How Can Independent Pet Shops Compete with Big Box Stores? Here are 5 Ways

One of the challenges facing independent pet retailers today is competing against big box stores, such as Petco and PetSmart, and the even more immense e-commerce giant, Amazon. Companies like Petco operate over 1,500 locations across the United States and, as you can imagine, their buying power is enormous.

When a company can purchase pallets and pallets of a single SKU, they get significant discounts from the manufacturer and will be able to turn around and sell it at a lower price compared to an independent retailer.

We know that independent pet retailers can’t have the same low prices as major retail chains. If not for the low prices, how else can we compete?


Independent retailers, and especially the employees who primarily engage with customers on the sales floor, need to have animal and product expertise and be able to communicate a product’s features and benefits to your customer.

In order to keep prices low, major retail chains hire sales associates at minimum wage and do not invest the time into training them. Turnover is often rampant. As these companies cut dollars away from payroll, the quality of their customer service will also decline.

This is where you can stand out. Provide the best customer service experience possible. This is achieved by carefully selecting a team of passionate pet lovers who love to share their knowledge and experience with other people.

  • Talk to your various vendors and sales reps and try to plan “training days” for your employees. Ensure that your sales staff are knowledgeable about the products they’re selling and how each product can solve different types of problems. Many shoppers are used to interacting with employees who don’t really know much about the product that they’re selling, so when they are engaged with someone who is truly enthusiastic about solving their problem and can explain various solutions, the experience will stand out in their minds.
  • Coach your employees on how to build rapport with your customers, how to listen and ask questions to figure out what kind of problems the customer might have, and how to match them with products that would provide a solution to the problem.
  • Encourage your employees to learn your regular customers by name as well as their buying habits. Knowing your customers’ buying habits means that you’ll be able to recommend similar products to them in the future. A simple, “Hey, I know that you usually like to buy a little treat for your dog. We recently got in these new beef tendons that a bunch of our other customers really like!” Show your employees how to be courteous and helpful (according to many Yelp reviews at various pet supply stores, many people find it off-putting when they enter a small business and no one greets them) and offer your customers assistance to their cars with their bags without expecting a tip.


Many socially cognizant shoppers go out of their way to support small businesses in their community. This is especially important because, according to the Andersonville Study of Retail Economics, “local business generates 70 percent more local economic activity per square foot than chain stores”.

Shoppers like to see small businesses giving back to their community. They like knowing that a portion of their dollars will go towards supporting a dog sitting in a shelter, or the local wild raptor program, or local educational programs. In fact, 75% of millennials think it’s important for businesses to have a positive contribution toward society.

Here are a few ideas for getting involved with your community!

  • Holding events at your store will encourage new and returning visitors! You can partner with a local animal rescue to host adoption events (and offer a discount on supplies for anyone who adopts a new pet), or a veterinary clinic to hold an “Ask A Vet” Q & A, or a dog training facility to hold dog training demos.
  • Figure out what type of pet-related events are in your area and budget some money to provide a sponsorship. For example, in Fort Collins, Colorado, we have the Fire Hydrant 5k, which benefits the Larimer Humane Society, and the Doggie Olympics, which benefits the Larimer Animal People Partnership - you probably have similar events in your town!  You’ll often be given a booth space, and your store’s logo will be printed on any promotional materials for the event, and hundreds of potential customers will stop by to see what you have to offer.
  • Organize themed sidewalk sales, and invite vendors to do live demos. Your customers will enjoy bringing their dogs to check out your various vendors and possibly learn about something that they’ve never heard of before. We’ve seen some specialty pet retailers hold pet costume contests during the month of October, Easter egg hunts for dogs for April, and more.
  • Find a local organization where you can donate pet food (such as expired, damaged bags, or customer returns.)


  • Large retailers are typically reluctant to take chances on new products or brands. As a specialty pet retailer, you have the opportunity to offer exclusive new items that your customers will have difficulty acquiring elsewhere.
  • If you get a special request from a customer to bring in a product that you don’t currently carry, you can add that product to your retail mix with relative ease compared to your competition.
  • There are few things an independent pet retailer hates more than a shopper who comes in, finds what they’re looking for and then buys it on Amazon — while standing in the store. But what if the product were only available in that store? What if shopping for it on Amazon wasn’t an option? There are vendors and manufacturers who go out of their way to protect their independent retailer customer base by offering brands that are only available to specialty pet supply stores like yours.
  • Budget the time and expense to send some trusted employees to pet product trade shows such as SuperZoo or Global Pet Expo. Have them conduct market research, talk to the different vendors and sales reps, and figure out if there’s anything new on the market that you absolutely must have for your store.


You can set yourself apart from your competition by carefully curating your product selection. Here are some examples:

  • Build the best natural dog chew bar in town. Offer a wide range of chews that will appeal to all life stages and all sizes of dogs. Have something to offer for those picky dogs, dogs with missing teeth, dogs with sensitive stomachs, dogs with allergies. Chews usually have great profit margins, so you should put some focus into building a solid dog chew section.
  • Put together a large selection of durable, interactive dog toys. With the growing popularity of dog sports, such as agility, dock diving, and disc dog, more and more people are looking for a durable tug toy that their dog will go crazy working for. The squeaky stuffed animals that you usually see stocked at pet supply stores won’t cut it for these types of customers.
  • Along with your usual Primal and Stella and Chewy’s in the freezer, try to find local manufacturers of raw frozen dog food and bones. Often, these types of manufacturers source all of their meat and vegetables from local farms, and when that’s the case, promote them with signage such as, “Shop Local!”


With the amount of time that people spend online and browsing social media, it’s imperative that you maintain an active online presence. Your customers will have an easy way of communicating with you, and with little-added cost, you can easily share relevant videos and photos with your customers (such as product demos, customer “Dog of the Day”, adoptable local cats and dogs who are looking for a home, new product announcements, and much more).

Posting relevant content regularly and actively engaging with customers who put the time into writing to you will keep you at the top of mind for your regular and potential new customers.