming enamored with the amount of fish swimming about you when you walk in the door.”

He also puts the tanks in "marine rows,” which are back-to-back rows designed to enable customers to see a fish that might be two to three tanks away.

The right lighting serves the dual purpose of making the animals visible and creating the right ambiance.

"Illumination at every level is important,” Miller said. He suggested using full-spectrum bulbs, which are healthier for the animals and give them a sense of night and day.

Focus on Staff and Customer Education

Educating consumers about the animal under consideration for purchase is crucial, retailers said, because no one wants the animal to go home to an ill-prepared household.

"We have a great reputation for delivering exceptional service when educating customers on what type of bird is best for them and their lifestyle,” said Omar Gonzalez, president of Omar’s Exotic Birds, with three locations in California. "Not all birds are for all people. Birds bond to humans as a mate, and we make sure the customers learn about their long life span and make sure they intend to keep this bird as long as it takes.”

Bob Smith of Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Centereach, N.Y., agreed.

"Before we sell, we like to educate not only on how to keep them, but also on their natural history and where they come from,” he said.

Staff education is of utmost importance in this pursuit to avoid passing along inaccurate information.

"I educate like there’s no tomorrow,” said Patrick Donston, the owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J. "Unequivocally that is the key—I can’t even emphasize how much it is the key. In today’s retailing world, if you don’t have a training protocol or methodology in place on what these animals are or how to sell the animals and the products that go with them, you’re doomed. Your success relies on that.”

Between brochures and pamphlets, speakers throughout the store and even while on hold on the telephone, Donston said he ensures all customers are making educated purchasing decisions.

Rebecca Smith, owner of Pet Works in Longview, Wash., stressed that her store is not focused on selling animals.

"We are out to create a bond with animals and an enriching experience for both the pet and the owner,” she said. "You are absolutely unable to do this without education.”

Setting the customer up for success with animal ownership is crucial, which includes education and teaching responsible pet ownership. For example, Chris Miller, president of Pacific Store Designs in Garden Grove, Calif. said he knows of a store that offers a "hamster camp,” where potential customers can learn about the animals before they buy them.—HD

"Have a background that shows off the animal,” Miller continued. "If the animals hide, you can’t see them, and you can’t sell them.”

For example, putting black mollies in a black tank is not a great idea, and a too-busy background inadvertently can camouflage the animal. On the other hand, an almost-empty tank looks like the store is out of stock or that something might be wrong with the fish.

While the store should be pleasing to the eye, it should not assault your sense of smell. Cleanliness and a good-smelling store are of utmost importance in keeping customers in the store and are therefore essential to merchandising tactics, retailers agreed.

Courtesy of Cioli/I-5 Publishing

"If you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t know you were in a reptile store,” Smith said of his establishment.

Regarding fish stores, Donston said it is imperative to have clear and algae-free tanks, as much for the health of the animal as for the presentation to customers. He echoed Miller’s statement that using a variety of lights to illuminate both the store and the tanks helps with the presentation as well.

Customer Involvement
Getting customers to linger is important for any store, retailers said, but the nature of live animals naturally lends itself to lengthier visits, particularly when visitors can interact with the animals. Animal interaction is proven to increases sales, Miller reported. For example, for stores that sell puppies, a "love room” can work well to let potential owners get to know the animal.

Omar Gonzalez is the president of Omar’s Exotic Birds, with three locations in California, and they recently opened a first franchise in San Diego. Omar’s carries all kinds of bird species, from finches and macaws to toucans and turacos. Bestsellers are African grey parrots and cockatiels, Gonzalez reported.

To create a customer-friendly space, Gonzalez said, "All our birds are in a cage-free environment, suspended on hanging play areas. This creates more interaction with customers.”

In addition to food and a huge variety of pet products, the Pet Works in Longview, Wash., sells fish, birds and small mammals, with an emphasis on baby guinea pigs. Owner Rebecca Smith said she allows the animals to be out of their cages, provided they are not stressed.

"We encourage the interaction with the pets, as long as we are available to assist,” she said. "We strive to create a fun and open environment. By always having cheerful and helpful staff, we encourage helping customers pick out and bond with any of our pets.”

Actually encountering the animals is the way to sell them, Smith said.

"We turned our pet store into a destination, which is what we encourage, because looking leads to buying,” he said. "We do have animals roaming the store, and any one of my nine staffers can be found holding a snake on his or her shoulder.”

Part of that destination is the Outback, a 2,500-square-foot elongated outdoor space in the backyard where folks can roam around a gardenlike nature center. The store’s flow leads customers to the outdoor space in addition to the huge sign that promotes such meandering.

"University students, scouts and camps come and experience Jungle Bob’s,” he said. "It’s really separated us from the pack. It turns a 10-minute stop into a 45-minute stay.”

Another indoor attraction at Jungle Bob’s is the "food court,” where customers can watch the animals at feeding time.

Merchandising Off Premises
Many pet store owners are well aware that not all merchandising takes place on store grounds. For example, Gonzales said he speaks at conferences and bird clubs.

Jungle Bob, too, has given more than 160 presentations, some at the Outback, but many off-premises, including schools, senior citizens homes and libraries.

Educational field trips to the stores are one form of merchandising that has proven to work well, often drawing children back into the store with a parent at a later date, retailers reported. Gonzales promotes such field trips at his store locations, and Donston hosts midnight madness sales, drawing in as many as 750 customers at once, along with week-long celebrations for Earth Week, while Pet Works hosts a reptile show at the store. <HOME>


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