The marketplace for reptiles and amphibians is growing, and increased consumer interest in the health and well-being of these pets means retailers have been able to leverage repeat food sales to support their businesses and grow with the rising demand.
Live herp foods, such as crickets and worms, are a staple of independent pet retailers that carry herp products and species.
"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."
The herp food segment is one area of pet retail where independent stores can outshine the competition. Most herps have special dietary needs that are most easily met with live food offerings, and local pet stores are the ideal venue for distribution of high-quality diverse feeder species offerings.
"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."
Offering quality feeders and a variety of different species helps local retailers stand out from big-box retailers and provide customers with dietary options for their herps that they can’t get anywhere else.
"Customers are buying more variety, instead of just sticking with staples such as crickets," said Brian Duracka, owner of Gills And Thrills Pet Shop in Lockport, Ill. "Herp keepers are offering a broader spectrum of foods. 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. It’s a lot better than it was a long time ago when it was just crickets and mealworms."
Similarly, customers are seeking variety in their packaged herp food choices. Prepared diets are increasingly moving away from pelleted formats, with manufacturers looking to introduce more natural options that help stimulate herp feeding.
"The days of colorful pellet foods are dwindling as consumers want more natural foods and healthy alternatives," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a Central Garden & Pet brand, based in Franklin, Wis. "Pelleted foods can create a balanced diet, but they seem more like sugar cereal to consumers instead of a natural food. Manufacturers are challenged with creating full diets that include more natural ingredients and even pieces of raw or dehydrated foods."
Prepared diets still have their place in the industry, but demand is centered on live food offerings, retailers reported. Innovations in prepared offerings do serve to meet the needs of some species that may need additional dietary support.
"Prepared diets are tough," said Ryan Borkan, manager of Underground Reptiles, a reptile store in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "Most herp and invert people still tend to stick primarily with live feeders, with the exception of frozen thawed feeders for most monitors and snakes. In terms of prepared foods, companies such as Pangea and Hikari have stepped up and are on the cutting edge of more prepared diets. It’s a good idea to sell one of the better prepared diets for iguanas and tortoises. We tend to recommend Mazuri [foods] for monitors and crocodilians. They do a pretty good job with most of their prepared diets."
Must-Have Product, Growing Demand
The popularity of herps as pets continues to rise. To meet demand, retailers have to maximize efficiency to provide the volume of live feeder species customers require.
"Consider that customers who feed crickets to their pets have to come back to the store every three to five days," Pettit said. "When they’re inconvenienced, they’re going to shop somewhere else that same day to find their crickets. And once they find a new source, they’re going to keep going back to that other location. Staying stocked with live foods is what tethers customers to their favorite retailers."
Keeping up with orders can be a daunting task, but sometimes retailers reported eating a loss just to keep sales flowing and customers happy.
"I get about 25,000 crickets in a week, and I sell out of most of them by Tuesday," Duracka said. "If I’m out of crickets, I’m losing sales. … I recently canceled some of my mealworms order because I had so many stocked up in the fridge, and now I need them. But sometimes it’s better just to get them in, even if you waste a couple bucks, just to keep the sales going."
Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics, a store in Reno, Nev., concurred that live food offerings keep customers coming back to brick-and-mortars, which is why these dietary products create a competitive advantage for herp retailers.
"Live foods just bring people in," McCall said. "If you don’t have your customers’ food, why are you in the business?"
Feeder species require more input and greater care, but the margins and customer support they allow retailers to offer means they are indispensable offerings.
"Live foods are a pretty huge part of the business," Duracka said. "They’re probably the main part. If I got rid of live foods, I would probably just close my doors. The margins are good. I buy in bulk, typically in thousand counts, and then count them out and cup them up myself. It definitely gives me a lot more bang for my buck, and it gives us a way to make sure that the bugs are healthy."
Overall, the strong growth within the industry means demand is rising, and both retailers and manufacturers are faced with stepping up to meet that consumer appetite for more herp dietary options.
"We attend around 15 to 18 different [trade/hobby] shows each year," Pettit said. "Over the last 18 to 24 months, every single show that we attend is breaking attendance records. … The marketplace is being stressed with this surge in new popularity. … I’ve spoken with a lot of reptile breeders and retailers, and they want to know how they can get more animals because the marketplace is growing at such a rate that we can’t [meet demand for pet herps] at the pace people want. That puts stress on the food sources. It becomes a question of how we keep up.
We’ve put millions of dollars into infrastructure here at Timberline to be able to continually scale our production to try to meet this increased demand."
Because packaged herp dietary products often take a back seat to live food offerings, most developments in the segment center around new species being offered and innovations in raising live feeder insects. That said, there is still room in the market for convenient prepared formulations.
"Live food, when it comes to reptiles, is an absolute must have for any retailer," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a Central Garden & Pet brand, based in Franklin, Wis.
However, pet owners often appreciate having the convenience of packaged foods at their disposal to give their herps a nutritious boost. Zilla Reptile Munchies, which is among the brand’s newest foods on the market, meets that demand, McVeigh said.
"These are made up of combinations of dehydrated fruit, vegetables, insects and calcium," McVeigh said.
The line is not meant to serve as a full, standalone diet, he noted. Rather, these products are formulated to add variety to herp diets and help offer balanced nutrition in a convenient format for herp keepers.
Retailers reported success with a wide variety of new offerings, both live and packaged. Since their introduction, hornworms have rapidly become popular, industry experts reported.
"Around 18 months to two years ago, we rolled out our hornworms," said Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods in Marion, Ill. "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."
Crickets are still herp diet best-sellers, retailers reported, but large numbers of customers have shown interest in alternatives and variety in all dietary options.
"Hornworms seem to be really exploding along with dubia roaches, which, obviously, are huge," said Brian Potter, co-owner of Chicago Reptile House in Orland Park, Ill. "In bag foods, Fluker’s came out with what it calls Crafted Cuisine, which expanded to include products for a few different types [of herps]. The animals just devour it. It’s actually been really popular."
Several retailers reported success with prepared diets.
"Hikari has been developing more than most," said Ryan Borkan, manager of Underground Reptiles, a pet store in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
"They just launched some of their bearded dragon diets, leopard gecko diets, crested gecko diets and things like that."
The company’s Hikari Herptile line has attracted some attention from other retailers as well.
"Hikari has a bagged diet line that just came out recently called Herptile," Potter said. "There’s a leopard gecko gel food, a bearded dragon gel and other formulations as well. Those have been super popular, and the animals actually devour them."
Premium feeder insect offerings are also increasingly popular, retailers reported.
"Hornworms are huge," Potter said. "Crickets obviously are huge. Superworms, wax worms, giant mealworms and dubia roaches are all popular. In terms of brands, we exclusively carry Timberline, because they offer Vita-Bugs. We have customers that specifically know about Vita-Bugs. They’ve heard about it … and once they know, they choose these crickets."
Live Rodent Controversy
Offering herps live feeder insect species is a commonly—and widely—accepted practice in the hobby and industry. However, when it comes to offering feeder rodents to larger animals, this once-common practice is facing criticism from within the hobby. This practice is increasingly controversial, even among retailers.
"The trend is pretty evenly split when it comes to live rodent feeders," said Brian Potter, co-owner of Chicago Reptile House, a store in Orland Park, Ill. "Everybody is getting a lot smarter about not putting videos up of live feeding. People did all the time in the past, and now it’s really frowned upon, especially by anyone in the community that has any kind of common sense and realizes we’re under attack by animal rights [activists] at all times. Putting up live videos of feeding is just totally stupid. We have to protect ourselves."
Many feel that feeding any live vertebrates to herps is a practice that should end.
"I don’t care for live feeder rodents," said Samuel McCall, co-owner of Exotics and Aquatics, a store in Reno, Nev. "I think they’re really unnecessary. Vertebrates in general just shouldn’t be fed live to herps. Educated customers are the ones who are concerned about feeding live vertebrates. The AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums]-accredited facilities aren’t even allowed to [feed] these, unless it’s absolutely necessary."