The Keys to Selling Herptile Kits

With the holidays approaching, retailers should figure out the best method for marketing kits to potential shoppers.




I have long been a fervent foe of the pre-packaged kit when it comes to exotic animals. Virtually every major manufacturer/wholesaler of herptile supplies has a line of kits, and to my way of thinking, a store’s shelves stocked with these instant set-up kits are a bellwether for a store that doesn't give a damn about the animals they sell.


Here are my problems with this form of sale:

1) Kits presuppose that everybody’s homes are the same, and that all animals will flourish in all homes. The ambient temperature spectrums in Hawaii, Ariz. or Maine are going to all be radically different. Someone who opts to keep their pet in the bedroom is going to want different heating/lighting options than their neighbor who keeps their pet in the living room. Kits cannot necessarily accommodate the differences needed.


2) I find that kits tend to combine things their intended inhabitant needs with things that are optional or absolutely unnecessary, and sometimes include items that are even counter-productive. Companies do this at best to ramp up the price of the kit so that the discount seems like a better bargain than it actually is; at worst they are foisting off products that are slow movers to get them off their own shelves.


3) People buy kits to have an insta-pet. Thus, the many valuable lessons that can be learned about a new pet by carefully going through a step-by-step process of purchasing and setting up a cage and supplies are lost. They often get home with nary a clue as to how their new pet lives or what its basic needs might be. Generally, when I sell an animal, I work with the customer to first choose an appropriate pet.


There are many factors to consider: size, the primary caretaker, feeding regimen, etc. Then I go step-by-step in choosing the right cage and supplies, explaining that I am only going to show them the absolute necessities, leaving options like cage furniture aside. I carefully explain how the animal lives in the wild, what you can do in a cage to replicate that, what the food regimen should be and what to expect for future size and necessities.


I want folks to feel that I am not unduly pressuring the sale so that, when I say they need a certain item, they will trust me on it. Then, I explain what options are available that they might want to consider, while I start to write up their ticket. The sense that I am not pressure-selling often has the effect of getting people to buy even more than I might have suggested. I go over the basics with them once more and try to answer any questions that they may have, encouraging them to call me if they get home and something seems amiss. That is how to do a sale.


But I guess I am mellowing with age, because my attitude about kits is softening. With the holidays approaching, we will all need to step up our game in terms of our efficiency and dealing with customers’ impatience. People have a lot of shopping to do and probably didn't budget in the hour or so it might take to choose a pet, assemble its home and equipment, and get thorough care instructions. The question becomes how to complete a sale quickly without compromising the long-term satisfaction of the customer or the well being of the pet in question.


Here’s the answer: pre-assemble your own kits in-house. I tried this last year and things went very smoothly with few, if any, hiccups. Here is how to go about it:


1. Consider what animals you will have enough of on hand to make it worth assembling kits. If you only have two ball pythons, a kit would not be in order. If you have 40 baby tortoises, that’s where a kit will be beneficial.


2. Assemble your kit with only what you personally consider the base necessities, so that the package is something you can sell with confidence and your seal of approval. Make sure the set-up is tailored to specific animals, such as baby colubrid snakes, baby tropical snakes, leopard geckoes, baby bearded dragons or baby tortoises.


3. Include a care sheet. Again, make it personal to your store and not generic, and include your phone number for questions. The sheet should also show proper assembly for the supplies included.


4. Include a list of suggested options: cricket keeper, hide space, etc. Make sure the customer sees this before the sale is complete.


5. Total up the contents’ retail value and come up with a package price. This discount will often be the kicker that secures the sale.


6. Say “Happy Holidays!” at point of sale.


You might even consider printing up a label with your store logo so that everything you have sold bears your imprint. This is yet another level of developing customer confidence and trust. All that said and done, I would still be prepared to give customers as much time as they feel they need to get this done right. Just because you have a kit does not mean you can abdicate responsibility for the client having the tools to make this new family member work out well.


Here’s one more holiday tip that works really well in my store: advertise heavily in November that any animal purchased with supplies from Dec. 1 on gets free boarding till Christmas Eve. This solves a bunch of problems. People can now buy an animal in a less frenzied fashion and get a better selection to boot. They can take home—and hide—all the supplies, assured that they have a pet that will be well-cared for and not discovered by prying eyes. Parents will not have to worry about housing and caring for an animal in secret for weeks before gift day occurs. For you, it will keep a nice cash flow going into what is typically a slack time in our business. You will also have a more predictable flow of selling and replacing the product you sell, ensuring a fiscally better season for you.


Many of my friends in all kinds of businesses look upon this time of year with a certain sense of dread. We retailers often seem to have the joy beaten out of us. By being prepared early and well, we can all focus a little more on the pleasures of the season.


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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