Herptile Shelf Displays

Knowing the best products to order and stock are key to maintaining a successful herptile business.




I am a few months away from celebrating my 40th year as a pet professional. You might say I’m a little long in the fang. Given that run, there are still certain jobs in the day-to-day operation of my store that I do not entrust to anyone else. Some of those might seem obvious—reconciling the register, paying the bills and managing the office are all no-brainers as “owner duties.” However, I also am the primary when it comes to keeping the store stocked with product. This is a delicate balance of two activities, ordering product and keeping it on the shelves.


There are a couple of reasons I do this. The first is that the dry goods — or, as we say in my shop, “deadstock,” as opposed to “livestock” — key on my register is consistently and exponentially the busiest and the most fruitful. It’s where the store makes its profits. Though, I also use this as an example to set for my staff. I am willing and able to roll up my sleeves and do the real work of running a pet store. I let my employees have the pleasures of working with the animals and working with the customers, which is the real reason anybody ever gets into this business, right? I set the tone by doing the most prosaic, least fun, least interesting work on the floor. By doing this, I now have the unquestioned authority to ask nearly anything of my employees.


The other advantage here is that I have the prime spot for overhearing customers and employees. I hear the praise and the complaints of my customers to whom, as I stock out the Kritter Keepers, I am nearly invisible. I hear and can give feedback as my employees sell animals and supplies. I can correct mistakes in real time, and I can give props to my staff when they do an exceptional job. I can even jump into peoples’ conversations and correct misunderstandings about the animals, or offer advice early in the process for those who are unknowingly prepping themselves to dive into the hobby. I can see them becoming customers way before they see it themselves.


I mentioned that ordering and stocking are interlocked and complex. I order product from three or four main sources, and a few dozen independent manufacturers. Each company has its own peccadilloes regarding turnaround time between order placement and shipping. One company can consistently get things to me with a one-day turnaround; another will take up to a month. A third might arrive two days after my order, or, just as easily, 10 weeks. I have found no way to handle this other than to understand each company and plan accordingly.


Some stores manage this by reducing their sources to one distributor, and I suppose if your store is small enough, that’s a plan. But you will find yourself missing out on lots of products, some of which might give you a unique foothold with customers that are now forced to come to you as the sole purveyor of something they feel they need.


Shelf Organization

Being your store’s primary product shelver will help you feel the rhythm with which things sell and make you a more proficient orderer. I know a lot of stores use their register as an inventory control. I have talked over the years with both retailers and wholesalers about this method and without exception they tell me that some way, some how, eventually the reality of their stock and back stock is wildly divergent from what their machines tell them. I prefer the computer in my head.


I must admit that a part of my adherence to the job is that I can shelve things in a way that appeals to my eye, and my sense of aesthetics and control. When I took over the job from a previous partner, I was horrified by the mess on the shelves. He may have had some overarching rationale of how things should look, but for the life of me I could not detect it. There were light bulbs in three different locations, we had five different brands of submersible heaters, and small animal supplies were intertwined with hermit crab supplies.


Funny, the things you don’t notice when you are not specifically overseeing a job. The one part of this work that makes me a little crazy is the inevitable rehoming of products that have been kidnapped by people who feel the odd compulsion to pick up a random item, walk it to an entirely different part of the store, and set it down. It’s as if they think that this water bowl needs to take a vacation over with the glass tanks. Then there is the person who picks up an item, inspects it and then returns it…a foot away from where he had picked it up. Whatever it is in people’s genes that makes them do these things needs to be exorcised out.


It’s not enough to keep the shelves full. They also need to be orderly and clean. Like any store that carries animals as well as supplies, things get dusty. I mean, archaeological level dusty. So, at the start of my workweek, when floor stock is at its lowest, I take the opportunity to dust and clean. This is also the point at which I can think about reorganizing to incorporate new items and even lines onto our shelves. By mid-afternoon of my first day back, the shelves are full and clean, and I have integrated new items into the stock as well as given them a place on our new products shelf. Then, assuming I have not been usurped into other tasks, I am ready to start assessing with whom I need to place an order, and what that order might be.


The next few days will find me processing previously placed incoming orders. This is important work. When orders come in when I am not present, I insist they be relegated to the backroom until I can go through them. Even with the best of companies, and the best of procurers, mistakes happen. I recently received half a dozen vivaria that were 18 in. by 18 in. by 24 in., when I had ordered 12 in. by 12 in. by 18in. I was enraged! Until, that is, I reviewed my order—my mistake. By processing the order myself, I will know if I am shorted, sent too many or have received the wrong item. My employees will not be so careful.


By the end of my workweek, I will do one final floor stock, which, at the end of a busy Saturday, will take as much as three hours. But I will leave confident that I will lose no sales because things were not on the shelves. My store will look good, and I can spend my days off with the luxury of confidence in it.


Again, you might be thinking that I am burdening myself with work better left to minions. If I didn't have a partner equally devoted to his duties—he does the equivalent job with our livestock—I might concede that you have a point. Anybody can price out a case of light bulbs. But I am here to tell you that I consider this both the most banal and important work I do. And this may be the most banal, and the most important article I have written for this esteemed publication. If I bored you, I do apologize. Now, get back to work, things need to be displayed! 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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