Hobbyists Embrace Terrariums and Paludariums

Independent pet retailers are seeing renewed consumer interest in terrarium setups, with paludariums and bioactive systems leading the way. Equipment sales are strong too, as many customers are purchasing items in packaged kits.

"Naturalistic and bioactive habitats continue to gain momentum," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Franklin, Wis.-based Zilla, a brand of Central Garden & Pet. "As society watches all of the environmental crises around us, we want something more natural in our home as well as more natural for our pets. Bioactive terrariums, which include microfauna, or ‘cleaning crews,’ to help maintain the terrarium, are also gaining popularity due to their ease of care as well as creating a total ecosystem within the animals’ habitat."

Many hobbyists are starting out with these setups, and those with systems that are already established are looking to convert traditional layouts to include bioactive properties.

"I’ve seen a huge boom in the last three months of people coming in and converting their system over to be bioactive," said Clayton Burton, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "Customers have to get the right soil blend in order to get the appropriate substrate for a bioactive setup. We also sell springtail cultures and isopod cultures, which are necessary for bioactive systems."

Sales are strong in all equipment and supplies used in bioactive setups.

"We do a lot of bioactive setups," said Megan Zayat, general manager of NJ Exotic Pets in Lodi, N.J. "We sell isopods, we sell Zoo Med Hydro Balls, the mesh layer in between the drainage layer, and we sell EBG mixa, which is like dirt that’s ready to go. We sell a lot of those items."

Paludariums are also increasingly popular, particularly with experienced herp keepers looking for a challenge and aquarists seeking something new.

"People buying reptiles for their kids are the ones buying the basic terrariums," Burton said. "It’s the more serious hobbyists who are doing paludariums. I’ve seen a lot of people who have been keeping aquariums for years wanting to start paludariums."

Naturalistic setups are trending in the hobby, with plants and hardscape that evoke a sense of a species’ natural living conditions.

"Habitats that mimic a natural environment as closely as possible are gaining strong momentum," said Andrew Elston, animal care specialist for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "Many hobbyists are getting more creative in introducing a wide variety of plants in both the water feature and in the arboreal portion of paludariums. This helps re-create a tropical, humid environment that provides pets with natural-looking areas [in which] to take shelter while also remaining visually appealing."

Plant sales are growing rapidly for some retailers, driven by the trend toward naturalistic setups.

"We sell a lot of tropical plants," Burton said. "Our plants sales have been booming lately."

Meanwhile, equipment sales help offset the slim margins in this category, he added.

"There’s not a whole lot of margin on terrariums and the animals themselves," Burton reported. "If I’ve had an animal in my store for three weeks, we’ve been taking care of it and feeding it that whole time. We’re not making a whole lot on that. The stuff that goes inside the terrarium though, that has some margin. Lights burn out. It’s definitely the repeat sales that keep us going."

The growing popularity of these setups aside, providing inspiration to customers is key to driving sales in the category.

"When a customer sees an empty terrarium, it’s hard to see what it could become," McVeigh said. "When you set it up and help them to visualize how beautiful it can be within their house, you inspire them, and that will help to drive a sale."

Building out eye-catching displays might require space that not all retailers have to spare, but even occasional displays can spark sales.

"Sales are growing," Zayat said. "There’s a much wider variety of terrariums in different configurations available today. Our store is small though, and I’d like to do more with displays. We sometimes set up the Exo Terra and Zoo Med bioactive setups ready to go, and people will buy the whole setup as is."

Kit Sales and Education

Retailers report that both manufacturer and store-curated terrarium kits are popular purchases, serving to introduce new hobbyists to herp keeping.

"We usually put our own kits together," said MaryKay Roediger, owner of Two Turtles Pet Center in Akron, Ohio. "People have to be taught. We guide them in the right direction so that they have a good match for their home."

Another benefit of offering kits is the opportunity to sell multiple products at one time.

"In most cases, we sell terrarium equipment in one go," said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "Most customers will get everything all at once. Manufacturers have come out with some pretty decent kits."

Several retailers offer in-store kits as well as manufacturer kits, and both tend to do well.

"Sales are split half and half [between premade and in-store kits]," Zayat reported. "Lots of people like the kits because they’re grab-and-go. I like to make my own kits because sometimes [premade] kits give you unnecessary stuff. Plus, there’s more creativity with kits we put together. Sometimes people will buy premade kits and add decorations."

Kits offer a chance to help educate customers, as well, especially with regard to what’s possible in naturalistic systems.

"We’ll help our customers piece a kit together," Burton explained. "I find myself educating customers a lot about plants and what specific species will do well in a terrarium."

Educating new customers and experienced hobbyists helps build their success and keeps them in the hobby.

"Every single person that leaves this store is fully educated on every animal that they buy," Zayat said. "We provide care sheets that we made ourselves. We want to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing so that they can be successful."

New Products

Plusher Accommodations

As interest in terrariums and paludariums continues to grow, the number of products marketed to this segment is quickly expanding.

"Within the last six months, Zoo Med has released a number of paludarium-related products," said Andrew Elston, animal care specialist for Zoo Med Laboratories in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "At Global Pet Expo 2019, we announced our Paludarium 3-in-1 Lamp. Our Paludarium Kit is a new addition as well, and it includes a 12-by-12-by-24-inch paludarium with a 4-gallon water feature, aquatic substrate, a lighting kit that provides UVB light for reptiles and also an LED light to encourage live plant growth."

The Paludarium 3-in-1 Lamp includes a 26-watt fluorescent light that combines three types of light in one lamp, Elston stated. The manufacturer also recently introduced Spider Wood, designed to re-create a tangled root embankment in a paludarium, Elston added, as well as its TerraEffects Nano LED with sound and UVA diodes to encourage breeding and natural behavior.

New terrariums are also coming on the market, and many are designed to cater to customers seeking a premium aesthetic.

Zilla just introduced a new terrarium style, reported Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Franklin, Wis.-based Zilla, a brand of Central Garden & Pet.

"We launched the Bow Front Opening Terrarium, as well as a new smaller 8-by-10-by-15-inch Front Opening Terrarium," McVeigh said. "The Bow Front Opening Terrarium gives a premium look to a standard terrarium. The smaller terrarium is [designed] for small geckos, frogs and invertebrates."

The bow-front design is already beginning to gain market share.

"The new Zilla Bow Front is a nice product," said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals in Glen Burnie, Md. "The sales have been fairly good so far. … And a lot of people are going smaller. It depends on the animal they want to get."

Some hobbyists prefer to use aquariums for paludarium setups. Terrariums and related products still sell well though, especially those with modern designs that appeal to younger customers.

"We’re seeing growth in the herp category," Hresko said. "Some customers still buy traditional aquariums for paludariums, because they prefer the thicker glass in the aquariums. But a lot of them want the more modern setups."