The market for live foods and prepackaged dietary products for reptiles and amphibians is still growing, pet specialty retailers reported. Feeder species are increasingly available and demand is high, industry insiders said, even as prices increase across the board.

Herp products have experienced strong growth across the entire category since the start of the pandemic, insiders reported, though sales are beginning to level off overall.

“The industry is correcting itself right now,” said Austin Harris, general manager for Underground Reptiles, a pet store in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “COVID put a bump on everything, and our government just gave money away to everybody. A lot of people spent it on pets, and the pet industry was one of the benefactors. Right now, the market is making a correction back to where it would have been if a bunch of money had not been dumped into our economy. What we’re seeing right now is probably where the market should be, in the current state of our economy and country.”

Demand is still high, however, and the trend is toward moderation, rather than a decline, in overall sales.

“I’m not seeing declining sales,” Harris added. “We’re constantly trying to innovate and do things different and make sure we’re getting in front of people. If they are going to spend their money, obviously every company’s goal is to be the one they spend it with.”

Andy Pettit, sales manager for Timberline Live Pet Foods, a supplier in Marion, Ill., noted that the reptile category has been growing rapidly for the past four years, driven by a couple of key factors.

“When you add in the demand we saw from the pandemic, where people had a little bit of extra spending money for a period of time, it’s gone up very strongly,” Pettit said. “Reptiles really fit the urbanization trend.”

The market itself has also gone a long way in moving sales and consumer interest in the right direction.

“Reptiles would have never been this popular if there weren’t great companies out there producing great animals and great reptile shows and great retailers to provide education,” he said. “If we weren’t able to meet the demand, it never would’ve grown. When I say ‘we,’ I mean everybody in the industry.”

Pettit added that growth in the segment has slowed, but the outlook is still positive.

“When I say it’s slowed, it’s just that it isn’t at the breakneck, crazy pace we saw during the pandemic,” he said. “But the industry as a whole is much stronger than it has ever been.”

Support has been broad-based across the industry, with sales of all types of herps up as more people look to care for reptiles. Also, snake sales are growing more rapidly in some areas.

“The sales increases we’re seeing are pretty evenly spread out between food and animals,” said Alec Dohse, sales associate for Arizona Reptile Center, a pet store in Mesa, Ariz. “It’s pretty steady right now. A lot of people are getting into snakes. People are honestly just switching from domestic-type animals over to reptiles. The reptile is starting to thrive a lot more. People are getting into the trade, and they are breeding a lot more. The reptile expos are just popping off here more each year. Kids are loving reptiles. They’re getting into reptiles at a younger age.”

Feeder availability has been a challenge in the industry, insiders reported.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of availability issues,” said Carlos Martinez, manager for Reptile Factory, which has four retail locations in Southern California. “Through the pandemic, the market changed. We do a lot of in-house breeding of feeder species, so it helps out a lot.”

However, availability concerns are beginning to dissipate as suppliers work to meet demand.

“One of the big problems right now is, there’s not a great source of additional inventory of live food,” Pettit said. “With the pressures on the market, and with demand going through the roof during and after the pandemic, there’s a need for more supply… It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult for domestic farms to keep up with unexpected spikes in demand, because we’re all growing these feeders out. There isn’t a warehouse we can go to. It’s all just-in-time.”

To answer that explosion in demand, Timberline decided to work on the supply side to alleviate the problem in the industry.

“We’re building a new farm,” Pettit said. “It’s called our Assurance Farm. The new farm is designed to basically be the backstop for the entire industry. It’s going to be a smaller-scale setup. This is going to be our main workhorse. [Our main location] is where we’re going to sell our products from, but at this other farm we’re going to have redundancy for every single species that we grow and sell from Timberline. We are going to grow them down there at a much smaller scale. … If we experience the same situation we saw during the pandemic, Timberline can scale pretty rapidly because we’ve got the babies. Or, if one of our competitors has a problem and they need to scale, well, we can do that for them, as well. Because it’s not good for our industry if our competitors can’t meet their demand.”

The Assurance Farm will also allow Timberline the opportunity to try its hand at breeding other types of insects that customers are requesting that the company doesn’t currently offer.

“Our Assurance Farm is going to allow us that flexibility with a high resolution, without the immediate demand to deliver them to the market,” Pettit said. “So we will have some opportunity to learn and be effective in growing them so that we can scale and deliver to the marketplace.”

Local Pet Stores Thrive

While companies such as Timberline work on expanding their capacity to meet customer demand, reptile and amphibian hobbyists continue to find value in visiting their local, independent pet stores, retailers reported.

“Customers come here for the experience,” said Shane Gram, reptiles manager at The Pet Works, which has stores in Oregon and Washington. “It really makes a difference to be able to have customers come here and be able to see the animals, see our feeders, see the care, have a hands-on experience, and be able to talk with somebody who’s an actual hobbyist, who cares about the animals.”

Live animal sales go hand in hand with feeder sales, insiders reported, and building a destination experience is a key part of growing sales for independent retailers.

“People are never going to get away from wanting the experience of going into a local pet store,” Harris said. “They’re able to see new animals, and they’re able to see new products. Even though they’re coming in to get feeders, they are still going to shop, look around and have fun. They’re going to have an experience that they won’t get online. Online is for convenience. But people are always going to want to have an experience. That’s why mom-and-pop stores always exist.”

Interaction with shoppers and education are essential components of the strategy independents use to build their customer base and support business in the long-term.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, just like in dog and cat,” Pettit said. “Retailers should absolutely print out care sheets for every animal that leaves their store. Use our website to teach customers how to feed that animal better, because the healthier that animal is, the more that customer will come in and buy the product. Make sure that people understand what they’re getting themselves into, what they’re going to need to take care of the animals, and how to best understand the animals.”

Market Matters

Rat Race

Everyone involved in the reptiles and amphibians industry has felt the pinch as higher costs have impacted the entire supply chain, pet specialty retailers reported. Some types of feeders, especially rats and mice, have been affected more than others.

“Prices have gone up,” said John Fisher, owner of J&F Aquatics & Exotics, a pet store in Terrytown, La. “I had to raise my prices on my rats and mice. There’s no way of getting around it because you can’t get any. And when you can find them, everybody wants high dollar prices for them. I buy them from local breeders, and they can’t even raise enough rats. I think it’s just the explosion of snakes out there. There are many people breeding ball pythons, and that’s just ridiculous.”

Ratteries have experienced issues with production, retailers noted, and in some places, it is difficult to find live feeders, at any price.

“All of our products have been going up, even in herp foods,” said Shane Gram, reptiles manager at The Pet Works, which has stores in Oregon and Washington. “The food products themselves, especially rodents, have skyrocketed in price for the size of rodents that you’re getting, let alone for how much you’re spending. That has been one of the biggest issues we’ve had to deal with. There are a lot of people who are considering whether they can even afford some of their larger snakes.”

Even as rat prices have increased, availability has declined, and rat feed prices have also climbed higher, making feeders more expensive.

“Everything’s pretty much doubled at this point,” said Alec Dohse, sales associate for Arizona Reptile Center, a pet store in Mesa, Ariz. “It trickling down from the big guys all the way to us. One of the local ratteries went down here in the valley, and it reduced the availability of live rats, which ended up driving the price up a lot, just due to supply and demand. Also, something happened with the food chain, and it’s costing more for rat food now. So the ratteries are paying more to feed their rats. We were selling small rats for $4 or $5, and now it’s about $7 or $8 at this point. We’re not really going to go any higher. We’re doing what we can to minimize any cost increases for our customers. Our customers have adjusted to the inflated prices, and it’s looking pretty stable right now.”

Other feeder species have been impacted as well, though these price increases haven’t hurt growth expectations, industry insiders reported.

“We’ve had to raise our prices on almost every feeder,” said Carlos Martinez, manager for Reptile Factory, with four retail locations in Southern California. “We’ve had a 35 percent increase across the board. Overall, sales are steady right now. The industry’s definitely big, but there’s room to grow.”