There’s Value in a Retailer-Veterinarian Relationship

November 7, 2018

You know you watch it; my wife never misses an episode. Everyone loves “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” and it’s impossible not to. The man is 75 years old, and he ventures into cow stables, takes off his shirt and pulls out stuck calves with freaking chains. Then, he calmly ventures back to his clinic and sets a kitten’s broken leg as breezily as most of us brew up a pot of coffee.

Whoever thought so much of America would be riveted each night by the real-life adventures of a veterinarian? Then again, why not? Taking care of animals is a lot more interesting than most of what happens on cable news channels, and there’s a lot less yelling.

So if you watch “Dr. Pol” (and you know you do), then you know some of the most heart-wrenching moments involve those beloved pets who have been with a family for many years and are slowing down. Every pet’s lifespan is different, but we all root for the loyal dog or the intrepid cat who’s defying the odds by reaching the ripe old age of 15, 18 or whatever other unlikely milestone it can reach.

But even a pet older than 10 is likely to have needs it did not have when it was younger. And that presents an opportunity for pet retailers.

Vets are not that different from “people doctors” in the sense that they will often recommend products—whether medications or something else—that can be purchased over the counter for pets. I am not entirely sure how you get dogs and cats to take medication when I can’t even get my teenager to eat a vegetable, but somehow pets and their owners work it out.

What veterinarians find it exceedingly difficult to do, of course, is to stock all these products they might recommend to their patients. It’s easy to understand why: Veterinarians are in the business of providing a service, not merchandising. Their costs are already high with staff, equipment and space, and the last thing they need is to risk more losses on inventory spoilage because they estimate too high on their order of pet meds only to see them expire. Or worse: They guess too low and they have to explain to disappointed pet owners that they’ve run out of what they just told the owners to buy.

Throw in the fact that a vet is trained to care for animals, not to scan bar codes and bag retail products, and it simply doesn’t make sense for vets to stock these products. But, many would like the opportunity to tell their clients with confidence: Here’s where I know you can get what your pet needs.

And this presents a real opportunity for an enterprising pet retailer to form a partnership with one or several veterinarians in the same geographic area.

Retailers are more schooled at the art of buying, stocking, merchandising and managing inventory. They stock larger volumes of product and already have the infrastructure to manage it. They already have systems established to manage ordering, deliveries and inventory finance. And if there’s a veterinarian in their area, there’s a pretty good chance that the same people who frequent their stores are also the ones bringing their pets to see that vet.

Pet retailers can establish such an arrangement simply by approaching local vets and inquiring about their need to recommend products to pet owners. Vets should have a pretty good idea of the trends over time—which products they recommend, how often and whether the need is consistent or varied. They can also tell retailers which products have long shelf lives and which don’t—and thus might need to be ordered in lower quantities to prevent spoilage.

Retailers might want to offer special rates to clients of a particular vet—the classic “loss leader” strategy that gets traffic into your store for the purpose of generating other product sales at full price. That’s not necessarily the best strategy for everyone; it’s no crime to simply sell a product at the fair market price, after all.

However, depending on the likely volume, it might be a good investment in additional customer relationships. Meijer has for several years given away antibiotics for free, ostensibly because people need them so badly, but obviously it’s also part of a strategy to bring people into Meijer who might otherwise pop by the nearest CVS or Walgreens.

Even a small discount, conditioned on the customer mentioning the name of the referring vet, might engender considerable customer goodwill while also letting the store know just how much business the arrangement is generating. If you track all discount sales connected to a particular promotional code, you can also track how many other things those customers are purchasing and get a sense of whether the arrangement is working as an upselling strategy.

Keep in mind: If you’re going to do this, you need to really keep on top of your inventory and ordering. The first time a vet tells pet owners they can get what they need from you, but then they can’t because you’re out of stock of the product, it could be the end of the arrangement right there. And not unreasonably—the vet doesn’t want to look bad because he gave an assurance to a valued client and you couldn’t back it up.

There could be downsides to an arrangement like this for pet retailers. It’s possible that the demand for such products is so varied and unpredictable that your buying strategy becomes difficult to manage. A retailer can absorb and manage that problem better than the vet, but it still has the potential to become a problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do it, but it does mean you should understand the potential pitfalls and be prepared to manage them.

But another ambassador driving customers to your store is almost always a good thing, and it usually works well when two businesses with complementary needs find ways to help each other. For many pet retailers, this might be that type of opportunity.

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