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Sources report that pandemic-related supply issues are starting to clear up for live feeders.

The herp industry has faced many shakeups in the past six months, with most pet specialty retailers and manufacturers reporting strong sales growth and increased interest in the reptile and amphibian hobbies. Local independent pet stores are selling more live herps, and with livestock sales up, retailers are seeing herp food sales also increase.

But toward the end of 2020, retailers reported difficulties in sourcing some live food options. As a result, many herp hobbyists diversified their pets’ diets by adding both alternative live feeder options and prepackaged diets.

“If customers went to their local pet store and something wasn’t in stock, they may have gone with something that they normally wouldn’t feed, and they’ve discovered that their animals like it,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier of live food in Marion, Ill. “They’re less hooked on one staple feeder. They’ve diversified. We tell that story all the time. Diversify the diet. You’ve got staple feeders, and you’ve got supplemental feeders. People were just stuck with what they were comfortable with, and then, due to scarcity, sometimes they had to try something new.”

Availability issues persisted for some independents, while other retailers reported little or no impact from live food supply issues.

“We’ve had some problems with availability, but I have some long-term relationships with suppliers, and they’ve been pretty good about filling my orders,” said Adam Zweig, owner of Adam’s Pet Safari in Chester, N.J. “We’ve had people calling, sometimes five or six times a day, asking if we had crickets because they couldn’t find any. We’ve never been out.”

Some attributed the problems with availability to shipping issues related to the global pandemic.

“We’ve definitely had issues getting live foods in stock,” said Gavin Logan, manager of Custom Creatures Pet Shop in Phoenix. “Shipping problems caused by the coronavirus have definitely affected our ability to stock a lot of our different items.”

Other industry experts suggested the shortages might be due to restrictions in supply.

“There’s a shortage,” said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California. “I can’t get the amount of crickets that I need. It started with superworms. I used to get 30,000 to 40,000 a week per store. In total, I was going through 90,000 to 120,000 superworms a week. Right now, my suppliers are limiting me to only 5,000 per store.”

In some cases, crickets—universally considered the staple live food for herps with the highest sales volume, by far—were readily available, while other species were in short supply. However, now, supply shortages are starting to clear up.

“Crickets were never the problem,” said Alison Pelletier, co-owner of Curious Creatures, a reptile store in Chicago. “It was everything else. Dubia roaches, calcium worms, hornworms and silkworms were hard to find. All of the other staples feeder items that people like to have are finally available after months of not being able to get them in. We’re finally getting them [in] weekly now. But we’ll order thousands or more, and they’re gone within three or four days.”

While supply is starting to catch up, demand continues to be high for live foods.

“Some of the live feeders have very recently become available again,” Logan said. “Demand for dubia roaches is very high. I can’t ever keep them in stock.”

With retailers reporting very high sales of herps, live food sales have remained strong, and as supply issues slowly resolve, retailers have demonstrated the ability to deal with difficult conditions and grow business.

“Availability has been an issue mostly due to labor,” Pettit said. “Obviously, ridiculous growth has been difficult to keep up with for all live animals and feeders. … It’s just a little bit less difficult for a reptile shop that focuses solely on reptiles [to adjust] … where the systems that are in place at the larger stores don’t allow for that level of flexibility. Of all the retailers we deal with, some are more nimble than others. But retailers overall have been impressively nimble. There may have been a touch of a lag, but I think people realize very quickly how critical our inventory is to their overall foot traffic and total transactions.”

What’s Selling

A Diverse Mix

Live foods are still the dominant dietary option for most herps, industry experts reported. However, in some cases, prepackaged dietary offerings are selling better than they have in the past.

“Live food is still the king,” said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California. “I don’t ever see that changing, especially because pre-packaged foods are 200 to 300 percent more than what live foods cost. … As far as canned and alternative foods, I’ve probably started to sell more of that recently, but a lot of that’s because we’re pushing it because we are short on live food.”

Less mainstream options are more popular, as customers increasingly purchase foods in different formats.

“Black soldier fly larvae recently became more popular,” said Gavin Logan, manager of Custom Creatures Pet Shop in Phoenix. “We’ve had the canned soldier fly larvae, but live sales picked up recently.”

Alternative dietary supplements, such as live isopods, are growing in popularity among hobbyists as a supplementary food source and enclosure cleanup option.

“Isopods are a great seller,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a pet store in Lancaster, Pa. “At any given time we are offering eight different varieties for sale. These make a great snack [for herps], but, more importantly, they work as the cleanup crew in the tanks. Dubia roaches are the next best-sellers, followed by our four types of fruit flies. Crickets remain a staple, although we do try to encourage our customers to feed a variety to their herps, as a well-rounded varied diet is the healthiest you can offer.” 

The combination of supply shortages and retailer efforts to encourage healthful feeding has led to an increase in the number of hobbyists expanding the variety of foods they offer their herp pets.

“Customers are sometimes interested in the nutritional value of feeders,” Davis said. “We do have that information listed on our informative cards too. Most customers are just looking to offer a variety in order to cover all of the basics in nutritional needs.”

Interest in herp nutrition continues to grow, and retailers are supporting this trend for the good of the pets they sell.

“There are definitely more people that are looking for stuff with better nutritional content,” Giacoletti said. “That’s especially true for customers who are researching online. … I definitely think that’s driving interest in dubia roaches. Nutritionally, they are superior to crickets.”

Live Food Advantage

Turn Up the Volume

The number of pets retailers sell is tied to the volume of food sales, retailers reported. As sales of herps have trended higher, customers are purchasing live foods in greater volume.

“[We] definitely sold more reptiles and amphibians [last] year,” said Alison Pelletier, co-owner of Curious Creatures, a reptile store in Chicago. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in volume [food sales]. Before the pandemic started, we would maybe order roaches once a month. Now we have to do this weekly. Even then, within two or three days they’re gone. Customers come in, they pick up their limited amount, and we’re out again. This is something we have to keep ordering every single week.”

Independent pet retailers are uniquely situated to meet demand for both live pets and live foods, meaning that local shops stand to continue to gain more business and a reliable customer base, as few other sources for these dietary products offer the same benefits to customers.

“We don’t really see customers buying [live foods] online, because the cost of shipping live feeders is ridiculous,” Pelletier said. “Unless they’re bulk buying—which, depending on the feeder insects purchased, they’ll just die—people don’t want to have to deal with shipping live insects or buying so many at one time. A lot of people are still coming to us a little bit more frequently than they would like, but they know that they can get their feeder insects here.”

Some customers are buying in bulk online, though this is usually limited to those who are breeding herps, which is typically a small portion of any given store’s customer base, retailers reported.

“I’m still going through the same numbers [of live food sales], but you have to keep in mind that I’m getting new customers,” said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California. “Some people definitely are [buying live foods online]. Honestly, the only benefit of ordering online is ordering in bulk. A lot of the people who are breeders have always been buying online. I don’t sell as much bulk buying as I used to.”

For most customers, however, storing and caring for live feeders is too much trouble, and brick-and-mortar retailers have a distinct advantage when it comes to herp dietary sales because of this.

“Retailers recognize the value of [live feeders] a little bit more,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a live food supplier in Marion, Ill. “Even through the worst of the shutdowns, we kept a lot of foot traffic coming into stores. Primarily it’s because people can’t really stock their pantries with our products. You have to buy what you need when you need it. You can’t go and get four weeks of live food and bring it home and hope for success.”

Customer Service & Education

Premium Perception

Customers often associate independent pet stores with quality when it comes to live foods, industry experts reported. This isn’t necessarily due to the quality of the feeders on offer, but rather the attention to in-store care that more nimble local pet stores are able to provide.

“You can find really high-quality bugs at both independent pet stores and big-box stores,” said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a live food supplier in Marion, Ill. “It’s all about the source. It depends on where retailers are getting their live foods from. That said, in-store level of care matters. Care is very important. But if you start with a high-quality product, the likelihood that the end user customer is going to receive a high-quality product is much better.”

Some local pet retailers also have the advantage of moving a higher volume of live feeders through their doors, on average, which helps ensure foods are well taken care of and haven’t been sitting in stock for too long.

“We’re getting [live feeders] all from the same people, but if they have their crickets in-store for so long, and they’re not gut-loading into stuff, customers end up feeding a hollow exoskeleton to their pets,” said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California. “Because we go through crickets so fast, customers are getting a nice, healthy cricket.”

This often leads customers to think of local independent stores as sources of premium live feeders.

“Just from what I’ve heard from our customers, yes, they think of our feeders as definitely on a different level than … some of the [other retailers] in our area,” said Alison Pelletier, co-owner of Curious Creatures in Chicago. “People always say that our insects are just lively and healthier-looking than they’ve seen at other places.”

Offering superior communication and education is another reason customers often prefer to purchase herp dietary products from local independent pet retailers.

“We offer a lot of education about the importance of offering a variety, showing customers that some of the herps will accept the commercial canned and packaged foods as well as the live feeders,” said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place, a pet store in Lancaster, Pa. “We also merchandise some of our feeder foods, dubia food, cricket diets and hornworm foods alongside our live feeders, as most of our customers understand the importance of keeping the feeders gut-loaded and alive.”

The category is seeing growth, both in terms of live animal sales and related dietary sales. Independent pet retailers have stepped up to offer superior service and supply customers with the foods they need to keep their herps successfully.

“Overall, the reptile category is very healthy,” Pettit said. “There are a lot of really good people out there who’ve done a lot of really good things and overcome some insane challenges to keep it going. Unfortunately, some [retailers] didn’t make it, and others stepped up to occupy that space. It shows how our category is so resilient. Even in the grander scheme of things, we’re a smaller sliver of the pie, but we’re just as robust and nimble to be able to meet our customers’ demands, even in the worst of times.”