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What Pet Stores Are—and Are Not—Doing to Compete With Online Retailers

For some of this year’s PPN Retailer of the Year Award winners, remaining competitive in an increasingly expanding marketplace means homing in on the characteristics of their businesses that keep customers loyal.


Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products

Cindra Conison, owner of The Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt.
Nancy Guinn, co-owner of Dog Krazy, which has five locations in Virginia
Eric Mack, owner of Purrrfect Bark in Columbus, S.C.
Connie Romano, owner of Bark Out Loud Doggie Boutique and Café in Mansfield, Texas
Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, which has locations in Pennsylvania
Britt Sturm, vice president of Agri Feed Pet Supply in Knoxville, Tenn.

Pet Product News: How did your business fare in 2018? What business goals did you establish going into last year, and how did you execute those goals? 

Cindra Conison: 2018 was the challenge that we thought it would be, as 2017 was a challenge. For us to do really as well as we hope, everything would have to go right. Pet shops are not weekly destinations like grocery stores. They are discretionary, and weather plays a role. Last summer alternated between too hot to walk around and too rainy to walk around. This has been a very cold winter, which keeps people indoors as well. Our regulars are loyal. They pay the bills, but the profit is beyond their patronage.

We’ve built off our strengths. In our case, animal chews. We had a goal of expanding the range of animal chews and steering customers toward new offerings—none of them are available at Petco, which is 2.5 miles down the road, or, in fact, anywhere in the retail area, and our customers know this. I am in a tourist town, and people from out of region can’t find these chews in their cities or suburbs either, which results in large purchases and out-of-town return customers. That is a long-term goal that I am achieving.  

Nancy Guinn: We had our best year ever in 2018. We opened up our fifth location in October, and our sales there took off immediately. Last year, we wanted to increase our online sales, so we started shipping free for orders over $99, and we bought a cargo van for local deliveries. We hit our sales goal for online sales as well as our goal for in-store sales. 

Eric Mack: Business was up roughly 18 percent for 2018 versus 2017. We expected 15 percent to 20 percent, so we fell right in line with our goals. We tried to reach more customers and also be on top of trends to retain the miscellaneous purchases that provide high-margin items. We used new ways of reaching customers (digitally, ads) and also used $20 gift cards to hand out when we saw people out and about with dogs that could be new potential customers. We’ve come up with an Instagram plan to find new potential customers as well, with a reward for them coming into the store—and  it works great. Worst-case scenario is we take the time to offer it and they don’t come. 

Connie Romano: I’m happy to say that we increased our sales by about 40 percent from 2017, up 150 percent from three years ago. We opened the doors in late 2015 and can proudly say that we’ve consistently increased sales month after month.

It’s very important in a boutique-type store to bring in new items as often as possible. That’s what keeps customers returning and telling their friends about their “find!” 
My plan was to add more food and treat choices that aren’t available in the big-box stores; you know, unique but healthy products. I’ve added new toys and additional raw, freeze-dried and kibble choices. Toys and chews that are fun are a hit. I find that it’s what my customers are looking for. Attending the pet expos gives me the opportunity to find those new products. My customers start getting excited when they find out I’m heading to an expo. I haven’t let them down yet.

Toni Shelaske: We had an increase of 17 percent! 

Britt Sturm: 2018 for us, strictly from a numbers perspective, was just fair. Analyzing the business and our growth as a company was fantastic! We had an extremely successful year with the launch of our website and offering local delivery. We installed a couple self-service dog washes and had our biggest day in company history, so our team has a lot to be proud of for 2018.

PPN: The competition from online, big-box and mass retailers has continued to heat up for independent pet stores, specifically in the pet food category. What have you done in the past year to remain competitive? 

Conison: I don’t sell kibble or cat food. I used to sell raw, but there was too little demand and too little profit margin. Within a half a mile, a grocery store, a hardware store, and a feed and seed store all sell high-end kibble. Why should I? It used to be that the pet shop had an exclusive on that. My exclusive is unique animal chews made in the USA. These nearby stores only have a token presence in this market, which is good for us.

Guinn: I don’t see anyone as competition. If I am spending my days worrying about what other stores are doing, then I’m wasting time that could be spent on growing my own business. We continue to give the best customer service, carry only the best products and treat our customers like family. That’s what we do every day and will continue to do as we grow, and grow and grow.

Mack: We’re aware of online, but we’re not overly “worried” at this point. We’re never going to get 100 percent of pet food sales in our area. There will always be people who will shop online. We’ve always carried out purchases to the customers’ cars, and we always will. We will deliver if they’d like, through our website to a certain radius. Outside of our area, we will deliver if it’s worth it. We deliver raw food to a customer 90 minutes away because she orders enough to make it worthwhile. We reward the customer for shopping with us (loyalty programs, free items), and we’ve put together a “local” program for those who come to us from online retailers. We don’t divulge the information for this, but it’s been worth it for us to do.

Romano: I carry three brands of food and goats’ milk from a local goat farmer. None of them are sold in the big-box stores. We have training sessions provided by those manufacturers to learn as much as possible about their products, and customers feel confident so they at least try them. I always recommend that they research the products as well. When we have events, we have demos by a couple of them to answer questions and give advice on the benefits of their food.

Shelaske: A lot ... where do I begin? To compete, all pricing is matched to what is available online as much as possible. We now offer delivery and have implemented a preferred-customer earnings credit. For every $200 spent, they receive $5 back. 

To get customers in the stores, we have rebranded our lectures into clinics that address common issues, and this has increased attendance. Also, [customers love it when we] have company reps come in and talk about their products. We also offer customer consults by appointment. We sell three different allergy tests and guide people on what foods to choose once results are received. Our in-store events include Pup Latte Saturdays, Tea Party and Pictures with Snoopy, just to name a few. 

Sturm: Yes, we have seen an impact in our sales from the internet, but not so much from big-box and mass retailers. We don’t look to compete with them as we aim to stock as minimal as possible what you might find in grocery or mass. I can’t say that we don’t stock anything now, since several companies have given up on the independents and headed for the mass, but those brands are either gone from our stores or special-order items only. We look to carry products that have similar brand and company philosophies as ourselves, quality standards and some sort of exclusivity.

PPN: Have you launched or improved an e-commerce option for your customers? If so, how is your online business going for you?

Conison: This year, we did some work on our site to make it better reflect the shop’s odd charm. We have long toyed with putting together an e-commerce site. If competing with Walmart and the pet-oriented boxes is no fun, imagine online as a bazaar with literally thousands of co-equal competitors and no good roadmap and the large pet-oriented boxes are there as well. We have a very cool site blocked out. We don’t have any kind of plan, cool or otherwise, to get people to it. Until that emerges, why spend the time and resources?

Guinn: Yes, we hired someone to add all our products to our online store. Products are being added daily, and every day we are getting more and more online orders. We ship for free over $99, and we offer local delivery within 20 miles of each of our five locations. I just hired a designer to make a whiteboard about our online store and local delivery. It should be done soon! 

Mack: We have an online store with our website. It’s there, it’s working, but we’re not pushing it just yet. That would require another person to handle more of it, maybe in 2019.

Romano: We haven’t launched e-commerce yet, but plan to possibly in 2019.

Shelaske: No e-commerce store at this time or probably ever.

Sturm: We did launch an e-commerce site for 2018, and business has been tremendous! We exceeded our sales goals and are already on track to double or even triple in growth for 2019. 

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