The popularity of herps is growing, with food sales for reptiles and amphibians following suit. While the herp food category includes prepackaged diets, prepared diets, supplements and other offerings, specialty stores report that live food accounts for a key portion of their herp food sales.
"Live food sales are definitely a large part of our business," said Brian Potter, co-owner of Chicago Reptile House, a pet store in Orland Park, Ill. "We absolutely count on it."
Robert Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop Reptile Breeding Center in Oldsmar, Fla., estimated that about 40 percent of his revenue comes from food, while John Fisher, owner of J & F Aquatics & Exotics, a pet shop in Terrytown, La., attributed roughly half of his revenue to live food.
Retailers can enjoy robust repeat business on this consumable.
"If you’re carrying live food, you’re going to capture a certain segment of the marketplace," said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods in Marion, Ill. "What sets retailers apart when they’re carrying live food versus their competitors is their inventory."
Staple live foods include crickets and worms, but insiders report growing demand for high-quality, diverse feeder species offerings.
"Herp keepers are offering a broader spectrum of foods," said Brian Duracka, owner of Gills And Thrills Pet Shop in Lockport, Ill. "We offer roughly six different insect species, and we have customers that are just buying all of them, or at least a couple [different species] at a time. They’re really mixing it up."
Crickets remain the top sellers, retailers reported, though hobbyists show keen interest in several new live and packaged offerings.
"Around 18 months to two years ago, we rolled out our hornworms," Pettit said. "They’ve been a smashing success. The marketplace bought into the hornworms, and they have been a good growth item for us. … We were able to scale hornworms to a level that we can keep up with customer demand, which continues to grow dramatically."
Along with hornworms, retailers listed dubia roaches, superworms, waxworms and giant mealworms as popular offerings.
It’s not just live foods seeing demand for variation. Hobbyists want similar quality and variety in prepared and packaged foods.
"Customers are more concerned these days with the nutritional quality of the foods they are feeding their herps," said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "They’re looking for high-quality diets, and they’re aware of the need for nutritionally balanced offerings."
As a result, some manufacturers are moving away from pelleted formats and striving to offer healthy alternatives. These contain more natural ingredients and even pieces of raw or dehydrated foods, sources said.
Ryan Borkan, manager of Underground Reptiles, a reptile store in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said he sells "frozen thawed feeders for most monitors and snakes" and recommends "one of the better prepared diets for iguanas and tortoises."
To keep sales going, companies in the herp category must be strategic to maintain the quality and quantity of live foods customers require. Those who are managing well report great margins.
"Generally speaking, a full-line pet retailer will generate equal revenue between all reptile hard goods and crickets alone," Pettit said. "Just the live crickets SKU generates as much revenue as the entirety of the reptile category combined. We have retailers that can tip the scales at 3 percent of their overall sales by being diligent with their in-store care."
"If I got rid of live foods, I would probably just close my doors," he said. "The margins are good."