The Big Show

As I write this, I just got back from the National Retail Federation Big Show (a retailer trade show) in New York. Going to the show is a mind-boggling experience and you really should attend it. The show takes up the entire Javits Center in New York, which dwarfs the venues at Global Pet Expo or SuperZoo. The exhibit halls feature every product or service that retailers use. From POS systems and add-on software and hardware to marketing companies and logistics companies and fixture companies and on and on and on. There were several thousand exhibitors and over 35,000 attendees in the three days of the show.

The things I like best about this show are the hundreds of different speakers and the case studies of things individual retailers have done well (and not so well). Many of the sessions and exhibitors focused on the big boys but there was plenty for the indie retailer to learn.

By the time you read this, we will have upgraded our POS system to the latest and greatest Counterpoint system. It has been a slow, painful and very expensive process that included deposits on two systems that we ended up not using because they ended up not doing what we needed.

In the end, the counterpoint was as close as we could get to what we need. Here’s my advice to you: Before you invest in a new or a first POS system, find a consultant who can help you articulate your “must haves” in the new system. Naturally, yours truly didn’t do that.

We did find a compatible piece of software called flexReceipts. It will allow us to email receipts to customers and put targeted coupons on those receipts. The best part is the folks from that company are very savvy tech people who are ahead of the curve with mobile payments, emails, etc.

We also looked at payroll, time and attendance software, mobile payment software, and some cool monitors that you can program through a computer to play or demo anything you have in your store. They are basically televisions that you program.

This was also my fourth year as presenter at the National Retail Federation Big Show. We had more than 850 people in the session, which was “Twelve Very Doable Marketing Strategies.” For me, the best part of the show is always talking to other retailers. You learn so much more by listening than talking. I hung out with the CMO of Sheels All Sports, which is a chain of 22 amazingly well run stores. The stores are world class, industry-leading destination stops. They range in size from about 100,000 sq. ft. to 220,000 sq. ft. They do zillions of dollars and have a wonderful way of doing business.

Firstly, each store is a shopping experience like no other. They understand whoever has the store that is the most fun, wins. They sell, sporting goods, all kinds of apparel, hunting equipment and pet food—including lots of locally made stuff. But what really sets the company apart from the competition is the people who work there and the training that goes into every single employee.

Most retailers don’t invest nearly enough in product training, customer service skill training, management training, etc. But Sheels does. The employees at Sheels are paid very well with great benefits but a lot is expected of those employees. The management sets high expectations but they give the crew the tools they need to meet them.

Listening to my new buddy talk about the culture at Sheels reminded me exactly of how Mindy Grossman runs her company Home Shopping Network. They demonstrate that an owner needs to give the employees tools and opportunities to shine and grow. A company can’t grow without great people.

I went back to my hotel room thinking of ways to run my company like they do. I am so much smaller than they are, how can I possibly do it? Then I realized Mr. Sheels started with one store and a clearly defined vision of how he wanted to run his business. We can all learn from his example.

Here is what I think we can look forward to. Free shipping on pet food will not be here forever. Once investors insist on companies making money, free shipping will go away. Just don’t hold your breath. I also think you and I will have to let our customers order online and pick up at the store or we will have to deliver orders. The companies that are easiest to do business with will win.

Things are changing so fast that indies like us will face challenges staying ahead of the curve. Please take this advice about delivery even if your business is great. Start making a plan to get into the delivery business now and get ahead of the curve.

Staying in the Game

By the time you read this Christmas will be over and the fabulous week between Christmas and New Year’s Day will also be in the books.

I did something this year that we haven’t done in a few years. We sent the top 20 percent of our customers a postcard that simply said thanks for being one of our best customers.

It also include a $10 gift certificate towards anything in the store. No catch, no minimum purchase, just present this postcard and get $10 off any purchase.

The postcards hit the homes the Monday before Thanksgiving and were good through Sunday Dec. 7. I wanted to keep the offer to two weeks and have it end before the days when we do get busy for Christmas.

If ever there was a group of customers I want to make sure I never lose, it is the top 20 percent.

As I told one of my customers, it is such a great feeling to be able to reward the folks who spend so much money in my stores. My guess is that we will get a 60 percent response on the postcard.

Now, the reason I ended the offer on Dec. 7 is so that these customers would come back right before Christmas when they were really in the Christmas mood. I don’t know about you but our business is usually soft the last week of Thanksgiving and the first week of December. This promotion really made the registers sing. Of course the bad news is we gave thousands away in discounts. I kept telling myself, aren’t you happy to give a person who spends $400, $500 or more a year in the store $10? You bet I was.

I am thinking for Valentine’s Day we will send a similar postcard—maybe $5 to everybody who spent more than $250 or $300 last year. Again, February is a pretty slow moth for us and this will be a huge lift. We have done it in years past and will get about a 30 percent response and the average transaction of the folks who use the gift card will be way higher than usual.

I also learned it does produce an added visit to the store so even though it is a huge investment, it pays off.

One of the bad parts is you can’t get vendors to kick in anything since it is a gift card. What we do is take all our specials off for the month so our margins aren’t clobbered.
Speaking of margins, we are just about to upgrade our POS system and are trying to adjust all our pricing in the system before we flick the switch. We now have two price points, $.49 and $.99. So if an item costs $2.10 and we double the item it used to be $4.19, now it will be rounded off to 4.49. If the item costs $2.30, it used to retail for $4.59 it is now $4.99. These are nickels and dimes but at the end of the year it is a lot of nickels and dimes.

One of the things I am most excited about with our POS upgrade is we will have the ability to do email receipts. Plus, the emails can have targeted messages and offers on them and will mobile-friendly emails.

Have you ever noticed the receipts from your grocery store or CVS or Walgreens? Next time you shop in one of the big chain stores look at what you bought and see if there isn’t a coupon from a competitor product and or a similar product to what you bought. If you bought cough syrup, chances are there are coupons of cold and flu products. I can’t wait to sit with my vendors and come up with all kinds of offers like those. Think about it, if the customer buys a brand of dry food, put a coupon on the receipt for that brand of can food or treats. If a customer buys puppy food put a coupon for training pads or stain remover. Really, the sky is the limit on this one. It’s also an easy way to capture customers email addresses.

Another thing the new system will allow us to do is something I am dreading but I know I need to do. We will build an e-commerce site so customers can order anything we carry in the store online at the same price as in the store. It will be huge task but I think a necessary one. We will offer the same delivery terms as Amazon and the pet e-commerce sites but we will only market our site to our geographical area. We will not pay attention to online prices; we will mirror what is going on in our stores. That way, we won’t have to hire folks to shop other sites and constantly change prices.

You know as well as I do that we are losing sales to e-commerce sites, not to mention manufacturers who are now selling directly to consumers. In order to compete and to continue to thrive, I really think we brick and mortar stores will have to be in the delivery business as well.

TV Revisited

It’s been a month since my last column and advertising is still on my mind.

My local NBC affiliate put on a lunch sponsored by the network television association. It was great because there was no selling but lots of information. Even with a declining audience, network TV rules the media. The fellow who put on the seminar was very persuasive about the benefits of network advertising. Basically, it has the absolute widest reach of any local media. The problem, as you probably know, is that spots are so expensive and cover too wide an area. If you have one store, it may not really serve your area. However, if there is something going on at your store that folks will travel for it may be worth looking at.

He busted me for spending more money on cable than on network TV. To a certain degree, he convinced me to spend more on some network ads. I bought spots in the morning from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays at a pretty reasonable rate. Again, I am in a small market. Larger metropolitan markets will be more expensive.

We did get into a discussion about which is the better buy though, network or cable.

I can buy a 30-second spot during the national/local news, which has tens of thousands of viewers for about $400 a spot. I can also buy about 40 of the same spots on HGTV or the Cooking Channel or Lifetime for the same $400. I don’t have the exact figures but probably five to ten times more people watch the network channel than the cable channels but I can’t afford to run enough spots on the NBC news to make my ad visible to viewers. You need to run a spot many times before viewers remember it. That goes for radio, internet or TV.

So what I decided to do is run a flight of ads on NBC from the morning shows through the daytime and into the news. I am doing this on the first and third Tuesday of the month.

If I have gotten you to think about TV, please run as many spots as you can in one day, not spread out over the course of the week. You need saturation and you need to hit folks over the head with your ad. The argument was about spending $400 and getting thousands of folks seeing the ad versus $400 on a bunch of ads on cable which has a fraction of the viewers.

I still say the cable buy is better since the viewers will see my ad more often and will remember it (assuming it is a good ad).  So please use your local cable and network reps, you may be surprised how affordable TV may be.

Pet Stores on the Radio

As I write this article I am trying to pull my thoughts together about our Christmas marketing plans as well as some ideas for making my customers love us even more. For the first time in years, I am investing money in radio advertising. I’ve seen a lot of research that says radio has the best ROI of any media. I am in a small market and have seven stores, so radio really makes sense for me.

If your store is in a small market or if you have more than one store, radio may be a great way to advertise your business. The trick is which station to buy, when should you run the spots and how often should those spots run. One more small detail: how to make a good radio ad.

Which station gets the most women listeners in your market? You want the most women since they are most likely the bulk of your customers. Radio stations can show you demographics of who is listening to them and when folks are listening.

How much can you afford to spend? The newer the business, the more you need to spend. The better the location, the less you need to spend. Are you the only game in town or, like most of us, do you have too many competitors? Do you have something new and of interest to a broad base of customers? A pretty standard rule of thumb is to spend about 2 percent of sales on marketing. Again, if your business is new, you need to spend more.

So, you picked the station. Now, let’s get the best deal. Do buy packages from the sales reps. Remember that your sales rep is not a marketing expert; he or she is a sales rep.

Here is what I do. I buy a bunch of spots on one day and I avoid drive-time spots since they are the most expensive spots. So I don’t have two spots a day, five days a week, I have 10 spots on Tuesday. Plus I run them whenever the times are cheapest to run.

You may be thinking, “Don’t you get way more people hearing the ad if you spend more to run in prime time?” Yes, but there is too much clutter and your ads will get lost since you can’t afford to run too many in prime time. Plus, wouldn’t you rather have 100 percent of the smaller audience versus 0 percent of the larger audience? Remember, I am in western Massachusetts so rates are very reasonable. Prime drive time spots on the leading station that women listen to are $60 per spot. I am buying Sunday night thru Monday night at $15 per spot.

I contracted out for a year, which makes it easier for the rep to get your deal accepted by management. When buying the spots, you want to own the day even if it’s two days a month.

I do all my advertising on the same days of the month so no matter what media folks are tuned into they will probably see or hear me. As you probably guessed, I do the radio ads myself. It is so important to connect personally with customers. Doing the spots myself lets the listeners know there is a real Dave. They know they are dealing with a real human being, not a corporation. A word of caution however. If you are not really comfortable or good at doing ads, don’t do them. They will be awful and you will bring shame on your family.

What to advertise? I like to solve customer problems. The object is to get as many folks as possible out of competitors’ stores and into your store. What customer problems do you solve most often? Here’s one idea: “Is your dog or cat overweight? We’ve had great results feeding Food X. Here’s why.”
I have been running the following ad for close to 20 years: “Dog got gas? For immediate relief come to Dave’s Soda and Pet City and pick up a bag of Dave’s Simply the Best Dog Food.” That’s the whole ad. Guess what is the best selling dog food sku in my stores?

Are you having a big promotion or sale at the store? Buy your spots right before the promotion. As I’m writing this in October, we are about to hold a Catoberfest event in conjunction with a rescue in one of our stores. Along with emails, Facebook, press releases, etc., I will buy some radio spots promoting it. I will point out the benefits of coming to the store that day, which are discounts, coupons, free food and all the money and supplies the rescue will get.

The question to ask yourself after you script the ad is “Would that make me come to the store?” If you are not sure, make a new ad.

Can You Imagine Customers Tattooing Your Logo on Themselves?

One of my best buddies is a fellow named BJ Bueno. He is one of the best marketers, thinkers and strategists I have ever met.

BJ is all about creating cult brands and how small businesses like ours can, in fact, do it without spending zillions of dollars. He write a blog called Cult Marketing & Branding Insights. What BJ preaches is basic human nature. People like to feel welcomed, like to have different needs fulfilled, like to feel good about the places they spend money in, and will tell others about their experiences.

Most of my best ideas and the way I run my businesses all have a bit of BJ thinking in them. He trained me to ask the question, “What will my customers think?” before I do anything. The goal according to BJ is to build a business of fanatical followers like Apple or Harley-Davidson. Can you imagine customers tattooing your logo on themselves?

So the question is how do we build such a fanatical customer base? It’s not easy but it is very doable. In no particular order here are just some of the things we need to do. I say need because competition is going to get fiercer and tougher for folks like us.

You have to know who your customers are. You simply cannot build a relationship with someone you can’t communicate with. At the last Central show I ran into a retailer who has been pummeled with new competitors in the past year. I think every major chain has moved close to her. This person runs such a good store and is so on top of her game that even though the store is down, it is not out. Sales are starting to inch back up. I asked the retailer if she is at least collecting emails of their customers. The answer was no: “My customers don’t want to give us their emails.”

Wrong answer!

Your customers absolutely want to hear from you when you are telling them about something that they are interested in. Do you think your customers don’t want an email telling them about a recall or a sale on the brand of food they use? You bet they do.

We just did a postcard with a $4 off coupon for one of the brands we sell. We went into our database, got a list of everybody who bought that brand in the past year and sent the postcard just to them. Typically, we would get at least 20 percent response rate. It has only been three weeks but we have not gotten very many coupons back. Something is screwy. We checked with the post office, the cards went out so this is a mystery. The rep and I were really scratching our heads trying to figure out what happened. Then it hit me: I can email the folks who were sent the snail mail postcard to ask them if they did indeed get the postcard. Then we figured why not resend the coupon in the email? The point is I couldn’t communicate with them if I didn’t have contact info.

Back to BJ. If you know your customers are mostly women, is your store “woman friendly?” Are your shelves, floors, window and sidewalks clean? Are your heavier products easily reachable for the average height of a woman? I suggest reading, “Why She Buys” by Bridget Brennan. As I think about it, a large amount of stores that I visit all over the country are run by women. That probably explains why they are successful; they know how to cater to themselves. You cannot create a cult following if you don’t cater to your followers!

The next thing is you need to bond emotionally with your customers. The one advantage we indies have is the big chains can’t do that. They run great ads saying they do it but they can’t. It is up to you to make your customers fall in love with and spend their hard-earned money in your store.

To me – and BJ agrees – nothing can be built without trust. The easiest way to build trust is make sure you and your crew practice the adage of “when there is a problem, there is no problem.” Fix it immediately and empower your crew to fix problems on the spot.

Learning to Be a Good Manager

If you are like me, one of the greatest challenges you face is managing people. Great managers are so hard to come by.

And just because you own the business, doesn’t mean you are a good manager. There is a huge difference between being a successful entrepreneur and being a successful manager. For me, managing people has been harder than building my business.

When I got the invitation to join a monthly CEO roundtable group, I jumped at the chance. Their meetings are held in New York at different venues each month. Normally, we network for a while and then break into groups for discussions that are about things that will help us run our businesses better.

When I learned who some of the folks at my first meeting were, I was blown away. There were folks in the room that had gigantic businesses – companies that were doing hundreds of millions and billions of dollars. I had to remind myself I was in New York and there were lots of Wall Street types, real estate developers, high-powered lawyers and countless other CEOs and very successful entrepreneurs.

To say that my business is the smallest in the group is an understatement. But the fact is, these folks face many of the same issues and deal with the same stresses that we pet retailers do. I want to share with you what I have been fortunate to learn from some of them.

The theme of our last meeting was “dealing with adversity.” There were 10 people in our forum. We each spoke briefly about one example of a particularly difficult time in our life or career and how we dealt with it. As my turn was approaching, all I could think about was that in 1995 I had to close a store and it almost put us under.

As I listened to each of the folks in the room, I was stunned by what “real adversity” some of these folks had faced and – for lack of a better word – defeated. The fellow next to me ran a business that provided software to many of the biggest names in the financial industry.

Guess where his and most of his customers’ offices were? Yup, in the Twin Towers. He, and his crew, managed to get the hard drives out of their computers before the towers collapsed. He rented – actually took over – a close-by Staples, put his hard drives in the computers in the Staples store and was able to continue servicing what was left of his customers’ businesses without missing a beat. His message was there is always a way to get done what you need to get done.

Another person just expanded his business by buying another business that had a big new warehouse with lots of needed production capacity. He had just started to process and pack his very seasonal orders when hurricane Sandy hit and completely flooded the building. Everything was ruined. He could have had a huge insurance claim but would have lost all the customers who had placed orders. He rallied his whole team to work around the clock to clean the building and get orders shipped. His message was make sure you treat people well. When you need them, they will be there. He never could have gotten back into business if his team didn’t put in the effort.

How do you deal with all the adversity in your business life? The guest speaker in our group gave us his six rules of dealing with problems or adversity.
1.    You own the problem. If it is your company, you own the problem.
2.    You have to be present. Don’t try and avoid the problem or conflict. It is not going away.
3.    Be calm to all observers. Your employees don’t want to see you freaking out. If you are not calm, don’t expect your crew to be.
4.    Always ask questions. Nothing is ever as it is presented to you.
5.    Focus. You cannot get distracted by other lesser things. Solve the problem.
6.    Be decisive. Your crew is looking to you to make a decision. Once you make the decision, stick to it.

Get Out Of Your Store

Hi! Did you miss me?

As you probably noticed my “words of wisdom” have not been appearing in the last few months. Truth is, I ran out of stuff to write about. My very kind editors agreed that I could/should take a sabbatical and come back when the creative juices started flowing again. It’s hard to believe, but I have been writing in Pet Age for 10 years.

As you faithful readers know, most of my articles come out of what happens in my business, and/or how I screwed something up (a.k.a., what I have learned). My favorite ones are when I get really ticked off at a vendor. So over the past few months life at Dave’s has been pretty smooth. Our stores are doing well, and the wholesale business is still growing at great clip. I have gone to several conferences where I have picked up very useful marketing info, and I followed some advice that was given to me.

That advice is worth retelling and certainly worth you remembering if you plan on growing your business. Here it is: If you are running a business that does X volume and you want to double or triple the size of the business, hire a person who can run the bigger business.

Seems like such a “duh” doesn’t it? Trouble is most of us don’t do it. Why don’t we? Well, you may have to pay too much for a presently overqualified person or we don’t even know what the job will be when we get to that level or whatever other reason you can think of. I can tell you, if you hire the most overqualified folks you can find, they will help you grow your business.

On a different note, one of my favorite sayings in the retail world is “if you don’t want your customers to spend any more money with you, don’t show them anything new.” Think about it for a minute. Makes sense, doesn’t it? So one of the questions is how and where do you find new stuff to show your customers?

I am such a lucky guy, I get to visit so many stores across the country, and I really do find at least one new product or merchandising tip on every road trip. My phone is loaded with pics of brands and products that we don’t carry in our stores (yet). Not to mention ways to merchandize.

So where am I going with this? You have get out of your store.

It amazes me how many store owners don’t visit competition and stores in other areas to see what they are missing. I don’t care how good a merchant you are, you just can’t learn new things if you don’t get out and see the world. I also ask my distributor reps what other stores are doing that I am not. My reps know my first question is, “What are we doing wrong?” The interesting thing is my reps are not the least bit bashful. They tell me the good, the bad and the ugly.

Good Boss, or Good Leader?

Do you nurture your employees so they can grow to be leaders themselves? Do you let your employees make decisions and yes, even wrong decisions? Is it difficult for you to give up control, or are you at the point where you are happy to have other folks help run the business?

I ask these questions because in the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to be with some folks who are now, or becoming, real leaders. I was visiting one of my good friends who has a very successful store.

As is usually the case with owner/operators, ever since I have known him he has been involved with just about every decision that was made in the company.  Making deals, the marketing, product selection, you name it, he was there to make the decision.

Mind you, he was making very good decisions and his flourishing business was proof. Then something happened that made him realize he has good people and they should help run the business.

I was there to pitch some new skus of food and  much to my delight, Joe was not in the room. He told me he knows the only way to let his folks grow is to let them make the decisions. He is certainly there if they need him but, “they can handle it.”

I gotta tell you, I was just so impressed with the way things were handled. I could see some coaching, which was completely appropriate since  we all need to be guided a little, but  the decision to bring in the line, or not, were made by the folks who actually would have to sell them.

What a concept!

More importantly, the style of leadership was evident. It is a: “I will coach you, you are a bright person, and I have faith in your abilities. You know my vision for the business, take it and run, I am here if you need me.”

Here is the part I like the best: “You make the decisions, I won’t second guess you.”

Now, we obviously can’t turn over decision making to folks who aren’t qualified, but have you given your employees the chance to show you they are qualified?

I don’t want you to confuse being a good boss with being a good leader. There are differences.

A good boss is fair, honest, knows and practices good management skills, and is a good human being. A leader takes those skills, and is able to get folks to “buy into” whatever he/she is “selling.” We all know great leaders and we also know some amazingly powerful leaders that were anything but good.

One of my good friends took over his folks very small food, people, not pet, service distribution business a few years after he got out of college. Over the course of many years, he built the business up to a pretty big business and sold it to a national company for a large chunk of change.

He is a leader.

He oozes passion for whatever he is doing and his can’t fail  manner and personality  is contagious. You just can’t help feeling energized being with him.

We were together last week at meeting listening to a presentation. The presenter was talking about an investment idea that made perfect sense, everything was upfront and clear. But the presenter just didn’t do a good job presenting his plan. He was a great guy, as honest as can be, bright, knows his stuff but just not a good presenter.

My buddy said something to me that just hit such a chord with me: “You need rapport before you can influence.” So simple but profound.

All great leaders build the rapport before they try to influence. Think about that, do you do that in your management life? Actually, it is true in your personal life as well. We in the group are waiting to see if he sends a note thanking us for our time.

Your Attitude Goes a Long Way in Business

This is a “do as I say, don’t do as I do” column. I was at the Summit distributors buying show last weekend and met a very nice woman who runs a pretty successful store, and has a wholesale bakery business.

She was telling me about the competition moving near her, voicing her concern about all the consolidation in the industry and just talking shop in general. She said business was OK but she has a huge opportunity with her wholesale business.  Not being one to mind his own business, when I enquired about the wholesale business and why she wasn’t going “full steam” ahead with that she explained all the things going on in the retail store. Believe me, I get it.  Been there, done that, in fact, still doing that.

So one of the things that was taking up so much of her time is a big event they do at the store every year. The event is huge and very important. However, when she told me this was the 7th year they have done the event, I stopped her from talking. It was kind of funny. I looked at her, she looked at me and said, “you’re right.” I hadn’t even said anything yet.  Are you guessing where this is going?
Finally, I asked, why can’t somebody else put the event together? It’s not as if you haven’t done it before. I don’t care if you hire an event planner to take care of the details, get somebody else to do the grunt work so you can build your business.

Doesn’t this just hit home? How many hours do we spend doing the day-to-day, minute-by-minute “firechiefing” instead of the real job, which is to grow the business? I don’t care how big or small your organization is, don’t get lost in the minutia of putting out fires all day long.

In this particular instance, it seems to me the opportunity to do what she was working on would probably end up being a bigger business than her retail store. For me, the best part is to see the light go off in her head, to see the sudden energized look on her face and to hear the, ‘I am calling them first thing Monday morning.”

I am so fortunate to get to know folks in all kinds and sizes of businesses. To be honest, I have met some owners who I just can’t figure out how they are still in business. They are easy to spot. You know some of them. They all have one word in common that would describe them, and that word is, negative. Luckily for me, I meet and am friends with way more folks that I learn things from every time I am with them.

I have mentioned him before, but this guy is just amazing. His mind never stops thinking of new ways to grow his business.  Russ  is one of those guys that attends every seminar he can, sucks up knowledge like a sponge and is the most humble guy in the world. Oh by the way, he runs a very successful business.

So my  kid, Doug, is a musician. He wrote and recorded a great song, “I’d rather be with dogs than be with you.” He contacted a couple of shelters we work with and put the word out on Facebook to send in pictures of your dog to be in the video that goes with the song. Check it out at
I sent the link to the video to a bunch of my friends, I know I am Doug’s dad, but it’s a great video. I knew this would happen. I get an email back from Russ telling me what a brilliant song/video and naturally, Doug must have been adopted. Surely he didn’t come from my genes. Anyway, in the “of course he would think of this,” he says, “can I have Doug’s permission to send the song to my customers. They will love it.”

I read that and just shook my head. Isn’t that just Russ,  completely focused on what would make his customers happy. I wish I could bottle his enthusiasm, smarts, and creativity and sprinkle it on some of the retailers I know.

Not So Fast

As I was walking through one of my stores a couple of weeks ago, I noticed we were starting to get some Innova back on the shelf.  I would say we were about 50 percent in stock.  It so happened that I was leaving for California in a couple of days to call on retailers with my distributor.  I was really curious to find out what the retailers were thinking about the whole recall situation and how it was handled.

I was in a store when my phone rang. It was a friend who runs some stores on the East Coast. I will summarize the conversation. A customer called his store asking for a particular sku of Innova.  My friend was still out of stock, he called the distributor who was also not yet in stock.  He called the customer to explain the situation and was told “no problem, I got it at Petco.”  He ran over to the Petco and sure enough, they were in full stock.

I obviously could hear and feel the anger, disappointment and sense of betrayal in my friend’s voice.  To be honest, I feel exactly the same way.  Truth be told, I expected nothing different from P&G, but hope springs eternal.  The sales rep I was riding with in California told me the same thing was going on in her part of the country.

As I expected there were two reactions from retailers. One was throwing the food out, this was the last straw. I cringed when I heard that. With all due respect, that is a dumb way to react. It will absolutely cost you customers. You cannot convince all your customers to switch to the food you want them to use. You will only convince some of them. You will lose the customers you didn’t convince and guess where they will start shopping.

The better way to handle this, and the way most of the folks I know are doing is to let the customer decide. By all means try to switch them if that is your plan, but have the Natura products in your store. Your customers are very savvy, let them decide if they should continue to buy the food. At the risk of getting a retailer we visited angry, I heard him telling a customer how awful Innova was.  First, it is unprofessional to do that, never knock a brand. Second, if the customer still wants to buy it, she ain’t coming back to your store. Sell on the merits of the brand you like.

Natura will end up spending a ton of money to get back as many customers as possible.  Why wouldn’t you want to participate in that? Take advantage of every nickel your rep or distributor offers, make sure your deals are every bit as good as the big boys.

Do you think your customers won’t go back to Innova due to the recall?  Ask any East Coast retailer if their Taste of the Wild business has fallen since Taste had a  recall.  Nope. My guess is the same thing will happen with Natura.

In a sense, the only way I can get back at P&G is to take every penny I can from them. I will gladly promote Natura products and do whatever I can to get new customers into my store. If Natura can figure out a way to get those customers to buy their product, great. As we speak, we are sending a postcard to all our Natura customers with a pretty good coupon to come back and buy a bag.\

If I had thrown them out, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.

As far as the filling Petco and PetSmart first, really, what did you expect?  What would have been a really good move on P&G’s part would have been to fill us (by us, I mean all us indies) first.  Then the Natura reps could walk into our stores and rightfully claim “we do value your business.” You probably would be way more receptive to anything in the future they proposed since they would have backed up their “we won’t screw the independent” claim.

And oh, by the way, did you hear from any of the higher ups at Natura during this whole fiasco?  Nope, didn’t think so.  They just let the street reps take the brunt of it.  I beg you, don’t take this out on your rep.

The more stores I visit, the more I realize that many owners are in for a severe shock when sophisticated chains or mini chains start opening in their markets. The big box stores call  these operations ankle biters, I am proud to be in that club. I am stunned at the lack of marketing, promotion, and even competitive pricing.

I hope I convinced any readers not to throw Natura out.  If I didn’t convince you, email me, let’s talk.

A successful retailer, Dave Ratner is the owner of Dave’s Soda & Pet City, an award-winning seven store mini-chain. Dave sits on the Board of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association and the National Retail Federation.

The Learning Never Stops

Ijust returned from the National Retail Federation “Big Show” in New York. It is an absolutely mind boggling experience.

The show floor takes up the entire Javits Center. Anything and everything having to do with retail is there.

It is the perfect place to find used POS equipment, carts, time and attendance software, fixtures, sign making software and hardware, mobile solutions, credit card processors, literally anything you can think of to help retailers, and not just for the big boys. I got plenty of ideas and names for stuff I may be able to use.

The NRF also puts on a whole day of sessions especially for independent retailers. For me, it is the highlight of the show. You cannot feel anything but inspired after you listen to a few of these folks. I don’t care who you are, you need to feel inspired every once in a while. For me, it is nourishment. I come away with a gazillion ideas (most of which will never work) but my mind is recharged and ready to try and make my business better and more loved by my customers.

Since you are an avid reader of my columns, you know I am on the board of the NRF. This was my third meeting, so I am now pretty comfortable with my board “peeps.” The board meeting was very interesting.

What struck me as the biggest “duh” was every retailer in the room has the same problem – getting employees. Did you know that retail employs one in four people in the U.S.?

So there is a pretty good sized outreach to colleges, and even high schools about trying to raise the perception of a retail career. Retail is not on the “sexy” list for most young people. The image is standing behind a register for the rest of your life. Fact is, retail is lots of IT (somebody has to design and run the computers), design, manufacturing, management, logistics, etc.

I chuckled to myself as I listened to our chairman, Terry Lundgren from Macy’s, talk about what they are doing to encourage young people to go into retail. Why did I chuckle? He has, are you ready, 170,000 employees! Can you imagine?

I sat next to the chairman of Tractor Supply, who is a very nice guy. On the other side of me was the CEO of BJ’s Wholesale Club. I asked her where she was staying.
Where do you think? She is CEO of an $11 billion company. The Four Seasons? The Ritz? Maybe The Plaza? Nope, the Comfort Inn. I said, “You’re kidding, right?” “Nope, BJ’s is a value conscious business. How would it look to my customers and employees if I stayed in a fancy hotel she said?”

Right, silly me. It’s that culture thing. The cool thing about her is she walks the walk. Look her up on Google – Laura Sen. Read her history and interviews, it is a wonderful lesson on leadership.

Getting back to the sessions, it blows my mind that there aren’t more indie retailers there of all industries, to take advantage of all they offer. I am not preaching to you, I am stating a fact. You cannot learn new things sitting in your store. There are conferences all over the country that have great speakers. I was in sessions with folks from our biggest competitors. They understand how important it is to know how to reach today’s consumer. I heard case studies from companies that use all kinds of marketing tools. These folks don’t give away secrets, but they give you enough basic ideas of how, and why you need to do certain things.

Even at our industry shows the folks who put these on go to great lengths to get speakers who are there to help you grow your business. I don’t believe there is a single reader out there that won’t learn something from at least one of the sessions at a trade show.

This year I learned how to get the attention of customers who are walking down an aisle. I also learned how to get folks to walk down an aisle that is getting no traffic. Most importantly, I learned how to engage with my customers on the level they want to be engaged with. That info is worth untold dollars. It will become my secret weapon in my stores.


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