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Reimagining the Store Shopping Experience for the Upcoming Revolution in Pet Retail Thinking

By Robert Wheatley//April 30, 2024//

Reimagining the Store Shopping Experience for the Upcoming Revolution in Pet Retail Thinking

By: Robert Wheatley//April 30, 2024//

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The rise of e-commerce, the endless shelf and uber-convenience of armchair, frictionless electronic shopping is reshaping behaviors for a new generation of pet care customers. In the back of your mind, you may know there is no way for brick-and-mortar retail to compete head-to-head using the same playbook. What Uber did to the conventional taxi industry (ended it), is no less important in rethinking how retail must radically shift to compete more successfully on an entirely different playing field — with a strategy that outmaneuvers digital with concepts and ideas no online solution can replicate.


The state of the state is a 60-year-old, antiquated retail model

Are you ready to consider a new way of thinking and designing the store and shopping experience? Store as aisle maze has been the standard rule since the advent of efficient manufacturing and supply chains that advanced efficiency, variety and speed for stores packing an amazing array of inventory into a confined space. Tragically this model has outlasted its value proposition because it is automatically an operator first over customer first methodology. It faces real headwinds when digital shopping beats conventional stores on pricing, depth of assortment and ease of purchase.


What business are you really in?

Conventional retail thinking suggests you are in the business of selling bags, cans and boxes off shelves at velocity. The store design, the shopping environment reinforces this de-humanizing view. Yet pet care is one of the most high-involvement business categories on earth, steeped in the magic of emotional connection and lifestyle investment that is embodied in the human to animal bond. Yet despite this remarkable condition retail often fails to embrace and consider this incredible advantage in how the customer journey is built and served.

A tough question: to what extent does your store deliver an emotional payoff and social reward? Is shopping your store ultimately, if unintentionally, about work, effort and exertion or instead a showcase of joy, delight and rejuvenation? Every shopper every day whether they consciously admit it or not is asking themselves if I get dressed, get in the car, drive down to this store, park and navigate the hassle of this journey, what’s in it for me past the utility of purchasing an item I need?

Independent pet retail is often led by individuals who are devoted fans of their furry family members, yet the store experience is curiously unsympathetic and content to push SKUs, rather than leveraging the treasure trove of emotional equity and passion consumers exercise at home with their animals.


Mining the Experience Value Proposition 

How can you optimize the payoff for visiting your store, beyond assortment and good pricing? It begins by rethinking what business you are in. Remapping the entire customer journey, every single detail of it, with an eye towards a customer first strategy that reinforces the emotional equity and reward of pet ownership.

What happens when the customer encounters a surly, unfriendly attendant? The overly aggressive hard-sell on loyalty program sign up? The get in and get out as fast as possible condition because there’s no reason to hang around any longer than selection and payment.

So much of what goes on with people is subconscious and driven by how we process what we encounter visually and environmentally. Doing the expected serves up cues about what’s important, and store design that forces people to navigate the typical aisles and shelves is essentially a different concept than asking how to you can over deliver on the touch, taste and feel of your values and beliefs.


You have tools for this



Words, images and graphics

Store organization – rooms devoted to solutions

Hospitality, courtesy


Creating an adventure

Marty Neumeier, one of our most remarkable marketing strategy experts and authors, once wrote a book about the importance of retail experience by creating a fictional wine shop concept that was not designed to sell bottles off shelves. Instead, it reimagined the retail experience based on the imaginary owners’ love of all things wine, from viticulture to winemaking and the manifestation of this in the marriage between wine and culinary.

The store was cast as a platform for education and experience, inviting consumers to enrich their knowledge through extraordinary events, classes, content programs, on-site wine and food adventures, friendly knowledgeable staff — rather than a transactional model. His thinking was reapplied in the real world to astounding results that blew away the traditional retail “warehouse” approach that pushes people in and out.


It all starts with you

Inspiration and ideas can originate from your own traditions, pet stories, experiences, adventures that will power thoughtfulness on how best to captivate and draw customers closer in. Your goal is to populate the store experience with human qualities. Truth always prevails. When what you do is an authentic expression of your own experience, beliefs and values, it will resonate.


Replace shopping friction with irreplaceable experiences

What would happen if your store was recast as a performing arts center to celebrate the pet lifestyle? Your emphasis on education, coaching and enabling the pet and owner bond can recast your business from transactional to celebration. Online can’t replicate that competitive advantage. If you disrupt the paradigm of what people think a pet store shopping experience is, you have the opportunity to become a transcendent retailer serving a community of enthusiasts, ambassadors and evangelists. Now you are no longer competing with online because being in your store is a daily delight and surprise.


Robert Wheatley is the CEO of Chicago-based Emergent, The Healthy Living Agency. Emergent can help pet brands erase ineffective self-promotion and replace it with clarity and deeper meaning in their pet parent relationships and brand communication.