When facing low margins on live animals and cages, retailers can invest in a creative stock of cage furniture to help turn a profit.
It is well known in the tropical fish business that stores don’t make much profit on the fish. Nor do they make much profit on the tanks. The money is in the stuff that goes into the tank—both the necessary gear that makes the tank function and the doodads that make it attractive. The same thing has finally become true in the reptile business as well.
Competition online and at the all-too-frequent herp expos has driven prices on animals down to a point at which stores can only hope to survive by adjusting their livestock prices accordingly, and by buying with an extremely sharp eye. The price points on caging have always been challenging, but never more so than lately.
And so, reptile retailers need to turn to dry goods (I like to call it ‘deadstock,’ as opposed to livestock) to find a part of the package that can provide actual income. This dependence needs to be recognized and acted upon for us to be successful. In my store, the deadstock key is the strongest key on our register every day. In particular, I’d like to talk about cage furniture.
You may not know it, but if you keep herps, you are, in part, an interior decorator. Manufacturers and wholesalers have responded in recent years by providing a cornucopia of products for us. They cover a broad range of styles and prices, and part of the fun of being a retailer these days is choosing the ones that best fit your store’s and your customers’ aesthetic from all these fantastic products.
I always start a sale by helping the customer choose a pet. As part of that process, I always ask, as nicely as possible, what the customer envisions as a total cost for the project. Knowing that, I can balance out how much can be spent on the animal, the cage and the incidentals, and thus I know what price range to look at for the pet itself.
Once I have the pet selected, I also have an idea of what caging would be appropriate for both the animal and the budget. When the pet and cage have been selected, I ask the customer to give me a few minutes to put together the essentials for the setup. While I am doing that, I invite them to look around at possibilities for cage decor.
I want to earn the client’s trust, so I will say something like “You will need a hide space and water bowl. Now, I’ve got a lot of really neat things here, but you can take an old broken pot and a soup bowl at home and you’ll have a hide space and water bowl. You don’t have to buy that stuff from me. I am telling you this because I want you to trust me on the things I think are essential. The other stuff is optional.”
I say this because first, it’s true, and second, people seem to always find that level of honesty not only refreshing, but liberating. Once they get that I am not trying to con them, they are more likely to spend money on the optional stuff and more likely to buy a high-end hide space, for instance, than a cheap one. That may seem counter-intuitive, but my overwhelming experience is that it works.
Cage furniture basically breaks down into six categories: hide boxes (and hydration boxes), plants, branches, bowls, water features and statuary.
I cannot think of a single ground-dwelling animal that doesn’t appreciate a good hide space.
Perhaps the most popular ones in my shop are the cork oak rounds and hollowed pine half logs (we primarily carry the Zoo Med versions). The nice thing about the half logs is that, if you place them so that the open end is against the back of the cage, the animal feels protected but the human still has good visual access. They also look attractive and natural within the cage (always a first priority in my shop).
There is a very clever hide box on the market that can be placed up against the front glass with a magnetized lid that goes on the outside of the glass, which can be removed to reveal the animal. A word of caution: removing the lid eases the pressure on the hide space, which means that gaps can appear around the edges. When the magnetized lid is replaced, those gaps can close up swiftly and tightly, endangering pets’ toes and tails.
Hydration boxes (essentially hide boxes stuffed with damp moss, newspaper or leaf litter) are particularly useful for animals that typically require fairly low humidity but want high humidity to shed. Here’s an instance where I tell my clients that they can make one out of an old plastic container by cutting a hole in the side big enough for the pet to enter and exit, but not so big that the humid material within will tend to dry out. On the other hand, I have these very attractive ones sculpted to look like rocky outcroppings right over here…
We carry a small selection of live plants for use in tanks for animals like dart frogs and crested geckos, which require very low-level heating. However, the vast majority of animals we sell demand a level of heating that precludes having live plants, which will burn both from overhead lighting and heating pads. Consequently, we sell a lot of imitation plants and vines. Fluker’s Farms makes a particularly good line of six-foot vines.
I like to tell people that artfully arranged fake plants can look almost as good as the real thing, and they have the advantage that they can be removed and cleaned—plus, they almost never die! One word of caution: Most cage inhabitants prefer broad leaves, and I emphasize those varieties in my stock. My best seller is the Exo Terra silk “Abutilon.” I have no idea what an abutilon is, but I can tell you that it looks suspiciously like an herb that is only legal in my state with a doctor’s note, and, when customers bring it to the counter, I always jokingly ask if they have the necessary prescription.
I carry several types of branches, depending on what I can find available. Here in California, grape wood is a common byproduct of the wine industry and comes in a couple of varieties. I love cork oak as well, as the bark is soft and thus easy on lizards’ nails, and it is also extremely fire resistant. If an animal pushes a branch up against a heat source, it will smoke but almost never burn.
For water bowls, I carry the basic clay crocks from Super Pet and Ethical Products’ Spot brand. These are good in that they are heavy and have a low center of gravity, making them difficult for animals to upend and flood the cage. I also carry a few lines of bowls that are resin based and nicely imitate rocks.
Water features (waterfalls and the like) are incredibly attractive to customers. Unfortunately, they are so attractive that people often want to include them in setups for entirely inappropriate animals. When customers are trying to add a waterfall to a bearded dragon enclosure, they are in fact putting the animal, which in the wild might go an entire lifetime without seeing standing water, at risk. Rainforest tanks? Sure. Makes sense. All other enclosures need to avoid the ever-seductive waterfall. By the way, Zoo Med makes a very nice do-it-yourself waterfall kit.
Statuary is the tough one. Again, I think the products you offer should reflect the aesthetics of your store (the more commercial of you will argue that you should stock what you can sell, and leave your own taste out of the equation, and I get that. Go for it). I carry a nice line of imitation human and animal skulls, with a sign above them with the first words a customer said when we introduced the line: “Dude. Skulls!” I like things in my store to reflect a basic love of natural history, so I leave it at that. But of course, you can go wild on that kind of thing, which brings to mind one of my customers.
A very nice woman who has a savannah monitor once showed me a picture of his cage. She works in a science fiction bookstore. The lizard has a big cage (8 ft. x 4 ft. x 3 ft.), which she has patiently and beautifully modeled on a recreation of downtown Tokyo in ruins. The monitor has a heated den beneath the city, so it is functional for the well-being of her pet, as well as an incredible display within her house.
Can you guess the lizard’s name? I knew you could.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.