Tapping the High-End Market
by Owen Maercks
November 1, 2012
Competition abounds in the high-end segment of the herptile market, but there are ways for retailers to level the playing field.



Those of you who have read my previous columns in Pet Business will be used to my tips and suggestions aimed at making independent retailers competitive in the herp marketplace. I will tell you that I am generally confident in the advice I give, given that I have been in the game for a third of a century now and have a fairly good handle on how to be creative, ethical, and have fun, while simultaneously being profitable. That being said, this month’s column may be the most difficult I have ever tried to write.

There is a sector of our marketplace that is, frankly, difficult at best for a retail brick-and-mortar store to tap: the high-end sale. It used to be that pet stores were virtually the only way for the general public to acquire a pet reptile. Those days are long gone.

We now face competition from the Internet, private breeders and reptile expos that are commonplace around the country. Internet sellers have vastly reduced overhead compared to retailers; they have smaller staffs, can operate in low-rent locations, and are not subject to countless ancillary costs that retailers must accept as a way of life. The Internet marketplace is an ever-increasing way for consumers to shop, and it is sometimes impossible for a traditional retailer to compete with online prices.

Private breeders and expo sellers, meanwhile, are often in the marketplace simply to subsidize their hobby; and they are not driven by the necessity of selling herps to put food on the table. Consequently, they can and will sell their offspring far below market value, or even below break-even value against their expenses, thus making retailers’ usually quite reasonable prices seem outlandishly high.

Given these economic pressures, one might think it impossible to compete against e-tailers and hobbyists, and sometimes it is. There will be customers who stand across from you at your own counter and blithely talk about all the animals they purchased through these sources. All you will be able to do is smile politely and congratulate them on their good fortune, despite your inner urge to leap across the counter and throttle them.

Of course, we do have some advantages over those who sell privately or at shows. We can have, in one location and at any time, a wider range of animals than customers can find at reptile shows, which, of late, seem populated by nothing but ball pythons and leopard geckoes. We have all the ancillary products one might need for a pet: food, caging and supplies. We have advice and support for those who, once they have purchased an animal at one of these venues, are frustrated and stymied by the fact that private breeders and e-tailers are often hard to track down and little-motivated to provide help. I have many a customer that, given a few experimental purchases aimed at saving a few bucks, have now virtually sworn fidelity to my store.


Staying in the Game
There are a few tricks that might even help you snag some of those high-dollar sales you often hear about but rarely feel in your wallet.

Keep in mind that caging is rarely offered either online or at shows. Even when it is, the manufacturers of these items are not hobbyists. They are motivated by the same bottom line as you are. Most caging is both difficult and expensive to ship. You are in a prime position to outfit not only the animals you sell, but those purchased from your competitors. I try to keep a full line of glass tanks and wood cages in stock, and I also make it very clear that if my customers don’t see what they like, they can special order nearly anything they might imagine. Offering precisely what your customer fantasizes about can lead to some very high dollar sales indeed. I also offer to install any of the heating or lighting units they might purchase from me. Ten minutes of my employees’ time is well worth the addition of a thermostat, light fixture or waterfall purchase that might otherwise have gone to a mail-order company.

In order to keep my business in the public eye, I always vend at reptile shows in my area, even when it is difficult to find a price point against my competition. If I lose a little money at the show, it will still benefit me in the long run. The show lasts a weekend, but my business will still be open once the show is a vague memory. The show introduces a lot of new hobbyists to the store, which will end up being their week-in, week-out source from then on.

The other big advantage of vending at shows is that you get to meet and befriend the breeders around you that are your competitors. I have found that many of these folks sell at the shows because they feel they can’t trust local retailers to properly care for “their babies.” Over the years, many breeders have come to trust me and see the advantage of selling their offspring in one fell swoop rather than piecing them out to strangers over the course of a weekend.

Vending at these shows also allows you a first peek at what people are breeding and selling. I always make sure to walk the show before it officially opens, noting prices and inventories. Sometimes I see unique animals that their own producers have not recognized as special, and I arrange trades or make purchases that have tickled me to no end.

When the show is winding down and customers have dwindled, vendors tend to be fatigued and are regretting sales not made of stock that needs to be packed and sent home—not a fun job. This is the point at which you can sometimes pick up high-value animals for a song. I can often make killer deals by offering to buy large groups of animals that the vendor will no longer need to worry over.

To this end, whenever I can, I also attend reptile shows around the country. I often buy a table space, not to actually sell, but for the advantage of early entry and the ability to stay inside once the show has officially closed. By the way, ethics and manners dictate that you inform the shows’ promoter that you will not be actually vending. They frown upon reserving a table that remains empty during open hours. This is an opportunity for you to be exposed to others in the field, both professional and amateur, and to see gene pools that may not be showing up in your neck of the woods.

A store that has both basics and esoterics in stock at reasonably competitive prices is serving up a better assortment than e-tailers and reptile shows could ever hope to offer. This will elevate you from being just another pet store to being a destination. And, once you become a destination, you have arrived.


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.