News Shop Talk Tails Scales Pet Centre



Shop Talk: Tails & Scales Pet Centre
27th June 2018

By Sandra Pearce

Family-run Tails & Scales Pet Centre in Hertfordshire celebrates its fourth anniversary this year, but word is also spreading about its boarding service

Jason, Tania and Jasmin man the shop between them, with help from Jason’s partner Rose

Jason Rayner has been keeping reptiles since he was 15 years old, when he first bought a corn snake and called him Murphy. As with most reptile enthusiasts, the passing years saw him grow his collection, and so he was delighted when a pet shop in Welwyn Garden City offered him a job on the strength of his knowledge. He’d already had a few years’ retail experience under his belt, including at fashion and homewear chain Next, so this was the perfect combination for his experience and hobby.

Life took him down another route when that shop was forced to close following a rent hike of 30%. He said: “Getting this shop was a spur of the moment decision. I was working in a pet shop in town, and my stepdad said he’d always wanted to get a pet shop.”

Vivs and enclosures containing reptiles and inverts line one side of the shop

As fate would have it, the owner of a florist’s shop in Welwyn Garden City had just decided to sell the shop when the family approached about the possibility of buying the business. It was clearly meant to be because the entire transfer and sale was completed in a whirlwind two weeks. They then took a further two weeks to extend the shop by breaking down an inner wall and fitting it out, and opened Tails & Scales Pet Centre on October 25, 2014. “I remember walking in here the first time and thinking, ‘I need to order a complete shop’. There was hardly anything in here,” he said.

Those two weeks were also ‘memorable’ as his sister Jasmin had her second child and his mum, Tania Nash, broke her wrist and got the cast off a few days before the official opening. A bit stressful, then.

Reptile accessories on display

To create a distinct identity, the family decided to set up as a reptile specialist as the area still has another independent pet store and a Pets at Home. Jason, Jasmin and Tania run the shop, while stepdad-and-husband David Nash continues in his full-time career elsewhere. Jason’s partner, Rose Taylor Watkins, also helps out in the shop. She hand-rears kittens for a local cat charity and her veterinary training means she can help customers who may have issues with their cats or small animals.

Zelda likes her cuddles!

On the mascot front, all customers know Zelda, a gorgeous three-year-old shih tsu-pug cross that Jason bought from a customer who breeds them. Zelda is well known for walking up to customers and expecting a cuddle or tickle – and most are only too happy to oblige.

Hands-on approach
Tails & Scales is rapidly getting a reputation for the livestock it sells (most of which are obtained from local breeders) and livestock sales are growing nicely, they say. As it is, the trio have a large number of pets between them – Jason has eight snakes, three cats, a dog, marine and tropical fish, three tarantulas and a gecko; Tania has aviary birds and tropical fish; while Jasmin has three cats and a dog. Tania breeds canaries and finches, which are sold through the shop.

Majority of livestock on offer is bred locally

In terms of small animals, these sales are mostly rabbits and guinea pigs, but they are hoping to include other species soon, as long as they can find a good, local hobbyist who breeds them.

Jasmin said: “We find animals from local breeders are so much more tame and they are much happier as they are handled more compared to commercial breeders.”

Care sheets are clearly visible

They also have a hands-on approach with potential new owners. If someone comes in and shows an interest in an animal, they will take the animal out for them to handle. Jason said: “We’re not like some other shops which discourage handling.

“If people come in and say they like an animal, we ask, ‘Do you want to hold it?’ Often they are very surprised that we let them do it. But it’s also good to see how people interact with the animal as that can tell you a lot about them. We are very hands-on and friendly.”

White’s tree frog was for sale

They also sell ‘loads of spiders’. Typical is the customer who came in once for a tarantula. He has now come in four or five times, and each visit leaves with another. “Sometimes we buy in livestock with a customer in mind,” said Jason. “You just know that someone will like a particular animal.” Although his mum and sister point out that sometimes these purchases have ended up in Jason’s collection!

Although they do not go to trade shows, Jason visits every reptile show in Doncaster, organised by the International Herpetological Society. This, they say, gives them a chance to meet other retailers, suppliers and hobbyists within the reptile sector.

Captive birds are not forgotten

Many of their customers who buy live animals also buy complete set-ups and take advantage of the offer by Jason to set everything up. Then it’s simply a case of taking the enclosure home and plugging it in.
If a new customer comes in who just wants livestock, they are vetted thoroughly to make sure they have the right equipment waiting. “I once had a customer who wanted a tortoise, but then I found out he did not have a UV bulb. I said I would not sell him a tortoise, so he ended up buying the UV and tortoise,” he said.

Compact dry dog food offering!

It can be frustrating to see the online prices of enclosures and other accessories. One large online site
is selling vivariums at their purchase price. It’s impossible to compete like this, so they have to look for unique products.

A nudge on the shop counter

Know your customers
Although Tails & Scales is largely a reptile specialist, it also sees good sales in wild bird food, frozen and livefood for reptiles, and also has a large small animals section. Surprisingly, its cat food section is larger than its dog food. Dog food, they say, is not a huge seller. They stock James Wellbeloved and Carnilove dry dog food as these are good quality foods not available in grocery. They did try selling Orijen and Acana, but these did not take off with customers. It can be difficult with customers who are stuck on a brand to try another, but they will weigh out food and show exactly how much food a cat or dog needs on a quality brand.  It always surprises the owner, said Tania.

Many customers own cats

Being located in a large residential area, there are a number of elderly residents who own cats. Good sellers are Royal Canin and Hill’s Science Plan, the latter of which has doubled its shelf space.

Wild bird food is purchased in bulk and then bagged up to increase their margin. Jason said: “We had a lady come in once who said she’d bought her bird food from Poundstretcher and the birds would not eat it, but they eat ours. Ours is a good quality food.”

Wild bird food is bought in bulk bags and then bagged up

Spreading the word
The family has found that engaging with the community is the best way to spread the word about their business, and so they hold at least three Open Days every year featuring animal encounters. A friend owns exotic species including a skunk, armadillo, Indian fruit bats and meerkats, and brings these in. Also on the agenda are school visits with their own animals, and Jasmin hosts animal encounters for their local Rainbows Girl Guides group.

They have a very active Facebook site and webpage – all livestock is featured on these pages, and many pet owners use the Facebook page to ask questions or talk about their pets.

Chews and treats sell quickly

But the biggest impact so far has been their boarding service for reptiles and small animals.

Jasmin explained: “Especially with reptiles, not all friends and family are comfortable looking after reptiles, which need specialist care. It’s more complicated than other pets, and if your lighting and other equipment is not on timers, it’s more difficult.”

Small animal section has quick turnover

At Tails & Scales, all owners have to do is bring in their pets as enclosures and food are all provided. Easter, Christmas and the summer months have proved incredibly busy – all spaces were booked up this Easter. Other services include claw clipping and health checks for reptiles.

Their location is also good – not only are they located along a row of shops which include a pub, pizza restaurant, convenience store and hairdresser, resulting in good footfall, but the Tesco and Paypoint head offices are just up the road, so workers take a stroll to the shop during their lunch breaks.
Tania said: “Many of our customers are very loyal and come in every week. This is down to our good, friendly service, and we also provide free local delivery which they appreciate.”

Nosy bearded dragon is interested in what’s going on in the shop!

Opening their own pet store has not been plain sailing, and Tania is honest when she says they’ve had moments when they’ve wondered what had they done. But now on the brink of their fourth anniversary, they feel very positive and can sense a change. “I cannot imagine doing anything else,” said Jason.

Resident Falkor is not for sale

Helping rehome animals
One challenge in being known as a reptile specialist is dealing with all the requests to help with rehoming reptiles. In the shop is resident white albino tiger reticulated python, Falkor, who is now eight years old.

Jason ended up adopting him two years ago when it was described as being ‘about six foot’ and with ‘a couple of mites’. Falkor was, in fact, closer to 12 feet long, severely underweight and covered in mites. “He was not in good condition,” said Jason. “I could not leave him there, so after talking with everyone here, we agreed to take him on.

“He’s now at a healthier weight – but as he only eats rats, so keeping his weight on is a challenge.”
Rehoming is a big issue, but they will take in what they can if they have space. Any animal in poor condition is nursed back to health and then new homes are found. They’ve even had calls from local vets asking for help.

Jason said: “A couple of years ago we had a call from a vet in St. Albans. Someone had dumped a cardboard box with a bearded dragon on their doorstep in February, so it was really cold. We think it did not have UV for at least a year as its bones were so brittle.

“We looked after it and brought it back to health, and it lived to about eight years old in the shop.”
It’s not just reptiles that are rehomed. Another shop mascot is Eric the wolf-whistling cockatiel, who was owned by an elderly gentleman who then suffered ill health and was in and out of hospital and could not look after Eric any more.

“Our customers find him amusing,” said Tania.

Shop is clearly laid out and well lit