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Inventive Strategies Pet Retailers Are Using to Compete Against Amazon, Chewy and Big-Box Specialty Stores


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Pet Pangaea’s Cyndi Wells, with Sage, sees a time when robots will be commonplace in retail, especially given the skyrocketing cost of labor and the difficulty in finding retail workers.

Some independent retailers speak with a sense of foreboding when considering how to face another year competing against pet chains and e-commerce retailers. 

But in 2020, others are seeing opportunity. 

“Independents have so many technology tools available now to help them be competitive,” said Cyndi Wells, owner of Pet Pangaea in Los Alamos, N.M. “This is an exciting time to be an independent pet retailer.”

Rise of the Robots (Kind of): Pet Pangaea

Pet Pangaea is the only pet supply store in Los Alamos, but the local grocery store sells pet supplies, and weekenders drive to big-box retailers in Santa Fe; bears dissuade most doorstep deliveries. 

To remain competitive, Wells devises ways to use technology to improve the customer experience and keep pet owners coming in.

She employs two robots: Sage, a client-services robot made by Tokyo-based SoftBank Robotics, and Double, a telepresence robot, named for Double Robotics in Burlingame, Calif.

“The original impetus [for Sage] occurred during a challenging time when we were short-staffed,” Wells said. 

At the time, she thought: Why not have a robot field common questions, especially when staff members are juggling multiple customers? 

Sage walks, recognizes 19 languages and even drives a specially built electric car; Wells provided the store-specific content that Sage uses to answer customer questions and even coded a few jokes into the robot’s DNA.

Standing at about two feet tall and weighing 12 pounds, Sage looks like a scaled-down, athletic-version of Baymax, the Pillsbury Doughboy-like android in the Disney animated film “Big Hero 6.” 

Wells describes Sage as “a humanoid, autonomous, bipedal, programmable robot” that is safe around people and pets. 

She is working on integrating Sage’s recognition ability with the store’s database, enabling it to recognize customers, access their purchasing histories and know their pets, making for a line of “more helpful questions.”

Sage also assists staff, especially new hires, with questions, such as when a cat owner, due to their cat’s allergy, wants to know what foods don’t contain flaxseed. 

“This question can be a difficult one to answer for a new employee,” Wells said. “However, the robot will have all ingredient lists memorized and can quickly answer those types of questions.

“I believe the future of retail will involve robots,” she added.

Robots like Double have been called “Skype on wheels.” Double consists of an iPad tablet mounted atop an adjustable arm that is attached to an electric motorized base with wheels. 

“The height on the Double is adjustable via the Double application, which you can run on your phone or a computer,” Wells said. “You can see from the camera on the Double and move it via the application in addition to remotely changing the height (47 to 60 inches). 

“I use Double when I want to be physically present but I am not,” she added.

As long as Wells has access to Wi-Fi, she can be “at the store” via Double to video chat with staff, talk to clients, check the temperature sensor readouts on the store’s turtle display tank and patrol the store after hours.

“Because our town has so many science Ph.D.s, most people are not interested in working in a retail environment, and our labor market has always been quite limited,” Wells said. “So, I always look for opportunities to automate processes and minimize the need for labor.

“I would love to have a [human-sized] robot that can safely work closely around people and pets, unload a pallet of goods, scan all the UPCs and put the products on the shelves,” she added. “Alas, technology is not quite there yet for this to happen in 2020.”

At night, Double is maneuvered back to its charging dock. Recharging takes two hours, and Double’s fully charged battery has a four-hour life. 
Sage holds a 90-minute charge and is recharged by sitting in a special chair. Sage can still interact with customers while being charged.

Wells has also integrated her point-of-purchase system with Google-owned Pointy, an online cataloging platform.

“With Pointy, you can get your products on a web page by simply [plugging in] their device between your barcode scanner and your point-of-sale [register],” Wells said. 

As items are scanned at checkout, images and information about them are automatically uploaded to Pet Pangaea’s Pointy page, creating an online product catalog.

Customers can go to Pet Pangaea’s Pointy site and click a “call and reserve” button and pick up their completed order later at the store.

“You don’t necessarily need to have all the skills to implement good technology in your business,” Wells said. “You just need to be able to recognize places you can improve using technology, and then find the right people who can do it.” 

Private Labeling: Pet Wants

Lake Forest, Calif., is a community of nice homes and manicured lawns in the heart of affluent Orange County, where many pet owners don’t mind paying a little more for quality.

“Our focus is healthy, wholesome food and treats, and we locally source ancillary items as much as we can,” said Shannon Weel, owner of a Pet Wants franchise in Lake Forest.

At the urging of her corporate franchise team, Weel decided to sell a line of private label products. Her store is a 70/30 mix of brand name and private label goods. 

“We carry our own line of kibble that is made fresh every month and shipped directly to our store, so it’s fresher than commercial kibble that you would find at those big-box retailers,” she said. “We also have our own line of treats that are only sold at our store.

“Having unique products that customers can’t find anywhere else is always a benefit to your business,” Weel said. 

Private label items, she said, are a great way to offer such products. 

“You can partner with manufacturers that have quality products that you believe in, and that your customers will enjoy,” she added. “By adding your retail store’s branding to the packaging, [it] makes the product feel exclusive.” 

Gaining Social Media Savvy: Animal Connection

Before Pattie Boden Zeller opened Animal Connection 18 years ago in Charlottesville, Va., she was an advertising agency owner with marketing awards in print, radio and television. 

Making the jump to social media would seem a no brainer, given her background, but that wasn’t the case. 

“I had no idea how to market to millennials and target social media,” she said. “I was lucky to find a great consultant with a youthful vibe who helped me revamp our marketing efforts.”

Through social media-driven events of her own creation, Boden Zeller has managed to make her store the hub of the Charlottesville pet community.

“My store provides events and a customer-focused experience, and we use social media to reinforce what we’re doing in the store.”

Eight years ago, Boden Zeller dreamed up Dog Fest, an annual gathering benefiting local pet rescues that has grown to an attendance of more than 5,000 pet owners and their dogs.

“I really try not to focus on what big box and online sales are doing,” she said. “I can’t possibly compete with them on price and free delivery, so we concentrate on a highly driven service model, and it works well.”

Another way Boden Zeller brings the pet community together is by co-hosting webcast “What’s Barking Local.” Each week, Boden Zeller and co-host Jim Miller—the founder and CEO of I Love CVille, the network that hosts the show—interview local animal rescuers, pet suppliers and manufacturers, veterinarians and dog trainers, with topics even turning, on occasion, to places where people can drink beer with their dogs.  

Still, despite the community outreach and the deep connection Boden Zeller is able to make with her customers, online suppliers can’t be ignored.

Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, has a lot of well-educated, social media-savvy pet owners who, Boden Zeller says, will “sometimes get the first bag of product from us, and then go online for larger bags delivered to their doorstep.” 

“Social media has been super helpful in customer contact, but the real sales happen in the store,” she explained. “We’re not just selling product, we’re selling the ultimate customer experience, rewarded by their loyalty.”

Pod People: West Lebanon Feed & Supply

West Lebanon Feed & Supply (WLFS) has served Lebanon and Upper Valley communities on the New Hampshire-Vermont border since 1926.

But in the past three years, according to owner Curt Jacques, national chains PetSmart and Tractor Supply moved to town, while the combined circulation of the community newspapers Jacques relies on to distribute his sales circulars has been halved to 23,000. That, along with Amazon’s increasing focus on getting a piece of the pet specialty pie, convinced him that he had to do something.

After engaging with customers and determining that retail patterns and behaviors are rapidly evolving, Jacques decided to adopt stronger tools to more fully address the requirements of today’s shopper. This included adopting an entirely new POS system that can easily integrate across digital platforms and offers a variety of useful tools to enhance the customer experience.

“By marketing in new and innovative ways, customer engagement can become more useful, interactive, and adds tremendous value so that everyone wins,” Jacques said.

Jacques has used his new proprietary POS system and fully integrated proprietary e-commerce platform to amass more than 15,000 active email customers as well as gain a strong social media presence, he said. 

“There is nothing wrong with competition,” Jacques said. “It forces us to work smarter, sharpen our pencils, tighten our belts, and polish our staff with increased product knowledge and sales training.

“We can now track customers’ sales, buying habits and frequency, and email coupons to those who have missed a buying cycle.”

But Jacques wasn’t content to stop there.

He invested a substantial sum in a remodel of his store but was perplexed as to why everyone wouldn’t want to come into the store, with its new look, when stocking up on pet supplies.

So, a few years ago, Jacques and his team hired a West Coast marketing firm to survey the local market to better understand who shops at WLFS and what these customers want.

Twelve hundred out of 15,000 households responded, with a margin of error of 3 percent.

Jacques found his customers are loyal to a fault, but that they value convenience and want to purchase online—vaulted ceilings, post-and-beam construction and a remodel based off of a design by creators of the PBS series “This Old House” be darned. 

Jacques and his team sought out engineers, fabricators and digital platform experts to help them build a pay-online, pick-up-later retail delivery system that has been named GooberPick. 

“The concept is a convenient ‘pick-up’ point for customers to retrieve their orders on the way home,” he said. 

Jacques refers to the 20-foot modular units as “pods.” As of press time, WLFS planned to place three of them in high-traffic locations in WLFS’s market area by the end of February, with six more units following in the six months after that.

WLFS customers will be able to order and pay online while choosing the most convenient pod for delivery. Upon payment, a four-digit code is sent that can be used to open the front door to the pod as well as the locker containing the customer’s order. 

Each pod has a bank of 39 lockers, with the bigger ones able to hold up to six 40-pound bags of food, and a vending machine for impulse purchases such as flea control products, cannabidiol (CBD) items, toys and treats.

“After you retrieve your order and the door is closed, we get notification that the order is picked up, and we are ready for the next customer,” Jacques said.
Pods are open around the clock; they have three security cameras and a communication link should someone need to talk to someone during business hours.

These new “locations” are “a fraction of the cost of leasing or building new stores, stocking and even staffing” traditional brick-and-mortars, Jacques said.

“We can now expand our market without blowing the bank with infrastructure and at the same time have a cutting-edge advantage,” he said. “Move over, Amazon.
“We will be launching this outside of our market coast to coast for retailers to now have a great option to grow their business against e-commerce threats,” Jacques said. 

There is already interest from Canada, Denmark and others in the U.S. GooberPick is slated to roll out in the Northeast at the end of 2020, Jacques reported.

“If retailers stay stagnant and become reactive instead of innovative, then they will be at risk of closing,” he warned. “After more than 40 years in the animal feed and supply business, I knew we would have to find a way to come up with an idea that could not only help us maintain our business, but dramatically increase our sales.” 

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