Reptile and amphibian retailers face steep competition in their segment of the pet industry. Despite this, they have carved out a niche with dietary offerings—especially live foods—fueling business and promoting repeat sales through customer loyalty and attention to quality.
As dietary requirements for reptiles and amphibians are more thoroughly understood, the average hobbyist is increasingly aware of the need to provide a nutritionally complete, well-rounded diet to herps.
"Realistically, not much has changed outside of our understanding of the nutritional needs of these animals, but that is a huge component," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "As our knowledge increases, many of the diets out there are improving. … Every pet owner wants to feed a varied diet, but it can be difficult to buy a wide variety of foods."
Quality is a driving concern for modern herp hobbyists, industry experts reported.
"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."
The majority of foods sold for herps are live offerings, retailers reported. Customers are increasingly conscious, however, of the health of feeder insects and the overall quality of the insects they are offering to their pets.
"We’ve been doing this for a long time, so we know which diets work," said Robert Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop Reptile Breeding Center in Oldsmar, Fla. "Of course, some stuff has been around for a long, long time. That’s not to say that the newer stuff isn’t as good or isn’t as beneficial to the reptiles as some of the older stuff."
Dietary products that help improve the quality of the environment are becoming more popular as well.
"Bioactive items are the rage right now and rightly so," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "Not only do they provide a good healthy snack for inhabitants, but they also help break down waste in a system, fertilize any live plants, aerate the soil, and also eat mite and other pests’ eggs. We offer a variety of isopods."
Premium dietary options are popular in the sense that customers are looking for high-quality feeder insects that are in good health and products that offer value and help support the health of their pets.
"Without these critical nutrients [vitamins A and E], captive reptiles will have depressed immune system functions and vision problems, which will lead to a shorter lifespan," said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods in Marion, Ill. "Often, these deficiencies aren’t as visually noticeable but definitely reduce hobbyist success."
Successful retailers focus on ensuring that their customers know what their herps need, and help them to provide their pets with nutritionally sound products to continue building success in the hobby.
The emphasis at That Pet Place is on education, Davis said.
"Customers are given care guides on any animal that they purchase," she said. "We also have care guides about what types of foods to offer. Our live foods also note the benefits of one over the other."
Helping customers stay successful by providing total care for their herps is the best way to keep them coming back and engaged in the hobby, experts agreed.
"Customers spend a lot of money on their animals," Potts said. "We focus on education, and we encourage customers to do preventative maintenance. We’re very blunt about it. I’d rather address something that’s not causing an issue yet and treat it before it starts to stress an animal. It all goes back to helping customers enjoy their time with their reptiles."
On the Market
Supporting herp hobbyists and helping them remain successful is key to ensuring they stay in the hobby. New products and dietary offerings are helping retailers accomplish this important task.
Timberline Live Pet Foods’ Vita-Bugs line is formulated to do just this, said Andy Pettit, sales manager for the Marion, Ill.-based company. The line features vitamin A, vitamin E and a mixture of carotenoids that are present in wild insects, he added.
"Utilizing Vita-Bugs is a life-improvement strategy and life-lengthening strategy to deliver natural vitamins," he said.
The company also offers CalciWorms, which are black soldier fly larvae. These offer herp keepers an excellent method of delivering dietary calcium to reptiles in a natural way, Pettit noted.
"CalciWorms larvae should occupy about 15 percent of the live food in a reptile’s diet," he added. "CalciWorms are relatively new to the live food category … That’s just one of those things that we want to continue to educate retailers about, to continue to build [CalciWorms’] place in reptiles’ diets. … The advantage of Vita-Bugs is that when paired with CalciWorms in the appropriate proportions, you’re delivering everything the reptile needs naturally while eliminating a majority of the dusting and gut-loading complexity."
Other manufacturers are introducing new dietary options for herps as well. Zilla’s newest offering is its Reptile Munchies, a line of dehydrated foods for herps, said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for the Central Garden & Pet brand, based in Franklin, Wis.
"With Zilla’s Reptile Munchies, pet owners can rotate a base staple diet and add an enormous variety of nutrition in a way that is convenient and has a long shelf life," he said. "There is a push for more natural food items … Natural and realistic are two key areas of focus within the herp segment. … We all want to add a piece of that world into our homes as well as provide an amazing enriching environment for our pets. This is key as manufacturers design products for the care of these amazing animals in captivity."
The Live Food Business Model
Prepared diets, supplements, gut-loading products and prepackaged offerings have their place in respective niches within the herp hobby, but the vast majority of sales in the herp food category comes from live foods.
"Generally speaking, a full-line pet retailer will generate equal revenue between all reptile hard goods and crickets alone," said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods in Marion, Ill. "Just the live crickets SKU generates as much revenue as the entirety of the reptile category combined. A pet store can expect anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 percent of their annual sales in live crickets alone. That’s a phenomenal percentage for a single SKU. We have retailers that can tip the scales at 3 percent of their overall sales by being diligent with their in-store care."
Maintaining the health and nutritional profile of feeder species is imperative to ensure customers are able to provide the best dietary offerings to their pets.
"Many reptiles will only eat live foods, and, due to this, the live food segment of the reptile industry is imperative," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "In the wild, insects and other prey items have a varied diet and because of that are usually much more nutritionally sound. When it comes to live foods in captivity, they are usually fed commercial diets, so adding as much nutrition to these food items as we can is important for our pets’ continued health."
Most other food items come in a distant second to live cricket sales.
"Crickets and other live foods are very popular," said Mark Schneider, co-owner of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "There are also foods like frozen rats and mice. When we first opened in the 1970s, we didn’t sell many of those, or any crickets either. But crickets do very well for us now. They’re about 90 percent of our herp diet sales overall."
The other benefit of live food offerings is that they promote repeat business.
"Live foods definitely keep customers coming back in the store," said John Fisher, owner of J & F Aquatics & Exotics in Terrytown, La. "Most customers know what they want when they come in, but we try to get them to try different things, like different dry foods. But a lot of them stick to the live foods. I would say live foods probably account for roughly 50 percent of our revenue."
Repeat sales are vital to the herp retail business model, industry experts reported. Offering quality and strong customer support is what keeps customers coming back.
"You sell the animal once," said Robert Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop Reptile Breeding Center in Oldsmar, Fla. "I’d say probably 40 percent of my revenue comes from food. … This is why it behooves you to have healthy animals and to offer advice that will ensure the longevity of the reptile. The benefit is, not only do customers come in for the next five, six, 10 or 20 years buying food, but they have the joy of having a reptile that was healthy and [thriving]for a long time."