All For Show
While reptile shows might not be an instant moneymaker, savvy retailers can use them as valuable marketing and bargain-shopping opportunities.
In many senses, the occasional weekend live reptile expos that go on around the country have been the bane of brick-and-mortar retailers since they first started occurring. However, as they clearly are popular with the public, well-attended and omnipresent, they are now a reality of the industry, and independent retailers must learn to adjust and move forward.
I am going to start this article by listing my litany of complaints with these shows because this critique is something with which you can engage customers across the counter, encouraging them to think twice before making purchases there.
First of all, these shows are overwhelmingly attended by people new to the hobby. They are often dazzled by what they see and end up spontaneously buying an animal they have not researched and are little prepared to handle. They walk out of the show with a living thing for which they have no proper caging or supplies for or even a clue as to how to go about acquiring these things. I find that very few breeders have the time or patience to educate a buyer about their new pet, and since they know that once the show is done the customers are gone and hard to track down, they have no incentive to spend that kind of time or effort. Shops like yours and mine depend on their reputation and goodwill to stay in business; many breeders are less concerned with this.
Secondly, the shows are open to anyone to sell. This means that amateurs are in competition with those whose living depends on making a profit on their sales. Since amateurs can price animals at whatever their whim dictates, professionals are forced into competition with them. This creates bargain prices from the buyers’ perspective, sure, but at quite a cost to you and me. On top of that, the quality and health of the animals can be incredibly variable, and that is to the buyers’ detriment, to an extreme that cancels out the “bargain” prices. In fact, I know of certain unscrupulous vendors who use the shows to dump unhealthy or genetically problematic animals.
Thirdly, I am often amazed at the lack of variety at the shows. I have seen what seems like acres of nothing but ball python morphs, corn snake morphs, leopard gecko morphs and bearded dragon morphs. This is reinforced by the fact that many shows, quite reasonably, require that all animals sold be captive bred. I have to imagine that a lot of customers walk out disappointed because of this.
How can we actually turn these shows to our advantage? Through trial and error, my store has figured out some strategies for competing in this difficult market, which I will share with you here.
The first step is to determine what shows are actually important for being a vendor. We participate in any show that we consider to be in our geographic backyard. The fact is, even if you never sell a thing, you need to be a visible entity so that new people to the hobby are aware of you. We also will try to go to shows that are outside our immediate territory but seem viable, both in the sense of how well they are run and advertised, and in being close enough to not be onerous in terms of driving and other expenses. Some of those shows play out to be moneymakers; others disappoint and will probably not see our presence a second time.
You need to do local shows to promote your existence, but not just in a theoretical sense. If somebody walks up to your table with a just- purchased animal, engage them. Do they have a source for food? Are they set with a cage and supplies? You have an opportunity to garner a new customer even if you lost out on the animal sale. Hand out cards. Hand out fliers. Maybe make them redeemable for an in-store discount. Get them into your place of business! Simply giving folks solid advice on the care and wellbeing of their new pet can be an avenue of trust with big ultimate payoffs.
Once you have determined which shows you want to do, try to figure out ways to have products that will not compete with the other vendors. Do you breed something unusual? Do you have customers from whom you can consign interesting and different animals? Do you have a line on a product no one else seems to carry? Do you make your own cages, or cage furniture? These should be the focus of your table. If you have something for which you are the sole vendor, you are liberated to set the price such that you can make a profit. Even if you bring nothing but corn snakes, keep your price reasonable, but do not low-ball. When someone asks you why your corn snake is a bit more than the guy a table over, explain that you offer backup and a place to go if there are problems. Don’t overtly criticize a specific competitor, but it is easy to throw a cloud of doubt over fly-by-nights in general. Stand by the quality of what you offer.
Remarkably, even given the extra expenses (table fee, extra personnel, gas, etc.), it is possible with a bit of strategic planning, to make a profit at a reptile show. When you add in the customers you can attract into your store (often on the same day!), the shows can even be a bonanza for you.
Two More Strategies to Pursue
As a vendor, you will be there for setup and thus privy to what people are selling before the general public has seen a thing. Get there in time to not only set up but to pre-shop. While I think it rude and off-putting to try to bargain at that point, it is entirely possible you will see things you need at prices you think are way under market value. I have seen vendors whose show stock is derived largely from bargains they have scooped up off others’ tables in the hours before the show opens.
The end of the show can also be a fruitful time for a savvy retailer. A lot of people want to go home with nothing and would rather sell off their remaining stock at a pittance than take it home. As a retailer, this is a great time to pick up bread-and-butter stock for the upcoming year.
Consider the shows not so much as an immediate profit center, but as a resource for continued sales throughout the year, and you can indeed turn them into a positive aspect of your retail experience. They are, if nothing else, a necessary and useful part of your advertising budget. 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.