How Retailers are Addressing Misconceptions About CBD and DCM
Nancy Guinn, co-owner of Dog Krazy, which has five locations in Virginia
Eric Mack, owner of Purrrfect Bark in Columbus, S.C.
Connie Romano, owner of Bark Out Loud Doggie Boutique and Café in Mansfield, Texas
Lisa Rousseau, owner of Lisa’s Doghouse in North Bay, Ontario, Canada
Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, which has locations in Pennsylvania
Britt Sturm, vice president of Agri Feed Pet Supply in Knoxville, Tenn.
PPN: The pet product market has continued to expand to new heights. Each year, trade show floors are getting bigger to accommodate new exhibitors and record new product launches. What strategies do you employ in order to create the best product selection at your store(s)?
Cindra Conison: We went to SuperZoo last summer. Besides the obscenely hot weather for Vermonters, it was not only a lot of fun, but also a great way to be exposed to new products, especially the Made In USA section. Wholesalepet.com has a made in USA section that is good. We are now turning our eyes to our state and our region. Our customer base knows everything [in our store] is made in the U.S. and appreciates our new regional focus. We incubated a successful local dog coat/cat toy business, SimplyBVT, which went from our shelves to Etsy to then include major craft fairs in New England as well. That is a proud accomplishment.
Nancy Guinn: I study all new products carefully. I look at where they are made and where the ingredients are sourced. Anytime I want to bring in a new product, I try a sample with my or my employees’ pets first to make sure it passes our standards.
Eric Mack: We follow some stores on social media, we follow some brands for their new items and we go to customer shows that are open to the public to see what the brands are pushing to customers so we’re on top of trends. We’re planning on two more this year.
Trade shows are huge, and too big I think. I prefer SuperZoo for the more “intimate” feel to small stores. I also take the advice of my wife in picking products, as it’s something she loves to do for me.
Connie Romano: I constantly listen to what customers ask for. Sometimes a first-time customer comes in and asks for something I never even thought of. I keep a journal of those inquiries and requests. I read about exciting products on social media. I snap a screenshot, and it goes in my journal as a “must find at the next opportunity.” When I attend an expo, those ideas are on the top of my list to look for.
Lisa Rousseau: We scrutinize every product thoroughly to ensure that it is a right fit for our store and philosophy. We listen to customers and what they are looking for, and cater to their pets’ requirements as best we can while sticking true to what we believe in.
Toni Shelaske: I could not accomplish this without my buying team! We hit the ground running at Global Pet Expo and SuperZoo. We have an agenda going in because we’ve already reviewed the exhibitor list. Making appointments with vendors also expedites the process. We are constantly adding new vendors and have what we call “category summits” when deciding what new to bring in and what existing products need to be eliminated.
Britt Sturm: While the market does continue to expand and people keep launching products, I wouldn’t say the industry is launching tons of new and innovative products. There are a lot of “me too” companies, and, honestly, how many collar companies do you need in the store? How many dog food manufacturers are creating something that is so great and different from everyone else versus copying what is already out there? That being said, we spend every minute of these trade shows walking the aisles trying to find new products that we think would be a great fit in our store. Looking at a company’s business practices, how eco-friendly/what kind of footprint are they making on our environment, how do they source their product, where is it being manufactured, where is it being sold, how is it being sold, etc., are all factors that we look at when strategizing our best product selection for our stores.
PPN: With so many new products on the market, along with the variety of recalls that have been issued in the past year, it can be difficult for pet owners to trust certain brands or understand the information that circulates online—some of which often contradicts itself. Were there certain issues or trends in the past year that you found yourself focused on in terms of making sure your customers received the right information? How do you build and establish trust with your customers?
Conison: In three letters: C-B-D. Vermont is cannabidiol (CBD) crazy, and pet shops are not immune. I lean heavily on the advice of vets. I always quote my vet who knows a lot more about CBD and its efficacy than I ever will. He keeps up with the science. People often bring medical questions to me. I am not a vet. I always tell them, “Call yours, I would call mine if one of my dogs was experiencing that.” That advice builds long-term trust.
Guinn: Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) ... ugh. I have always educated our employees and our customers on the good, better and best nutrition you can give your pets. I never put anything on our websites or social media about the anti-grain-free-food hubbub. I have always recommended what is best for the pet standing in front of me, not one general diet. Every customer that emailed or messaged me in regards to the news about DCM received a personal one-on-one message back from me explaining how I feel about how it could affect their pets. I also spoke to all three of my veterinarians about the articles posted and made sure we were on the same page. We sell grain free to more than 90 percent of our customers, and we had one case of DCM, and it was a goldendoodle that was eating grain in foods. We have always encouraged our customers to feed more than just kibble to make sure their pets are getting the best diet available. My customers trust me because I am always 100 percent honest with them. We don’t just recommend a food, we find out about their lifestyle, dog’s allergies, medical issues and their budget before recommending a diet for their pet.
Mack: Our trust is built through our relationship with our local vet, who sends everyone to us for food, as well as the results customers are seeing with their pets from our recommendations. This past year has been a little tougher with what I consider “false information scare tactics” and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and their wishy-washy ways at times. We’re still the trusted source for food and supplements—I don’t feel that will change—but I’d always like to make the connection to the newer customers and those who aren’t full-time customers stronger. We want them to know they can trust our judgment.
Romano: We’ve had a customer or two that came in armed with information they got from the internet on the dangers of feeding certain types of food. We received a letter from one of our brands that explained this misunderstanding. You can usually convince open-minded customers that they can’t jump to conclusions just because they heard it.
First of all, I make sure that my own pets and my employees’ pets have tried or use the food and treats I sell. Since I only sell three brands, it’s not difficult to do that. I always recommend that they research the recalls. Two of my brands have never had recalls.
Rousseau: The biggest issues we deal with are perceived allergies and misinformation regarding ingredients in products. It’s important for us to be knowledgeable about the products as well as to establish personal relationships with our customers, which is where the trust is built.
Shelaske: Yes, it’s frustrating! The DCM issue had a lot of our focus. I have 10 years of customer loyalty under my belt so our customers already trust us from past history. They know I am committed to bettering the health of all animals and not just running a business. I’m a straight shooter, and I think they appreciate that even if they don’t necessarily agree with me. We’ve shared a lot of information on our website and Facebook pages stating where we stand on certain issues.
Sturm: Being in business for 42 years can really help build and establish trust with your customers, but, without a doubt, being honest and transparent with customers, providing them with the level of customer service that we do and educating them, and making sure we provide our team with proper education is why our customers trust us and have kept coming back for 42 years.
Obviously, everyone is aware of the DCM issue that went viral this past year, and Rad Cat had a very unfortunate recall, but having that trust with our customers, staying informed, reading countless articles ourselves and researching these issues or recalls is why we are the trusted pet experts in our city. People know they can come to us for reliable and truthful information and that our hearts and best interest are in the well-being of our customers and their pets.
PPN: Do you feel optimistic about the future of your business and the pet industry? What makes you feel that way?
Conison: I am guardedly optimistic. I read and respond to every review of The Quirky Pet on Yelp, Google Business, Square and even TripAdvisor. What the reviews say I am doing right is exactly what I think I am doing right. They complement the products, the front-end friendliness, the look and feel of the shop, and the cool store dogs. They speak of my pet shop as a great experience, which is a key to the future for any kind of retail. The pet shop of the fifties and sixties was a special experience for families to visit. Visiting a website isn’t the same and never will be. It’s the same with a big-box store. My pet shop has personality. It is memorable. It’s fun to visit. It is actually a tourist destination on TripAdvisor.
My advice? Don’t be afraid to be different. Embrace your store’s inner quirky.
Guinn: Yes, absolutely. I’ve met several pet store owners over the past decade. I’ve only met a handful that love pets the way me and my incredible team of employees do. Dog Krazy isn’t just a name; we truly are dog crazy. There is a huge difference when you walk into a store owned by someone that is there for the money and when you walk into a store that is there because they and their crew truly love animals. We want to make a difference in the life of every pet we meet, and it shows when you walk through the door of any of our stores.
Mack: My optimism is high, for the industry itself. For the little guys? I think it’s cautiously optimistic. Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, there are larger chains trying to ruin the lives of smaller stores, either through below-fair-value buyouts or putting a store across the street. Then there are the issues of overreach to our food companies, specifically raw foods. I’m willing to bet that if a big-name kibble company suddenly came out with a raw food and had success with it, some of these witch hunts on raw companies would go away—because they’d be attacking themselves. Overall, I’m pleased, and I think it’s a great industry to be in.
Romano: I feel very optimistic. My store is where people come to spoil their pets, not just buy necessities. We have fun events and pride ourselves that our store is an experience for pet parents and their fur kids. Once they’ve come in, the next time, they’re brought in by their dog! The feedback we get via social media and referrals says volumes and also makes me optimistic. New customers come in all the time and come back. It’s a good feeling when you see the same faces weekly or monthly. It’s an even better feeling when they say, “A friend told me about this place!”
Rousseau: Yes, we are very optimistic about the future of our business. We feel the service we provide as well as the products we carry are what keep customers happy, and thus keep them coming back again and again. Regarding the industry, it is, in a sense, foolproof. While trends and products will inevitably change, people will always have pets, and they will always need food. The future of the industry, mind you, is completely contingent on the companies and distributors that create the products we trust and promote, and their ability to keep making and providing all of us with quality products and service.
Shelaske: Absolutely, I’m opening my third store in the second quarter of this year. I feel the public wants the product and services we are providing. Not to mention overall consumer confidence is up—people are spending money! Yes, of course the online threat will always be there, but they aren’t even at 20 percent. The retail landscape is changing, and we have to change with it. Brick-and-mortar will never go away—it’s just getting a makeover.
Sturm: I feel very optimistic about the future of our business but am a little skeptical about the pet industry as a whole. My skepticism comes from these prices on bags of pet foods. Where is the glass ceiling; how long are people going to pay these prices? Champion Petfoods sent out their new IMAP pricing, and you really question how long someone is going to pay $120 for a 25-pound bag of dog food! The bag sizes just keep getting smaller, and the cost of the bags keep going up. When are the manufacturers going to price themselves out of the market? At what point does it stop? These are things that I think about in the back of my head.
As for our business and my optimistic attitude, well, I am 27 years old and have my entire career in front of me. I believe that I have an all-star team in place, have endless ideas on ways to keep growing and expanding our business, and really love and enjoy what I do, and what Agri Feed Pet Supply does for our customers and the Knoxville pet community. I look forward to what 2019 has to offer and the many years to come.