Herp Trek: The Next Generation

As more kids take an interest in herp-keeping, it is wise for retailers to tailor their businesses to appeal to children and their parents.


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When I see kids wandering through my store, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, I try to imagine the store through their eyes.

It must be amazing. Lizards as big as they are, tortoises that fit in the palms of their hands and snakes capable—even if unwilling—of swallowing them whole. Such a store hardly existed in my own youth, despite the fact that I was at the epicenter of the burgeoning U.S. exotic animal trade—South Florida. I remember only two stores: one called The Electric Zoo, which closed a few months after opening, and another that had lion cubs and a price list that included baby elephants. It too did not last long.

Specialty herptile stores are now not only reasonably common, but it seems every major full-line independent and chain pet store has at least some form of live-herp display. And they all draw kids like honey draws flies. It wasn’t always so.

When I started in the business, herp-keeping seemed to be primarily a hobby of young adults. As the years passed, those young adults have become parents, and those parents are much more accepting of snakes and the like as pets. Consequently, the current market is very much a family affair. So, on any given Saturday, my store—and I am sure yours—is crammed with kids.

Business owners have much to gain by being conscious of this trend and thinking of constructive ways to take advantage of this shift in the marketplace. Making your shop kid-friendly should be a top priority.

Some years ago, we realized that our facility was being used as something of an amusement park—and a free one at that. So, we contacted some museum-quality toy companies and set up a line of affordable toys and games that ran in theme with our store. This allowed parents who might not be ready to take home a pet to walk out with something that mollified disappointed kids and put a little something in our coffers.

We also developed a store policy that has worked wonders. We used to allow potential customers to handle virtually any animal, before we started noticing that the store was become a de facto free petting zoo for many families. It was a practice that tied up employees’ time and even dissuaded impatient customers from making a purchase. This would not do.

We enacted a very reasonable “$5 for five minutes” petting fee, waivable at our employee’s discretion for those actually interested in buying an animal, but strictly enforced for those who just wanted to play and have souvenir photos taken. At first a few people were miffed, but most quickly recognized the necessity of the policy and thought it a fair price for the chance to hold these precious creatures. Frankly, those who left in a huff never would have been paying customers anyway.

Another thing to note about working with kids and families is that it requires a special skill to sell a pet and the necessary accoutrements to a family. One must be able to communicate well with both the kids and the parents—and meet the needs of both. You must make children feel like they are an active part of the decision-making process and that the pet they want is perfect. I find that kids really appreciate it when you speak to them at a level they can understand without talking down to them. Keep in mind that most kids interested in exotics are probably a little more sophisticated than their age might belie. Talk to a child as if you were equals, and more than likely, the child will respond by acting like one.

At the same time, one must make the parents feel that you are on their side. You can do this by assuring them that the pet they are looking at will be within their abilities in terms of time, resources and budget. You must also make sure that they have a complete handle on what will be needed, in terms of safety and husbandry.

Kids and parents are often at odds when it comes to pets; you must be the factor that pulls them both on the same page. To this end, when parents ask me to recommend an appropriate pet for their child, I consider this an opportunity to interview them: What size pet do they want? What can they handle in terms of feeding? Are mice off the table; is live food off the table? What did they imagine spending on the project?

I also tell parents that if buying the pet feels like a compromise, don’t do it. I would rather lose the sale than have them buy an animal that their child isn’t really in love with—an animal that will inevitably be back at my counter in a few weeks because “it just didn’t work out.” What I am really communicating is that I am not going to send them down a path to disaster. We are, in the end, all partners in this new project, and I want them to succeed.

I often find that there will be one family member who is not quite on board with the project. Traditionally, that unenthusiastic customer would be the squeamish mother, but I have seen many fathers visibly shaken, as mom is delighted with a little prancing tarantula. I have also seen younger siblings totally disinterested when big brother or sister is all over the new family monitor. When I see this dynamic, I like to say the following: “You know, I can’t help but notice that you are not as enthusiastic here as everybody else is. I feel obliged to tell you that in my decades of experience doing this, it’s typically the family member who is most reluctant who eventually comes around to love the pet most of all. I have seen it time and again.”

It’s true. I really have. And it plants a seed that maybe, just maybe, a self-fulfilling prophecy might happen. It is often the glue that seals the deal.

Believe me, I understand that kids can sometimes be difficult to have about. Some days it feels like they are in the store simply to wreak havoc and drive my entire staff mad. I have to remind myself that children—even the ones that are leaving handprints everywhere and randomly reorganizing every bit of shelf stock—are, in fact, my future customers. They are herpers in embryo, and some percentage of them will be back as customers. Someday.

Consider it a breeding project.


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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