The market for herps and related supplies is strong, and stocking a variety of dietary offerings for these pets helps pet specialty retailers stay competitive and build sales in the segment.
In fact, independent reptile retailers enjoy a niche advantage over their competitors, especially those of the big-box and online variety, in the herp diet category.
"You can’t get reptile stuff at Walmart or Dollar General," said Claude Berthelot, owner of Feathers, Fur & Scales Pets and Supplies in Danielsville, Ga. "We’ve tried to find our niche, because most [competitors] don’t deal with reptile products that much."
Carrying live and frozen foods keeps customers coming back, industry experts reported.
"We’ve seen an uptick in consumers willing to try new foods, especially in the live category, and a substantial amount of retailers have increased their feeder department to include roach species, silk and goliath worms, and frozen rodents," said Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. "Reptile feed—either live or frozen—accounts for the largest supply of return visits to most pet stores. Oftentimes, reptile consumers return on a weekly basis, increasing the chances that they shop other highly profitable pet categories."
The category is seeing strong sales as herps become increasingly popular and mainstream.
"Sales are good," said J.T. Daniels, owner of Desert Reef & Exotics in Albuquerque, N.M. "My store is a little different than most. We have a lot of different, really exotic stuff here."
In general, the hobby is attracting more people, which helps drive herp diet sales and build business overall.
"We’ve seen more people interested in reptiles," Berthelot said. "There’s a growing trend towards reptiles because of the reptile shows and stuff like that."
Berthelot plans to change his business model to focus exclusively on herps in the future, he added.
Scott Miller, owner of Animal House Pet Shop in Oregon City, Ore., agreed that the appeal of reptiles is reaching a larger demographic.
"More women are getting into the hobby," Miller said. "I’ve seen more women keeping lizards and snakes. [The trend] has grown over the last five years."
Several new herp diets have appeared on the market, with an emphasis on improving herp feeding responses and meeting pets’ nutritional requirements.
Zoo Med’s latest introductions include the Tortoise and Box Turtle Flower Food Topper and Lizard Flower Food Topper, said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
These dried flower blends are formulated to help add variety and enrichment to pet reptiles’ diets. The blends include fiber, minerals and vitamins, Rademacher added.
There’s growing interest among herp owners in diets that reflect what these species would encounter in the wild.
"Consumers want to see more natural diets and foods," Rademacher said. "Both prepared foods made with natural ingredients and foods that more closely mimic the natural diet of the animals are sought after."
Hagen’s Exo Terra brand is also introducing natural options, reported Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass., with the launch of its all-natural Dragon Grub.
The food was formulated specifically for one of the most popular herp species, the bearded dragon, Sotelo said, and features soldier fly larvae as the primary ingredient and protein source. He added that consumers seem increasingly willing to try new foods, particularly in the live category, but these products must meet their standards.
"Ultimately, consumers are looking for foods that ‘work,’" Sotelo said. "A new prepared diet could be the greatest food alternative, but if reptiles have a difficult time eating it, or the formulas are lacking in research, the diet could fail."
Live foods are by far the dominant food choice for herp keepers, pet specialty retailers reported.
"I sell a lot of crickets and roaches, and also live feeder mice or rats for the snakes," said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "I also do a lot of frozen mice and rats. I try to get people on them, because that way it’s a lot easier. However, a lot of people want to see their herps eat the live food."
Many customers are aware of the need to enrich live food offerings, and the use of dietary supplements to keep these critters in prime condition for feeding pet herptiles is increasingly popular.
"Most people we’re dealing with right now are pretty knowledgeable," said Scott Miller, owner of Animal House Pet Shop in Oregon City, Ore. "They use the gut loads and the vitamin supplements."
Still, not all customers walking into their local pet specialty store are experts. Many will need guidance on how to care for live food items and optimize their nutritional value for their herp pets.
"You’ve got to educate customers," said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "There’s a lot to it, more than just feeding them. We explain about vitamins and vitamin deficiencies, and stuff like that."
The most popular types of supplements for supporting live food continue to be calcium based, though vitamin supplements are also popular.
"I’ve got the dust for the crickets," Hresko said. "I sell a lot of that, along with the calcium supplements."
There is a wide variety of prepared foods and live-food species available, so going the extra mile when it comes to education can pay dividends.
"Knowing the specific needs and natural history of certain pets can help," said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
"Variety is an important component to a healthy diet, because even similar food items can supply different nutrients in different concentrations. Providing variety helps to ensure that [customers’] pets are supplied with an array of essential nutrients."
How Low to Go
Herp customers are very sensitive to herp diet pricing, industry experts reported, and, generally, they won’t spend beyond a certain limit in a given market.
"Customers don’t really want to spend much," said J.T. Daniels, owner of Desert Reef & Exotics in Albuquerque, N.M. "I kind of use the dry goods as a supplement. People usually don’t like spending more than $15."
A retailer’s location will inevitably influence the prices customers are willing to pay for food items.
"We’re in a rural area," said Claude Berthelot, owner of Feathers, Fur & Scales Pets and Supplies in Danielsville, Ga. "The amount of money that people are willing to spend on their animals is not what it would be in a larger city."
Offering a variety of options might help ease customers’ sensitivity to a product’s price point.
"If you carry three or four sizes of these products, the mid sizes tend to sell best," said Scott Miller, owner of Animal House Pet Shop in Oregon City, Ore. "I have a reptile section, and all the diets are together right next to it. Customers can go right to that section for all their needs."
Although the exact price-point ceiling that retailers reported did vary somewhat, generally, products under $10 to $15 sell more consistently than more expensive offerings.
"Generally speaking, anything $9.99 and below tends to sell the best," said Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass. "There are specialty diets that can fetch much higher price tags, but those have very specific purposes."
Ultimately, the biggest benefit for retailers when it comes to a herp food assortment is that they keep customers coming back for more.
"It’s a repeat sales item," said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "You sell them the animal once, then you can still [repeatedly] sell them the other products."