Décor Goes Natural

When it comes to herp terrarium décor items, the more realistic looking they are, the better. Customers want products that are as close to the real thing as possible, and, increasingly, they are making repeat visits to pet specialty shops to update their setups with new items. 

Industry insiders report that the hobby is focused almost exclusively on naturalistic offerings. 

"Everyone wants natural décor," said Aron Morrison, owner of Reptile Room in Hayward, Calif. "The plants are getting better. They’re looking more naturalistic."

The Fluker’s and Pet-Tekk lines sell well for Morrison, he noted. He also likes The Hagen Group and Zoo Med offerings, which he said do well in-store.

The design of these products is improving all the time, with plants appearing more realistic with each new product release, said Trace Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas.

"Natural décor is the most popular type of décor by far," Campbell said. "I dedicate a lot of space for them. It’s something every hobbyist has to have. If you’re going to keep a snake, for example, it has to have a place to hide. We dedicate a lot of space to hides." 

Many of these items serve both an aesthetic and a functional role for hobbyists, and selection is only increasing. 

"Décor items look like they fit into the habitat more naturally and seamlessly," said Jonas Sternberg, owner of Sierra Fish and Pets in Renton, Wash. "That’s where the industry has improved. Before, [décor items] looked like a piece of decorative material to put in the tank; a lot of them have advantages now. Manufacturers are incorporating bowls and ways for the animal to feed. They’re killing two birds with one stone." 

Many manufacturers cater to this demand, and several lines sell very well, retailers reported.

"Zoo Med’s always a strong line," said Eric Majors, owner of Seven Seas Pet Store in Jasper, Ind. "Exo Terra has some pretty nice looking stuff out there. Realistic cactus products have sold very well for us. Zoo Med has their artificial cactus pieces that look nice. We stick with mostly name brands."

While some herp species aren’t as suited to heavily decorated terrarium setups, either due to their size or propensity to move things around in their enclosure, many species appreciate multiple hide options and cover from décor. 

"With the smaller animals, there’s definitely a move toward naturalistic décor," said Adam Zwieg, owner of Adam’s Pet Safari in Chester, N.J. "Natural-looking décor is very popular, at least for the animals suited to that kind of enclosure."

Décor items also tend to offer a fairly strong profit margin for retailers, Campbell said.

"We do well with everybody, from Zoo Med to Zilla and Hagen," he said. "We carry everything. We do a lot of reptile business." 

Cozy Quarters

The push in the industry has been to produce ever-more-realistic décor items, especially in the form of artificial plants, rock hides and bowls. 

"Hagen and Zilla have really stepped their game up with reptile décor," said Trace Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. "Zilla has some new rock hides that look pretty good. Hagen has rock hides, and its stoneware dishes do very well."

Today’s offerings feature increasingly greater detail, and innovative design features help customers set up new terrariums more easily or incorporate new décor into existing setups. 

"Galapagos Pet has this bark with moss on it," said Adam Zwieg, owner of Adam’s Pet Safari in Chester, N.J. "I just got it in a week ago. … It’s almost all natural. A lot of [it is made from] resin that’s made to look natural. There are some advantages. It’s easier to clean."

Pet-Tekk added realistic-looking orchids and succulents to its MagNaturals line in the past six months, said Scott Wenguer, president of the Van Nuys, Calif.-based company.

"They come in groups so that it looks natural," he said. "These are mounted on a real piece of grapevine. Some have magnets so hobbyists can put them wherever they want."  

The Pet-Tekk line performs well for Aron Morrison, owner of Reptile Room in Hayward, Calif. Customers like the functionality of current décor offerings, he added. 

Industry participants predict that innovation in the category will continue.

"We just got back from the Phillips 2017 Southern Buying Show [in late September]," said Eric Majors, owner of Seven Seas Pet Store in Jasper, Ind. "Deep Blue is getting into more of the terrarium stuff. Zoo Med is always on top of it. They’re trying to make more realistic-looking items. I really expect to see more live plants down the road."

Aspirational Displays

Because terrariums are inherently visual, it’s generally best to let décor items themselves draw customers’ attention to the shelves rather than attempt to rely on signage, retailers reported.

"My experience with signage is, three-quarters of people never even read the signs when you make them up," said Adam Zwieg, owner of Adam’s Pet Safari in Chester, N.J. "Putting décor items where customers will see them seems to be the best way to go."

Décor sells itself, said Trace Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. 

"People come in and that’s something they want to shop for," Campbell said. "They want to put a hide with a bowl and see how it’s going to look. They mix and match, and spend a lot of time putting that stuff together."

Forgoing signage in favor of displays might have other benefits as well. Some retailers use displays as a way to offer deals to customers or help push specific items.  

"I generally try to put décor items on the shelves like any other product," said Eric Majors, owner of Seven Seas Pet Store in Jasper, Ind. "I’m not really good at signage. I’ve tried everything. You could probably put a ‘30 percent off’ sign on terrarium plants, but if you don’t have them displayed right, I don’t know if you’ll sell them or not." 

Majors uses displays with live animals and décor items to help pique customer interest and drive sales.

"Every two or three months, if I can find a product on sale, I’ll build a terrarium and set it next to the product," he said. "We try to switch stuff out and mark it down." 

Other retailers set up terrariums without any reptiles or amphibians inside. The goal is to display the décor without having to deal with the maintenance involved in housing live animals in a terrarium. 

"You have to have tanks set up," said Scott Wenguer, president of Pet-Tekk in Van Nuys, Calif. "I used to have a retail store. We did very well with reptiles. I would set up a 20-gallon tank, a lot of times with no animal inside. That way, it doesn’t get messy and everything’s brand new. … It’s a visual hobby. People are visual, and people want natural-looking stuff."

It can be effective to set up a display terrarium featuring a live herp, and then offer and merchandise a prearranged kit including all the supplies used in the display. 

"A lot of times what I’ve done with crested geckos, for instance, is we’ll set up a little display with a gecko, and we’ll have that same exact kit made up without the crested gecko in it, and we’ll sell that ready to go," Majors said. "It’s a turnkey option. That works better than anything."

The Sweet Spot

Every market is different, and pet specialty retailers need to know their customer base well enough to discern what items will fall within the "sweet spot" when it comes to pricing for herp terrarium décor, reported industry participants.

"There’s that $24.99 or less sweet spot," said Scott Wenguer, president of Pet-Tekk in Van Nuys, Calif. "People will spend $25 on a nice plant. [Retailers also need] the stuff that’s $17 to $18.99 for the mid-range, and some stuff that’s $10 or $12, or less."

Having an offering for every budget helps drive sales of multiple items, retailers reported. 

"We carry a range of décor items in different price points," said Aron Morrison, owner of Reptile Room in Hayward, Calif. "But the sweet spot range is between $10 and $20. We try not to carry anything over $20."  

Décor items priced in the mid-tier are the most popular with customers at Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas, said manager Trace Campbell.

"Our prices are really low in general," he added. "But if a wooden half-log is $2 less than a rock hide, [customers will] spend the $2. But if the rock cave is $7 more, they’re going to go for the wooden log. It’s the big jump that customers struggle with." 

While there seems to be a general consensus on a price ceiling for herp décor, premium options are increasingly popular, retailers reported, and there is a market for more-expensive items.

"You have to have a little bit for everybody," Wenguer said. "There are still old-school people that are using newspaper and an upside down terra cotta pot for a hiding spot. But I think most people want their tanks to look nice. If it’s displayed right, people will pay the money."