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Retailers Gather at SuperZoo to Strategize Future of Independent Channel


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Independent pet specialty retailers gathered before SuperZoo to discuss their top concerns.

Faced with evolving challenges, a group of independent pet retailers met on Monday, Aug. 19 before the SuperZoo trade show kicked off and came to the conclusion that banding together to leverage their combined strengths could be the solution to securing a brighter future for the independent channel. 

“In 2022, [independent pet retail] is forecasted to be just under 10 percent of the pie,” said Al Puntillo, chief merchandising manager for Mud Bay, in reference to market research firm Packaged Facts’ forecast for overall retail channel shares. “At what point does the pie get to a portion where we’re inconsequential?” 

This question, and several others, were top of mind for the informal consortium of retailers that gathered at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, continuing a tradition that kicked off years ago. The meeting included officials from approximately 35 retail businesses representing roughly 2,200 storefronts. It has become a customary gathering at the industry’s major trade shows, one during which participants discuss common interests and their most pressing concerns, participants said.

Among the key topics at this year’s meeting was a presentation given by Puntillo proposing the establishment of an independent retailer trade association—an idea that some say has been floating around for some time and is long overdue. 

“We made an assumption that we were all of one mind going into this meeting and that this would be well received—and it was,” Puntillo said. “Whenever you’re talking about this in a small group, you’re always concerned if you’re talking for yourself or for everyone else, and it seems like this larger group is onboard. So, it feels like a step in the right direction. Step one was, are we in the same hemisphere? We are, and now it’s time to talk about what this really looks like.”  

Though several retailers at the meeting are direct competitors, Michael Levy, founder and president of Pet Food Express, a 62-store chain in California, said many are friendly competitors who share the same views. Inviting more voices into the conversation about an independent retailer trade association, Levy said, is important because there’s strength in numbers. 

“There is a true need now, more than ever, for enhanced representation and building a real organization that can accomplish that,” Levy said. 

Puntillo’s presentation initiated a lively discussion among the group, which debated the benefits and challenges of getting a trade association off the ground and running.  

“How do you herd cats?” asked Rob Hansen, president and owner of Woodlands Pet Foods & Treats in Marin County, Calif. 

“Getting a diverse group together will be hard, but it’s worth it,” Hansen said. “It can be done with the right leadership and representatives. It could be very important for all retailers.”  

Brad Kriser, chief education officer at New York-based Independent Pet Partners, said that with independent retailers facing many challenges, it’s important for them to “strategize to stay relevant,” especially in this market. 

“The next 20 years are going to be different, and we have to up our game,” Kriser said, insisting that he sees a bright future for independent brick-and-mortars despite the challenges they face. Working together, he said, is the key to realizing that vision.  

In the meantime, indie retailers may sometimes suffer from their lack of a cohesive voice, Kriser said. Following the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s investigation on the potential link between certain diets and cases of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), for example, retailers nationwide “just had to stand back and take it,” Kriser said, asserting that a more unified voice could have given retailers more say in the DCM debate. 

Addressing DCM and finding ways to get the industry to be on the same page was another topic the group discussed. Susan Wynn, DVM, director of scientific affairs for St. Louis-based Nature’s Variety, spoke to the group about DCM, the FDA’s current investigation and how retailers can advise the concerned consumers walking through their doors. 

Jon Pritchow, director of store development for Earthwise Pet, a multistore franchise, said he appreciated Wynn’s presentation. 

“We have consumers that are coming into our stores to ask about DCM daily,” Pritchow said. “Dr. Wynn offered a lot of great information here, and we want to take it back to our stores and find a way to relay this information to our franchisees.”   

In general, participants said that this year’s meeting was yet another great opportunity to network, catch up with friends and broaden their understanding of key topics.  

“Networking is very important to me,” Hansen said, “and this meeting has become one of the most valuable parts of SuperZoo for me.” 

At the end of the meeting, Kriser looked around the room and pointed to five of his competitors who he now considers friends and expressed gratitude for how beneficial these meetings have become for independent retailers like himself. 

“Every year it’s growing, and we have made great progress in the independent worlds, and there’s always more to be made,” Kriser said.

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