The recent acquisition of chewy.com by PetSmart for over 3 billion dollars, has recently brought a lot of attention to the plight of the independent pet retail store. The loudest voices have been small pet retailers themselves who look at Chewy.com, who seem to have every advantage (including millions in investment capital) and seem to be doing EVERYTHING right. It’s easy to understand how overwhelming and depressing it can look on the surface to the little fish in this 100 billion dollar global pet pond! But I am here with an encouraging message to indie pet retailers (and services businesses too) to say don’t worry- YOU HAVE THE ADVANTAGE in more ways than you probably know, and today I’d like to share four:
- Knowledge & Care
- Try before you Buy
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This single word is the summary of pretty much everything I do as an entrepreneur. To me, freedom is the ability to travel, to take days off, to create wealth… but most importantly: to change my mind. A business is not a baby, it is an experiment, and there is nothing worse than feeling like your chained to your choices, win or lose, no matter what. One of the huge differences between the small business I work with, and the huge conglomerate corporations, is freedom. Freedom makes you nimble and agile. They have shareholders, committee meetings and time-consuming decision-chains and legal review processes – you have choices and the ability to act quickly. Of course you also have the ability to take risks (which of course I recommend for brand-builders – professional is boring – I suggest you reserve the right to be weird!)
If you don’t have investors, you have a lot more freedom and choice to build your weird, wild, girly, urban, rural or fancy ass brand and business however you’d like, for however long you’d like. I guarantee you the executive team at Chewy.com does not have that luxury. I bet there are some pretty weighty commitments within their acquisition agreement that tie CEO Ryan Cohen to the manic pace of this growing business (with some pretty crazy goals) for years to come!
2. Knowledge and Care
The one thing that the likes of Chewy.com and PetSmart can never compete with, no matter how good their 24/7 customer support is, is the face-to-face care you provide. Knowing your customers’ dogs by name, helping them track weight changes or skin improvements and other health issues, making customized recommendations for the perfect products or local service provider is the authentic ‘small business’ touch that most consumers prefer.
With that said, it’s nearly impossible to be ‘on point’ for this level of care all the time, so here are some reminders & tips:
- If you have staff – it’s critical that they are people who care as much as you do. You can teach them any skill, deal with scheduling drama or put up with their tech fear or whatever quirks they may have – if they are passionate about the mission of the business and the wellbeing of your customers. Hire for this trait above all else!
- Your staff need to be more knowledgable than the operator at Chewy.com (or enter name of huge competitor here) – every single one of them need to be able to walk a customer through the selection of the right food or supplement for their dog’s unique needs – so prioritize education and potentially even incentivize staff for getting certified in any education programs offered by your suppliers.
- Doing the unexpected, like carrying large items to your customers car, writing handwritten thank you notes, sending birthday gifts or posting portraits of your customers’ pets on social media all give them a little buzz of feeling special -especially customers that value the ‘good old days’ when human-led customer service was genuine and everywhere!
3. Try Before They Buy
Of course one of the remaining pillars of competitive advantage that speciality retailers have, is the ability for customers to ‘try it before they buy it’. This is especially handy for kid, pet and activity brands, where the experience of something like consumable or activity (toy) is something that needs to be used to be appreciated (a parent watching a human or pet enjoying something is a VERY compelling sales technique!) What this does is eliminate virtually all of the risk from the purchase for the customer – they can be SURE they’re investing well. This level of confidence truly is priceless, and a great gateway drug to get them coming back!
Here’s some experiential sales tricks we used in our London pet boutique that worked amazingly well:
- We always had store versions of the enrichment toys (wobble ball, orbee tough bone, or puzzle toy) out (and pre-stuffed with stinky treats) for dogs to try. It worked best when dogs would bee-line for the treat and immediately start trying to get it out of the toy. Cha-ching!
- We sold Victoria Stilwell’s no-pull harness (it was a best-seller) and we’d always offer to fit the harness and let them take a walk around the block with it on to actually experience the difference it made in their dog’s pulling. We literally sold it every time! Sometimes we could eve up-sell her ‘Train your Dog Positively’ book as well (then of course you need training treats) – customers who purchased this set were so grateful for the improvements in their walks and routine, they become some of our most loyal evangelists!
- Food: Of course, having samples of the foods your recommend most, is a huge sales generator. This is no-doubt something you’re already doing, and with good reason! Of course dishing out the free treats to every dog who comes in (after asking if it’s ok of course), is another version of this that works wonders! The dogs pull their owners into the shop for their free treat!
Building a brand your customers can trust is no small feat. You’re building trust every time you recommend a product, accept a return, provide free and valuable help and of course, maintain competitive pricing. Don’t be fooled, No one wants to pay more for things! Part of having a brand based on trust is that you want to ensure that if your customer purchases from you and then checks online, they’re not going to feel they’ve been swindled. Providing value is a critical part of trust. But then, how do you compete with the big guys and how do you stay profitable?
- Keep your pricing competitive on items which are sold in places like Chewy.com, Amazon, PetSmart etc. – especially offering loyalty programs on food (yes, even though your margin is low already) really builds your customer’s confidence and trust. These are the items they need, these are the items they come to the shop for… the idea is that you can make up the rest elsewhere in your product mix.
- Consider carrying very unique items that aren’t widely available online and are hard to compare pricing on: quirky items from Etsy, stuff made by local artisans, items from international brands that are hard to find/expensive to ship individually (we did this in the UK with lesser known brands from the US and Europe) or best of all, your own high-margin, white-label products or items (bandanas, bow ties and treats).
- Bundle where you can to both add value and increase your average sale – create a ‘box’ or ‘basket’ or ‘two-fer’ to encourage purchase, and change the price comparability of individual items (we had popular treats that a near by shop charged 10p less for, so we bundled ours together and did a ‘3 for £5’ – ultimately we charged the same, but started selling a LOT MORE of those treats – plus increased the avg. sale of them from £2 something to £5).
- Leverage the relationships you have with suppliers to get exclusive items, designs, offers or pricing to increase the exclusivity of your product – especially on higher ticket items like jackets and beds, where you have the advantage of being the place where your customer can see and touch them before purchase (and get the immediate satisfaction of taking it some the same day instead of waiting for it to ship).
- Be sure to pad-out your selection with high-margin, high-touch consumable items – for us this was our ‘treat bar’ and ‘bone bar’ – we merchandised treats and chews in a ‘pick n mix’ style system, where not only did we make extremely high margin (because we charged £1 for an ounce of baked treats, when that ounce really only cost us about 10p) but part of what they were paying for was the experience of mixing and matching the treat flavors, and having the nice packaging with the striped paper bag and sticker. If they got 5 ounces they got a little drawstring fabric back with our branding on it, that served as a really nice on-the-go treat bag and a reminder of our shop (and a reminder to come fill the bag when they ran out!) The other thing we found about this, our best-selling item in the shop, was that it gave people a reason to stop in, even if they didn’t need anything. They’d pop in to hit the treat bar, have a chat and show love to their dog. The price was impossible to compare (and they could choose how many ounces to buy, then we’d weigh it out) so there was no sticker-shock – so although we were making extremely high margins, they also got great value.
- One thing people are usually willing to pay more for is convenience – our dog is on a vet diet at the moment, and we know we can get it cheaper online than we can from our local vet, but we’re often not organized to order it online in advance, so we knowingly and willingly pay more to get it immediately from them. Also if you offer a free delivery service, this can justify slightly higher cost (but not much since free, fast delivery is becoming a expectation among consumers these days).
Remember: Stay Open
One of the most important points of all of this, is that it’s essential you don’t let your fear and worry about the competition consume you. Your customers can smell your desperation & anxiety a mile away and it’s repelling! They need you to be the happy, breezy, fun, treat-dispensing animal expert you are – not the grumpy troll who should just go back under the bridge and stay there! When you experience threats and fear, your initial reaction will be to close up, retract, act defensive, stay small… and that’s not what is ACTUALLY good for your business!
So if you take one thing away from all of this, I hope it’s the message that there IS a place for you and your business in all this crazy competition and growth the pet industry is experiencing. You have unique value to share and there are people and dogs out there whose lives will change for the better because you were brave enough to find your voice, fight through the boring sameness of the competition and find a way to get discovered by them. Don’t give up and don’t just sit around complaining and doing the same boring stuff as everyone else.
Get in, or get out. If you’re in, roll up your sleeves and get to work discovering your WHY and building your BRAND so you can rock the crap out of your unique competitive advantages as a ‘little guy’!
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