This episode is all about shopping with more in mind than money. We have a community that we are building and it will be filled with businesses that reflect our values. When you support companies that represent the best of what we can be the entire community is lifted up. When price is the only thing that drives where we put our money then the community will be filled with businesses that excel at the lowest price. The assumption that the quality will not change is naive.
There is more at stake than just how long our product lasts. There are living animals that are affected by the quality of our community. When we demand the lowest price where do you think corners are cut? There is no reason to throw money away, but since lives are at stake we have an added responsibility to demand quality over price.
Our high ideals are only worth the money we put behind them and what we are willing to sacrifice to keep them.
Transcript (more or less):
The reptile community of which we chameleon people are a part of is like any other community. It is made up of hobbyists and businesses catering to their needs. Today we are going to look into the pet business at the corporate level. I am going to talk about how we as consumers create and shape the community at that level through our decisions. And how “actions speak louder than words” is more than just a cliché.
Most of you know me as the host of the Chameleon Breeder Podcast, but I do have an alter-ego. A secret identity. When I put my glasses on, no one in the chameleon world recognizes me and I move about unnoticed as a mild mannered Product Marketing Manager for the consumer electronics industry in Silicon Valley. This requires me to create business plans around each and every product I create and those business plans need to fit together over the next five to ten years to get the company where it wants to go. It may surprise you to know that these plans have more to do with how people work and how businesses are more an extension of human beings than they are about the product.
It is through this lens that I’d like to share some views on our industry. The overall pet industry to start with and then we will end in the reptile industry. To understand our industry we need to start with what was the most basic building block – the pet store.
Pet stores. How do they stay in business? The answer is, of course, many don’t. It is a very tough arena to make some money. But the basic formula is you sell pets and then sell the pet supplies for that pet’s life. Pets themselves are a very dicey product. They can die on you for a complete loss and the longer they are on the shelf the less profit you make due to their feeding and care. To all of you that want to have a pet store so you can have animals all around you, reality is not going to be kind to your dream. But the business person sells the pets to get the customer that will come back every week and buy food and dry goods. And this is where the profit is. Now enter in some clever business people who had the thought that they could remove the risk of live animals and just get the safe profit of dry goods. Sounds like a perfect idea and something that made that MBA program pay off! And thus was born Petco. For all the grousing about animal care at Petco do you remember that when they first opened they did not have live animals? Petco was boring for me as a kid. So what happened? Well, what happened was that everything was going according to plan until one major glitch appeared.
Petco followed the plan perfectly. They allowed the independent pet stores to sell the animals and then they, with their volume deals, were able to offer lower prices on dry goods and snapped up that business from the independents. I am sure those MBAs got healthy bonuses for their genius. Until it wasn’t going as well as it was supposed to. If you remember, the sale of pets was not the profitable part of being a pet store. It was the sale of the dry goods. When the profitable part of the business disappeared, so did the business. There were no longer as many people buying pets – because the pet stores were going out of business due to Petco out competing them on price. Without pets, people did not need pet supplies. Petco was forced to carry live animals so that they could maintain a flow of dry goods customers! They would love it if someone would take over the sale of live animals. Live animals are a major headache and then you get all these internet activists coming in and whining about husbandry. But until there is a way for someone to be profitable selling animals they are stuck doing it themselves. Here is a very real world example of how our spending habits mold our community. I am not passing judgement here one way or the other. Were animal care conditions better at the pet stores? Maybe not. I am sure some were and some weren’t. The point is, that in our quest for the cheapest price we created the Petco situation. Now, we reptile people are a small slice of the pet industry so I am not sure how much we ourselves can influence the Petco situation, but we have the exact same dynamics going on in the reptile industry and we do have a measurable influence here. I ran across quote not so long ago that was to the effect of “I highly dislike this company because they sell unhealthy animals and have subpar practices when it comes to their animal husbandry. Nothing wrong with their products though. They have the cheapest price.” That caught my eye. There is a lot going on in that statement. With the wonderful internet we can search for the lowest price and we snag it. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. We saved $10 and $10 means a couple of Frappuccinos from Starbucks we didn’t have before. It is important to be wise with money. But remember that the sale of animals is the gathering of customers for the dry goods in this industry. Every breeder here who accurate tallies up their costs realizes that profit is not easy with live animals. And this is why importers want to move the animals ASAP before they die or have to be fed obnoxious amounts of profit. So if you do not agree with a certain company’s treatment of animals, buying dry goods from them is not the best way of reacting. We seem to have this idea that criticizing one product or part of a company while dumping money into another side of the company is effective. It is not. You have to look at the entirety of the picture.
For example, what do you think about the care of animals in the company you support – meaning where you put your money? The easiest way to sell animals is to bring in wild caught and turn them before they die or eat your profit up. But animals are what initially bring in the interest with us in the reptile world. Unfortunately, that takes a huge amount of investment, care and attention to produce and offer captive bred reptiles. But this is what Josh’s Frogs does. Josh Willard who started Josh’s Frogs has said that he will sell only captive bred reptiles and amphibians. He has put his money where his mouth is and has set up both the facilities and the management to make this happen. Josh’s Frogs is a business that started in Josh’s apartment with frogs and fruit flies and is now on Inc magazines top 5000 fastest growing companies list. Part of Josh’s success is due to getting into dry goods and you can now buy all the standards there. He has played the game. Get big enough that you can move volume enough that you can offer the low prices. It is not easy to do that and is very risky. I don’t know their financial numbers, but I can guarantee you that a newly minted MBA would look at their operation and tell them to drop all the captive breeding stuff. This captive bred policy is a decision based on a personal vision from Josh of how the industry should be. Do you agree? Purchasing from Josh’s Frogs and being vocal about why you are doing it makes a huge difference. Do you see the difference between “Go buy from Acme reptiles. I don’t like what they do, but they have the cheapest price.” This says that price is more important than how they conduct their business. And, of course, as long as they are getting your business and your recommendation there is little incentive to change. The alternative is “Go buy from Josh’s Frogs. They really are making a difference in what they do”. This says that price isn’t the most important thing and who they are as a company is.
Things are very competitive in the industry and companies will jockey for who has the lowest price. Sometimes Josh’s Frogs will have the lowest price and sometimes Bob’s Mom’s Basement will win the buy box on Amazon. But you can make a real difference by being positive rather than criticizing. If the care that animals get is important to you then make that known. You don’t even have to ever mention Acme Reptile Company to get them to change. Just mention who you believe in and why. If you buy goods from Josh’s Frogs and let people know you are doing that because of how they ethically conduct their animal business then more and more people will agree with that as the reason for going with a certain company. And, yes, buying with a conscience sometimes means you pay more. In fact, even with the same discounts and margin structure I can guarantee that the ethical company will be, at some time, more expensive. What is the first thing Acme will do when it starts losing business? Before it even analyzes the market, it will run a sale or lower prices. Because that always fixed things. And if that makes you come running then take the amount you saved and you now know what your ethics can be bought for. Lower prices makes people who run after money run.
And, let’s acknowledge the truth. Money is important. Unless you are off the grid, if you have money you have a roof over your head and food on the table. But take a step back here. Reptile keeping is not a necessity. It is a luxury. I know there is a trend, and always will be, of being proud you saved $20 here or there. It is such a rush to think that we saved money that we will sometimes spend $75 to say we saved $50. Yes, growing your own tomatoes is worth it, but not for the reason of saving money. I know I am not going to reach people for whom money is the most important thing. As a guy who runs the Product Marketing function I can tell you that this is the #1 way you are manipulated. This is why it is better to paint your package green than it is to use bio-degradable materials. It is because the general populace likes to say they are being “green” but they do not want to pay for it. Being morale and having standards is great as long as it is just words, but when you have to give something up or pay more that goes out the window. I wish I was being cynical. Behind closed doors in these marketing meetings we talk about who human beings are and how they want to be seen. These are usually very different. And we have to give you a cover story that makes you feel good while cutting the corners so you’ll actually buy the product. This is one reason why I don’t like consumerism. I have a serious love/hate relationship with my day-job industry of consumer electronics. And this is the main reason why my Dragon Strand Chameleon cages will never be the cheapest price. I am putting my full efforts into making a quality product and I am increasing the quality every year. I will be smart about what I do and will make it as efficiently as possible – that is all part of being a good business, but it will cost what it costs to do it right. I am so sick of being pressured to use marketing to cover up for product deficiencies that I will never do that in my personal business. I will acknowledge the pros and cons of each design and materials decision and I will work tirelessly to solve the problems I see in the design and materials. There is an immense satisfaction in creating something you know is good. As long as there are enough people who hold those same values I will keep doing what I am doing.
But back to manipulation. Companies know that the overwhelming number of people will shut up and fall in line when there is a sale. And you can see the dynamic before your eyes. Can you think of one product that is universally reviled in our community as being evil and a major cause of death in chameleons? Perhaps the Chameleon Kit by ZooMed? Oh, people will get in a self-righteous frenzy over that one. But what happens when ZooMed runs a sale on their X-L screen cages? The Facebook groups are falling over themselves to snap them up. And, oh, the disappointment when retailers are sold out before everyone gets the message and can load up. Do you see the hypocrisy here? Do you see how the message is muddled? And, yes, even though they are separate products, it does matter. Every purchase strengthens one entire company over another. This is in terms of cold hard cash, but also in industry influence. Companies will follow your wallet. Your words are meaningless. Oh, yes, I know, public outrage can make changes, but ever notice how when the dust settles and everyone claps each on the back for a job well done things go back to the way they were? That is because your wallet never changed how it behaved. Now let me say, I am not bagging on ZooMed here. Every company has made good for the community moves and has had to make decisions about compromise. ZooMed brought us the UVB light bulb. It revolutionized our indoor keeping. And then they brought us the Chameleon Kit which is a great concept, executed perfectly from a marketing stand point, but an ethical compromise. Then they brought us USARK which had a questionable start, but now is the major force in defending our rights as a reptile keeping community in the US. I am glad ZooMed is here doing what they do. We just have to figure out how to deal with the dreaded kit.
Every company has its personality and dynamics. While each company really takes on the characteristics of the founder and owner they can be made to adjust. And you do that not by your flowery words, but with your wallet. Sorry folks, it truly does all come down to money. Let that be your action. And let people know why you support certain companies. The reason why this is so powerful is that word of mouth is the best marketing money can’t buy. If you say you purchase your dry good supplies from Josh’s Frogs because of the way they conduct their business with live animals then you are being an example for others to follow and it won’t take long before other people agree and when this becomes just the standard buzz in the community other companies will take note as to why this new company has been able to capture such a market share. And if the community has spoken that the care of animals is important enough that it dictates where dollars are spent for dry goods then present companies and new companies will meet those standards. They will realize that to get the community dollars they need to meet those minimum standards. The high ethical standard just becomes a ticket to play. And everyone wins with that dynamic. There will always be people that want to go into business and the first thing non-imaginative people do is offer something for cheaper price – because that works wonderfully. But if there is a strong community standard they won’t be able to cut corners to achieve that lower price.
And I want to make it clear. It isn’t these companies doing to us. It is our buying habits that create the companies. They will follow what you put your money behind.
You can even take this to Reptile shows. Good luck finding great chameleon housing at the shows! People grab a bare cage and throw in a stick and 25 veiled chameleons. People sell Jackson’s Chameleons for $40 and advertise them by putting them on their shoulders and making the chameleons gape for the crowd. What would happen if we all made it a point to highlight people doing it better? Kammerflage Kreations was unique at the last reptile show in that their chameleon cages were filled with foliage. That is not usual for a show where you want to show off your wares, but this was better for the chameleon. Coming to a show is never a great experience for a chameleon, but these seemed to be much more content with the situation than the stick ‘o veileds around the corner. How about highlighting the positive so the industry learns that this is what we expect? I’ll blast it everywhere I can. I did some live feeds from the show and talked specifically about the positives I see happening such as heavy foliage chameleon cages at the Kammerflage booth and the naturalistic displays at the Exo-Terra booth. When we talk, they will listen. If we give free social media marketing to companies that are taking the standards higher then companies will start to compete with who can take the standards the highest just to compete for your free marketing. Make the marketing value of doing it right substantial.
The top things I would like you to take away from this episode are
- Companies will follow your wallet, not your words
- If you verbally set a personal value that drives your purchases companies will take note. If that value is price, companies will take note. If that value is business ethics, companies will take note. If that value is quality, companies will take note. You cannot always have the lowest price with the highest quality and the cleanest ethics. It just doesn’t work that way. What you decide can be compromised is up to you.
- We create the community by where we put our money.
- Instead of complaining about a company you don’t like, highlight the companies that show the standards you value. And this doesn’t mean highlighting the competitor of the company that just hurt your feelings. It means making a calm, collected judgement of the core company values – and then talk about it online.
I am training a puppy right now. The whole “sit” concept was confusing and she just had too much energy or couldn’t be patient for the treat she saw in my hand. I have done this before with my other dog so I know the challenges I am facing here. It was going nowhere until my older dog walked into the room. I asked him to sit, he did immediately, and he got a treat. I am sure it is no surprise to you that my little puppy learned sit that moment. And like magic, she now sits whether I ask her to or not as if she thinks if she sits hard enough she can will the treat into existence! This lesson applies to all walks of our life. Complain to a company, tell them how they need to do better, try to smear their name ,…all have limited effectiveness. But give money to the company that does things right and all of a sudden it is amazing how things clean up across all the players! Everyone wants that treat…
This was a bit of a different podcast episode. I usually deal with small community business. And that is a subject all its own. Small businesses are much closer to us. We know the owners and we can just message them our thanks or our griefs. The larger businesses are just as much part of our community. Though we can often feel like they are out of reach. And it is true that we may or may not get our email answered. But we can affect behavior. The most effective way to do that is to purchase with a conscience. Be an example where your actions can be followed. Highlight the positive not to pretend the negative doesn’t exist, but to make it know what we should strive for. All business is dependent on your purchasing habits. And if we show that our money goes to business that are a positive in our community then we will enjoy a better community.
So where do we go from here? Simple. Take a look at what you buy. If there is a company that is doing it right and is a benefit to the community make it known. When someone asks on the internet where to get a piece of equipment and you know a company that shows strength of character, recommend that company and say why. This is a consumer market and we are in charge of what it looks like. The companies will make what you as the consumer buy and will be what you support. The truth is that we consumers are the ones that create the market we are in. We have literally paid for it.
If any one asks me what chameleon cage they should buy it would be strange if I did not recommend the designs and cages that I work on every day. And, of course, I would. But Dragon Strand cages are not the right cages for everyone and there are other companies that sell cages that are healthy for our community. So, for this episode, I am going to encourage you all to consider the Exo-Terra Large X-Tall screen cage. It is a wide format cage at 36” wide, 18” deep, and 36” tall. If Dragon Strand didn’t exist, this is the cage I would get. With its width, this cage is an excellent form factor for chameleons. The biggest drawback to this cage is that it does not have a drainage tray. But this is easily remedied by looking for a dog crate replacement tray. You can get a suitably sized tray that will fit the footprint on Amazon for less than $20. Just search for a Midlands dog crate replacement tray and find the 42” one. You then will just need some supports to prop the cage up an inch so it doesn’t sit in the drainage water. I use PVC rings I cut from Home Depot PVC pipe or just buy a bunch of cheap make-up jars. Anything will do as long as they can sit in water. Then just drill some drainage holes in the substrate tray included with the cage. The cage itself is available from between $100 and $130 from just about any place Exo-Terra products are sold which is just about every place that sells reptile products! I would suggest purchasing from Josh’s Frogs because I admire their dedication to offering for sale only captive bred animals. They usually have pretty competitive prices on dry goods, but what is more important is that they are the type of ethical company I want to see more of in my community and that is worth supporting. And I am willing to forgo Frappuccino’s and more to get a community with those kind of companies.
I encourage you to shop smart, shop with a conscience, and think on the big picture. If we all can find some things we agree on and make companies that follow those standards profitable then we can enjoy the community that creates.