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The E-Commerce Debate

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Taking the plunge and selling pet products online is theoretically the same business an established pet retailer is already in. You’re still selling the same products, and to many of the same people. It’s just that the marketing and delivery systems are different.

That’s the theory.

In reality, taking a brick-and-mortar pet retailer online can be like venturing into an entirely different world. Notions of visibility are totally different. Established concepts of merchandising are largely worthless. And there’s no such thing as a customer walking out of the store with merchandise in hand, a sale completed.

Yet with so many customers looking to make purchases online, most pet retailers recognize they are missing out on a huge market segment if they don’t offer products online. So how does a retailer who has succeeded for years using traditional methods, venture successfully into online merchandising?

Questions to Ask

According to Sheri Altman, president of Rural Hall, N.C.-based Altman Dedicated Direct, the first question should be whether the move really makes sense for a store’s larger business strategy.

“If it’s an independent retailer, they’re not going to become PetSmart and they shouldn’t try to be,” Altman said. “A lot of times in an industry, somebody is small and they look to the big players and say, ‘We should be like the big players.’ In this case, I don’t think that’s how they win, because the reason you shop at a smaller store is for other things. They need to capitalize on the value proposition of why people are coming to them.”

That would clearly include advice and personal service, which are obviously harder, although not impossible, to offer online. But for the retailer who has concluded that online is part of the strategy, Altman suggests thinking of new target markets that couldn’t be reached using the traditional retail model.

The biggest issue they could have, Altman said, is making the assumption that just putting up an online store means customers are going to come.

“They need to make sure they have sufficient funds, not only for building the site but for doing what’s necessary to get people to come to the site,” Altman said.

The two most effective methods, Altman said, are television and search marketing. But one is a lot more affordable if you can make it work, particularly through the use of Google Ad Words. Altman does not, however, recommend that e-commerce novices devise a Google Ad Words strategy without some professional help. Since advertisers pay either per impression or per click, the wrong strategy could yield lots of clicks but not enough sales to cover the costs, which are likely to go up once you’re full-fledged into e-commerce.

“The companies that do this morning, noon and night ensure that doesn’t happen,” Altman said. “They’ve got software that’s going to track on someone’s website the clicks that come in, and whether they turn into sales and the dollar value of those sales. Their software is going to manage that process and ensure that you’re not paying for clicks that don’t turn into sales.”

Get the Word Out

Social media advertising is another angle, and when paired with a Facebook page can form the basis of a successful strategy. But pet retailers who intend to rely heavily on their social media presence need a strategy to attract likes and followers, and that probably involves promotions in the physical store.

Bill Davis, a consultant with Maine-based Omni Channel Retailing, said retailers have to make sure they have the digital infrastructure necessary to support a robust e-commerce site.

“Online is more technology dependent, and that’s generally not a strength of most traditional retailers,” Davis said. “Also, retailers tend to isolate their sales channels and today they need to integrate them, which means bringing online in with their offline.”

Davis also recommends that retailers develop their online presence in bite-size chunks that can be accomplished in short periods of time.

“While building out the infrastructure takes time, try to avoid eight- to nine-month-long projects when possible,” Davis advised. “Focus on quick, one- to two-month cycles when feasible so you can show results and learn from them.”

Davis recommended that pet retailers study the practices of Home Depot, L.L. Bean, Lowe’s, Nordstrom and Staples to see who has done online retail  successfully. Pet retailers could face some unique challenges, such as obvious issues with shipping live animals or even very large bags of pet food.

Most importantly, Davis emphasized that online retailers should focus on integrating online sales into their overall sales mix, rather than seeing it as an isolated and unrelated part of their business.

“Think through what your goals are, and why, as well as your strengths and weaknesses as a retailer,” Davis said. “Planning is critical, as you don’t want to fire and then try to aim afterwards.”

- Dan Calabrese

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