Strategies for Selling Herptile Habitats

Reptile and amphibian livestock sales continue to show strength, and this is providing a tailwind to retailers’ enclosure business, as most customers need a place to keep their new pets.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent mass stay-at-home orders impacted many retailers, but pet stores and those that focus on reptiles and amphibians seem to have held up relatively well under difficult circumstances.

"I thought business would have dropped tremendously, and we’re still hitting averages every day," said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California.

Terrarium sales continue to be strong in the midst of the pandemic.

"Business is normal," said Megan Zayat, general manager of NJ Exotic Pets, a pet store in Lodi, N.J. "We’re seeing roughly the same amount of flow. We’re actually not slow like we would think. … We are still selling lots of terrariums, and we sell a lot of the bioactive [products]."

Though bioactive substrates and setups have been available for a while in the herp hobby, these are increasingly popular, appealing to a wider customer base than before.

"I’m moving towards the bioactive setups," said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws, a pet store in Harleysville, Pa. "I see that as the new up-and-coming, higher-end hobbyist interest for reptiles and amphibians. I brought in all the BioDude [products], and I stock isopods, springtails and that kind of stuff. I’ve started stocking all the different live terrarium plants and the lighting to keep these alive. That’s the direction I have expanded into."

Bioactive setups appeal to many hobbyists, and are increasingly attractive for less common enclosure configurations.

"Front-opening terrariums continue to be the most popular type of terrariums due to their ease of use and versatility," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "A larger focus on bioactive and natural enclosures, along with a wide variety of new species available to hobbyists, makes all sizes of these terrariums popular." 

Novel setup configurations are gaining a following among hobbyists. Paludariums are increasingly popular in the hobby, though they are still catching on among reptile and amphibian keepers.

"I’ve been breeding my own isopods for several years now," said Grant Garton, co-owner of Gx3 Reptiles and Exotic Pets, a pet store in Sacramento, Calif. "It’s definitely picked up some steam here recently. … Paludariums are catching on, but very slowly. I think that’ll be a really cool thing in the future for the hobby."

Pandemic Challenges

Herp retailers are in a unique position in that they are considered essential businesses, but, as of press time, many had adjusted operations to meet social distancing requirements and keep employees and customers safe.

"We’re blocking off the front of the store at all three locations," Giacoletti said. "Customers can come in around six to 10 feet and place an order. We have also placed tables as dividers so they can’t get too close. If somebody really wants to purchase a pet or look for something, we’ll let one person in and let them look around."

COVID-19 is also increasing staffing difficulties, with some retailers facing reduced hours out of necessity because they are short staffed.

"I do have some employees who are self-quarantining," Herron said. "I’m running very short staffed, so that’s difficult. We’ve reduced our hours because I don’t have enough bodies. Business is down as a result. … It’s definitely challenging."

That said, Herron is grateful that he can keep the business open.

"I feel that we’re fortunate in the pet industry because we’re considered essential. I can’t imagine if I had to close."

Offering curbside pickup and even delivery is catching on.

"We actually just started offering the delivery service because of the pandemic," Zayat said. "Locally, we do curbside pickup. A lot of people don’t want to come in, so we’ll just take their order, they pay for it over the phone, and then we run it out to them. A lot of people feel safer that way."

The situation is not as bad as it could be, many retailers reported, although nobody had plans in place for something as sweeping as this event has proven to be.

"We’re a lot more fortunate than some other industries, in that we get to stay open and are moderately busy," Garton said. "The animals still have to eat, after all. … We are still open. We definitely try to practice social distancing. I’m making sure my employees have masks. We’re also trying to get customers in and out, and [we’re] limiting the amount of customers we have in the store at one time."

On the Market

Small & Natural Sells

New terrarium configurations, paludarium setups and equipment for these enclosures are constantly appearing on the market.

Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet, introduced a line of micro habitats earlier this year at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla.

These acrylic habitats are designed for smaller reptiles and amphibians, and provide a 360-degree view of pets, said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for the company.

"One of the most unique features is that they break down and come flat, and are easily assembled when needed, then broken down and stored when not in use," McVeigh said. "These micro habitats were designed with the increasing popularity of small invertebrates, micro geckos, and other small and unique pets in mind."

Enclosures designed to have a smaller footprint are selling well, retailers reported.

"The smaller enclosures do seem to sell better, especially because a lot of people are using them for inverts," said Grant Garton, co-owner of Gx3 Reptiles and Exotic Pets, a pet store in Sacramento, Calif. "Anything over about a 24-by-18-inch footprint, we don’t sell as much of. A lot of the time when people get into bigger enclosures, they make custom enclosures. The smaller they are, the more we sell."

Products marketed specifically for paludariums are also increasingly available. Zoo Med Laboratories, a manufacturer based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., offers a full line of paludarium products, said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for the company.

"Our paludarium products can be used … to help create beautiful, naturalistic habitats," Rademacher said. "Our newest items include a line of Naturalistic Flora [artificial plants] and a new Double Door Paludarium that measures 18 by 18 by 36 inches tall and holds 20 gallons of water in the bottom."

Zoo Med also offers a Paludarium Heater designed to be compact, programmable and submersible, as well as a submersible filter for low-profile filtration located in the corner of a paludarium setup.

In addition, the company offers UV lighting for paludariums, a platform to serve as a land feature, and a kit designed to include necessary accessories to establish a paludarium setup.

"With these components, customers have everything they need to get a paludarium started," Rademacher said.


Be an Inspiration

Many pet specialty retailers report that well-built, aesthetically pleasing displays help to drive sales of herp habitats.

"We try to have a few good display enclosures to show people what’s possible," said Grant Garton, co-owner of Gx3 Reptiles and Exotic Pets, a pet store in Sacramento, Calif. "Then we focus on interacting with customers."

Customer education is also an important part of Garton’s strategy.

"We’re a small store, so we do try to make sure customers understand what the animals need," Garton said. "From there, we try to give them options and show them why [those] particular terrarium dimensions work better for a particular animal."

Offering in-store displays that serve to increase customers’ interest in setups is very common, often serving to give customers ideas.

"I always recommend having an ‘inspiration’ tank set up in your store for customers to see," said Ashley Rademacher, animal care and education director for Zoo Med Laboratories, a manufacturer in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Zoo Med also provides access to instructional videos that retailers can share with customers to help them succeed in the hobby.

"For stores offering these items online or for pickup, they can always add a link to one of our videos showing how to build a paludarium," Rademacher said. "We strive to create a variety of resources to help retailers however we can. Our website, social media, and YouTube channel host several different ‘how-to’ and inspirational videos featuring Zoo Med products. Retailers should always feel free to share these videos on their websites, via social media and in-store."

In addition to providing customers with a vision for what terrariums and paludariums can be, in-store displays may actually serve as an avenue for sales of completed setups.

"Many beginners are still learning and may have a hard time envisioning what a terrarium can be," said Ryan McVeigh, brand manager for Zilla, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet. "One thing a store can do to drive customers to the terrariums is to have a few displays that are completely set up. The more they put into it and the more natural it looks, the better. This helps consumers to see how that glass box could be a focal point in their home. … For some stores, being able to design and construct the habitat in advance allows them to sell the finished setup to consumers that may be overwhelmed by the skills it takes to make them."

While some retailers find it too labor intensive, time consuming and difficult to merchandise these displays specifically for sale as-is, stores such as Gx3 Reptiles and Exotic Pets see it as an opportunity.

"We do a lot of [prebuilt displays for sale] with the bioactive encoders," Garton said. "We’ll set it up with isopods, springtails and everything else ready to go, and sell complete kits. We do quite a bit of that."

However, well-built displays take time and labor to put together, and trying to sell setups might not be worth the effort for some retailers.

"Every time we get a paludarium or a living vivarium and we put it together to keep it as a display to help customers get ideas, [customers] always end up wanting to buy ours," said Chris Giacoletti, owner of Reptile Island, which has three locations in Southern California. "When we tell them it’s not for sale, then people want us to build them for them. But the problem is, we don’t have time. I know that they’ll pay us for it, but … you’re looking at five to eight hours of work on a nice vivarium, and nobody is going to want to pay what it’s worth. That’s why we try to push for them to make it themselves."