Shipping Reptiles: The Silent Enemy of Herpetoculture
I don't think it's the government legislation we have to worry about, the shipping companies are going to destroy the reptile industry.
Of course legislation is a real threat, but my point is shipping fees are heading to the point that they are hindering our business.
Many people who only buy reptiles, but don't ship them out themselves do not fully understand just how expensive it's getting. Some even think breeders are overcharging for shipping to increase their profits.
I think a lot of these people don't understand the way we are charged for shipping. First they determine whether to charge us by actual weight, or dimensional weight. They use a formula, Length x width x Height divided by 192, and they compare that to the actual weight of the package, and bill it according to the higher amount. That means it will cost significantly more to ship an empty box measuring 15 x 12 x 10 that it would a box measuring 12 x 9 x 6 filled with three pounds of rocks. Due to the normally very low weight of a reptile, and the way we must package it to ensure it's safe arrival, we are always charged dimensional weight.
Next they add an extra fee if the package is to be delivered to a residence instead of a business. Then they add a fee if it's a rural location. Then of course they tack on the substantial "fuel surcharge".
The base cost of shipping might be $45, but after all the fees are added it will end up over $60.
I remember in the early nineties ordering from places like Glades Herp paying $20 for overnight shipping. It would be expected that over time the fees would increase, but now we see an annual rise in shipping charges until now it's actually an economically viable alternative to use Delta Dash.
I reluctantly raised my flat rate shipping charge to $50 a year or two ago. I stuck with that amount even though more and more of the time that didn't cover the actual cost.
Just the other day I shipped a box from NC to Massachusetts. Not a large box, only 12x9x6, and not heavy. The final charge was a litte over $60. Of that fee $12 was for the ever increasing fuel surcharge. I couldn't believe it came to that amount, and that was including the discount for processing the shipment online.
As another example, I sent a box cross country to California. The same size box, weighing even less, and the cost was just barely under $70.
For both the above packages I had stuck to my flat rate of $50, but that's just not going to be possible much longer with small orders.
Last week I inquired about purchasing some animals from a fellow in California. He quoted me a shipping charge of $83. This was for 10 or so young geckos, so again not a large box. Fifteen dollars of that was for the fuel surcharge. I hadn't shipped much since this years increase and couldn't believe it would cost that much. I had to decline the purchase as a result of it.
It's rediculous when you can have something shipped same day with Dash cheaper than overnight with FedEx or UPS. The problem for me, like many people, is that I live a 3 hour round trip from the nearest airport. As far as I know Delta doesn't even service that airport any longer so for me to ship out with that method requires a 5 hour round trip to Charlotte. That leaves the overnight carriers as my only reasonable alternative.
For the last few years it has been all but impossible to sell individuals or even pairs of the cheaper animals like kingsnakes when shipping is required. When the shipping charge more than doubles the cost of the animals many people are not inclined to purchase them.
With the costs continuing to rise the minnimum value for an animal in order to justify shipping will soon be two or three hundred dollars. Couple that with the normal continued decline of reptile prices and you see the problem.
The shipping costs we are experiencing now will only continue to rise. We all knew that despite the initial claim by the carriers that they would remove the fuel surcharge when prices came back down, that the charge was permenant. Fuel prices did drop briefly, but the fuel surcharge remained, and now I think we all realize whether we like to think about it or not that we will never see $2 a gallon gas ever again.
The threat of legislation is an ever present danger to our hobby and one that everyone acknowledges. I don't think most people are really considering the quieter threat of shipping costs and the very real potential of that factor to all but eliminate interstate sales.
That might end up being good news for the show promoters but definitely not for the small breeders with little or no local market and no desire to put up with the hassle of vending at a show.
When a buyer is looking to add an animal to their collection that costs say $100 on average, but to have it shipped will increase the price to $175 or more, then that is a real incentive to wait on that purchase and try to find it at a show. If the same buyer is looking for 3 or 4 different animals, then the incentive not to have them shipped is multiplied as well.
We live animal shippers being required to ship priority overnight, are feeling this effect first. It will eventually affect all mail order products but for the present ground shipping remains fairly reasonable so internet commerce as a whole isn't really affected, yet.
So what can we do about it? As far as the cost of shipping goes, nothing really. The reptile industry is such a small part of the shipping companies business overall, if we all stopped shipping tomorrow in protest, they wouldn't even notice.
The only thing we can do is attempt to minimize the effect it has on our pocketbooks. If you order multiple animals from a single seller, then your shipping cost per animal is reduced. You can ship one hatchling cornsnake for $60, but you can put 6 of them in the same box without increasing the shipping charge (remember the lesson on dimensional weight). That brings the cost to ship each animal down from $60 to $10.
The problem here is you might not want let alone need 6 cornsnakes. Another alternative is to buy co-op style. If a friend in your area is interested in something from the same seller, you can order them together and split shipping. This is done routinely with frozen rodent orders, but can be more difficult with reptile purchases. Everyone that keeps snakes needs rodents, but not everyone that keeps snakes are interested in buying things that the same breeder happens to produce.
Some people have contacts with local pet stores and utilize that means of reducing shipping costs. If you can get a good enough deal on a bulk order, then you can add on the relative shipping cost of each animal and sell the extra to the pet shop. You may not make a profit, but you will limit your expenses. On the above example if you sold 5 of the cornsnakes to a pet store, adding to each the relative cost of shipping, then you have saved yourself $50 in shipping fees. That's equivalent to $50 profit really, since it's that much that remained in your pocket rather than being lost to shipping.
Of course the final solution is to wait for a herp show in your area and hope what you are looking for might be there, or seek out a breeder within reasonable driving distance. Even then you have to compare your costs for the trip, gas and food, to the cost of shipping to see if you are actually saving anything.
I know that despite the ever increasing costs of shipping that the reptile industry will continue, but I also know that a change of some form in the way business is conducted is inevitable. Things simply cannot continue on their present course without having an impact on how we do things. As breeders we will have to learn ways to compensate and adapt to whatever changes occur, and as consumers we will have to look for ways to get the most of the money we shovel into the coffers of FedEx and UPS.
As buyers though, I hope you keep in mind that the vast majority of breeders are not trying to gouge you on shipping, we genuinely hate to have to ask $60 or $80 additional to cover the costs to ship, but the reality of it is that's what it's costing us now. If we try to sell a $50 snake and charge even $40 to ship it, then that means we're really selling the snake for $20, and at that point it's actually costing us money to produce and sell the animal.
I have always been a proponent of not raising reptiles just for the money, but I'm also a realist. I know that the vast majority of breeders would significantly reduce their efforts if there wasn't even the hope of breaking even. Most breeders make very little if anything from their reptiles, but very few have the level of devotion to maintain 50 or 100 snakes, with all the work involved in breeding them, knowing in the end that they are having to pay for the priviledge.
I don't have a solution or suggestion to this one, it's just a fact we are going to have to deal with. I just want the buyers out there to understand they we breeders are not trying to gouge you with shipping charges. We don't like to charge the rediculous amounts we have to, but that is just the reality we have to deal with.
I don't know what the final effect of shipping prices will be on the hobby, but there is little doubt that effects will be felt by buyers and sellers alike.