Indoctrinating New Herpers

When a family interested in purchasing their first pet walks into the store, retailers can make them comfortable with helpful suggestions and sound advice.


A family walks into the store. Little Justin is convinced he wants a corn snake, but sister Ashley wants a bearded dragon. Mom is leery of both options, asking questions about ultimate size, danger and the necessity of live food. Dad is comparing prices on setups to see if this project is feasible at all. As the person behind the counter, the retailer has just encountered the basic family of first-time herpers. Where do you start, and where do you lead them?

The responsibilities as a salesperson are multiple and sometimes seem at odds. The goal is to make a sale that satisfies customers and engenders their probable return; is profitable for the store and uses time efficiently; and, most importantly, that places the right animal in the right environment with the right caretakers. The retailer is a counselor and search engine, and if they do their job correctly, customers will leave the store thinking they have found a pet guru.

I always start with this bit of advice: the right pet for a child is the pet that the child believes he has chosen. The best role a parent can play is to guide a child’s decision-making so that the pet is also one that the parents (ultimately the persons responsible for the pet’s well-being) will also accept. However, the child must feel like he or she made the choice. If the child acts like this was a compromise or doesn’t evidence any enthusiasm, I suggest that the family come back another day and try again. Ultimately, customers will feel that the store is acting in their best interest and they will develop a sense of trust that will lead to a better, smoother and more profitable eventual sale.

Once a type of pet has been chosen, the retailer can start to narrow the field toward the goal of the right specific animal. Let us say, for instance, that the family knows that they want a snake. I will start asking pertinent questions that will help me find the right snake for them. Do they mind a diet of live mice? How big do they ultimately envision the pet getting? How much space can they allot to the cage? How much handling do they envision the animal will receive? Which family member will be the primary caregiver? The answers to each of these questions will lead to various points of education (the size issue for instance, is often revised when I ask the family to think of the foot-length they mention as a coiled up piece of rope. . . “oh, well it could be bigger than the one foot length you mentioned, then”) and help provide the family with good choices.

Considering Budget
I also ask, as discretely as possible, what kind of budget the customer has envisioned for this project. Sometimes I get a number that is simply unworkably small, or sometimes customers will claim to already have some of the necessary equipment and thus be able to spend a little less. If the money allotted for this new pet is not enough, it is not enough. Times are tough and sometimes folks just can’t do this right. It’s better to let that sale go than to compromise on important pet necessities. Ultimately, there will be a dissatisfied customer who is likely to blame the store for the disappointment or, worse, a sick or dead pet. I often explain that, when I go shopping for a rug or stove, for instance, I first think of what I imagine it will cost. Then I double it, and usually that’s what it costs. This bit of fun puts you on the customers’ side and will often cause them to reanalyze their budget and come back with something more realistic.

Once there is a budget in mind, and a pretty good idea of the parameters of what kind of animal the family is after, start to show them possible selections. Let us go back to our family that wants a snake. Let’s say they’ve budgeted around $75 on the snake itself. At this point, I will pull out perhaps six to 10 snakes. Some of them will be in the $40 range, and most will come in right around the $75 we had determined. Here’s a good sales trick: Because I have shown them a few snakes below the price they set, I feel comfortable saying to them, “I know this one snake is a little above the range we discussed (I’ve pulled out something in the $100-$125 range) but I had to show this one because it’s my favorite and its exactly what you’ve described as what you wanted.” You’ll be shocked how often this bit of dazzlement works.

The essence of good salesmanship is the development of trust. Once a retailer has earned a client’s trust, they can be assured of solid sales and an appreciative and returning customer. All of the suggestions I have given so far have had this goal in mind. We are at a great advantage in the pet business because, by and large, we actually do sell things we believe in and love. Trust is easy to engender when you are telling the truth.

But here’s one more tip. When putting together a set-up for a new pet I always ask the customer to make the basic cage decision (glass tank? wood cage? etc.) with me based on information I have provided, and then I ask them to give me a few minutes to put together supplies. I tell them they are welcome to shop for what I call the “cage furniture,” but that a broken pot or cardboard box will do just as well as what I sell. I let them know that what I am about to pick out are the bare essentials to keep their new pet happy and healthy, and that I won’t try to sell them extraneous materials. I then educate them as to the placement and use of what I have chosen for them. Because I have developed a relationship of trust, I can comfortably sell the right supplies without the customer fearing that I’ve taken advantage of them. This frees up the customer’s mind and allows them to shop for extraneous materials without having to worry that all their bases are covered. I actually get more of that kind of material sold in this way than I would have by suggesting it myself.

As I am wrapping up the sale to the new herpers, there will often be that one reluctant family member still looking skeptical and a bit nervous. More often than not, my parting advice to that person will be, “You know, it’s often the most reticent person in the family who ends up loving that new pet the most.” And more often than not, it turns out to be true.

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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