Herps are becoming increasingly popular as pets, especially among city and apartment dwellers. Couple that with the fact that most herps do best on a varied diet consisting of live and fresh foods, along with prepared dietary offerings and supplements, and it is not surprising that pet specialty retailers report growing business in the herp nutrition category.
Live foods and leafy greens continue to be the most popular option for herp hobbyists, according to retailers.
"Customers like to stick with the traditional way of feeding live foods, whether it’s the fresh produce or live insects," said Matt Benedict, sales associate for Custom Creatures Pet Shop in Phoenix.
Still, reptile owners often seek a quick and easy approach to feeding their pets.
"Convenience is probably one of the biggest selling points for the prepackaged [items]," Benedict added. "It is so much easier to do that than to actually make a salad for some of your animals."
While customers are interested in convenience, they are still concerned with their pets’ health, and natural options tend to dominate in the diet segment.
"The words ‘natural’ and ‘transparency’ have been coming around lately, both from retailers and from herp owners," said Bree Modica, nutrition and regulatory specialist, R&D, food and drug division, at Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "Just as cat and dog owners are learning more about how their pet’s diet is made and where the ingredients are coming from, herp owners are starting to want this information for their pets, as well."
In general, the more informed the customer, the more concerned they are about herp dietary health, said Jayzun Boget, assistant manager of the reptile and small animal department at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich.
"This trend parallels how a lot of people are starting to be a little bit more conscious about what they’re putting into their own body," Boget said. "The idea of having something that’s on the shelf, at least to supplement, really helps. But in that case, I do push live insects as well as fresh veggies, when they’re appropriate."
One of the biggest selling points for both prepackaged herp dietary options as well as supplements is the variety it allows customers to offer their pets.
"When it comes to customers using the prepackaged stuff, it’s not only just for convenience, but also to add variety," Benedict said. "We get to choose what we like to eat. [Pet] reptiles don’t usually have that option. So a lot of the time, people will give the variety so that they feel like the animal gets something different."
The Sweet Spot
Being aware of price points and customer buying habits in the herp diets category can help specialty retailers maximize sales, retailers reported.
"The sweet spot is around $8 to $15 for herp diets," said Jayzun Boget, assistant manager of the reptile and small animal department at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. "People feel very comfortable spending that on their reptile’s food. They’re going to spend that much on lunch at a restaurant."
While customers might spend much more or less than this depending on what they’re keeping, repeat sales are a big advantage of stocking live food.
"Live foods tend to be our big mover here," said Trey Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. "I don’t really have an average customer. Everybody’s different. I’ve got customers who spend $10 a week, and I’ve got customers who spend $200 a week."
Still, the average customer generally appears to fall in a range when it comes to their spending habits.
"On a weekly basis, it does vary from animal to animal and customer to customer, but it ranges anywhere from $5 to $15," said Matt Benedict, sales associate for Custom Creatures Pet Shop in Phoenix. "I do see a lot of repeat sales on the herp diet stuff that we offer."
Keeping in mind the value of offering variety along with product price points might help retailers maximize sales and customer satisfaction.
"Many people try to offer variety within what is commercially available to provide a balanced and natural diet," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "There is a large push for more natural diets. Many diets are between $9.99 and $14.99. Any food or dietary item is something that will keep people coming back."
The herp hobby is growing, industry experts reported, and with it, so is the variety of dietary options available to customers.
"People are trying new things," said Trey Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. "Herp sales over the last few years have just gone through the roof, and the food companies are trying to keep up."
Zoo Med’s new gourmet line, which incorporates the company’s grassland pellets with flowers and hibiscus petals, have gone over well with customers, Campbell said, adding that he can’t keep the company’s Flower Food Toppers on the shelf.
Zoo Med Laboratories recently released its Lizard Flower Food Topper and Tortoise & Box Turtle Flower Food Topper, said Bree Modica, nutrition and regulatory specialist, R&D, food and drug division, for the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based company.
"These dried flower mixes contain five types of flowers that can be used as a topper for a reptile’s regular diet," Modica said. "They can also be mixed into the regular diet, or spread around the enclosure as a treat and source of enrichment."
New supplemental options are also popular with customers, according to retailers.
"A supplemental food that has been jumping off the shelf is Exo Terra’s Dragon Grub," Boget said. "The supplemental diets are also a great insurance policy. They have a fantastic shelf life. On that day when a customer really meant to go by the store to get crickets, but the store was closed, they’ve got [something] to give their reptile."
Earlier this year, Exo Terra launched all-natural Dragon Grub for bearded dragons, said Steve Sotelo, Exo Terra division manager for the Hagen Group in Mansfield, Mass.
"The formula includes soldier fly larvae as the primary ingredient and protein source," Sotelo said. "Insects provide a large percentage of most reptiles’ diets, so it’s logical to create a diet that relies heavily on insects. Soldier fly larvae are not only high in protein and calcium, but also lack an exoskeleton, which can be difficult to fully digest."
Other manufacturers, including Pangea and Repashy, are popular with customers, retailers said.
"If there’s one word that sums up our dietary philosophy, it’s ‘variety,’" Boget said. "The more appropriate foods you offer, the more likely you are to offer foods with the nutrition that herps need."
Customers are often focused on feeding their pets live foods, and manufacturers such as Timberline, one of the largest suppliers of live foods in the industry, offer proprietary products such as Vita-
Bugs and CalciWorms to meet customer demand.
Fresh greens are also popular, retailers reported.
"I’m really proud of what we’re offering nowadays and the thought that’s going into it," said Jayzun Boget, assistant manager of the reptile and small animal department at Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. "Towards that end, we actually sell our own precut, premixed veggie portions. We’ve got 8-ounce, 16-ounce and 32-ounce deli containers filled with all sorts of leafy greens and shredded veggies. I can’t believe how much we go through it a week."
There are prepackaged fresh veggie options as well, and Timberline offers both Reptile Salad and Reptile Cactus prepackaged vegetable dietary supplements for herps.
Brick-and-mortar specialty retailers have a competitive edge, particularly over their online counterparts, when it comes to herp diets, in no small part because they can offer superior knowledge and education to their customers.
"Without proper diets, you run into a world of problems, from vitamin deficiencies to calcium deficiencies," said Trey Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. "We’ve got our whole team here really invested in learning diets and keeping up with trends. Things change all the time."
It’s vital to have updated information to offer customers the best of current knowledge to support their hobby.
"Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting information out there on reptile and amphibian diets," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "It is important to understand what a healthy animal looks like and what a healthy weight is."
Knowledgeable staff and a commitment to customer satisfaction are likely the greatest measures retailers can take to ensure success.
"Knowing what we’re talking about, doing the research and keeping up-to-date with dietary needs is really big," Campbell said. "It all comes down to trust. If they feel like you have done them right since the beginning, customers are going to get what you recommend. [But] it’s important to get them exactly what they need and not try to make a big cash sale off of it."