You Never Forget Your First

I’ll never forget my first time.

It was several years ago and I had just left a cable news network to accept a position as a social media coordinator at a public relations firm. On the side, I started writing about pets, various adventures with my dog, Toby, and had a few freelance social media clients in the pet industry.

I had a taste of it, but knew I wanted more. A lot more. So, I started to cover the pet industry like I would any other journalism subject. That’s how I found out about the Global Pet Expo, and decided it would benefit me to attend this industry trade show.

My guess was that it would give me better insight into the business, allow me to make professional connections, and let me more accurately assess if I wanted to make a career modification.

It was scary, expensive — I used built-up miles and hotel points to cover my travel — and overwhelming. But, it was also the best career decision I could have made at that point.

I left Orlando with a much clearer understanding of the pet industry, new contacts, a head overflowing with product information, story ideas and opportunities, as well as some very sore feet.

And, you know what? I haven’t missed one since.

If you haven`t been, Global, just like other industry trade shows, is ginormous. Being from the Northeast, I always hear from colleagues how I am so “lucky” to be going to Florida in the middle of winter. I just laugh, and try to explain what our schedules are like at Global.

“You are in a convention center from morning to night with back-to-back meetings and press conferences, while also trying to update social media, writing stories for the website and when you are not doing that, you are entertaining clients or networking. It’s not as glamorous as you think.”

Global, or any of the shows we attend for that matter, are greatly beneficial to us. We get to check out all the latest products, get ideas for stories, gain a better understanding of exactly what challenges the industry is currently facing, where the trends are headed, and see in person the people we talk to over the phone on a daily basis.

Speaking of talking to people in person, Global is the perfect opportunity for retailers to get face time with the companies they buy their products from. Many of you have sales reps that you talk to, or see, on a regular basis, but now is the time to meet the people behind the product.

Most companies send a majority of their team to Global. Yes, they tend to be very busy with meetings, but I suggest picking out several of your favorites and make it a point to at least ask if the person you may want to talk to is around.

If you do meet them, explain why you enjoy their product and how your customers like it. It will help create an impression and you never know what it could lead to. The next time your sales rep is trying to get you a special discount, or when they are looking for a store to test a new product in, you might just be at the top of that list.

Plus, it’s just nice. In a world where we are so quick to complain about something, it is a sweet gesture to tell someone something positive.

Going With the Flow

Take for example this issue of Pet Age. We planned to have everything done early, because we were scheduled to go to print right after the New Year. Then came extended holidays, snow storms, a broken water pipe that shut our building down and servers crashing.

Not exactly how we planned. But, we, as well as our printer, were flexible and did what we had to do to get it done. None of us freaked out. Instead, we assessed the situation, contacted who we needed to contact and did the best we could, which is all that you can ask from you, and your staff.

We’ve seen similar things happen at pet retail stores across the country, especially this winter. Photos with Santa were canceled, stores closed early or didn’t open at all, because of weather.

It’s annoying, upsetting and disheartening, especially because you likely put so much work in it.

But, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Not everything is going to work out the way you planned.

Whether it be an in-store demo postponed because of icy weather, a canceled flight to a conference you wanted to attend, a vacation that didn’t turn out as planned or a shipment of new dog toys that didn’t arrive in time for your biggest sales weekend of the year, there is nothing we can do about it.

We’ve learned, however, the best way to deal with these situations, is to concentrate on what you can control. So, if weather cancels a big adoption event at your store, have your meltdown and then get to work on creating new plans.

Trust me, I understand it is easier said than done. Just ask my staff. I’m not always the best at it, but it is something I strive to get better at, because in the end you can only control so much.

Speaking of new plans, I am very excited to tell you about Pet Age’s newest venture, the Pet Age Business of the Year Awards to be presented during a breakfast at this year’s SuperZoo in Las Vegas.

Our Business of the Year Awards will recognize independent pet businesses for excellence and entrepreneurial success across the pet industry including, but not limited to: pet retailers, groomers, dog walkers, veterinarians, dog day care centers, boarding facilities and training facilities.

We wanted the categories to not only recognize businesses overall, but for specific programs they do, such as a social media campaign, an awesome website, a natural products section and more. You can nominate yourself, or another business you think deserves recognition.

The awards will be judged by an independent panel of pet industry professionals who will be using a specialized scoring system set up by our top-notch events staff.

To learn more about this, head on over to www.petage.com and click on the events tab.

Welcomed Additions

The Editor’s Letter as published in the January 2014 issue of Pet Age.

Happy New Year!

New Years is by far my favorite holiday. As a kid all the extended family from around the country would gather at my Aunt Rosie and Uncle Joe’s house in Brooklyn for a New Year’s Eve celebration that included some of the best Italian food you’ve ever tasted and so much fun that your sides would hurt from laughing.

Although those days are long gone, the memories will never fade. Since then, I have created my own tradition of spending it with very close friends whom I adore.

There is something about starting a new year with a clean, fresh slate that I just adore. But, I don’t believe in resolutions. Instead, I like to think of goals, experiences and projects I want to accomplish in the upcoming year. For example, last year one of my goals was to learn how to play golf. It took until November to take my first lesson, but at least it still happened.

Looking at the January edition of Pet Age, you might pick up on some of the goals we set for ourselves – working to expand the aquatics area of magazine, adding more policy information to help small businesses with our Washington Watch column and reaching out to experts in their respective fields, such as John Mack from Reptiles by Mack, and having them write a little about topics that will help our readers.

You will also notice we’ve expanded some of our other sections as well. There are additional stories about the latest trends in both the dog and cat section, we’ve broken up the aquatics sections to cover aquariums and ponds separately and we’ve taken a new approach to the grooming section.

We know readers of the grooming section are two very distinct groups. There are groomers, and grooming businesses, who want tips on the latest styles and how to run their business, as well as the newest products, and then we have retail business owners who do not offer grooming services, but want to bring their customers the newest shampoos, at-home fur sprays, nail clippers and more.

As a result, you will find two stories in that section, one written by Daryl Conner, a groomer herself and geared toward our groomer audience, and a second story geared toward the retail business owner who carries grooming products.

Speaking of new additions, we are very excited to welcome several new contributors to Pet Age. Pet expert Sandy Robins will be writing about dogs and cats for us, while Debi Hilley, head stylist at A Cut Above in Georgia, joins our grooming section and starting next month Joe Olenik will be our go-to person for all things pond related.

In addition, you will be seeing more columns from contributors RD Webster, of Market Strategies, and Andrea Fischetti, of Chicago Pet Video. We also want to welcome a new column called, “The Scale Count” written by all-around reptile expert, Robert Stephenson.

But, it doesn’t stop there. We have a lot more exciting features, and events planned for the year that I cannot wait to share with you.

What kind of goals are you setting for your business in 2014? Maybe it’s adding new services, like dog walking, or attending more trade shows. Whatever it is, I would love to hear about it, so send me an email and let me know.

Creating a Loyal Customer

The Editor’s Letter as it appeared in the December 2013 issue of Pet Age magazine

On my way to work one day last month, I stopped at my vet’s office to pick up heartworm medication for my dog.

Through casual conversation, I asked a question of the receptionist, adding, “yeah, if I asked Dr. I, he would laugh at me.”

“Oh, Dr. I isn’t here.”

I said something to the point of him just not being there that day. And, then that’s when they broke the news to me.

“No, Dr. I, no longer works here,”

The next 10 minutes were a blur of words:

“What do you mean? He doesn’t own the practice anymore?”

“No.”

I think that was the last thing I clearly remember. Other than that it was now owned by a corporation. My heart sank about 50 feet. I couldn’t form a full sentence and I was in complete shock.

This was a vet who I grew up with. He treated every pet in my family. He was a doctor, whom I would trust 100 percent with my dog’s life, and was likely one of the reasons I thought of becoming a veterinarian.

Later that day I found out he started a new practice about 3 hours away. I breathed a sigh of relief.

My immediate thought? Grab my files, and run.

Then common sense kicked in, and I realized it was too far away for regular vet visits, but knew that if something serious ever happened, he was still in practice and close enough that I could bring Toby to him.

The whole incident got me thinking about customer loyalty.

As a retailer, you don’t want just repeat customers, but loyal customers. Ones who will pay a little extra if you have to raise prices, because your costs are going up. Ones that move across town because they got married, but will drive the extra 10 minutes to your store instead of going to the one that might be closer.

You might ask how this is done. While I’m not a retailer, I do know about brand loyalty, and I also know what made me want to jump to Dr. I’s new practice.

It was relationship building.

We talk about that subject a lot here at Pet Age, not just internally, but also on the pages of this magazine. In fact, you may be sick of reading about it, but it’s one of the best ways you can separate yourself from the competition.

Being there for your customers when they have questions, giving them educated answers, knowing their pet’s name, asking them how their day was and actually caring about them as a person, helps build a relationship between you and them.

My vet never “marketed” to me. In fact, the only thing I think I ever got from him in the mail was a postcard reminding me about an upcoming appointment, or that Toby was due for a check up.

It’s the philosophy of my friend Ted Rubin, co-author of the book “Return on Relationship.” I met him several years ago at a social media conference, and I’ve followed his business practices and advice ever since.

While most people talk about the ROI, or return on investment, especially when it comes to marketing and brand loyalty, he talks about the return on relationship, and building a true relationship with the people who are doing business with you.

That’s what builds loyal customers.

Everyday Service

The Editor’s Letter as it appears in the November issue of Pet Age.

Our parent company, Journal Multimedia, really believes in continuing education. Every other month they gather all our publications’ employees, and cover a topic that will not only help us, but also help us service our clients.

During our last session, we focused on the importance of customer service, and what it means. Customer service is something retailers, and manufacturers, are very familiar with. It’s also something our columnists have touched on numerous times, but is worth revisiting, because customer service can literally make, or break, a company.

But, customer service goes beyond the checkout counter at a store, or how fast a sales rep responds to an email from their customer. It translates into everything you are doing as a representative of your store or company, including at trade shows, distributor open houses and community events.

Having manned not only our Pet Age booth, but having working numerous other trade shows and community events prior to working here, I cannot stress the importance of how customer service plays a big part at these events.

Many times, a trade show or community event is the first impression a customer gets of your business. A rude, or less than positive, experience, at something like this would not be good public relations for your business.

This is why the people you select to work your booth at these events is critical. They need to be positive, smiling and happy. So many times, I see them with their head down on their phone, or unable to answer questions, or look like they are completely uninterested in being there.

Now, I know these shows are long, and many times span over several days. Repeating the same sales pitch what feels like 100 times in a day can get boring and tiring, but to the person who hasn’t heard it, it’s their first interaction with your brand, or store.

Speaking of your brand, or store, this month’s cover story focuses on family businesses. It’s something I know a little bit about, because my paternal great-grandparents owned a candy store in the town I grew up in.

Unlike many of the businesses in the pet industry, the next generation of my family didn’t want to continue with the store. Sometimes, I wish they had.

Learning the family business, you would think, would be fun and easy. But, after researching it for this article our assistant editor found out it’s not that simple.

What we also found is that many times, the next generation leaves the family business and then returns after they’ve worked somewhere else and have gotten other experience.

Outside experience, I think, is critical. It gives you perspective on how other companies run, what works and what doesn’t as well as opens your eyes to new business practices.

You can then take that experience back to your company, and truly make it better.

Saying Goodbye

The Editor’s letter as published in the October Issue of Pet Age.

It was 2001, right after Sept. 11, and right before my birthday. I was a senior in college and got a call from my Dad.

“Zookie’s not doing good,” he said. “She can’t walk and keeps having accidents. I think we are going to have to put her to sleep, because there is nothing else we can do, and she is suffering.”

“Do you want me to come home,” I asked.

“No, you have too much to do with covering Sept. 11, running the newspaper, your sorority and classes,” he said.

I hung up my phone and sat emotionless on the bench outside my college’s student center.

While Zookie was my Mom’s dog, she was still the fluffy 16-pound ball of fur I grew up with since I was 5 years old.

She was there for many of my life’s milestones, everything from my first date, to my high school graduation.

She was a part of my family, who had been a daily part of my life for 16 years, and now it was time to say goodbye.

No matter what the animal, whether it is a snake who you had hand-raised from a baby, or your child’s goldfish, losing a pet is always difficult.

Back then when we lost Zookie, there were limited options when it came to a proper way to grieve. We couldn’t go to our local pet store and find a product we liked that would hold her ashes, and those who wanted to show their sympathy, had a hard time doing so.

Our local pet store was also at a bit of a loss as to what to say to me when I walked in to buy by something for my hamster a few days later, and asked if I needed dog food, too and I broke down in tears.

Fast forward to today, and this segment of the industry has many more ways to give your pet a proper goodbye, something that is especially important when it comes to children, who might be experiencing loss for the first time.

Deciding to write about this topic for our October issue was not an easy decision, but it was one that we thought needed to be addressed for a number of reasons.

First, people are talking about it, and it’s not just within the industry. The pet bereavement industry has their own conference, and has been covered by mainstream media outlets like CNN and Bloomberg News.

Walk around any pet industry trade, or consumer, show and there are various products from teddy bears you can put your pet’s ashes in, to eco-friendly urns that can be buried in the ground. For those who want to show their sympathy, there are special candles, cards and mementos that directly address this issue.

These are also items that you likely won’t find in a big box store, because many times, unless you’ve gone through losing a pet before, you don’t think about how these important products can help you, or someone you care about, though such a difficult time.

Pet owners, whether they have an iguana or a ferret, come to their local retail pet store for advice when they first bring their animal into their home, and throughout the duration of the pet’s life.

It’s important that these same people be there for them with sympathy, advice and products that can comfort them at the end of their pet’s life, too, because little things like that make a big different.

Golden Years

Editor’s letter as published in the September issue of Pet Age.

While my dog still has a few years to go before he is considered a senior pet, I have been experiencing similar issues with him that some older dogs develop since he was a year old.

Since he was a puppy, he has had bad knees, specifically luxating patella. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s a condition where the kneecap moves out of its location.

It means taking him on shorter, slower walks; helping him jump up on the couch or bed and managing all the symptoms that comes with it, like when he yelps because all he did was step the wrong way or is hobbling around on three legs because he can’t put his leg down.

There are a lot of emotional ups and downs that come with this. But, what is comforting to know is that there are products and options out there that can help him, and they are very similar to the ones you would use with an older dog that is experiencing join issues.

Several years ago, these options, such as supplements, were not as mainstream as they are now in the pet industry. But, these days, it seems like every company is coming out with something geared toward the senior pet, whether it be a food, toy, treat or accessory.

This is a good thing, not only for pet owners who have an aging pet that they want to keep healthy, but also for those looking to adopt a senior pet.

In this month’s Marketing for Success column, Jessica Farina talks about ways to get involved in the community to help your WOM, or word of mouth marketing campaign, and one way is to work with a local, reputable shelters. She suggests that once you find one, you could offer adoption events every month in your store.

A big issue those shelters, or rescue groups, face is the adoption of older pets. Many times people go for the cute little puppy over the 6-year-old mixed breed.

As a store owner, you could offer a specially priced senior pet products package to those who adopt one from the rescue, or shelter, just as you would someone who adopts the cute little puppy from them.

Speaking of the content of this issue, we have some great coverage, both in the magazine and on our website, of SuperZoo, especially helpful if you weren’t able to attend. We worked with the great folks at Chicago Pet Video to conduct more than a dozen videos talking with exhibitors about their new and featured products.

There is also more good news for our industry. According to Packaged Facts, consumer spending in the U.S. pet market will reach $62 billion in 2013, up 4.7 percent over 2012.

While, veterinary services and pet food make up the bulk of the market, with over $21 billion each in sales projected for 2013, non-medical pet services, a smaller category that includes grooming, boarding, training and pet sitting/walking services, is growing at the fastest rate, at 6.0 percent annually.

That’s a lot of opportunity for a pet store owner. Many of you are likely already selling pet food, but what about maybe adding a service to the mix if you don’t have it already?

Start small by partnering with a local trainer who may not have there own facility, but are looking for space to hold a class.

 

Relationship Building

Editor’s letter as published in the August issue of Pet Age.

We talk a lot about community at Pet Age, and what it means to be a part of the pet industry.

Some of it is delivering the best industry news, resources and information for our readers, but what does it mean to go beyond that? What does it mean to really be a supportive member of the community?

I’ve come to think it means connecting, conversations and compassion.

Much of this business, as most media outlets, is about relationship building.

When you are a reporter covering a specific beat, like crime for example, you get to know the players involved well, and they eventually become good source for your articles, because they begin to trust you.

At my first journalism job, I used to bake homemade chocolate chip cookies for the police department in the town I covered and deliver them weekly.

When you are at a national magazine like Pet Age, where you are covering an entire industry that literally spans the world, it can be difficult to do that.

But, building those connections and relationships, having those conversation and getting to know others in the industry on a personal level is something we still strive to do.

In order to bring you the best publication possible we want to talk with retailers, manufacturers, PR representatives, sales managers, animal experts, veterinarians, conference planners, trade association presidents, consumers, bloggers and anyone else who contributes to the pet industry.

One way we try to accomplish this, is by trying to attend as many pet industry related events as possible.

This includes our entire team, from our pubisher and account executives, to our assistant editor and me.

So, for example, this month I’ll be at the National Reptile Breeders Expo, BarkWorld and the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America.

And, I want to meet you.

Yes, you.

I want to talk with you about the pet industry, I want to know what you like and don’t like. If you’re a speaker, I want to talk to you about the trends you’re seeing.

If you’re the organizer, I want to know how this show compares to past ones and what it means for the future. If you’re a national sales manager, I want to hear about what you are seeing and experiencing out in the field on your sales calls.

If you’re a retailer, I want to know what is selling and not selling in your stores, and how the latest policies in Washington are impacting you. If you’re a consumer, what are you looking for when buying products for your red-footed tortoise or reef tank?

Connecting on that level, by having a conversation and having the compassion to want to learn more about you, is what separates our staff from the rest.

We care about bringing you the very best, and to do that, we need to get to know, well, you.

Trickle Down Marketing

Editor’s letter as published in the July issue of Pet Age.

In this month’s issue, one of our guest columnists, Kerry Sutherland, talks about why retailers should ask brands about their public relations strategies.

She bring up a very good point in explaining that their public relations outreach can help retail business owners, because they are generating brand awareness, which if done correctly, will have customers coming into your store asking for certain products.

But, brand awareness goes beyond just traditional public relations. Pet product manufacturers, whether they are making food, toys, clothing, treats, flea and tick medication or joint supplements, are using a variety tools to help drive consumers toward their product, and ultimately into a retail store.

For example, at the end of May I spent two days with Halo, Purely for Pets, at a pop-up shop they set up for a month in New York City. But, it wasn’t your typical pop-up. Instead it was to unite pet lovers, provide easy ways for visitors to help pets in need and engage customers with the Halo brand and mission to give back to the community.

They also partnered with local retailers for various promotions, as well as gave out branded coupons for visitors to use at their local retail stores, whether they were in New York City, or not. Part of the mission was to create brand awareness and drive traffic to stores that carry their brand.

While the Halo campaign falls on the larger, more elaborate scale, there are also smaller, personal ways that pet companies are garnering attention for their brands. One way is through blogger outreach. In May, large companies like Hills, Hartz, Natural Balance and Marshall Pet Products, as well as smaller companies like Zero Odor, Be Pawsitive and Just4MyPet spent three days introducing their products to hundreds of influential pet bloggers during BlogPaws, one of two social media conferences geared toward the pet industry.

They showed off their new products, educated them on the benefits and gave them samples to take home with the hopes of them liking their product and writing about it.
Boiled down to the simplest of terms, it’s like gifting suites at Hollywood events. If you get a celebrity to endorse your brand, or like your product, it will create “buzz” and everyone will want to go out and buy your product at their local store.

Well, replace celebrity with influential blogger.

But, it’s not all about the swag for these brands – it’s also about educating the consumer.

During the event, I had the opportunity to attend an invite-only luncheon sponsored by Hartz where they educated bloggers not just about their brand, but about overall flea and tick control, the importance of regular veterinary visits, their company’s history and more.

These types of outreach are in addition to consumer and trade advertising, social media and other campaigns companies are using to in their marketing toolbox to help drive traffic into your store.
So, when you are at your next trade show, open house or working with your local sales rep, ask them about these programs. You may be surprised at the extent they are working to help bring you customers.

Marketing Your Pet Retail Business

Editor’s letter as published in the June issue of Pet Age.

Like most journalists, when I got burnt out from years of long, crazy hours spent covering breaking news, I jumped ship and went to the “dark side” – public relations. I went and worked for a public relations firm as their social media coordinator.

While it’s not as bad anymore, it traditionally was a move others in the journalism industry would frown on it. In reality, it was one of the best career moves I could have made at that time.

Not only was I doing social media marketing, but I was working with veteran public relations professionals who knew how to get placements for clients in major publications, snatched big name interviews with well-respected news personalities and went well beyond just pitching, but also worked with marketing professionals to create a full 360 degree plan for clients.

It instilled an important lesson. Good marketing and public relations can really help a business, company or in the case of this month’s cover story, your retail store.

Spending money on marketing or public relations may seem like something a small business doesn’t need, but it’s the furthest thing from the truth.

We’ve built this issue around one simple, but complex, concept, marketing your business. It may sound simple, but standing out in a crowd of consumer options can be a very difficult task.

For our cover story, we talked with both marketing and public relations professionals to give you an example of the differences between them, how they work in tandem with each other and some ideas you may want to use to help promote your business.

Our guest columnist in this month’s business strategies section talks about the tough decision on whether or not to hire a public relations firm, or do it yourself. It also includes tips on how to find the right public relations person, or firm, for your business.

It may cost more than you would like to spend, but marketing and public relations are so important to small businesses; and, not just any marketing and public relations, but good marketing and public relations that comes with a strategy.

If you don’t come from a marketing, or public relations background, it is well worth the money. Just as John Cullen, principal of Bulldog Marketing and Sales, suggests in his video, “10 Signs You Are Pet Business Clown,” on our website, you can build the cost into the price of the products you buy at your store.

When coming into the pet industry, most likely you did it because you are passionate about pets.

If that’s the case, you should be spending as much time as you possibly can to run your business and make it successful, and leave the marketing and public relations to the experts.

When you work with someone who is passionate about marketing or public relations, together you can build a very successful strategy to move your business forward.

Road Trippin’

Editor’s letter as published in the May 2013 issue of Pet Age.

When I was growing up, my family would go on vacation every August, and during that time our dog would take a little vacation of her own at a boarding facility. She really only traveled with us when we went to my great-grandparent’s house in upstate New York.

Fast forward to now, and my dog, Toby, comes almost everywhere he can with me. He took his first road trip to Lake George at 5 months old, traveled all over the state of Maine for a week at 7 months old and went on a kayaking trip to Lake Placid at 8 months old.

He’s been to a conference in Ohio, visited family in Virginia, business meetings in Connecticut, walked across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls and took a trip to Montreal.

As owners begin to treat their pets as a core part of their family, traveling with them, whether it be to a relative’s house for the holiday or family vacation to Florida, is becoming more common.

People are even traveling internationally with their pets. For example, my friend Diane has traveled twice from Atlanta to Italy with her dog, Cosmo.

These days there are no limits to where a pet might be jetting to, and hotels, restaurants, attractions and airlines are catering to this demographic. In fact, JetBlue Airways has an exclusive program designed for those traveling with their pets, called JetPaws.

The pet industry is no different.

Many companies are creating products solely designed to be used for pet travel. These items include everything from car safety restraints and portable kennels to backpacks and collapsible water dishes.

According to a AAA/Kurgo survey, 56 percent of the respondents had driven with their dog at least once a month over the past year. I would bet that number is much higher. Just after a quick scroll through my contact list, I could rattle off two dozen names of people who travel in the car with their pet one or two times a week.

Industry experts told us that in the past retailers were concerned that travel products wouldn’t sell. But now, retailers who are well versed in this area can be very profitable, without overstocking their store.

Retailers should stock practical solutions for the average pet owner who is taking Fido or Fluffy with them. Car seat restraints, airline-approved travel carriers, portable water dishes and first aid kits are a good way to start out. Merchandised together, they create a small little travel section when the weather starts to get warm and family vacations start, but at the same time, they are items that can be displayed in other sections the rest of the year.

They also meet the needs of customers who may not be traveling with their pet, but need those items for other reasons, like a car restraint when they have to take their dog to the vet.

– Michelle Maskaly

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