Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has stores in Southern California

Claudia Hunka, owner of Your Basic Bird in Berkeley, Calif.

Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa.

Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World and the Aqua Shoppe in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC)

Pet Product News: How did your business cope with the challenges of 2020? What are your thoughts regarding the pandemic’s effects on the wider exotics industry, and what do you see for independent, local pet stores going forward? 

Chris Giacoletti: The coronavirus had many impacts on my business. It was a double-edged sword. In the beginning of 2020, during the initial quarantine phase, everybody was home and I think all the kids were driving their parents crazy, so the parents went out and bought pets for them.

It was like Christmas everyday for a long while. We were selling three to four times as many animals as normal. For the first four to five months of the virus we cut our hours, and we are only letting people up to the counter to order what they need. We are not allowing people to just browse, which is hard because we lose a lot of the impulse buying.    

Claudia Hunka: When the shelter-in-place orders took effect, the most immediate impact on our business came from the bird-boarding cancellations. Our second challenge was to figure out how to maintain social distance and still allow customers to meet our birds and other animals. We found that scheduling any visitation by appointment would allow us to plan for these visits. We are very fortunate that four of our five employees have worked during the shutdown, and two seasonal staff have been willing to take on part-time hours.

In this time of uncertainty, it is safer for customers to rely on their independent local pet and bird stores for their companion animals. We have been informed by at least 10 individuals who sent money for birds they were purchasing on the internet that they were scammed out of thousands of dollars. Community support for a local independent pet retailer is critical for our success.

Stacy M. Davis: The 2020 coronavirus negatively impacted many areas of our business, including the availability of livestock and dry goods. The shortages and vendor-mandated limits continue in both areas, and we’ve been forced to bring in substitute products for many of our standard dry goods. We’re ordering brands that we never carried so that we have something on the shelves in all categories.

We are seeing higher demand as well, which makes the shortage even worse. Many pet owners bought new pets and needed housing, while existing pet owners were upsizing their enclosures. 

Jim Seidewand: It was important to be designated an essential business. I give [the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council] PIJAC all the credit for a strong national push for stores to be labeled essential. Overall, sales remain at record levels.

PPN: What’s the role of livestock sales and live food sales in your business model? How has that changed in the recent past, and how do you think it will continue to change in the future?  

Giacoletti: About two months into the pandemic, we were starting to be affected by livestock shortages. Not only were animals harder to find, [but] prices starting going way up. Some animals that I normally would pay $15 for were now $45. Many of my wholesalers who I have bought from for many years were now limiting animals weekly, where they would never have a limit under normal circumstances. A typical order that would normally take two weeks to fill was taking two months or more to arrive.

We also had to struggle with shortages on feed. The more people have pets, the more need to feed them. We would normally go through say 60,000 superworms a week, and then [distributors] would limit us to 5,000 a week . … With rodent and feeder insect shortages, we’ve seen a lot of backyard breeders producing and selling them via social media outlets, which not only takes away business from us, but likely compromises the health and quality of the feeders being produced.

Hunka: Being able to offer birds and small animals is extremely important to our business model. When we send an animal home, we can ensure that our customer receives the best care and follow-up information about the animal they are taking home. The correct size and design of cage, perches, toys and diets are what we are able to provide for their new animal.

Some species of birds are becoming less available because of the maturing of breeding-age birds. Also, many people who have been raising birds are retiring from their hobby. We try to meet this demand by putting customers on waiting lists for birds, even parakeets and cockatiels. With people being at home more, the interest and appreciation for companionship in birds has increased greatly.

Davis: Reptiles sales are strong, birds sales gained some ground and small-mammal sales continue to grow. All segments in the exotics category are showing growth. … We’ve had some issues with live food availability, but we have secured new suppliers for livestock and live feeders. We prefer to buy locally raised reptiles, birds and small animals, and we have found a few new suppliers. 

I believe those raising feeders have started to bulk up their breeding colonies, and we should see the supply catch up with the demand faster than we will see our dry goods catch up to the demand.

Seidewand: Live animals are always a strong draw for customers. We need to emulate a miniature zoo that adds to the experience of visiting the store. Pet owners don’t get that personal experience on the web. I don’t think that will ever change. … We’ve always featured live foods for many animals, but [in 2020] we found a few more items to add, as live food sales are a big source of store traffic. I’d also note that live foods were one strong argument in making pet stores “essential” in the pandemic.

PPN: What trends are you see developing in the exotics segment? What are people interested in?

Giacoletti: I opened my first location back in 1994, and it’s funny to me that what people wanted then and what they want today are very similar. Most of the people that come in that are new to reptiles want what someone else they know has since they are somewhat familiar with it. I don’t think people realize that we have more than 300 animals in our store, and once they get one, it seems that they are open to getting something different. 

Bearded dragons, leopard geckos, crested geckos, corn snakes, ball pythons, and turtles and tortoises are the main staples that everybody wants. Ball pythons in particular have exploded over the past several years. There are so many morphs now, it’s hard to keep up with.   

Hunka: People are working more from home, and with this change in lifestyle, they are spending more time with their birds. This makes them more aware of the need for enrichment in their birds’ lives. They want more foraging toys to keep their bird mentally engaged and off of their Zoom meeting. Freestanding play trees are in higher demand so their bird is not always perching on them when out of its cage. Being at home more has also increased interest in wild bird watching, feeding and care. We have seen a 30 percent increase in wild bird supplies sales.

Davis: People are interested in animals that can be set up in natural-looking terrariums with live plants and a running water feature. They want something that is attractive enough to display in their main living area. Small animals remain strong, and more owners see the need for having companions for some of the small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs, buying more than one at a time.

Seidewand: Being home more, people are looking for good pets to share with their kids. Pets are a great way to add to a child’s experience and sense of responsibility. While small-animal sales have boomed, I see birds as also having a comeback. Not many stores are still featuring the avian segment. We carried them years ago, but with interest rising, it offers an opportunity, if we can find enough livestock to do that. We’ve even started to breed some birds in-store to help keep a basic selection.

PPN: Where do you see growth in the exotics segment? How does the hobby and business stand out compared to other segments of the pet industry, especially right now?

Giacoletti: I see the reptiles and amphibians segment of the pet industry growing. It has ever since we opened our doors. Many people now are trying something new, so having a unique pet such as a reptile is attractive. Most reptile pet owners don’t have just one, but several. With the whole COVID thing happening, I believe people who didn’t have pets needed something to keep them occupied and also have something to take their minds off everything that is going on. Now that they have tasted that, I don’t see them getting rid of their reptiles, but adding further to their collection. 

Hunka: We are seeing growth in interest among young individuals between 8 and 12 years old. They’re looking for birds that they are able to handle, including parakeets, cockatiels, parrotlets and conures. This is where an independent store offers a huge advantage for customers, because we know the age of the birds and offer birds with better handling potential. If the relationship with this first bird is successful, it can lead to a greater compassion for how remarkable birds are. Most of these individuals would be interested in a larger bird, but the costs or expertise of working with a larger bird are not appropriate.

Davis: Many of our smaller avian breeders cut back on breeding when the pandemic started. Everyone was unsure what was to come, which impacted their spending on new pets. At first, people started to hoard supplies for their current pets, but there wasn’t much going on with new pet purchases. The big change occurred when the stimulus checks came out and time passed as more people were spending a tremendous amount of time in their homes. New pet purchases skyrocketed in all categories, but our breeders had cut back, leaving us with low supply and increased demand in all segments of exotic pets.

Seidewand: In small animals, we’ve seen strong growth in interest for ferrets, guinea pigs and hamsters. Ferrets sales are double 2019’s sales, and demand is even higher as ferret producers scramble to increase production. But I see a real opportunity in birds as they are recovering broader interest after years of softening. What’s holding birds back is very weak availability. Cockatiels in particular have been in very short supply. •