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Sales in the reptile and amphibian categories continue to show growth, and live foods especially have helped support independent pet retailers. Supply challenges persist, industry insiders reported, but herp dietary products and live feeder sales are likely to be a boon for retailers’ business for some time.

The pet industry as a whole has benefited from increased demand and robust sales since the start of the pandemic, insiders noted. The herp category, in particular, has shown outsized growth and strong interest from new and existing customers alike, spurring sales of live feeders.

“All live feeders are selling really well,” said Megan Manginelli, manager for Reptile Mogul Exotics, a reptile store in Tempe, Ariz. “Dubia roaches are selling great right now. Once customers get used to them, they see how good of a feeder they can be. We’ve definitely seen some sales increase in the category as a whole.”

There has been a noticeable uptick in interest from new hobbyists who are younger, as well.

“A lot of our newer customers are kids,” said Robbie Whitter, owner of Midway Tropical Fish & Pets, a pet store in Kent, Wash. “That’s fun to see. For years, we’ve been losing younger hobbyists to games and phones and things like that. That’s where the money was going. Now, we’ve seen a real swing back in the direction of the hobby. Kids are getting back into something that they’re really interacting with.”

The strength is noticeable across the board, with herp product, livestock and feeder sales all heading higher.

“Our category as a whole—including both reptiles and live food—has been extremely strong, unprecedentedly strong,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier of live pet food based in Marion, Ill. “Our hobby tends to be one of the less financially intrusive hobbies to get into. It’s certainly easier than committing to a puppy. Plus, reptiles and herp food are available in pet stores. … You can still actually go into a pet shop and purchase a small animal or a reptile directly, in most cases. That put us in a unique position where the reptile hobby presented the smallest barrier to entry financially. Customers had enough money to jump in, the availability was there and the barriers to entry are low.”

Another issue that has supported live food sales for independents is the shift in availability from big-box stores.

“The thing is that the big-box stores shut down their live food offerings,” said John Fisher, owner of J&F Aquatics & Exotics, a pet store in Terrytown, La. “They weren’t getting stuff in for a long time. Now I think they’re trying to get into the segment, and they’re having trouble.”

In many cases, this left independent pet retailers as the only viable source for necessary live food purchases.

“It puts stress on us having to absorb demand from everyone else coming from the superstores, but that is fine with me,” Whitter said. “I’m happy to see them all. I think a lot of these customers will stay with us now. That’s a good thing for us.”

Live food sales and herp dietary product sales in general have been extremely helpful for independent pet retailers’ businesses in the past six months.

“I would caution [everyone] against thinking that [live food] isn’t important for the big guys as it is for the independents,” Pettit said. “I’ve heard from several independents, and others as well, who said, ‘Thank God for live foods. They’ve kept our lights on when it got really tough.’ It emphasizes how critical our category is. It’s a small thing that doesn’t cost a lot, even though it drives so much revenue. The pandemic has caused a lot of people to recognize that, in the grander scheme of things, our product is robust, it provides revenue, it brings in foot traffic that also generates additional revenue, and it’s a critical anchor of the business. It should be an anchor of the business that brings revenue you can count on if you do it the right way.”

Sales Trends

Diets Remain a Staple

Live feeder species continue to dominate the herp dietary segment.

“The live food segment is doing very well,” said Robbie Whitter, owner of Midway Tropical Fish & Pets in Kent, Wash. “I think the herp segment is back. It used to be doing really well, and anyone who has been involved [in the segment] knows that it goes through phases. There was a time when it was going like crazy, and then it went by the wayside for a while. … Live foods have given us a competitive advantage, especially because [some competitors] don’t want to carry them.”

Hornworm sales have been strong, Whitter stated, but crickets continue to be his biggest seller. He also does very well with king worm sales, he noted.

Crickets are universally the best-sellers, retailers reported, though strong demand has led to some adding new species as well.

“Sales have been pretty good across the board,” said Megan Manginelli, manager for Reptile Mogul Exotics, a reptile store in Tempe, Ariz. “Crickets are always going to be the best-sellers. But dubia roaches are also becoming very popular. Hornworm sales have increased a little bit, just because previously we didn’t have hornworms and now we do.”

Most retailers outsource for live feeder insects, though some raise their own feeder rodents.

“Crickets, dubia roaches and super mealworms are our best-sellers,” said John Fisher, owner of J&F Aquatics & Exotics, a pet store in Terrytown, La. “I just now started to offer hornworms. I sell a lot of pinkies. I raise them myself. I used to do feeder rodents when I was breeding my snakes. Now I just sell them in the shop.”

Demand has been strong, and customers are looking to find feeder insects anywhere they can.

“Food is something that our pets always need,” said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Franklin, Wis.-based Zilla, a brand of Central Garden & Pet. “While store closings and shorter hours can affect when customers can make it in, people are adjusting to get the required foods for their pets. Online orders have increased as well with boxes of crickets being shipped to people’s homes.”

There’s a rush of demand for live food products, and retailers have benefited with the explosion in interest from customers.

“Live foods are a draw that not many other segments benefit from,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier of live pet foods based in Marion, Ill. “That constant need for a perishable, consumable item really did a lot to help retailers during the pandemic. All of the retailers I’ve spoken with have emphasized that business is going up and that live food sales are essential.”

Stocking Herp Diets

Supply Shortages

Several factors have created supply problems in the herp category, including with the dietary segment. Between independent retailers becoming the outlet of last resort, producers not having foods in stock, and growing demand from customers, retailers have had to work to meet everyone’s needs.

“We have had some issues getting product in stock,” said Megan Manginelli, manager for Reptile Mogul Exotics, a reptile store in Tempe, Ariz. “It’s been a little bit harder. Distributors can’t keep up with [demand]. I’m sure everyone honestly also feels the same way about that. Getting live feeder insects has been more difficult for everybody to find.”

Many retailers have had to switch suppliers, and in some cases, buying in bulk has presented its own challenge.

“I’m always having problems, but I changed to a couple of different suppliers,” said John Fisher, owner of J&F Aquatics & Exotics, a pet store in Terrytown, La. “So now I go to a few places and haven’t had as much of a problem. Mealworms are about the hardest to source. We used to buy them in bulk where we could package them for ourselves. Now, suppliers are limiting the numbers we can purchase, and doing the packaging themselves.”

Regional availability may affect what retailers are able to find locally.

“When it comes to live food items, we haven’t had the problems that the big-box stores have had,” said Robbie Whitter, owner of Midway Tropical Fish & Pets, a pet store in Kent, Wash. “The only problems that we have had resulted from big-box stores not having stuff, and everyone ended up coming here to get things. … We’ve been able to get most everything with no problem at all. We’ve had crickets, mealworms, blackworms, all that stuff we’ve been able to get.”

Dry and prepared diets are still widely available, but most herp species rely on live feeders to thrive.

“Dry foods in the reptile hobby are a small fraction of the foods eaten by our pets,” said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Franklin, Wis.-based Zilla, a brand of Central Garden & Pet. “Live foods make a much larger percentage of the foods our pets eat. With everyone at home and caring for their pets, as well as purchasing new ones, the need for feeders has grown exponentially. Live food companies are struggling to keep up with demand.”

While this reflects the experience many independent retailers reported, live feed providers are working to ensure they can meet market demand.

“Production has not necessarily been an issue for us,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier of live pet foods in Marion, Ill. “Talking about the industry as a whole, supply is restricting demand a little bit right now. Until supply catches up with demand a little bit, we won’t really know what the actual new normal is. There aren’t shortages. There’s just not as much extra as everybody wants.”

Timberline’s emphasis has been on helping customers meet their needs, Pettit added.

“We spent a lot of time helping our customers get through this, and emphasizing that we’re going to do everything we can through the toughest of times this farm has ever been through,” Pettit said. “We’re going to lock arms with our partners and do the best that we can, even if there are some blips on the radar with supply issues because of increased demand or, quite honestly, because of labor challenges related to COVID. It is what it is. Our customers certainly appreciated that. There have been some challenges out there, and we try to do our best to take care of our customers. … We’re just happy to be a part of helping them survive, and then springboard from survival into crazy success.”

Consumer Education

Sharing Knowledge Drives Sales

This year has seen many new customers enter the hobby, pet specialty retailers reported, and many stores have had to focus on education to help drive success.

“I don’t really use nutritional handouts or anything like that,” said Robbie Whitter, owner of Midway Tropical Fish & Pets, a pet store in Kent, Wash. “We tell people what they need and what they can get. A lot of customers rely on [the] internet to learn about what is available. The only problem is, I always tell customers that what they’re reading online is someone’s experience. It doesn’t always mean that’s the right way. We see that a lot with people who come in. I know a lot of Petco and PetSmart stores offer care sheets. I don’t do that. Most of my sales staff are competent to handle it.”

Most retailers rely on establishing a relationship with customers, and that means starting a dialogue to educate them about proper herp nutrition.

“Each animal has its own unique care requirements,” said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med Labs, a manufacturer of exotic pet foods and supplies in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “Retailers should make sure their employees … can help answer dietary questions.”

The company offers Zoo Med University, which provides free online training courses for store associates, Rademacher stated. It also provides animal care sheets, and customers can call Zoo Med’s customer service team directly to help answer dietary questions.

There are several sources retailers can use to gather educational materials, industry insiders said.

“Our website is not designed to sell anything,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier of live pet foods in Marion, Ill. “It’s designed to educate. Thankfully, a couple other big players out there have been focusing on proper husbandry … and obviously diversification of the diet, proper supplementation when needed, staple feeders and supplemental feeders, and also recommend keeping it as natural as possible, which means offering live food. That’s why we see so much more success among hobbyists.”