Stocking the Shelves
by Owen Maercks
December 1, 2013
Although it is a mundane task easily assigned to any number of employees, there are several good reasons herptile retailers should opt to stock the shelves themselves.

 

The other day I was training a new employee and asked him: “I own this store, and yet, week in and week out, I spend a large portion of every day stocking our shelves with dry goods. It’s one of the most boring jobs in the store. Why do you think I do it?” He stared at me blankly and answered haltingly, “Because you like boring work?” I smiled.
In reality, the answer to that question is multi-faceted.


First, I think it’s always good to have your staff witness you, as the owner, occasionally tackle the dirtiest, most disgusting or most mundane jobs in the store. The knowledge that you are willing and able to do anything you might ask of others is a morale builder and assures them that you are part of the team. But this is hardly the only important reason for an owner to stock store shelves.


The dry goods category is consistently, and by an incredibly high margin, the biggest daily total on the register—far exceeding pets, live food, toys and the like. It is the key for which my mark-up is predictable. Live animals and live food, in particular, can vary according to percentage of loss due to mortality and in-store usage. The dry goods category is the key that my store’s financial health depends upon. It is often four and five times higher than any other department on my register. I would be a fool not to pay it particular attention, especially given that my employees have taken their jobs because, frankly, they want to work with the animals, and thus their focus and motivation are obviously elsewhere.


Yet, when I walk into the stores of my competitors, I find their herp dry goods shelves are often a mess. They are not freshly stocked. They are dusty and sometimes even dirty. Even worse—and I find this particularly true of the big-box stores—they do not have supplies appropriate to, and necessary for, the very live animals they are attempting to sell.
In my store—one that operates on having a very high percentage of the floor dedicated to live animals—you will still find approximately two-thirds of the square footage dedicated to caging and supplies. It’s that important. Thus, not only do I handle the vast majority of product shelving for my business, but I also do the lion’s share of product ordering as well. The two jobs are interlinked, and separating them is like trying to play a guitar with the right hand and a piano with the left.


As the holiday season approaches, it behooves you to stay atop your stock even more than usual. There are strategies for doing so, the first of which may seem obvious, but it clearly eludes many shops: stock daily. Like any job, the more you put it off, the further behind you get. Yes, it can be mundane, but stocking lets you intimately know what is moving and doing well for you, and what is not. I know a wholesaler who relies upon the computer to keep inventory, and every week I visit the warehouse and point out areas in which the computer’s inventory seriously diverges with reality. I cannot explain why this is, but I can tell you that my store’s inventory—kept in that rickety little computer I call my brain—is far  more accurate, and solely because I update it almost daily.


A well-conceived herp section also minimizes redundancy. I used to have a partner who would base his product ordering purely on what items wholesalers were running specials on at any given time. When I took over the job, I discovered we had five brands of submersible heaters, all on display simultaneously, and not all of them were even located in the same section. I find that having a preferred brand for every kind of item assures consistency for the customer and eases the job of maintaining inventory. I will carry alternate brands of the same product only if the two brands offer some variation and feedback across the counter confirms that both lines have their advocates. Otherwise, my clientele are happy to rest assured that if the item is on our shelves, it is because we have found that it is the best alternative among the many competing brands.


In fact, I strongly recommend settling on one particular manufacturer and, wherever possible, featuring its version of a product over others. It greatly reduces your ordering work and aligns you to a company that will most likely appreciate the loyalty and reward you for it. I even find that having that kind of relationship will make other sales reps work double-time to try to earn a piece of your shelf real estate.


There isn’t a manufacturer or wholesaler in existence that can provide you with everything to fully stock a store, and so you will need to keep as many channels open as possible to assure that you have a full line of everything you need. Having a primary vendor, though, will not only simplify your job, it will also increase the look of consistency in your store. Of course, there will be exceptions. I go to a different supplier for my heating pads, for instance, simply because my primary supplier has sub-par packaging that makes the same product look shoddy.


Another strategy to stocking your shelves is to base your product lines around the pets you sell. For instance, I do relatively little business in water turtles. However, for many full-line stores water turtles are the number one—and sometimes even the only—herp they sell. Those stores do well to feature a large selection of ponds and pond supplies, as well as large aquatic tanks. I stock those things too, but in relatively minimal amounts. Just as it is a mistake to carry snakes and not carry snake cages and appropriate supplies, it is just as big an error to tie up capital in a selection of snake cages and yet opt to not carry snakes. One hand washes the other.

 

One more thing: Just as in the fish and small animal departments, reptile dry goods are becoming more and more focused on cage supplies and accessories. I have one shelf, for instance, full of the kind of ceramic figurines that used to be the exclusive territory of tropical fish departments, with one kind of figure far eclipsing the rest. Above that shelf is a sign that reads: “Dude: Skulls!” With the holidays upon us, you will get a huge influx in customers wanting to buy small, often humorous, and certainly non-essential do-dads for the tanks of family members’ pets and even their own.I am a huge advocate of not pushing optional items onto initial set-ups, but having a good inventory of this sort of material in this season would make you a wise man, so to speak.

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.