December 19, 2016

I was recently reading a company’s backgrounder on itself, and it was mostly the standard fare—services, executive leadership, philosophy and so on. Then I came to what I thought was a curiously titled section:

How We Give Back
What followed was a rather lengthy list of things the company and its employees do to help the community, apart from its business mission.

I realize this is pretty standard thinking in the business world—the idea that you “take” from the world around you when you rake in profits, and so you should feel compelled to “give back” by working with nonprofits or whatever it is you might do.

I’m all for community involvement, although my take on it is a bit different. When you make a healthy profit because you provide a high-quality product or service that people want to buy, you have already given back by keeping up your end of the deal. You got money. They got dog food, cat litter, an aquarium, a flea collar or a guinea pig.

If everyone agreed to the terms of the exchange, then no one should feel duty-bound to give anything back. No one took anything unjustly. You already benefited the community by providing them with things they wanted and needed for their pets.

Having said that, community involvement is a very positive thing—for your store, for your employees and for your customers. And that’s not just for the public relations benefits that people tend to think about, although those are certainly very real.

No retail operation can simply hang its sign over the door and consider its outreach to the community complete. It’s true that lots of people need the products you sell, but it’s also true that there are many places where they can get those products. Convenience driven by location will secure you some customers, but what will make the difference between a minimal customer base and a growing one is your ability to build relationships with people and gain their trust.You can do some of that just by getting it right when people walk in the door, but to really take the effort to the next level, you have to go where they are.

So how does it make sense for a pet retail to get involved with its surrounding community?

It starts by you taking advantage of ready-made opportunities. Is there a parade you can support by doing a co-sponsorship or by becoming a participant? (I don’t think parades do “floats” much anymore, for whatever reason.) Everyone loves to see pets, so if you can do so safely, a parade is a great opportunity to put adorable animals front and center where people can appreciate them—and you.

Does your community have a Little League or other youth sports program that has business sponsors? You certainly build some name recognition when “Hal’s Pet Store” is one of the teams in the youth baseball league, especially if it’s a good team. But you can do more than that. When I played Little League back in the day, our sponsor would regularly have a presence at the games—often buying us our postgame treats and gaining the appreciation of our parents. He was an insurance agent, so for him, the person-to-person contact in a positive context was gold. The same could be true for a pet retailer who decides to sponsor youth sports, scouts, gymnastics or any other community activity.

Also, check into opportunities your local chamber of commerce or service organizations might have to contribute to something the community is doing. You’ve probably seen runs for cancer research in which all the runners had shirts featuring sponsor names and logos. That’s another opportunity not only to serve as a sponsor, but to actively show up and take part in what’s going on. Bring bottles of water. Bring discount coupons. People will appreciate and remember it.

It’s also a good thing if you do something on your own—independent of any other organization or event. And it’s best if you do something that’s related to your mission. There’s a tremendous amount of education you can offer your community on the care of pets, and there is almost always a ready audience for such information. You can take it into schools. You can partner with local vets to offer presentations to their patients (or more precisely, the owners of their patients). You can hold an event right in your store and invite the community.

This is where we get into the earning of people’s trust. They know they can buy products from you, but can they find out what they truly need to really care for their pets in the most loving and effective possible way? Can they count on you to give them insight so they’ll be prepared to solve a problem or head off a tragedy?

This presents an opportunity for a pet retailer to reach out to the community in a manner that can inspire trust and customer loyalty. If you’ve given back, you should give more. People won’t forget it.

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