Beginning an Omnichannel Sales Approach

This is the year you should seriously consider developing an online strategy to expand your physical store’s consumer reach. The future of retail will include a multi-channeled approach to sales that includes a physical location as well as online, mobile, social and textual platforms. The days of simply physically being there for your customers is becoming a thing of the past.

There is a battle going on for the hearts and minds of the American consumer. We keep hearing on the nightly news about ever-increasing online sales. This past November, Adobe Analytics reported that shoppers spent a total of $3.54 billion online as of 8 p.m. EST on Black Friday, a 15.6 percent increase over the previous year.

If you delve a bit deeper into the statistics, you’ll find that physical stores remain the foundation of retailing with around 90 percent of all retail sales in the U.S. still being made in brick-and-mortar stores. This figure includes big box stores such as Walmart and the like, but it does indicate consumer preference. According to A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, “95 percent of all retail sales, including online sales, are captured by retailers with a brick-and-mortar presence.”

These statistics imply that brick-and-mortar stores help retailers drive online sales. It’s not just physical sales or just online sales—it’s both. And having an omnichannel approach is the obvious business model in the ever-changing marketplace. The internet had virtually no sales in the 1990s, while billions of dollars can now be spent in a single day, exclusively online. That progression alone should tell you what direction sales are heading.

At this point, you’re saying to yourself, “I’m just a specialty store, how can I compete with Amazon?”

Walmart has 5,400 physical locations in the U.S. that stock around 14,000 SKUs, but it also has an offering of over 4 million products online. Amazon, with its recent purchase of Whole Foods, is moving into brick-and-mortar locations and offers more than 356 million products online. These big retailers see the value of physical locations, and they will continue to transition. What they will probably never do, simply because of their massive size, is become specialty driven.

The one huge advantage the specialty retail store has lies in being owner-operator driven. Many consumers are beginning to notice the boring sameness of the big-box store experience. The big box retailers operate their business focused primarily on selling products with little customer service, and the 20/80 inventory rule is their mantra when it comes to stocking physical inventory.

According to Fox Business, AARP and Kantar Retail, among others, there is a major demographic shift taking
place that will give small specialty retailers an advantage over mega retailers. Baby boomers seek a more personalized, closer-to-home buying experience, and they are the driving force behind the “Small Business Revolution Movement” that continues to shine a spotlight on local businesses that are independently owned.

Don’t discount the advantage that is small businesses’ ability to quickly react to market trends. Small retailers are more nimble in their decision making processes than mega retailers, who have layers of management to oversee decision making. Small businesses generally push “Made in America” products and often recommend alternative, leading-edge products, unlike big retailers who cannot offer this kind of personalized service.

You may not be able to compete price-wise with the big guys, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t familiarize yourself with online sales. Develop a shopping cart and put up products that have MAP protection or products that need your expertise for your customers to be successful. An online presence allows you to reach out to consumers in your back yard, as well as statewide.

Make developing or expanding your online presence this year’s resolution. Spend the time and effort to build a shopping cart of unique or high-tech products that you recommend in your day-to-day customer interaction. The
sooner you do, the sooner you will be learning the necessary skills to survive and flourish in a changing market.
There is still time to make your business into an omnichannel sales platform, but this window of opportunity won’t last forever.

Driving Sales

With consumers often showrooming before making a purchase, retailers must develop a plan to make their business attractive enough to capture the sale. My colleagues and I call on hundreds of aquatic stores every year to keep abreast of changes in the category. In preparation for our year-end report to our vendors, our team has compiled notes about what seems to work best at the retail level to drive aquatic product sales. One of the paramount facts that has arisen during this process is that ever-expanding internet sales are seriously affecting brick and mortar stores more than ever.

We have found that retailers who are experiencing growth are those who leverage social media platforms and offer extracurricular in-store events. Many of these retailers focus on their expertise and ability to educate their customers. They generally push products that they have found to be best suited for the systems they promote. To just carry everything under the sun doesn’t guarantee sales growth. After all, the internet has more product variety than any physical store could ever hope to stock. What should set the retailer apart is their expertise. They should be able to recommend complete scalable systems made up of components from working displays on view in their store.

What seems to be most effective is to offer good, better and best scalable systems made up from different manufacturers based upon the retailer’s experience and not necessarily a brand that competes in price. Offering components that have had good success rates allows the retailer to display their expertise, giving consumers choices and explaining options rather than simply selling on price. This approach also makes it a bit harder for the internet seller to duplicate what you have to offer.

I’m not suggesting that expertise trumps price and variety. Popular selling products even when footballed on the internet should be inventoried. Just keep in mind that the successful retailer will grow their business by reassuring the consumer they will be more successful if they follow your advice.
One of the basic ways to sell products, especially against internet sellers, is to have a variety of aquarium displays set up. There’s nothing like seeing a beautiful aquarium setup to inspire a beginner’s imagination. Remember that most consumers are not hobbyists, and if all you cater to are people who already are engaged in the hobby, you’ll be missing the majority of potential sales.

You think to yourself, “I don’t have the room to set up every aquarium kit I sell.” That may be true, but what if you set up aquarium displays with the intention of selling them right from the sales floor? An appealing aquarium with everything, including water and fish, in several different ready-to-go configurations will get walk-in customers’ attention. It’s easy to drain the majority of water in the tank into a travel container, bag the fish and… Voila! A sale is made.

Even if you can’t do the same for larger aquarium setups, our store surveys indicate that, these days, 70 percent of tank sales are 30 gallon and smaller, so don’t ignore the smaller tank and nano market. The advantage to the ready-to-go display is that for those customers who are beginning, it is an easy and fairly safe way to get into the hobby and for those who have a bit more of the pioneering spirit, the displays will inspire and encourage them to buy the kit dry and design their own look.

Advertising your business is essential, even if you just ask satisfied customers to rate you on Yelp or your Facebook page. You might consider becoming involved with a local pet club or create bag-stuffer fliers with information about an in-store seminar planned for the near future.

Finally, when planning events for advertising, don’t forget that your distributor sales person is your best asset when it comes to obtaining added value support from manufacturers. Distributors have relationships with manufacturers and are better connected than most retailers to approach their suppliers for door prizes, samples and signage to support your efforts.

6 Sales Tips that Work

Times have changed. Retailers can no longer just turn on the lights and stand behind the cash register waiting for customers to come through the door. You need to be a salesperson, because if you’re not selling yourself, your business and your products’ features, your customers will buy online.

My firm is focused on aquatic and herp stores, so we’ve seen a lot of people enter the pet industry because of their passion for their hobby. Some would admit that they are weak on sales technique but know their products and how to best care for the animals they sell.

Selling is not all about technique. In reality, if retailers can tell a compelling story about the product or service available, and if they can make customers comfortable with their personality and knowledge, they can be successful.

“Great salespeople are made, not born, and no one achieves success in life without knowing how to sell.” That quote has always stayed with me and motivated me. I believe we’re all sales people in life, even if we are just trying to persuade a son to clean his room or convince a daughter that it’s character-building to sell Girl Scout cookies.

If you feel comfortable in your approach to your customers, they will, in turn, feel comfortable and receptive to what you have to say. The following are the six most important elements to any sales approach.

1) Be the person you would buy from. Let’s face it, it’s really hard to sell something to someone who doesn’t like you or is skeptical about your knowledge level. First and foremost you need to know your products.

2) Make it about your customer. If you’re smart, you’ll “really listen” to the customer. You should pay attention to the customer’s wants and needs, allowing them to completely express themselves. Use the 2:1 Ratio Rule. Ask two questions for every one value point you share about the product or service on offer.

3) Know what is realistic for your customer. If a customer comes in to your store to buy a $20 aquarium heater and you try to upgrade them to a probe-sensor digital heater that costs $75, you’ll probably turn them off. Make sure that whatever you’re selling fulfills your customers’ needs and is realistic for them.

4) Solve a problem. Nine times out of 10, the customer is in your store in an effort to solve a problem. Using your expertise, be their problem solver and let them know that you’re there for them to help in the future. Share your email address with them so they have a personal connection with you.

5) Keep it simple. If the customer does have a problem or is thinking about a new project such as setting up a marine tank, they don’t need to be told how difficult it is, or how much it will cost. They need to be captivated by an in-store display as well as reassured that you are there for them every step of the way. Everything becomes simpler if there’s someone with the right expertise to help them.

6) Follow through. Once a sale is made, live up to the customer’s expectation that you are the expert and will be there for them. If what you told them about support are only words with no follow through, you’ll lose that customer and potentially others who read their negative review online about you or your business.

Speaking of online: An important tool available to all retailers nowadays are such online review sites as Google+, Yelp and the Facebook Review App. Having good reviews and responding to any negative reviews you receive is a powerful sales tool. More consumers are using these sites to educate themselves about the quality of products and services available to them. They may very well form an opinion about your business using these sites before even crossing the threshold of your store.

Make the Most out of the Holidays with your Business

Around this time of year is when distributors publish their holiday sale catalogs. If you have your own year-long advertising calendar, then you’re ahead of the game and have probably even influenced what your distributors are offering. Once we enter the holiday season, you will have little impact on the distributor’s product offering.

Before November 1, retailers need to come up with a plan of how they will capture their share of the holiday season’s sales. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you present a plan to your supplier’s sales person and offer to buy an above-average volume for better discounts. If you make it worthwhile to your supplier, you should get a better price, even if it isn’t in their published holiday promotion.

As for a sales plan, examine the product categories most of your customers buy during the year and what would make the best potential presents for their family, friends or even for themselves. Examples of this might be aquarium setups and high-end aquarium accessories, puppy training kits, Christmas stockings and themed toys and treats.

Since themed items cannot be sold other than during a specific holiday, whenever possible, buy open stock and make your own mix and match deals. Some suppliers have been known to offer protection on overbuys, but don’t depend on it unless that is well understood before your purchase. If you can’t get overbuy protection, open stock is your safest option. An example of this would be to provide a “build your own” Christmas stocking display. If you are already selling dog and cat products, order extra or look for deals from suppliers’ overstock items or promotional open stock offerings and display the items in baskets, offering a price range depending on how many pieces are purchased.

Open stock versatility can be extended to just about any category. Puppy training starter setups can be made up from open stock. Most stores stock boxed aquarium setups, complete and ready to go, but that same store may also build setups from open stock items. The open stock concept not only allows a store to sell a setup that is unique to its expertise and recommendations, the products that make up the unsold setups can easily be returned to stock and sold individually after the holiday season.

These promotional ideas are not something new, but the point is to plan ahead. Doing so will get you a better price from your suppliers on items that you want, rather than having to take “potluck,” resulting in your selling something that isn’t quite right for your clientele.

Supporting your “sales plan” with an “advertising plan” that is ready for the holidays and sharing it with your supplier’s sales person might produce positive results when discussing discounts. Your distributors might have access to added value deals from their suppliers. Keep in mind that most manufacturers spend a great deal of money advertising their products, and when they see a retailer promoting their brand they may be willing to help with something extra such as free product samples or added value deals to encourage the consumer to “buy now.”

Your holiday advertising program can be as simple as handing out promotional announcements to all customers who come into your store. This concept can be duplicated on your Facebook page or through other social media platforms. You could even budget some money to promote your sales through Facebook, asking your bigger suppliers or manufacturers to sponsor targeted consumer Facebook ads that go out to consumers in your surrounding area. It’s not too late to complete your holiday sales and advertising plan, but time for effective planning is running out.

Build Your Winning Team

As a member of our manufacturer’s representative team, I call on several hundred retailers each year, which gives me a glimpse of different management styles. The store owners who have invested in their employee’s training stand out—especially those who have taken the time and effort to build a company culture of teamwork and customer-oriented spirit.

I know that our industry is still generally known for independent retail outlets, and I also know that many think that something like “team building” is for the corporate scene, but I’m here to tell you that even a one unit store can develop a professional, motivated staff that will impress customers.

In this piece, I won’t be writing about weekend bonding trips or corporate teamwork games. What I speak of here is what I have personally seen succeed in team building at the independent retailer level. With a little effort, any business could emulate this.

If you go to the internet and search for “team building,” you will see that most of the articles there will tick off a long list of team building ideas, many of which are over the top for a single unit retailer. But what quickly becomes evident is that the following four concepts rise to the top of the list when discussing a path for building effective teams. I’ve listed them below in what I consider is the order of importance.

Communication: Many people feel most comfortable when there is a firm, clear understanding as to what is expected of them, but if they feel they are valued by management, they will try harder and stay longer.

Collaboration: People tend to feel more positive toward their place of employment if they have some say or feel that their ideas are listened to by management.

Motivation: This can be the hardest part of team building. It takes constant effort to design and implement events that will make the workplace an interesting and rewarding experience for employees.

Competition: Building a friendly competitive atmosphere will increase sales all by itself. Spiff is a wondrous thing. Even if the monetary reward isn’t all that great, there are still bragging rights when someone achieves their goal.

I have seen standout stores that have interesting team building ideas. Here are a couple of team building ideas that especially caught my attention:

One idea that I think is exceptional is what The Pet Shop, owned by Vanessa and Dylan Schmidt in Mesa, Arizona, has been doing for quite some time. Every time they hire a new employee, they take a picture of them (wearing a Pet Shop shirt) and post it along with a brief biography on their Facebook page, welcoming them to the team and introducing them to their Facebook followers. This simple act brings the new employee to their customers’ attention and makes the new hire feel like part of the team.

Another example of great team building comes from Clark Feed & Seed, in Bellingham, Washington. The owner, Larry Oltmann, is a very organized person, and you get that sense when you walk into his store. But what stands out are his people. The quality of the staff has never failed to impress me. His employees are not only professional, but they’re ready and eager to help. Oltmann once explained to me that Bellingham has a state college branch as well as a technical college in town that he tries to draw from whenever he can. He feels that if someone has the gumption to attend college or a technical school, they probably will make a good employee. Even though Oltmann has the advantage of being located in a college town, it takes vision and constant effort on his part to maintain the atmosphere required to build and maintain a good professional team.

Everyone’s sales team (even if it is just a family affair) needs some tender loving care. Even if half their time is spent cleaning cages and aquariums, they are still your sales team. If you remember that and try to keep them engaged and motivated, you should see positive results.

Avoid the Silent Treatment

When I visit my local convenience store, they always greet me, and I find that I always respond by returning their greeting. It’s unlikely that anyone will ignore a person who is being pleasant and verbally interacting with them. Human nature is such that we respond to greetings, which can be a powerful ice-breaking technique and can even turn a frown into a smile.

I’m sure you have visited a store sometime in your life and been given the silent treatment. You may even have had a few instances where you walked through a store and left without a word being exchanged. The sad fact is that if they had interacted with you, they might have made a sale, even encouraging you to visit their store again.

It’s amazing how a simple greeting can have a huge impact and pay off immediately. It is also amazing how difficult it seems for businesses to implement a verbal welcome as part of their customer service practice. Whatever the reasons are for a failure to greet customers, the fact remains that a verbal greeting should be an
important part of your business model and your store associates should be vigorously encouraged to greet every customer even if they are busy at the time.

I believe that when a customer walks into your store, you should stop what you’re doing long enough to welcome them, even it is just to say, “Good morning.” That will let  them know you are aware of them. You might add a question to your greeting by asking if there might be anything you could help them with.
If they know what they want or are shy, they may not take you up on your offer, but you have broken the ice, and it gives you an opportunity to interact with them on a more personal basis later.

If the customer does respond, saying they need a specific product, don’t just point to the aisle and tell them where it is, walk them to the location and place the product in their hands. This gives you the opportunity to discuss their need and possibly offer a better option, but at the very least, it lets the customer know that they are important to you.

Other important aspects of any greeting are eye contact, a smile, learning and using a customer’s name if they are a regular, and being genuine and sincere when discussing products or services. If you use these common sense components in your actions and dialog when dealing with a customer, it will create a relationship as well as repeat business.

Just as important as being personable and helpful is being aware of your customer’s personal space. Most people dislike being crowded, so standing too close could reduce your chances of a repeat visit.

Consider posting a store ethics policy near the entrance to your store, which states that to the best of your ability you will always consider the customer’s needs
and offer advice that will give the customer the best chance for success. Consumers usually know if you are trying to sell them on something. Therefore, point them toward the best product and price, sharing your knowledge about the product’s use and features, explaining why you are recommending a specific product.

Before the customer leaves the store, be sure to let them know that if they need anything else to ask for you, sharing your name with them. You might be surprised when your name shows up in a positive Google or Yelp review with someone saying how great it was doing business with you.

Greeting a customer properly can often be the most important aspect of closing a sale and building customer loyalty. Add a greeting policy to your employee handbook and encourage everyone to do their best to make customers welcome.

Use What You Have

Are you a brick and mortar retailer? Maybe you’re trying to sell online but are worried how you will compete with the Amazons of the world. You see retail changing before your eyes and wonder what will happen to your business if current trends continue.

There are ways to compete with big box and online sellers. The big box stores, because of the number of units they have and their large corporate structure, can’t react to market trends like you can as an owner-operator. Online sellers, no matter how hard they try, won’t be able to establish the same meaningful relationship with customers that you can.

If you work with your distributors and manufacturers and run a clean operation, there is no reason why you can’t grow your business despite the online discounting and big box advertising that has been squeezing your margins.

Big box stores are trying to duplicate the services that independents have offered for decades, such as vet clinics, grooming and dog care classes. Their challenge is when offering added value events or services, they are usually big and complicated to comply with regional and national regulations. If, on the other hand, you offer any of these added value services, you only have to worry about your local regulations.

The internet sellers’ only real strength is price. However, no matter how much they try to educate their customers about features and quality differentiations in the products they sell, it comes down to the customer having to spend their time reading and clicking on links to basically educate themselves. As any retailer will tell you, most customers would rather be shown than have to read about it.

The following are a few events and services any retailer can offer their customers to set them apart from the big box stores and online discounters. Keep in mind that any program you institute takes extra effort and requires some expense, as well as maintenance, to keep your offering fresh and relevant.

Facebook is an inexpensive, customizable advertising platform that is always adding tools to enhance its relevance to business users. On the left side of your Facebook page, you will find “Offers.” This tool allows you to communicate with customers that have “liked” your page, offering specials that they can see in their Facebook notifications and that, in turn, their friends can see. Another great tool is “Notes,” which allows you to blog with your customers on Facebook, updating them on new product arrivals or livestock availability.

Make it your mission to get your customers’ email addresses when they visit your store. Email addresses allow you to reach customers who aren’t on social media sites and can be more pictorial-orientated than a simple Facebook post. Make sure not to overuse email notifications. Email marketing is the cheapest means of direct advertising available to you, so make sure your customers don’t move you to their spam file.

Other added value services and events you might offer during the year to bring more customers into your store include a service center to repair products you sell. There are distributors that stock parts for popular items. Offer several fleaand-tick dip events during the summer. Have an anniversary sale; invite the local radio station in to help celebrate. Create a dog day and feline day (or other pet categories) where there are special sales on food, toys, etc. Aquatic stores can offer seminars on establishing aquatic environments or how to use specialized equipment and offer aquarium water testing.

Don’t let the specter of a changing market discourage you. Play to your strengths and push back. If you have a vibrant store environment that connects with customers, you can offer pricing that’s higher than your competition and still find shoppers wanting to buy from you. And remember, without pets, there would be no pet industry. If you offer livestock, then that is one of the most important strengths that any independent pet store has to draw in customers.

Price Isn’t Everything

There are always good reasons to advertise low prices. Low prices can draw customers into your store, and promoting branded products will enhance your store’s image as a competitively priced business. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always about the price. If you only inventory cheap products, you’ll be missing a good segment of consumers who want superior quality and are willing to pay more for proven reliability. You’re also setting your business up for bad customer reviews if you recommend products that may not hold up to regular use.

In my opinion, it is ethically acceptable to advertise inexpensive products while suggesting higher priced alternatives once the customer is in the store, especially if you have a good reason to make those comparisons. The difference between an independent pet retailer over big box and internet sellers should be expertise. If when discussing your customer’s purchase you point out the advantages of another product with added features or proven safety ratings in such a way as to not invoke a “used car” sales persona, I believe you will find the customer will appreciate your input and may very well upgrade to a better product.

For example, say a customer walks into your store and picks up a $9.99, 100-watt aquarium heater. You naturally ask them about their setup and why they are buying a heater at this time. Nine times out of 10, if it is an established system, they’re in the process of replacing a heater that no longer works. If I had a heater that quit working, shocked me or fried the inhabitants of my aquarium, I would likely accept a pet professional’s recommendation about a heater that cost even twice as much but gave me peace of mind that I had the safest product for my system.

The same holds true for first-time aquarium buyers. They are generally not confident about what they need. If they want a boxed kit, that is one thing; but if you have a range of house kits (especially if you set up live examples) and you take the time to compare your kits to the boxed unit, you’re likely to increase the sale amount while at the same time impressing your customer.

In general, to better compete with low internet prices on branded products, retailers should do their research to find out which manufacturers support brick and mortar stores with minimum advertised pricing (MAP) programs. I’m constantly hearing about more manufacturers implementing MAP protection. For established brands, the best approach is to do a Google search and note the high and low price range. Document the pricing and contact your suppliers asking them for a price that allows you to be in the mid-range. You can also contact the manufacturer to see if they have any added value deals or customer loyalty programs that will help you compete.

Always keep in mind and never forget that, generally speaking, cheap is cheap for a reason. Take the time to be sure what you’re selling will reflect well on your business. If you sell a canister filter with a defective O-ring seal and your customer wakes in the morning with an empty 55-gallon tank, dead fish and a swamped wall to wall carpet, where was the saving? What does that do for your business? A well-priced product might simply be that a manufacturer is trying to establish its brand and is willing to operate on a lower margin for a time, but there is the real possibility that the product was constructed without features or safety enhancements so it can meet a particular price point.

Your big advantage over big box and internet sellers is your reputation for variety and product expertise. The best policy is to personally test what you sell, especially when it comes to anything electrical or a brand with which you’re not familiar.

Reward Your Customers

Retailers have offered customer loyalty programs for decades. Remember the punch card? “Get your card punched each time you purchase from the store, and once you have 10 punches, you get $10 off your next purchase of $25 or more.” This was the extent of a consumer reward program—until recently.

If you look at retail internet sites, you may notice that some offer a similar concept, usually called Reward Points. If the consumer signs up as a member of that site’s community, he or she can earn points toward future purchases. Usually, points can be earned by writing a product review or replying to the site’s blog and when purchasing products from the site.

Over the past two years, I’ve noticed the growth of customer loyalty programs offered by internet sellers. I think there are two reasons why they have embraced the customer reward concept. The foremost reason is the ever-increasing number of internet sites. But another reason that’s just as important is that award points offered for site activity and purchases neatly get around most manufacturers’ Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) programs. Since they are not “advertising” a price, but offering a generalized awards program, they aren’t in violation of a MAP program.

MAP has always been a bit of a gray area. Some states disallow the practice, and others have specific regulations that create reporting and oversight requirements. So, with this new twist, what can brick and mortar retailers do to compete?

The pet industry will become irrelevant without pets. Yes, I know there is an ever-growing number of stores that don’t sell livestock, and that may work for some—so long as there are still the traditional retailers who do.

Brick-and-mortar retailers have some advantages over internet sellers. To begin, to get these reward points, customers have to sign up and become a member. Not all consumers want to do that. Of course, those who sell livestock have the obvious advantage of offering a real-time bonding experience. This is an advantage that is difficult for any internet or big box store to emulate.

Multiple industry articles quote total pet food and supplies sold on the internet to still be in the single-digit range with a wide variation from $4.1 to $9 billion (Petfood Industry) out of an overall $69.36 billion (American Pet Products Association) by the end of 2017. No matter what the pundits say, those numbers leave a lot of room for brick and mortar stores.

What can you do to compete with big box stores and internet sellers? Try out new ideas; don’t just turn on the lights in the morning. Think about what those other segments of the pet industry are doing and come up with a way to compete with them that fits your business model. You may not have exposure to the whole U.S., but within your city, county and state, you could bring in more business than in the past if you reach out for it.

If you don’t have one, create a loyalty program, and promote your services and connect with your customer base through Facebook and Twitter. Open your own Shopify e-commerce shopping cart and sell unique products that are hard to find or are specialty items relating to your specific business. Support consumer clubs and run regular instore promotions and key into “get out of your chair and come down to the store” items that you can buy in quantity at a discount from your suppliers and sell in quantity at a discount to your customers.

My advice is to not worry about the folks that come in, browse and then go home and buy on the internet. Try making them want to buy from you by making their time in your store an attractive and beneficial experience. If you do, I dare say they will be back sooner or later to buy food or specialty products from you because you are convenient and they haven’t forgotten that you were pleasant and helpful the last time they were in your store.

Power of the Endcap

I have noticed that effective endcap displays have been reduced from past years. When I’ve asked retailers why they weren’t using their prominent endcaps by the checkout station to merchandise seasonal items or to rotate volume sellers and new items, the response was that they didn’t have the time to rotate inventory.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, endcap display rotation was a big thing. It was a way to encourage impulse buying and to display quantity purchases. It was effective in showcasing seasonal and new items. I’m not sure why this sales vehicle has fallen out of favor.

Prominent endcaps allow retailers to refresh the appearance of their store. This gives customers the feeling that their favorite store is staying abreast of the newest and brightest products available. Even if you aren’t stocking anything new, just by changing displays you will give that impression.

If you’re willing to try some endcap innovation, your biggest advocate will be manufacturer detailers and distributor sales people. They will be happy to work out discounts, obtain demo units and train store associates on features and benefits. Ask them for merchandising ideas. Distributors can be a great asset to any retailer who is willing to ask for advice.

The best way to get started is to develop an action plan worksheet to help you organize your displays throughout the year. If you have multiple endcaps, consider at least one on a rolling rotation every other month. This will keep things fresh for loyal customers who regularly visit your store.

Any action plan should take into consideration the seasons that affect your store type. If you are an aquatic store only, you might take into account summer vacation season and create a display with automatic fish feeders, feeding blocks, dosers, water level controllers and other things that will give your customers assurance that they can enjoy their away time, reducing the worry about their display tank at home. If your store sells dog products, an obvious seasonal display for summer might be flea and tick control, lawn pet care products or, for winter, containment options, sweaters and coats, etc.

There are five important things you should list on your worksheet for each display:
1. Decide on a theme.
2. Consider the benefits that the products on display offer your customer.
3. Identify the primary mover(s) in the grouping that will most likely attract your customers’ interest.
4. List all related products you will need to support the prime movers or expand the theme.
5. Negotiate discounts with your supplier based upon your effort to promote their manufacturer’s products. You could also talk to manufacturers or their representative at trade shows and distributor open houses or through their detailers who visit your store.

Don’t forget the silent salesman: signage. It increases the possibility of a sale to display signage telling a story about the products. If customers stop in simply to purchase a bag of dog food, the sight of a display with a sign promoting the beauty of desktop aquariums at the checkout counter might intrigue them into considering one. The simple fact that your dog food-buying customer saw an inviting endcap showcasing beautiful desktop aquariums might actually encourage him or her to come back and buy one for their desk at work or home.

Once your endcap is complete, take a picture of it. The photo will help in the future to remember what worked and what didn’t. You can also post the image on your Facebook and Instagram pages to further entice customers to visit your store.

In short, if you have an old endcap that hasn’t been remerchandised for a long time, consider a makeover to make it more productive for you. You might be pleasantly surprised by your effort.

5 Key Product Groups

The internet is a dominant sales platform. For a brick-and-mortar retailer, that means one needs to be as knowledgeable as possible about what you’re selling and why customers visit your store. If all you’re doing is selling merchandise, your business will not survive; what you have to sell is your expertise, providing credible advice that will help customers succeed.

Pricing your products according to market value and being a professional in your field will tip the balance in your favor when dealing one-on-one with a customer. No matter how easy a website is to navigate, its customer service is limited to remote contact. Even in this high-tech retail environment, personal interaction will give you an edge.

When deciding on the products to stock and prices to charge, be aware that there are five important categories of products that you should consider. If you divide your inventory into these categories and order accordingly, you’re bound to increase your sales and keep your customers satisfied at the same time.

“Demand items” are products that customers ask for regularly. These products include consumables like pet food or supplements. Demand items are often price-sensitive and may not yield full margins, but they do draw customers into your store where you can offer other more profitable products or services. Secure a main and secondary supplier for demand items to ensure they’re always in stock. Running out of a demand item can cost you customers if they feel they need a necessity item and are forced to go elsewhere to find it.

“Unique items” are products that are not substitutable. You can realize better margins on unique products because they are not as price-sensitive. These products include replacement parts, pet clothing, specialized animal training items and such custom-made products as specialty aquariums, cat furniture and dog houses.

“Completer items” are products that are required to complete a project or make other products work. Without these items, other items may not sell. These products could include accessories for bird or dog cages, replacement parts for equipment, cartridges for aquarium filters, etc. Completer items are what set you apart from big-box stores that only stock high-volume items. Completer items may not move as fast as other merchandise but can be the difference between customer satisfaction and disappointment.

“Profit items” are products that have an established price. They can be minimum advertised pricing (MAP)-protected by the manufacturer or have an established price that the consumer expects to pay. MAP protected items are a growing category that some manufacturers enforce because they want to continue to see a healthy retail showroom for their products. Retailers should consider gravitating toward manufacturers who support MAP protection whenever possible.

“Seasonal items” are products that sell at certain times of the year. Examples of these are flea-and-tick items, holiday products and winter clothing. If you don’t have them in stock at the right time, you can’t sell them. It’s true that seasonal items have a time sensitive value—once the season or event has passed, the product value is greatly reduced. Some suppliers will guarantee the sale for customers with good track records and will take back unsold seasonal inventories, which allows the retailer to reinvest in new inventory rather than sit on seasonal products until the next year.

Not all products and brands can be priced the same—not if you want to survive in the ever-changing pet industry marketplace. Try categorizing your pricing formulas and see how it works for you. Consumers only want to spend a portion of their ready cash and will go elsewhere if they can’t find it in your store. Profit is relative—you can mark it up, but can you sell it?

It’s What You Know

Most consumers only visit your store if they have a need or a problem to solve. The reason could be as simple as stocking up on pet food or as complicated as having concern for an older pet’s health. What you do when a customer asks for advice could either lock them into your business as a loyal customer or drive them away, never to be seen again.

Want proof? Look at Yelp. It amazes me when I look at a retailer’s Yelp review page where one review is one star and the next is five stars. You can read between the lines and know that some sales people deal well with normal business situations while others don’t, letting customers leave their store with a displeasure that they share with the world on Yelp.

Have the Answers
Ask yourself these questions: What makes a loyal customer who will give you repeat business? How would you like to be approached if you were visiting a store for a solution to a problem? What is the consumers’ perception of the service or products that you offer?

Engage your customers by taking the time to understand their issues—don’t just point them to a product. Be sure they understand the product, and be ready to suggest alternative solutions to their problem if necessary. The differences between you and the big-box store is knowledge and personalized service, so be prepared to supply both.

Retailers who think their only job is to inventory and sell products will probably not thrive in current market conditions. If that was all customers needed, they could just click a mouse and order online. The successful retailers must know how their products work and be able to communicate that to their customers.

Most new customers value a hassle-free first visit and, if needed, a little TLC from the retailer. If they have questions and have them answered competently, they will not forget the experience. “Do you have something that will work for (fill in the blank)?” is one of the most asked questions by customers. There’s nothing worse than being given inaccurate information or being fobbed off with a cookie-cutter answer. Any customer treated like that will probably not give your business a second chance.

What They Need
Hobbyists know what they want before they step into a store. The majority of consumers aren’t hobbyists, and they won’t buy if they don’t understand what they need. Product knowledge easily equates to sales and profits. Signage and displays show the products and should suggest projects that will enhance the customer’s lifestyle. Displays are a key to selling anything if you’re looking to increase volume, but taking the time to confirm that you have what it takes to solve their problem will close the sale.

Keep in mind that most customers never make a purchasing decision based solely upon price alone. Example: Say you’re at a baseball game and you’re thirsty. There are two vendors selling soda. One has his soda priced at $1 and the other has his at $2. So, naturally, you go to the vendor that is cheaper. What if once you get up to the counter you find that the guy behind the counter was dipping the cups into a big bucket of soda and flies were buzzing all over the place? Would you buy it? The other vendor has a clean and inviting counter with a dispensing tab. I would pay more because the value is obvious; the same thing applies to pet services and supplies. The only difference is that pet retailers have to make an effort to explain as well as show why the customer should pay the asking price.

Remember, and never forget, that people don’t like to be sold. What they want is someone who will listen to them and solve their problem or provide them with reassurance that their purchase is the right one to fit their needs.

Negative Grades 2.0

You might wonder why the designator “2.0” appears in this article’s title. That’s because I wrote on this subject in July 2014, and I wanted to do an update. Much has changed since that 2014 article.

As part of our vendor service, my colleagues and I visit a variety of aquatic and reptile retailers. When I wrote the original article, quoting figures from personal experience, we estimated barely 50 percent of our retailer base used social media, and around 30 percent had no online presence other than through the Online Yellow Pages or Yelp, both of which are driven by consumer reviews.

Fast forward to January 2017 and we find that 95 percent of our retailer base today has some sort of online presence. Even stores with no store website still have at least a Facebook page, and they actively use it to communicate with their customers.

I think this change in statistics comes down to the fact that retailers know internet sales are the engine driving sales these days. They know they must be more online savvy than in years past to grow their business. I predict there will come a time when having an online store will be a natural extension of every brick and mortar establishment, and this type of service will become part of their distributor’s services or from some sort of third-party providers. They will make the participation process easy to navigate—as simple as a signature on a cable TV or a leased car contract.

Having said that, what hasn’t changed is the fact that consumers generally are only motivated to “review” a business if their ire is up, and that type of “review” can put off potential customers.

According to a survey by RetailNext, 71 percent of savvy shoppers research online before purchasing in a store. Another survey by ReviewBiz states 58 percent of consumers say the star rating of a business is important to them and 84 percent trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

Consumers come with all kinds of expectations, and one wrong word can set them off. Negative ratings are more prevalent than positive ones because a bad experience, whether perceived or real, will motivate the consumer to take the time to warn fellow shoppers or to just “get it off their chest.”

There are simple ways to make negative reviews work for you—rather than against you. First and foremost, always respond to reviews, positive and negative. On a positive review a quick “thank you” lets them know you are aware of their post and appreciate it. On negative reviews, reassure the customers that their concerns are important to you, and offer a resolution and apology—even if you feel the review was unfair.

Whether that customer responds to your follow up isn’t important because all the other potential customers researching online will see it and feel you are trying your best. They might even be reassured by your efforts, thus turning a bad review into a positive advertisement for your store.

Consumers generally think reviews older than three months are no longer relevant, so the best policy is to always ask satisfied customers to review your services. With Facebook’s star-based rating app, it’s easier than ever. You can put the URL on your business card and in-store promo stuffers.

Seven out of 10 consumers will leave a review for a business if asked to do so, according to ReviewBiz, and almost 90 percent of consumers read fewer than 10 reviews before forming an opinion about a business. So even if you have had bad reviews in the past, getting positive ones going forward would correct that problem.

Yelp, as well as Facebook’s review app, can hurt or help your business. It doesn’t take a lot of time to keep your reviews and searchable online information current and up to date. When you hear a customer say, “I saw your good reviews on the internet and decided to give you a try,” you will understand the power of positive reviews.

Four Essential Buying Questions

What motivates customers to purchase the products you are selling? The answer to this question is simple: they will buy anything if they perceive the product to have personal value.

Consider in-store signage and even social media to explain why people or their pets need a particular product. Successful merchandising is nothing more than telling the right story about the product so the consumer sees the value and is encouraged to buy.

Why Should Customers Buy It?
How will this product make your customer’s life or the life of their pet happier, healthier or more secure? Even if only one applies, address it with in-store signage and post the information on your social media platform. It has long been known that customers spend less of their expendable cash than they would otherwise simply because they can’t find what they’re looking for or don’t see the products’ value. By merchandising properly, the retailer can pick up extra dollars that have always been available.

What is the Product?
The average person comes into your store to buy because they have an issue to resolve or a project to complete.

A good way to speak to a common problem is to create a merchandising center—a Flea & Tick Control Center or a Water Quality Center—where every problem in that particular category can be addressed using signage and can make it easy for the customer to buy. Another option to boost sales could be a bulk endcap display, which can show store confidence and encourage consumer buying.

How Much is it?
Information is what sells the average hobbyist. They will seek out the price, so it’s not important to be able to read the price from across the room. An example of a good sign would be: “20-Gallon Aquarium Setup with Everything Including Fish: $79.99,” with a list of the contents. The actual price font can be as small as you want, because if the customer doesn’t know that the kit is complete, they will just pass it by anyway.

You may ask yourself, “How do I sell against the big box superstore’s 20-gallon aquarium starter kit that sells for $10 less?” Buy one of their kits, take it out of the box and set it beside your kit. Then place a sign in each kit comparing them, making sure to point out the quality and completeness that you are offering.

Is it Worth it?
Think about all of the aspects of a product before setting the retail price. Can the product be explained to the consumer as a necessary item? Is the product competitively priced? It is important to know what the retail value of a product is in the marketplace. The retailer’s cost isn’t the important issue here. It’s what the retailer can sell it for that matters most.

Take something like bulk millet spray at two for $0.99. If you told a story with a sign saying something like, “Fresh Millet Spray Keeps Your Caged Bird Healthier and Happier, Good for Song Birds: 59 Cents Each,” your sales would probably increase simply because you are telling the consumer the value of the product. Because the consumer has no preconceived idea about what bulk millet should sell for, they will pay more to have a healthier pet bird. I’ve known cases where millet costing the retailer 35 cents has been sold for as much as 99 cents each. It can be done if the retailer is willing to key into products that will withstand market-bearing prices.

Take advantage of the silent sales tool: signage. Telling the story in the store and online will enhance your sales potential with little added expense or effort. Keep in mind that many consumers don’t like asking questions, so if you answer a question with signage and social media, you’re making it easier for your customer to buy what you have to sell.

Customer Service that Matters

No matter your competitive prices and product selection, you will be no better than hundreds of other retailers competing for the same customers if you lack customer service skills. According to a 2014 study by NewVoiceMedia, an estimated $41 billion is lost by U.S. companies each year due to poor customer service.

Have you ever tried to contact an online seller about a problem or to ask a question? If so, you’ll often find yourself searching the company’s website for contact information and, if you send them an email, you might never get a reply.

According to a 2015 consumer experience survey by Aspect Software, 76 percent of consumers say they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them.

A great example of customer service done right is Aquarium Depot in Citrus Heights, California. The family-owned retailer puts customer service front and center in its business, which specializes in aquatics and reptiles. When you walk into the store, the first thing you will see to your left is a checkout counter. On your right, you’ll find a customer service counter.

I have visited literally hundreds of pet stores over the years, and have caught store owners, managers and sales people in a wide range of moods. People obviously can’t be at their best all of the time, but even if they’re not, they need to keep in mind that the customer pays their salary.

As a small business, problems with those big, uncaring businesses or inattentive online sellers can give you a big advantage if you’re willing to make customer service an important part of your store’s identity. Here are the top seven aspects that make up good customer service (in order of importance):

Patience: Retailers who know the value of customer relationships will develop a policy that can be followed by everyone, from the top down. Good customer service requires a lot of patience, even when you are really busy or not feeling your best. Being patient is probably the hardest skill to master, but it is also the most appreciated by customers.

Sociability: This skill is a close second when it comes to customer relationships. Being friendly will get you return patronage. Believe it or not, customers “like being liked” and will go out of their way to give you their business if they value that relationship.

A willingness to listen and learn: When it comes to knowing what your customers want, the ability to listen to their problems and solve them will earn you their loyalty. A problem shared or a problem solved creates a special bond that no big business will be able to emulate.

Product knowledge: It has been said many times that a small business fares better than a large business in the product knowledge category. Most consumers believe that small business owners know more about the products they sell than an employee in a big, impersonal chain store.

Good communication skills: Being able to communicate with customers is an obvious necessity when dealing with the public.

A positive attitude: Maintaining a positive attitude, when coupled with communication skills, is critical. Don’t dismiss a customer’s question with the easy answer, but also never tell your customer you will do something and then fail to do so.

A willingness to adapt to market dynamics: An ability to adapt is a skill we must possess in order to stay relevant in an ever-changing marketplace. The retail business was once as simple as coming up with a need and filling that need. Today, filling a need is just one small part of the equation.

Your ability to define your business as one whose reputation and likeability sets you apart from online and big chain competition will enable you to become a mainstay in your community just as Aquarium Depot has been doing for years.


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