Herptile Marketing

How to use media, neighboring stores and business associates to get a store’s name out into the community.


When I first bought my store (or more accurately, when it acquired me) way back in 1988, our local newspaper interviewed me and asked what my goal for the store was. I replied that I wouldn’t rest until every block in the community had at least one household with a pet reptile. I’m not sure that I’ve achieved that goal, but I would say that my store has become a focal point for the community, with locals constantly bringing out-of-towners by for a visit. When a store has good standing and a positive reputation within the local area, this sort of thing naturally evolves, and the word-of-mouth will certainly reduce a store’s advertising budget.

There are many ways to extend a reptile profile outside the confines of a store, but the first step is to make sure the payoff is there when people step through the doors. Even a small reptile department can set itself apart by maintaining high standards of cleanliness and upkeep, a friendly and knowledgeable staff, and a few spectacular and unusual denizens in the cages. Ever notice how the big-box stores never have large reptiles, even though they might have them as babies? Ever notice how their livestock rarely goes beyond the ordinary or easily acquired? Ever notice how their brand selection almost never goes beyond the most major lines? For an independent store, these big-box deficiencies are an ace-in-the-hole.

Community Outreach
Once a store has developed a strong herp department, it is time to aggressively tie the store to the community. This campaign can take many forms. Many stores sponsor Little League teams, work cooperatively with the local school system’s science departments or support local Scout troops.

The first thing I did when I launched my business was contact the local media and apprise them that the reptiles were coming. I did it to get an initial boost and some short-term publicity, but the long-term effects continue to this day. Any reptile-related issue that comes up in the news makes me a shoo-in for the “local tie-in” interview. Once a store gets its name out there, it will be considered the community’s local expert. I parlayed that initial publicity into a regular guest slot on a local radio talk show, as well as innumerable television and print interviews.

Making Friends
One thing I like to do is tie myself to other local businesses that reflect my business style and ethics. I have a business card display of other stores that complement mine without competing–local hobby stores, bookstores and a natural history store. My vet’s card is also prominently displayed.

 I always stress the importance of having a strong relationship with a carefully chosen local vet. We send all of our new customers home with a discount coupon for an initial visit with our vet, and he refers his herp clients to us.

Love Thy Neighbors
Many pet stores are often located in business zones with other stores in close physical proximity, so look at cross-promotional ideas involving business neighbors–a localized street festival, a sidewalk sale or a business block-wide sale. This is an opportunity for the store to be the binding and driving force in a neighborhood, and the roots sewn by extending a hand to work cooperatively with neighbors can lead to benefits down the line. It’s often the leaders of small ventures that end up having the political clout on future issues of zoning, parking, etc.

I have also developed a bond with a local grocer, where I used to dumpster dive for my herptiles’ veggie needs. When the owner realized who I was and what I was after, he started setting the produce that has gone bad aside for me. He has a new way to reduce his garbage bill every week, and my store gets our veggie eaters fed inexpensively.

It’s easy to get creative about ways to trade skills and merchandise within a business community. Bartering is, of course, the earliest foundation of modern economics, and still can be a great asset.

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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