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Independent Retail Still Reigns in Pet, Execs Say


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Independent pet specialty retailers gathered before SuperZoo to discuss their top concerns, including their partnerships with suppliers.

The brick-and-mortar independent pet specialty retailer channel continues to be the lifeblood of the industry, and manufacturers that are dedicated to those retailers are reaping the rewards. That was the consensus among a gathering of retail executives at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas a day before the kickoff of the SuperZoo trade show in June. 

The informal meeting, which included officials from 30-plus retail operations representing approximately 2,100 doors, has become a customary gathering at the industry’s major trade shows and is an opportunity for participating retailers to discuss common interests and their most pressing concerns, participants said.

“We’ve grown significantly each time,” said Michael Levy, founder and president of Pet Food Express, a 62-store chain in California. “Every meeting seems to flow more each time. Everyone participated, everyone shared different opinions and, overall, it went really well.”

Scott Click, owner of Tomlinson’s, a Texas chain with 15 stores, shared a similar sentiment. 

“Several of us are direct competitors, but we are here in the same room talking about the same goals that we have [and] the same interests.”

Among those shared concerns are the roles that pet specialty retailers are playing within the industry and how manufacturers are diversifying the way they market their products. 

“Channel came up a lot [during the meeting],” said Al Puntillo, chief merchandising officer for Mud Bay, which has 45 stores in Washington and Oregon. “There is such a blurring of the lines of channel now. What used to be considered true independent brick-and-mortar [brands] are now hybrids—spanning from brick-and-mortar, maybe a little online, maybe some natural grocery retail, maybe Chewy.com, maybe not. So, we talked about getting back to basics on channel.”

Jim Castleberry, director of merchandising for Pet Food Express, also noted product companies’ changing market strategies, as manufacturers increasingly look to circumvent traditional channels to reach their target customers. 

“Many manufacturers are going around independent retail now,” Castleberry said. “They’re finding other alternatives to get directly to the consumer. We are very aware of that, and I think that’s very important to most people in the room.”

Despite this trend, retailers in attendance at the meeting agreed that the independent brick-and-mortar retail channel continues to be instrumental to the growth of a majority of successful pet brands on the market, and many manufacturers, they concluded, would not disagree.

“Years ago, back after Procter & Gamble bought Natura, I was in a meeting with them, and they said they love independent pet retailers because we are the incubator of brands,” Click said. “Of course, we’re tired of birthing babies, but manufacturers know we can get their brands started.”

Lars Wulff, co-CEO of Mud Bay, concurred that independents have much to offer brands, stressing that the relationships product manufacturers forge with their vendor partners are key to the success of everyone involved.

“In this enormous industry, there is room for an ecosystem made up of strong independent pet retailers and manufacturers that are committed to them and sell exclusively to them,” Wulff said. “Together, they are on the cutting-edge of this rapidly evolving industry.”

Whereas last year’s SuperZoo gathering focused largely on e-commerce pricing—with a handful of manufacturers having also been in attendance to pledge their allegiance to the independent channel—Wulff said the focus for the meeting’s participants shifted this year toward building revenue-generating, mutually beneficial relationships between stores and manufacturers.

“MAP pricing is almost kind of yesterday’s news,” he said. “The future is these long-term partnerships between brands and retailers, and it’s not about us birthing a brand—it’s about decades-long partnerships where we grow sales and customers for brands that are committed to our channel because of what we bring to the table.” 

Retailers also asserted that brick-and-mortar independents are increasingly growing confident in their position within the industry, as they perceive online and big-box competition to be less menacing to the independents than in the past. 

Biff Picone, co-owner of Natural Pawz, a chain of 23 stores in Texas, said, “Independents are not running scared. They are not contracting and pulling back. Independents are finding their voice, if you will. We are a growing group, and we are a group that matters, that still matters.”

He added that nearly every retail business in attendance had opened at least one store in the past year, calling it a “testament to the growth and relevance of the brick-and-mortar independent channel.”

Natural Pawz co-owner Nadine Joli-Couer echoed the statement by noting that pet specialty retailers often are key at driving innovation into the market. 

“If independent pet retailers didn’t take on products that don’t exist elsewhere on the market and drive them into the market, [these products] probably wouldn’t be successful,” she said.

Mark Witriol, who co-founded Pet Food Express with Levy, added to the chorus of retailers expressing the conviction that key manufacturers are committed to the channel. “Brands that have passion and innovation are all coming to independent pet,” he said.

“The manufacturers that supported us are the leaders now in the industry,” Witriol added. “Everybody is now chasing them and wondering what they did to really move the needle.”

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