Assembly Required
by Owen Maercks
November 1, 2011
Retailers that assemble their own prefab herb kits stand to reap the benefits these kits offer, while avoiding the pitfalls.



Everybody loves convenience. Pet store owners love “complete” reptile kits because the kits theoretically remove the burden of instruction from them (my employees will sometimes take a half-hour to explain how to set up and maintain a $5 anole). Should the customer’s project go south, the storeowner can also point the finger of blame at the kit rather than the store. Patrons, on the other hand, love kits because they no longer have to spend a half hour at the counter receiving an education—plop it down, pay the bill, and you’re on your way.

The pets are, perhaps, not so fond of the kits. Should the products be misunderstood or misused, the animal suffers. When answered questions are replaced by guesswork, the animal suffers. When the equipment provided is insufficient or plain wrong, the animal suffers. Also, when everything is prefab, the new pet owner does not have a chance to really understand the way a setup works and what the new pet really requires.

For a retailer, selling a prefab kit can also be a missed opportunity. When a client, especially a new-to-the-hobby client, puts themselves into a retailer’s hands, that customer is granting the retailer a measure of trust. Sell that customer a prefab kit and you are passing that trust on to someone else, instead of developing any kind of ongoing relationship with the customer.

I garner a large percentage of new business from people who have gone to other stores and had terrible experiences, either by being treated perfunctorily and sold kits, or by actually getting their new pets into trouble from the insufficient advice and poor material choice in those kits. 

But there is a way to leverage the convenience and benefits of selling kits, while maintaining both your integrity and clientele—build your own.


Everything Included
Make a list of your best-selling herps, and then assemble a set of kits that include all the products you deem essential to the care of each species. Focus on essentials, leaving the optionals up to the client. For instance, I always tell leopard gecko customers that they are welcome to buy “cage furniture” in my store, but a broken pot can achieve the same effect. They often still buy the decor, but now they feel like I have not been fleecing them.

Pre-assembling several setups for, say, leopard geckoes, bearded dragons, baby snakes and tortoises, saves a huge amount of time, but retailers should still have the pleasure of running through all the items with the client to avoid mishaps or misunderstandings when they get home. This will be a real godsend in the holiday rush to come.

Once you have some prototype kits assembled, price out the contents, knock some persuasive percentage off the total, and you have your setups almost ready to go.

One thing that I find is essential to make this successful (and here in California, legally a necessity) is a care sheet. Including a book or DVD is a great idea too, but it should not replace a sheet with the retailer’s instructions for setup and maintenance.

I get calls all the time from people who have bought animals and setups elsewhere and are coming to me desperate for help. I always tell them that their first source of information should be the shop from which they purchased the animal. If, in fact, they follow my instructions and fail, they will have no recourse with the point of purchase. If they follow the instructions of the original seller and fail, that seller will have a vested interest in making things right. Typically, they are so frustrated that they come to me anyway. I gain a customer and the other shop loses one. Avoid that scenario by having a simple, straightforward information sheet with your name and phone number on it.

Can you recall the original prefab herp kit? Millions of them sold when I was a kid. And millions of animals died as a result of the misleading assumptions those kits were based upon. They were improperly lit, unheated, had enough room only for the animal in its infancy and included a diet that guaranteed the animal would fail. I saw them on the market as recently as 20 years ago, and occasionally, I still see them at antique fairs today.

Those tiny turtle torture tanks were truly emblematic of the problems inherent in letting corporations do your work for you. Although the industry has come a long way, putting together your own herp kit is a tremendous opportunity to connect with customers. Assemble a package you can stand behind, and your customers will stand behind you. PB


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.