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Retailers Bet on the In-Store Experience to Stave Off Online Competitors

Five winners of Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 Retailer of the Year Awards discuss the mounting pressures coming from online competitors and how they plan to build up their defenses and thrive.



• Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va.

• Ryan Kwaterski, senior manager at Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore.

• Don Payne, co-owner of CountryMax, which has stores in New York state

• Denise Strong, owner of Pawz On Main in Cottonwood, Ariz.

• Mark Vitt, co-owner of Mutts & Co., which has stores in Ohio

Pet Product News: What strategies do you employ to remain competitive as pet owners go online for their pet supplies?

Pattie Boden: To compete with online sales, my strategy has and always has been to provide the finest customer service and education available. That’s what we’re known for and what sets us apart.

We can’t always compete on price, and it’s not cost effective to do delivery, so ultimate customer service is what we stand for.

Ryan Kwaterski: You really need to follow the money. There’s a reason people are going online, and I believe it’s convenience. We plan to use same- and next-day delivery, a streamlined shopping experience on our own web page, targeted marketing and a focus on constantly bringing in new products.

Don Payne: Our strategy is to continue to offer an in-store physical environment that is enjoyable. There must be a reason people want to visit the store, even if they are purchasing products from a different retailer. As all retail stores become product-showcasing entities for consumers, our stores must offer an experience that is exclusive to us. That is something that no online retail outlet can take away.  

Denise Strong: Pawz On Main offers a unique in-store experience that is all about the customer and their pets. My target is those who want that expert personalized customer service. I have established warm relationships with my customers. They know I care, they know I am an expert on the products I carry, and they are loyal to me.

Mark Vitt: Sometimes you have to do the math for customers to show how, with our various rewards programs, their ultimate prices are better with us than online. With a “Buy 12 Get One Free” food program, a $48 bag of food is actually $4 cheaper, or closer to $44 per bag, when you factor in the savings of their free bag. That can be a real eye-opener for customers who think online is always cheaper. Plus, we always emphasize the knowledge our expert team members bring in helping customers evaluate the multitude of options available to find the right product for their pet’s particular needs. 

PPN: Have you launched or improved an e-commerce option for your customers?

Boden: We had an e-commerce platform in place, but we are increasing our social media platforms to use it more effectively. And we’re tracking who’s buying and what they’re buying more effectively, too.

Payne: We most certainly have offered product for sale online. It would be shortsighted to watch every other segment of the pet supply chain—manufacturers to distributors to retailers—sell online and not also be in that arena. The size and scale will never be what the huge online sales outlets will be so the volume will always be limited. Without multiple geographically placed shipping points across the United States, a regional operation like ours will not be competitive with the massive pet industry-supported online sales outlets.

Strong: I am an independent owner-operator with no employees. I have not yet launched e-commerce. My goal when I opened my boutique almost four years ago was to offer personalized, knowledgeable customer service, with a hands-on, in-store experience.

Vitt: We are in the process of launching our e-commerce solution, as this will provide us the ability to reach beyond our traditional brick-and-mortar market. 

PPN: What new product trends have resonated with your customers in the past year? Were there any surprises? Are there trends you’re keeping a close eye on this year?  

Boden: New product trends—the increasing amount of freeze-dried and dehydrated product on the market, from food toppers to meal mixers to dinners; all of it is tailored for convenience and shelf stability. As both millennials and retirees are renting smaller spaces instead of big houses, having things that take up less space and are shelf stable are becoming very popular.

Kwaterski: No real surprises in 2017, but in 2018 we are focusing heavily on local and U.S.-made products. We’ve always highlighted those products, but this year we want to use that as a market differentiator.

Payne: It was a very quiet year in respect to any new products that have taken off at retail. It would appear that the industry is putting more effort into getting positioned into the switch to online sales.

Strong: [The] line of Pet Releaf CBD hemp oil products has become the No. 1 seller this past year. I’m looking to expand my line of all-natural supplements and remedies.  

Vitt: We saw a tremendous growth in limited-ingredient-diet (LID) foods, as more customers wanted to eliminate ingredients, which may have contributed to their dog or cat’s allergy concerns. We were pleasantly surprised by the positive response to CBD oils and hemp-based treats, which had great results in addressing anxiety issues. And we are interested to watch for the introduction of more foods and treats with novelty proteins, which have been extremely popular with our customers and give their pets flavors and nutritional benefits they can’t get from more traditional ingredients. 

PPN: Looking forward to the year ahead, do you have any plans to expand or improve your business? For example, do you plan to hire more staff, expand your current location or open a new one, or add a new service?

Boden: We are expanding—1,000 more square feet. Increasing our grooming services, adding a more premium self-service dog washing area, and a kitchen where we can test fresh food recipes tailored to individual needs and do specialty baked goods. We also hope to have a holistic vet make regular visits to service our customers. 

We’ll also expand our annual Dog Fest communitywide event. We had 40 vendors this year; who knows what next year will bring. On a personal note, I’m increasing my video blogging and looking to become more involved in retail consulting for boutiques and groomers. I’ve been asked to provide feedback on product packaging and design, and that interests me as well.

Payne: CountryMax Stores is continuing to expand by building new locations. We are currently building a store facility in Oswego, N.Y., and are in the planning process of adding another location. Our answer to the market changes is to use the strength of our stores’ format to attract as many customers as possible. By using our facility as a major differentiator, we are able to look for new locations. 

Strong: I do plan to hire a part-time employee. Additionally, each year, I bring in new, unique items to keep the inventory fresh and interesting.

Vitt: We are currently evaluating new store locations while also making capital investments to improve our existing facilities. We are looking at new services, which will improve the convenience and shopping experience for our customers. 

PPN: Are you optimistic about the future of your business and the pet industry? Why?

Boden: I’m very encouraged by our business, our standing in the community and appreciative of the industry recognition we’ve achieved this year. The many customers who have been so loyal and constantly refer their friends and family to seek out our store and ask us for advice humble me. We’ll keep on doing what we do best, listening to our customers and putting the animals first. That has served us well for 16 years, and we’re looking forward to 2018.

Payne: A bucket of optimism is required every day in the retail business in order to push forward. The challenges in the markets have evolved, and this means there must be optimism running through our company in order to fuel the fight. We believe we will use that optimism to position CountryMax Stores in our local markets as a viable pet supply outlet option for our local customers for years to come.

Strong: I have no doubt that my business will continue to grow. I offer a very unique experience at Pawz On Main, one that can’t be found anywhere around me.

Vitt: We are optimistic about our business, even though we continue to see immense amounts of competition from local and online businesses. Customers continue to see the value in improved nutrition, dietary supplements, regular grooming and washing, which draws them into our stores. Once they arrive, we know our experienced staff and outstanding product assortment will make them a loyal customer for years to come. 

Take a look at the retailers and stores that participated in this roundtable in the gallery below:

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