It can be resource intensive to offer exotics livestock for sale, but with the right approach, retailers can build a segment with inherent competitive advantages and decent margins. The trick, according to pet specialty retailers, is to commit the time and resources necessary to display show-stopping herp and small mammal enclosures, in addition to educating customers in the process.
First, retailers should focus on displaying exotics—and herps especially—in appropriate naturalistic displays that mimic their habitat in the wild, experts said.
"A very large part of maintaining healthy exotic livestock is maintaining the environments they’re adapted to," said Jayzun Boget, assistant manager of the reptile and small mammal department for Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. "That’s one of our core philosophies. The environments can be part of the draw."
This helps display herps more effectively, as well.
"At our store, you’ll see a lot more reptiles out and about during their active period than you would when you go to the typical big-box store, because we’re setting up these environments in a way that is not only very visually engaging to humans, but in a way that makes the animal comfortable enough to go about its normal behavior," Boget said.
Other retailers reported having success using natural settings to help display reptiles. This approach can also work with small mammals, to an extent, though fewer retailers employ this method but make an exception on the "exotic" side, with species less often seen in the industry.
"With small mammals, we do lean more to stuff we carry in-store—the igloo hides, the tree trunk hides, porcelain dish, hanging water bottles and things like that," said Trace Campbell, manager of Animal Ark in Kingwood, Texas. "If we have more exotic animals such as short tail possums, they’ll get a fully arranged rainforest-looking enclosure with vines wrapped around logs and things like that to make them feel more comfortable."
Maintaining species in aesthetically pleasing enclosures also means having eye-catching subjects for images that can be used to drive sales through social media.
"Facebook pulls a lot local activity into the store," Campbell said. "Instagram gives it a lot of national attention. If you’re looking through our social media or our website, something’s going to pull you to our shop, or something’s going to catch your eye."
Exotics have the advantage of being prominent in young customers’ minds, thanks to modern media and these species’ attractive, interesting appearances.
"I think that the increase in the popularity of reptiles [is due to what] I call the Discovery/Nat Geo effect," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. "These kids grow up watching nature shows with all of the critters, and they’re fascinated by them. Then they come here and they see them, and they just want to have one."
Maintaining clean, presentable and aesthetically pleasing displays is extremely important when it comes to selling exotics.
"Exotics display well, as long as they’re healthy," Herron added. "An unhealthy animal, no matter what, just gives people a bad impression."
This means it pays to properly train employees and go the extra mile to ensure enclosures are in top shape.
Every day, Boget said, staff members check that every animal has what it needs to thrive.
If maintained properly, these animals will sell themselves to a degree, retailers reported, but staff members still need to do some legwork.
"Education is key," Campbell said. "A lot of the animals do sell themselves, but there’s more to it than that. You’ve got to explain the pros and cons to both. Because it’s not only about selling the animal, it’s about making sure the animal’s going to be well cared for."