BY: Amy Castro
If you’re like many independent pet retailers, you’ve probably lost a lot of sleep worrying about how your business is going to survive, let alone thrive, when big box retailers are on every corner and your customers have turned to online shopping where they can get just about anything delivered right to their doors. However, many retailers have found the balance between providing customers the convenience they want with service the big guys just aren’t able to offer.
Here are four strategies independent retailers have implemented successfully that have helped them maintain and regain customers in this competitive marketplace.
Don’t just do business in the community; be part of the community: Many businesses build customer loyalty and make a name for themselves by getting actively involved in their communities. For some, this means aligning themselves with rescue groups and shelters to provide adoption space for animals in their stores, sponsoring adoption events, or donating goods and services. For other businesses, starting with their customer community is the way to go.
When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast, Stephanie Schneider, assistant manager of The Pet Palace in Webster, Texas, knew her boarding customers would be worried about the safety of their pets. So, she decided to reassure them by doing Facebook Live videos during the storm.
“We were able to broadcast live to our customers who were stranded out of town and show them our facility was dry and their pets were safe,” Schneider said.
These videos were some of the most watched on their Facebook page and not only eased the minds of their customers, but also increased consumer loyalty.
Being involved in the community is also something that appeals to millennials, who are the majority demographic of pet owners. Many millennials say that they will overlook cost and even convenience to do business with a company whose values are aligned with theirs.
Be the expert your customers turn to for help: One of the biggest things that can give you an edge over the competition is knowledge. This means you and your employees have to be experts on your products and services. Carrie Marble, owner of the Bark and Scratch Outpost in Milwaukee, has spent 12 years attending training programs on pet nutrition. She feels that building her reputation as nutrition expert and being able to offer her customers nutrition advice even their veterinarian might not be able to offer keeps customers coming back to her store.
“We help our customers resolve issues where they might be stuck by providing nutritionally sound advice,” Marble said.
This knowledge also allows her to up-sell products when her customers come in with their pets. If she notices a customer’s pet is underweight, she asks questions and can recommend a product that can help.
“I can’t upsell online, but I can in the store. You’ve got to be able to work the customer in front of you,” she said.
“All of our staff is trained on the different product lines that we carry,” said Angela Bivens, owner of The Pet Palace.
According to Bivens, a groomer who notices that a dog’s skin is dry has the knowledge to recommend food and other products that can help.
“We take a holistic approach to serving the customer,” she said. “It’s about meeting their needs for why they came in, but also the ability to cross sell people with products that will benefit their pets, which allows us to earn more of their business.”
Give your customers a reason to come into your business: When you have a storefront, you have a unique opportunity to provide customers with special events, discounts, and “VIP Customer” offerings that they can only get from you.
The Bark and Scratch Outpost offers sessions, for a fee, with an Animal Communication specialist to help customers learn what their pets are thinking and feeling. They also have a photography studio where they host special events, such as photos with Santa, providing their customers with high quality photos. The Pet Palace has a 5-Star Reward Program in which, for every dollar customers spend, they get a point. Customers can then trade those points for products.
Additionally, The Pet Palace always has three staffers at the front desk so customers don’t have to wait to be helped. They even keep a record of when clients come in and what they purchase, so when a customer is expected back, they’ll contact the customer to ask if there’s anything special they need so they can be sure to have that product on hand.
“What we do is try to provide customer service way above what everyone else does. Customers can get ‘stuff’ anywhere, so we focus on what they can’t get elsewhere,” said Bivens.
Take a page from the big guys’ playbook and offer online shopping and delivery: Customers shop online so they don’t have to leave home, battle traffic, find a parking spot and then wait in line to check out at a traditional store. For small businesses, there are many options where you can meet this need for your customers. One option is to set up an e-commerce presence either through your own website, or using a third-party online store, like eBay, Mozello or Square.
“It’s not a big part of our business, but if your customers want to be able to order online and have products delivered, you do it,” said Anthony Porcelli, store manager at JB Pet in Hawthorne, New Jersey.
Porcelli also noted that you have to be smart about how you implement these services.
“You don’t have to list every item you carry,” he said. “In fact, if you offer too much, people will lose interest. You should respond to what people are asking for. Also, we only do local delivery and not country wide due to the cost. We can deliver our own products locally.”
The Pet Palace also offers local delivery, not only of products, but pick-up and delivery of pets for boarding and grooming when customers spend a minimum amount.
“Plus, a big advantage we have is that we can do same day delivery. In fact, most of the time, the customer’s order is delivered to them within a two-hour window,” Bivens said.
For retailers who don’t have the time or staffing to set up and maintain an online store and delivery services, distributors like Phillips Pet Food & Supplies has an answer. Endless Aisles is available to retailers through Phillips’ digital solutions division, PHIDO. It is a platform that offers a web portal to place special orders in-store and an option for e-commerce integration, allowing retailers to sell products beyond their current in-store offerings. It provides digitized merchandising information for almost 10,000 SKUs and then drop-ships retailers’ orders to their customers’ doorsteps. Phillips says its Endless Aisles team can process an order in 30 minutes or less, with a fill rate that’s more than 99.7 percent.
The bottom line is be sure you really know who your customers are and what they want and need.