Steady, incremental improvements in herptile life-support offerings and terrarium equipment are making it easier to help hobbyists succeed. This trend coupled with the hobby’s demographic shift toward younger customers makes it a good time for pet specialty retailers, they reported.
Keeping reptiles and amphibians is increasingly popular with a younger age group, industry participants reported. That’s good news for the hobby and for the retailers supporting it.
"My herp department, as a whole, is doing better," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. "Younger people are getting into the hobby."
The hobby is also seeing fresh interest in invertebrates, said Ken "The Bug Guy" Middaugh, owner of An Exotic Reptile Pet Shop in Tucson, Ariz., which is leading to rising popularity of "nano" terrariums and products suited to help keep these species healthy at home.
"I’m doing a lot with the invertebrates, such as tarantulas and scorpions," Middaugh said. "We deal with a lot of smaller enclosures [as a result]."
Meanwhile, popular herp species are helping to support sales of all-in-one kits from manufacturers.
"The manufacturer kits we sell are the most popular," said Nicole Porter, owner of Jurassic Pets in Salinas, Calif. "These come with anywhere from a 10-gallon for the small [species], up to a 20-gallon or a 40-gallon."
The kits are especially successful because customers get all of the basics they need to support their herp, and she’s able to make suggestions regarding extra equipment purchases, Porter said.
Recent improvements in the quality of manufacturer offerings has meant fewer retailers are building their own custom starter setups for customers, retailers reported.
"We do have [manufacturer] kits, but we don’t have [starter setups] we’ve put together ourselves," said Kelly Barth, a customer service representative for House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "The kits have come a long way in the last few years, where you’re getting appropriate lighting and heating. We’re pretty happy with the brands of kits that we carry, and they are popular sellers because people like one-stop shopping."
House of Tropicals chooses not to offer its own kits in part because they take up a lot of shelf space, Barth added, and also to avoid competing with the manufacturer kits it carries.
Introductions for Both Herps and Invertebrates
Husbandry methods for keeping most popular herp species in terrariums are relatively well known, and major technological advances are likely to be far and few between, industry participants stated.
Now, manufacturers are focusing on providing quality products and fine-tuning their offerings.
Recently, Zoo Med Laboratories came out with a terrarium thermometer-hygrometer combo that’s very reasonably priced and is a good seller, said Kelly Barth, a customer service representative for House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md.
"The one thing I’m super excited about is a thermostat from Exo Terra," she added. "It’s digital, it dims, and it has three different models. There’s a 100-, 300- and 600-watt option. It has a daytime and nighttime temp setting that can be controlled, and it works with mats, cables and heaters."
Though nothing game-changing has hit the scene in recent months, there have been several updates to make product lines better and more cost effective, said Ken "The Bug Guy" Middaugh, owner of An Exotic Reptile Pet Shop in Tucson, Ariz. He has seen growing interest in invertebrate species, and Zoo Med is starting to branch into this area.
The company’s new Creatures line fills this role, said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. Although he’s just recently added the line to his shop, he’s seen demand increase for invertebrate species as well and thinks the introduction is a good idea.
"This line includes a low-profile creature den tank for keeping ground-dwelling creatures and a tall creature habitat kit for those pets that appreciate a little more climbing space," said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
The line is targeted toward those interested in keeping scorpions, tarantulas, millipedes and other land invertebrates, and includes an LED black light for nighttime viewing of fluorescent pets, Rademacher added. It features a 4-watt Creaturetherm heater and substrates, hides, light fixtures, food jelly cups, dishes and thermometers, as well, she said.
Zoo Med is also introducing a ReptiTemp Digital Thermostat, which is designed to control terrarium temperatures through managing heating elements. It includes built-in memory, a remote temperature sensor, an LCD display and a visual alarm when temperatures reach extreme high or low levels.
New terrarium designs are increasingly popular, retailers reported, and the build quality of many of these units is high. Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet, has introduced its front-opening terrarium line, which is designed for easy access.
"As invertebrates become less creepy [in the minds of consumers] and more common, caging that suits tarantulas, insects and other critters is starting to build in popularity," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla.
Social Media and More
Reaching existing customers and bringing in new people is a constant consideration for pet specialty store owners, retailers reported. To that end, a mix of traditional advertising and copious use of social media platforms are helping build buzz and bring customers into stores.
"We are using social media more and more, mainly Facebook," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. He’s in the midst of putting together a marketing plan that focuses more on social media platforms in general.
This can be a very effective strategy, retailers reported, but the trick seems to be to highlight new herp arrivals rather than constantly push sales or new equipment shipments.
"Any time you post new animals, that gets people into the shop quite a bit more," said Ken "The Bug Guy" Middaugh, owner of An Exotic Reptile Pet Shop in Tucson, Ariz. "Of course, if you have something that you do that’s different from [other shops], such as the tarantulas with us, that helps to bring people in."
Middaugh also uses traditional ad campaigns, he added, and has his truck wrapped in vinyl to promote his shop.
"I’ve talked to quite a few people on the street just because they noticed my truck," he said. "Any time I get the chance to, I’m talking to people about [herps]."
It’s extremely important to stay engaged with the community, retailers reported, and putting on special events and holiday sales helps drive equipment purchases.
"We do our pet extravaganza, which is our birthday, once a year," said Nicole Porter, owner of Jurassic Pets in Salinas, Calif. "We do all the holidays … a few different charity events, school events and birthday parties."
Be a Resource
For many pet specialty retailers, the most important aspect of running a herptile store is building the hobby and keeping customers interested. That means helping them achieve success, and when it comes to equipment, many keepers will need help and education.
"Education’s always been a huge part of what we do," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. "One of the cornerstones of my business is teaching people how to properly care for their pets."
This requires a focus on educating employees so that they can pass that information on to customers, Herron added.
This emphasis on education helps build a sense of community, and many customers will become regulars as their interest grows and when customer service is strong.
"Customers come in and chat with us all the time," said Kelly Barth, a customer service representative for House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "We have some customers that are daily regulars."
Ultimately, retailers have to get to know their customers so that they can offer individuals the species that are right for them. Ken "The Bug Guy" Middaugh, owner of An Exotic Reptile Pet Shop in Tucson, Ariz., said that his goal is to give customers a very broad knowledge of what they can keep, and what kind of setup they’ll need, without focusing on price points.
"I was a retail manager for quite a few years in California, and one thing you really don’t want to do with anybody is manage their wallet," he said. "[Customers] are going to spend what they want to spend regardless of what you recommend. Give them all the options."