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Herp Marketplace: Tales from the Cage

Posted: March 19, 2012, 7:30 p.m. EST

A fascination with reptiles moved the owner of Hoffmann’s, a Northern California retailer, to phase out cats, dogs and birds and focus on the breeding, boarding and support of the species he loves: reptiles.

Perhaps Oprah Winfrey said it best: “Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

Dan and Joyce Hoffmann understand the magnitude of this emotion when it comes to business success and longevity. Indeed, the resilience of Hoffmann’s Reptiles in Concord, Calif., can be attributed to their love of animals, particularly reptiles, and their motivation.

The year was 1980 and Dan Hoffmann, a pipefitter by trade in an era of economic uncertainty, was ready to segue into something new. When the couple’s favorite bird store needed someone to assume its lease, Hoffmann came home and told Joyce they were opening a pet store.

Hoffmann's Reptiles
Half of the space at Hoffmann’s is dedicated to the sale of reptiles and supplies. At the rear of the store is a workshop and reptile breeding and boarding facility. Crystal Apilado/BowTie Inc.

“I was a young kid,” he said. “I just thought, ‘If you do it, it works.’ I didn’t realize until I was an adult that it doesn’t usually work out like that, but in this case it did.”

Initially, the couple envisioned exotics as a specialty, but a California ban on possession of such animals precluded that offering, and instead raccoons, chinchillas, parrots, cats and dogs were part of the mix.

In those early days, getting the word out to potential customers was accomplished using the Hoffmanns’ pet raccoon and Shetland sheepdog companion.

“It was perfectly legal to sell raccoons back then, so we kept one for ourselves and brought the sheltie home to play with it,” he said.

As the unusual pair settled in, Dan Hoffmann began traveling the three miles to the shop each day on his motorcycle, the small dog nestled in Hoffmann’s coat while the raccoon held on behind, tethered to his belt.

“She only let go once,” he recalled. “I just swung her back up in place and she never let go again. She loved riding.”

Dan Hoffman
A pipefitter by trade, Dan Hoffmann found a new career as owner of Hoffmann’s Reptiles in Concord, Calif. Crystal Apilado/BowTie Inc.

Along with dog and raccoon, Hoffmann carried business cards.

“When I’d pull up at a stoplight, people really looked and I’d reach over and hand them a card,” he said. “That really helped business.”

Forays into other Bay Area cities garnered more attention, and business flourished.

In addition to the distinctive approach, Hoffmann placed cards on public bulletin boards and advertised in multiple Yellow Pages directories.

The full-line pet store was just beginning its evolution.

“The first thing to go was the birds,” he said. “Every time the phone rang the birds would go off and flap their wings and throw their dander and seeds all over.”

Eventually, Hoffmann’s fascination with reptiles took center stage, and after two years the other animals were phased out to allow him to concentrate on that facet of the business.

Today, the old downtown store devotes more than half of its 1,700 square feet to a back room consisting of a workshop and a reptile breeding and boarding facility. The smaller front area focuses on reptile sales and supplies. 

Philosophy of Resilience
A sign posted in Hoffmann’s Reptiles in Concord, Calif., presents this maxim by an unknown author, succinctly summing up the philosophy of the store and its owners:

“When you purchase an animal, you incur the responsibility. You literally hold its life in your hands. The value of an animal’s life may be open to interpretation, but one thing is certain: It wants to remain alive. Are you prepared to accept that responsibility?”

Dan Hoffmann’s strong belief in customer education reflects this credo, and he and his staff spend a great deal of time with each customer, explaining the proper care of their charges.

“We go over things people might take for granted,” he said. “We make sure we are very clear, and we follow up.”

To maintain this crucial component and ensure his store’s success, Hoffmann looks for employees who are knowledgeable, passionate and communicative.

“If somebody comes in saying they are willing to learn, that really means they haven’t done reptiles before and don’t really have an interest in them,” he said. “You have to be passionate about reptiles.”

Hoffmann reaches out to the community by providing presentations in schools. Students are introduced to reptiles, and each 45-minute appearance is tailored to the students’ ages. An incubator often is brought along, allowing an upclose look at the hatching process.

For those wishing to offer herps in a retail environment, Hoffmann noted a relatively small field of interest. Demographics and competition should be taken into consideration when choosing a store’s location, he said.

“Customers visit a reptile store to see, feel and touch the animals,” he noted. “But if there are too many stores in an area, there is not enough [of a clientele] for anybody to survive.”

He attributes the success of Hoffmann’s Reptiles to his passion, his emphasis on education and to his wife, Joyce.

“She gives 150 percent to the business,” he said.

Word of mouth supports referral business, and an email and Web presence go a long way toward luring customers.

“Here in Concord we are really established,” Hoffmann noted. “You can talk to three people and at least two know about us or have been here before.”

He has adapted to trends and demands over the years. In the ’80s and early ’90s, larger snakes were in vogue and he bred Burmese pythons. But over time, some of those snakes were being turned loose in a local park or left behind in vacated apartments. The fire and police departments would call to request Hoffmann’s rescue services.

“I knew they were babies that I’d produced, so I stopped breeding them,” he said. “Nobody really wants the big ones these days. They might take a 6-foot boa.”

At one time, Hoffmann raised about 70 percent of what was sold in the store. Today it’s about 25 percent, and Hoffmann noted that purchasing live inventory is more cost-effective than maintaining the parent year-round.

Interest in reptiles among 20-somethings has somewhat lessened, Hoffman noted, while families with children in the 7- to 14-year-old range are his most enthusiastic clientele.

Pet humanization has crept into the reptile world as well, he reported.

“I don’t name mine, but people always name them,” he said. “Some take them to the grocery store or even into the shower.”

Hoffmann has been building cages since the store opened. The Reprite, available in large, medium and small, has wood on three sides, a glass front for viewing, and a solid top that can be closed to retain heat and humidity. Lights are mounted inside the cage for energy efficiency.

“People are always having problems keeping screened aquariums warm enough,” he said. “My cages are climatized on the inside and keep the heat and humidity in.”

Up to 50 cages at a time are constructed using standard molds. However, Hoffmann does not do custom work.

“The calibrations would not be right everytime if we were doing custom sizes as far as air exchange and humidity retention,” he noted.

As an added service, Hoffmann’s Reptiles will clean and inspect the cages it sells and include a free health check. Because the fee is low, some customers use the service several times a year.

“It gives us a chance to check on the animal and make sure everything is going well,” Hoffmann said.

Reprite owners also get a 50 percent discount when boarding their pet.

“We give the discount as an encouragement to customers to set up their animals correctly,” he said.

Hoffmann also manufactures and rebuilds turtle tanks. His custom-made platforms allow turtles to climb out and bask.

One of the larger animals sold at Hoffmann’s Reptiles is this Argentine black and white tegu, which may reach 3 to 4 feet in length at maturity. Crystal Apilado/BowTie Inc.

“That way they don’t have something that is stacked up from the bottom, taking up all the room in the turtle tank,” he said.

Customers in the market for herps are treated to an array of lizards, geckos, monitors, frogs, water turtles, land tortoises and a wide variety of snakes. Tarantulas are also in the mix.

Live food offerings include crickets, worms, red worms, nightcrawlers, rats, mice and rabbits.

“A customer might buy one animal every two years, but if they are a multi-animal household, they are buying food weekly,” Hoffmann said. “That’s what keeps every pet store going--the return business.”

Likewise, maintenance necessities he sells include a broad selection of heat lamps, night lights, day lights, ultraviolet lights and several types of bedding materials.

“People come to us for supplies,” he said.

Looking into the future, Hoffmann envisions another 15 years in the business, at which point he hopes to sell to someone who has the same values and traditions.

“We have never wanted to have multiple locations,” he commented. “We want to keep that personal connection, and the only way to do so is with a hands-on, one-on-one relationship with our customers.”


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Herp Marketplace: Tales from the Cage

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Reader Comments
Dear Lizett: Best article about us EVER!!! You took the information we gave you and summed us up in a nutshell. If I were a potential customer I would drive a million miles just to check us out!
Thank You!
Joyce Hoffmann
Joyce, Concord, CA
Posted: 3/22/2012 9:46:51 PM
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