August 2, 2017

Amazon’s recent announcement that it plans to buy Whole Foods should serve notice to everyone in retail: The nature of the industry is changing, permanently. The online shopping experience has forever changed consumers’ expectation of the shopping experience, and brick-and-mortar retailers can’t pretend for long that they don’t have to adapt.

That doesn’t mean no one will walk through your doors and shop inside your walls. Not every type of shopping works online, especially if it involves the purchase
of live animals.

But let’s face it, pet owners only buy actual pets once in a great while. Their more frequent purchases of pet products—from food to toys and many other accessories—don’t have to happen in a physical store. Since we mentioned Amazon, take a look at the site. Search for dog leashes. Do you want large or small? Or litter boxes. You can get the basic model or the high-tech version.

There’s a whole category on Amazon for pet supplies, and you can get most of what you order within a couple of days.

That doesn’t mean your retail store is doomed, but it does mean people won’t come into your store simply because they have no other options. They have lots of
options. So if they’re going to come in, they have to believe there’s going to be some value to the experience.

In a merchandising sense, this means you have to think beyond how you display items or in which aisles you stock them in. You have to think more broadly about what customers can get from the experience of coming to get them in your store.

That starts by considering how the technology of the web has changed the expectations of customers.

Consider the experience of shopping for a product on Amazon. If you want to just click and order the product, you can do so in seconds. But what if you want to find out more about the product? You want to know who makes it, what else the company does and what kinds of reviews might be available for the product.

On the web, all that information is readily available. In your store, it’s not.

Or is it?

New technology is giving brick-and-mortar stores an opportunity to catch up. Some retailers are investing in hand-held barcode scanners that pair with tablets.
When you scan the barcode on a product, it can call up extensive information about the product that helps the consumer decide whether to make the purchase.

This sort of thing isn’t totally new.Twenty years ago, when my wife and I were registering for our wedding gifts, we were given a scanner to carry around the store. If we scanned a product, we had registered for it. Today’s applications are merely combining old ideas that have been around for a while with new ways of linking people to information.

This technology is no substitute, of course, for knowledgeable employees who can help inform customers about the products on the shelves. In fact, the
technology makes it all the more important that your employees know the products and can answer questions. Why? Simply because the ubiquity of information creates find out anything they want to know in an instant.

If your employees know your products so well that they can help customers understand the intricate details of what they’re about to buy, that means you’re offering something that Amazon cannot. If merchandising is the presentation of your products to your customers, then it’s more than just visual.

The web rose to prominence on the idea that it was “interactive,” but it is only so in comparison to the static paper brochure, or the television commercial you can watch and listen to, but not speak to or otherwise get its attention. The web allows you to click links and submit questions. It allows you to write product reviews and choose different sizes and angles for that product photo you want to study.

But that’s not really very interactive compared to what a store can offer. In the store, you can actually pick up and feel the product. You can also bring your pet to the store with you and get a sense how much the product appeals to it.

You do allow people to bring their pets into your stores, yes? It hardly seems like it should have to be asked, but we’ll reiterate it because the in-store experience is more important than ever considering the alternatives available to people who don’t feel like leaving home.

And that brings us to another opportunity you have as a retail owner to separate yourself from online offerings. You have a chance to really get to know your
customers and their pets in a way that Amazon never will. I’m not just talking about knowing their names and greeting them personally, although that’s certainly
a nice touch. I’m also talking about understanding their needs, their interests and their concerns.

The customer with an older dog who has limited energy has a need for certain things. The customer with a cat who’s afraid of her shadow—and has been known to poop on the bed when startled—has a whole other set of needs. You know the animal’s issues, and you know the customer’s concerns and frustrations.

Or you should. And you should be thinking about strategies to help them before that customer ever walks through the door, because you’ve got a relationship

You can do that when you have a sizeable but still manageable customer base that lives largely in and around the town where you operate. You can’t do it when you have millions of people—none of whom you will ever meet—buying cat food, books, phone chargers and guitar picks all from your fulfillment center.

If there’s one way to sum it up, it’s to say that merchandising for the brick-and-mortar pet retailer has to be more personal, not just more visual. There are many ways for consumers to get what they need without ever stepping into your store, but the personal touch that you can offer is the best reason for them to come in and become a loyal customer.

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