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June 6, 2017

It’s said that you’ll always have your family because they’re stuck with you. That’s not precisely true, of course, since there are families who drift apart. But generally, family ties endure like few others precisely because family members share so many experiences and are invested in so many of the same things.

Your brother who lives across the country and agrees with you on almost nothing is still your brother. You still love him; you still talk to him (not that I know anything about this). No matter what happens, it doesn’t trump the things you have in common.

Can the same principle apply to customer retention?

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit Michelson Found Animals believes it can. Dedicated to caring for and adopting out dogs and cats, Michelson Found Animals runs a retail operation known as Adopt & Shop, which offers many of the same products and services as a pet specialty retailer.

You can go there to get day-to-day pet products, dog grooming and other similar services. But those who do so tend to have ties to the organization that go well beyond a moment’s need for a chew toy.

Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Michelson Found Animals, said the organization has created a number of different elements that give people the opportunity to become part of a de facto community. And while the mission of the organization—which Gilbreath says is saving pets and enriching lives—is different from the mission of a traditional pet retailer, she believes many of the same principles apply in customer retention.

Michelson Found Animals takes dogs and cats from shelters. Many of the animals would be euthanized in short order if they were not adopted, but Michelson is willing to keep and care for them for as long as it takes to see them adopted.

If that sounds complicated, it is even more so, in reality. Kittens, for example, are often found and brought in by people who think they’ve been abandoned, when they may have been only temporarily separated from their mothers. The kittens need to be fed every couple of hours and require a variety of medical treatments. They also can’t be adopted until they are at least eight weeks old, when they are big enough to be spayed or neutered.

During that period, Michelson actually places them with foster families, who will keep them until they can be adopted permanently.

“People do it in different ways,” Gilbreath said. “Sometimes people have their first litter of foster kittens, and they do it once and don’t do it again. Sometimes they do it and they end up keeping one or two. And some people do two or three litters a year, every year, because they think it’s the most effective way they can help the most animals.”

However they do it, the foster families become part of the community. Their ties to the organization led them to shop at Adopt & Shop and to spread the word to friends, neighbors and family members.

And to make the effort more visible, Michelson operates what it calls the Catty Wagon, a food truck-style vehicle that travels around, allows people to adopt cats right on the spot and provides a mini meetand-greet area in the back.

Dog adoptions are simpler and don’t require fostering, but those who adopt dogs from Michelson have a natural tendency to become grooming clients and store patrons.

“At our Culver City locations, we have day care and grooming,” Gilbreath said. “Many of our dogs who get adopted through our program go on to become day care and grooming clients. And because people are excited that we saved this pet who became their companion, they’re excited to continue to support us and come to us for their other needs.”

Michelson also provides free microchipping, a service for which many for-profits will charge and that often reunites pets with their forlorn owners.

“One of the biggest trends for consumers is that they want to spend their money with socially conscious companies,” Gilbreath said.

That’s the emotional part, giving people a reason to feel good about giving you their business. But beyond perceptions of virtue, people tend to give their business over the long term to organizations to which they feel a connection. That’s why it mattered at Cheers that everyone knew your name— you felt like you were part of something.

But can a for-profit form the same kinds of connections, even when its core business is really selling products rather than something more altruistic? Gilbreath believes a for-profit retailer can absolutely apply the customer retention principles demonstrated by Michelson Found Animals.

“I think all pet retailers realize that people think of their pets as part of the family, so anything you can do to acknowledge that part of the customer relationship is huge,” Gilbreath said. “And that is as simple as what kinds of conversations you have in your store, or how you’re writing your email newsletter, or how you’re posting on your Facebook page.”

Adopt & Shop has regular in-store events, like a Halloween costume contest. Foster program volunteers are often a major part of such events, having already established a connection to the larger organization. Gilbreath believes for-profit retailers can accomplish the same goals by events such as in-store adoption days, which Petco and PetSmart already do regularly in partnership with local shelters.

“Or they can do a drive to provide food to a local shelter,” she said. “There are lots of ways you can do little things to engage the social consciousness even if you’re not a nonprofit.”

Of course, if the goal is long-term customer loyalty, none of this will get the job done if you don’t offer quality products, good service and competitive prices. And it’s possible that feeling good about where you shop goes only so far when an item is discontinued or location becomes an inconvenience.

But people are more likely to patronize an establishment where they feel they’re part of the family. So if retailers can create that feeling among their customers— however they do it—maybe it’s really true that they’ll be “stuck” with their customers, in the best sense of the word.

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