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Out and About with the WPA Road Crew


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Maryellen Mahoney, Shelly Armstrong and Eric Moore make up the WPA Road Crew.

Visiting an average of 2,200 retailers across the U.S. each year, the World Pet Association (WPA) Road Crew covers a lot of ground. The team’s mission is to spend time with independent pet retailers and find out about their concerns and interests, as well as to take note of the latest product trends in the industry. While every stop is a bit different, no matter where they go, there has been a common thread—passion and pride. Independent pet retailers are hardworking and dedicated to what they do, largely because of how much they love pets.

The WPA Road Crew’s longest-standing member, Shelly Armstrong, said that getting on the frontline of pet retail allows the crew—which consists of herself as well as fellow community development coordinators Maryellen Mahoney and Eric Moore—to gain valuable insight and “paint an unfiltered picture of the industry.” The information can then be utilized for tailoring educational programming and other offerings at WPA’s trade shows and conferences. This kind of insight has also proven valuable in WPA’s advocacy efforts at the legislative level, as well as in identifying programs and nonprofits to which to make donations that serve the pet industry.

“We take all of our findings back and report to a committee of which I am a member,” Armstrong said. “This qualitative research helps inform the training and education we provide through our flagship events and programs.”

No two store visits are exactly alike. Armstrong recounted one recent visit during which she shared coffee with a store owner who talked mostly about dog food ingredients including quality and sourcing. Just prior, she had been in another location touring a pet store that focused primarily on fish. Armstrong said she learned about the owner’s passion for breeding and for showcasing the store’s expertise in the category.

“The most valuable thing is when the people I meet with sit down and talk about their story,” Armstrong said. “It’s fascinating since they come from so many backgrounds—some from corporate environments or others who worked at a larger store and decided to go out on their own. Often, they have had a store in their family for generations and are carrying on a family tradition.”

In her travels, Armstrong has noticed many trends. A greater emphasis on nutrition, including the quality of pet food and its ingredients, is one major trend she has seen again and again. Retailers also report that customers are more informed than ever, making it crucial that retailers themselves keep up with the latest research. She said that being educated on pet nutrition—and other areas of concern—is where retailers can shine.

“It’s all about customer service, and that extra bit of care and attention retailers give is something customers simply do not get with the ‘dotcom’ retailers,” Armstrong said.

When it comes to advice for pet retailers, Armstrong said there are three things she would recommend: get out to see what the competition is doing, take advantage of social media and leverage the knowledge of your network. For the latter, Armstrong stressed the importance of tapping in to distributor and manufacturer rep networks to find out what’s going on in the industry.

“Your success is their success,” Armstrong added. “Also reach out to local experts who may be specialists in certain areas and ask them to come and talk with you—or, better yet, to give a talk at your store. Visit trade shows and distributor shows, and stay abreast of what is going on industrywide.”

The bottom line, said Armstrong, is to “get out there”—just as the WPA Road Crew is doing. You don’t have to travel everywhere, but at least get a sense of what is going on in your own region. Armstrong said there are countless ways to engage with customers and the local community—from hosting customers for coffee and learning sessions to giving talks within the community. Armstrong recently visited with one store that hosted Thursday night mixers where customers were invited to bring their pets and mingle while enjoying wine and light appetizers. No matter how you approach it, she advised, find ways to stay connected in the community as well as the industry as a whole.

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