5 Ways Independent Pet Retailers Can Compete with Online Retailers

More and more pet owners are turning to online retailers to purchase pet supplies, with many consumers citing larger product selections, convenient “auto-ship” programs, and low or free 2-day shipping options as being the primary reasons behind this preference. As a result, about 70 percent of brick-and-mortar pet supply stores surveyed by Pet Business consider online retailers as their most dangerous competitors in the marketplace.

This fear is not unfounded, especially when you consider that, in 2018, 40% of pet owners had purchased pet products online, with 37% of those online shoppers agreeing that they were buying more pet products online than they used to compared to previous years (Packaged Facts, U.S. Pet Market Outlook 2018-2019).

Pet supplies are one of the fastest growing shopping categories online, including on Amazon. To compensate for this growing trend, Amazon recently launched their own private label premium dry dog food, Wag, in May 2018, and announced an increased focus in expanding their pet offerings.

Independent pet retailers will need to adapt in order to compete with e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Chewy. Categories such as sporting goods, apparel, and consumer electronics are seeing a major shift in consumer purchasing habits from in-store to online, but pet supplies are one sector that has yet to be totally upended by online retailers. However, given demographic trends, the time to react to these looming online threats is right now.

Here are 5 things that you can do in order to set yourself apart from your online competition.

1) Provide Customer Education and Personable Service

Certain categories, such as natural dog chews, supplements, freeze-dried and raw food, perform better in a brick-and-mortar setting than an online setting. Presumably, this is because it's easier to educate customers on the unique benefits these products in a face-to-face conversation. When you're actively listening to a customer's questions and concerns, you can better figure out what their needs and wants are.

If you are knowledgeable about the different products carried in your store, you’ll also be able to recommend a product that fits their needs better. This will provide them with an extremely satisfying experience and build trust. Not only will these satisfied customer be likely to return again, but chances are that they’ll also recommend you to their pet-loving family and friends!

2) Improve Your Online Presence and Set Out to Become Experts in Your Community

Your website needs to not only have your store location, contact information, and hours, but also mention all of the different brands and products that you carry, as well as the services that you offer. Consumers are becoming increasingly independent on browsing and making purchases on their smartphones or other digital devices, so you need to make sure that your store can be easily found when someone is searching for a product that you carry or a service that you offer.

One way to do this is to sign up for a free Google My Business account to improve your store’s visibility on Google Maps and Google Search. This way, whenever customers are searching for pet supplies or other keywords that are related to your product offerings, you will show up on the front page of search engine results whenever a potential customer who is close by does a search.

For example, while located in Fort Collins, I did a Google search for “Acana dog food” and received the following search result on the first page (note that Google reports how far away you are and the fact that you likely carry the product that was being searched for):

Google maps result

As you talk to customers, you’ll notice the same questions over and over again:

  • How do I stop my puppy from chewing?
  • What can I do about my itchy dog?
  • How do I get my dog to stop pulling?
  • How do I prevent my cat from scratching the furniture?
  • Which food should I feed to my pet?

Keep track of the questions your customers ask and have a savvy employee write out a blog post answering these questions. Then share links to your blog posts on social media and include a call-to-action that encourages viewers to visit your pet supply store. If possible, include photos and videos of your employees using the products featured in the blog with their pets, as visual aids will only improve your store's ability to attract customers.

You also want to be sure to respond to every single comment that you receive on your website and social media! This accomplishes a couple of things:

  1. The more content that's published on your website, the more likely you will be to receive traffic from people who are either searching for products that you can provide or answers to questions that you can potentially solve for them

  2. Being active on social media and publishing relevant content means that other pet lovers will be more likely to follow your posts and be reminded of your business whenever you post a cute pet photograph or an informational blog.

The more you can get your followers to engage with your content in a positive way, the more they will want to support your business.

3) Offer Free Delivery for Subscriptions or Orders of a Certain Dollar Amount

Nearly half of all of Amazon’s pet product sales are in pet food. To help them inch closer to their ultimate goal of becoming the new go-to retailer for pet food and litter delivery, Amazon recently developed a method that uses robotics to automate the handling and shipping of 25lb. bags of dry food and litter.

Amazon Prime members and Chewy.com customers also have the option of getting their chosen brand of dog food delivered to their door for free within 2 days—which is precisely the thing that many consumers find inconvenient about shopping at a brick-and-mortar pet supply store.

A service that you may consider offering to your customers is a subscription plan that stores their credit card on file—using a secure payment processor such as Stripe—and then delivers their preferred brand of pet food to them for free on a regular interval determined by the customer. 

Google Calendar even has a feature that allows you to set-up notifications for Repeat Events, which can be a simple and free way to keep track of recurring deliveries. If home deliveries are a feasible option for your business, many of your customers would appreciate the door-to-door service!

4) Set up your store so that it provides an “experience” that is impossible to replicate online - especially for those customers visiting with their dog or puppy

Always, always, make sure that you have some free treats that you can give to customers who bring their dog to your store. Ideally, pick something meaty that dogs will find irresistible. A lot of your vendors would be happy to send free product for the purpose of sampling out to customers, as it encourages sales and better exposes their product to consumers. When you offer a customer’s dog a treat, it provides them with a positive and rewarding experience, and your customer will notice that their dog is markedly excited to visit your store the next time.

However, if you allow your employees to bring their dogs to work, make sure that they are well-trained and know how to relax, especially in the presence of customer dogs. Dogs who are on-leash will not appreciate being rushed at by an overly exuberant store dog, even if they are just trying to be “friendly”.

One of the appeals of shopping at a brick-and-mortar store is being able to interact with products. For example, if you notice a customer bring their dog in and start to peruse the dog harnesses or coats, offer to help them find the perfect fit! Your expertise and product knowledge will come into play here because you will be able to explain all of the different benefits and features of the many different types of harnesses you carry. You can even upsell them to a higher quality product that will not only fit all of your customer’s needs and wants, but also provide them with a better user experience and help your store make a higher profit.

5) Offer products that are either not available on Amazon or Chewy or work with vendors who keep tight control over their online retail pricing

Brands like Zuke’s dog treats and Kong dog toys are ubiquitous, and can be purchased not only at pet specialty retailers, but at major grocery chains, hardware stores, big box pet supply stores, and on any pet supply website, often at a slightly lower price point, due to their massive buying power. While your store should keep these brands in stock, you should also offer products that are a little harder to find yet provide the same benefits. Make sure that said products are made of a quality material and have selling points that make them stand out from “everyone else”.

For example, “made locally”, “sourced from free-range, grass-fed cattle”, and “handmade in the USA” are selling points that appeal to many consumers. Customers may try to price shop and see if they can buy that locally made toy or treat online, and when they realize that you are the most convenient option for purchasing said product, they will have no choice but to return to your store to make a repeat purchase.

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