Homey Touches

Herptile retailers should be ready and able to help aesthetics-minded customers transform a bare-bones enclosure into an attractive piece of décor.




Any live animal sale involves a four-step process. First, determine the customer’s wants and needs, and help choose the appropriate animal. Second, select a home to match. Next, choose all appropriate necessary accessories, and finally, offer optional accessories.


The first two steps require the customer’s input and education. When I have those aspects of the sale covered, I usually offer to have the customer browse while I assemble the items that constitute necessities. I mention that I am going to outfit the cage, and while I do, they might want to think about possibilities for decoration. I will say, “Look, I am going to present you with what you absolutely need, and I won’t insist on anything beyond that. Because I want you to trust me on that, I won’t push anything on you that’s optional. For instance, I have plenty of hiding spaces for sale, but an old broken pot can be a hiding space, so you don’t need to buy that from me. But look around and see if there is anything you like.”


While they are browsing, I put together the essentials, and I let them know when I am done. Almost inevitably, they have assembled a plethora of manufactured branches, plants, skulls and the like by then. The trust I have engendered typically gets folks inclined to buy more doodads than they might otherwise have done.


We then go through the animal’s needs and how the components of the cage will support them. I also examine what they have chosen, praising them when they have selected an item that is cool and appropriate to the pet’s life and habitat, and gently educating them when the item might be counterproductive. For instance, I have had clients ready to install a waterfall in a bearded dragon’s enclosure. This would be not only inappropriate, but potentially deadly to an animal that has evolved in arid terrains.


I have seen so many stores that just try to pile every gimmick and thingamabob that they can get away with into a sale to maximize the per-sale profit margin, but I have also seen the exasperation in the faces of those people who have been railroaded into such a purchase. Those customers, once what has happened dawns on them, vow never to return to that store. I prefer developing a customer who will be there with me for the long haul, and the way to do that is with honesty, cooperation and keeping the pet’s best interests in mind.


On the Market

Cage furniture has become an enormous part of the herptile business, just as aquarium decorations are huge for the tropical fish sector. There are new products coming out all the time, some bogus, but many quite wonderful.


Perhaps the most obvious place to start is with imitation plants. Live plants have always been problematic for most herps, as the heat requirements often burn them up both from above and below. Nothing kills plant roots like an under-tank heater. People often seem dubious that plastic plants can look good; I invite them to look again at the cages throughout my shop. With a little artistic panache, they can be made to look compellingly alive.


With all plants, it is important to steer people to the ones that best suit the pet, and mostly that means broad leaves. I really like the Smart Plant line made by Exo Terra, which features hidden cups where dart frogs might lay their eggs and hidden drip tubes by which one can set up a small pump to create a continuous flow up and over the leaves. They also make a nice line of well-priced regular plastic plants.


But my biggest sellers from the line are the Abutilon vines that hang from above. They are made of silk, and while I am not quite sure what Abutilon is, I know a marijuana leaf when I see it. I cannot keep them in stock and will often joke with customers that they need a doctor’s note to buy them. Fluker’s Farms also makes a nice line of six-foot vines in four styles. They are very real looking and incredibly popular.


Branches are another item that customers could provide their own seemingly easily enough, and yet I sell hundreds of branches every week. I warn my shop’s patrons that wild-collected wood could potentially bring in parasites, sap leakage and other issues. I tell them that if they do collect their own wood, make sure it is dead, dry and non-aromatic. Here in California, we have easy access to grape wood, as vineyards are constantly replacing older sections of their farms. It is typically sandblasted, and thus non-problematic. It is also surprisingly variable, as different strains of grape produce different woods. There are, of course, also man-made branches made of ceramic or plastic.


Hide spaces for reptiles are an item I cannot seem to keep in stock. My number one go-to for hides are the cork “rounds” made by Zoo Med (they also produce cork “flats”; I carry them too, but the rounds seem to be the ones that go). Cork oak grows a bark that is flexible enough to remove from the branch, and the resultant section of bark makes a perfect retreat. Cork oak also has the advantage of being comparatively soft—lizards don’t seem to get their nails caught in it—and flame resistant, so an errant tube that gets jostled up next to a heat source is reluctant even to smoke.


For those who want their pets to feel hidden, but still want visual access, there are hollowed out half logs made of pine, also from Zoo Med, that satisfy both the pet’s and pet owner’s desires. Do they look natural? Not at all. Do they look good? Absolutely. One convenient aspect of these is that one never has trouble retracting a pet from them, which is not true of many hides.


One problem with pet snakes is humidity levels—the enclosure can be consistent with their needs most of the time, but way too dry when it comes time to shed. Again, this is an instance at which you can let customers know about the homemade option. All they need to do is cut a hole in the side of a deli cup big enough for the pet to enter and exit and then fill it halfway with damp moss—instant humidity chamber. But, wow, that is one ugly piece of furniture. Zoo Med again comes to the rescue with its Repti Shelter, available in three sizes. It looks like a little rocky outcropping, has easy access for snake and human and makes a beautiful addition to the cage.


For some of your customers, the focus is purely on the beauty of the animals. They want the cage to be simply a matter of function. There’s nothing wrong with that. But for a growing number of people, the idea is that not only do they have a wonderful pet, but the place it lives is an addition to their home that is in and of itself a thing of beauty. My own store has evolved in its use of shelf space over the years to carry more and more products to serve their needs. PB


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.


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