An In-Store Education

Retailers should be as proactive as possible in educating their customers on the husbandry of species they sell.


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In the pet specialty business, one distinction that separates the sale of herps and fish from dog and cat sales—and, to a lesser extent, bird sales—is the amount of education retailers need to impart to customers before a new pet can safely go home. In truth, all pets need an informed and concerned owner, but dogs and cats have a jump start in that. As fellow mammals, humans have a basic understanding of how they work. This is not so with our scaly little friends.

I am a big advocate of educating my customer base, but I am also a big fan of efficiency. What is the most cost effective way to get information to our customers? I used to think that cage labeling was the start, and in a pre-Internet age, I was probably right. My cage signage not only included common names and prices, but also scientific names, wild habitat descriptions, ultimate size potential, diet information, and even the source for the specific animals in the cage. However, most people did not have the patience to read all of that information, and I wound up spending a lot of time answering customer questions for which the answer was right on the cage.

Providing comprehensive educational signage became even more ridiculous in the Internet age, when all that info was at our clients’ fingertips. Our current signage consists of nothing more than common name, scientific name and price. That seems sufficient.

In California, storeowners are legally required to hand out specific care sheets with every pet sold. That is a good thing. Frankly, we were doing this years before the legal requirement was enacted. Our care sheets describes basic setup and maintenance—as much as can be reasonably covered in the space of a front and back single sheet. The store’s name and phone number are also clearly visible on every sheet.

In the pre-Internet era, I used to protect those sheets; they only went out at point of sale. I felt our information, based on decades of experience, was unique to us. That specialness is one more thing that is now gone with the wind. However, there is still a major benefit to having unique, proprietary care sheets.

When you sell an animal and send it home, you want your client following your care instructions. There are hundreds of sources available to customers, but not all of that information is correct and accurate. You have a vested interest in the animal you sold; your customers’ success reflects well on you, and conversely, their failure will inevitably fall at your doorstep. If someone purchases a pet from you, but finds their care advice elsewhere and fails, I guarantee you will still be held accountable.

I find that every store seems to develop its own culture and way of doing things. There is a store very near me that advocates a bedding that you would never find in my store for any animal. There is another store that refuses to carry one of the most popular pet snakes on the planet, under the misguided impression that all of that species are doomed to be difficult captive animals. That’s fine. We all develop certain prejudices and practices, and individual storeowners should indeed stand by what works for them. So, develop your own care sheets, and insist that your customers be loyal to your way of doing things.

One problem with the care-sheet system is that your own staff may sometimes disagree with your policies. We all come into this hobby as individuals, and just as stores develop their own methodologies, so do individuals. I try to be open to the opinions of my staff, and I have often changed store regimes based on their excellent experience and suggestions. However, you are in charge. It is your store, and your decisions must be the final word. Make sure your staff understands your opinions and policies, and acquiesces to your final word. 

Of course, there is so much more to know beyond a care sheet. I have very strong personal opinions on animals as diverse as ball pythons, Russian tortoises, Jackson’s chameleons, North American box turtles and hermit crabs. Many of my opinions are based on knowing something of these animals’ lives in the wild., but most of my opinions are based on things that have happened to me in the store over the course of 36 years. Telling this kind of story in person to customers broadens their vision of what the animal is all about, and directly improves their understanding of and care for their new pet.

We regularly have staff meetings, and the fun part of those meetings is sharing these stories with each other. I am always heartened when I overhear one of my staff echoing one of my stories back to a customer, and I myself often share employees’ stories. Education is most effective when it is personal and based on real-world experience.

I have seen some stores take this idea one step further by offering seminars to their customers. I have no personal experience with this other than one night class I once taught for an adult school, which was, honestly, poorly attended and a bit of a mess. I have not tried it in-store, as we are physically not set up for it, and I have seen no evidence that people want it. Hosting seminars or classes seems to fall more squarely in the domain of herp societies. I would be fascinated to hear from a retailer who has tried it. I see the possibility for this working, but it also seems fraught with difficulty.

However, my store did find a way to expand on the care-sheet approach, and it was really much easier than one might expect. A few years ago, we had a tech-savvy young employee who came up with the idea of producing in-house husbandry DVDs. Over a series of a dozen or so evenings, my partner developed and shot half-hour shorts detailing setup and maintenance for geckos, chameleons, arachnids, tortoises, water turtles, colubrid snakes, boas and pythons, and amphibia. It required a minor investment in equipment for filming and production, but to this day, we have our own in-house DVDs that we sell for a nominal amount or give away on bigger sales.

Sure, it took some initial time, money and effort, but it used to be that every sale—be it a $5 anole or a $1,000 rhinoceros iguana—would take an hour of employee time. With the DVD, that time investment can be reduced to about 15 minutes. Now, that is efficient.


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 s specialty stores in the U.S.

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