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Pet Dealer Focus: Shelving Strategy


Adapting horizontal showcase space can grow sales.

By Karen Shugart

The key to successful in-store shelving is adaptation: adapting to customers’ needs, to market trends and store-specific needs.

That’s the word from retailers and industry experts, who say that this sometimes-neglected area can play a vital role in boosting independent store owners’ profits.

“It’s something that they should definitely pay more attention to,” said Steven Di Orio, marketing manager for Handy Store Fixtures, a manufacturer in Newark, N.J. “It’s hard to put a numerical value on it. The right store layout can mean profitability or failure.”

But what works for each retailer depends on a multitude of factors, retailers said, including store size, high-volume products merchandised and how much is budgeted for shelving.

“Large and small spaces present very different but equally complex challenges,” said Laura Clark, co-owner of Wylie Wagg, a retailer with several locations in northern Virginia. “Typically, we try to make small spaces larger and big spaces smaller.”

In practice, Clark said, this often means constructing—or deconstructing—walls. It may also mean moving fixtures to create better walkways or giving the illusion of walls.

Credit: Courtesy of Petagogy

“The key is to remember that customers do not linger in places that are uncomfortable—and that oddly large spaces can be as unpleasant as spaces that are too small,” Clark said.

With fewer than 700 square feet of retail space, Petagogy, a retailer in Pittsburgh, must be creative, said owner Cole Wolfson.

“Because our store is small, we have to find ways to use every nook and cranny,” he said.

Wolfson tries to position products that make up a large portion of sales, such as dog food, prominently, but not to the detriment of other items that generate more profit per transaction. The store displays 5-pound and 15-pound bags up front, along with signs that indicate larger sizes are in the back.

“This strategy would not work in larger stores, as it requires an associate to be able to always see the customers and identify them immediately when they need something,” Wolfson said. “But in our store it works. Instead of using a majority of our space to display large bags of food, we can instead use the space for high-margin products.”

“We have not seen a decrease in food sales since implementing this strategy,” he added. “In fact, we’ve seen growth. We believe this is because an associate engages with each customer about food, which gives the associate and the customer an opportunity to talk about other products—or even other foods—while the customer is being helped.”

Many stores struggle with making the best use of their real estate. Janene Zakrajsek, owner of Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar, a retailer with three locations in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., recommends that retailers maximize product presentation in small spaces by using slat wall.

“Slat wall is the most universal for merchandising product in a hanging presentation, and when done neatly and organized by product type, is very consumer-friendly,” Zakrajsek said. “To mix it up, we suggest using slat wall accessories to create feature display shelving as an alternative presentation—you can use this type of display to highlight the wearability of a product, such as fashion collar/harness, spotlight a new product, or to create a mini ‘lifestyle’ vignette. We favor acrylic shelves for a lighter floating, more modern feeling.”

Regardless of how large or small a space is, resist the urge to place shelving too high or too low, said Clark.

“Customers typically won’t shop above 6 feet, for instance, so we never use shelving in higher areas for small pickup items or food,” Clark said. “Instead, we reserve those spaces for easy-to-spot items, like carriers and soft crates, or for overflow of inventory that is already displayed elsewhere.”
Also, the eye-level area is reserved for certain prime products, Clark said.

“New products always get eye-level placement to ensure they have a fair chance of attracting our customers’ attention,” Clark said. “Beyond that, we like to place products that most clearly reflect our brand at eye level. U.S.-made, organic and/or local products get prime placement. Higher margin items and high-turn items also get premium placement.”

Another way to maximize shelving means looking at every inch of a store as potential selling space, Clark said.

“In one of our stores, we turned a closet into a new bird and small animal mini-department,” Clark said. “With that one decision, a tiny space that had generated no revenue per square foot allowed us to introduce new product lines that added to our profits.”

For retailers who want to get great fixtures and shelving while not breaking the bank, Clark recommends working out an agreement with manufacturers.

“Food manufacturers will often pay for new shelving as long as their products will be guaranteed a certain amount of square footage on the shelves,” Clark said.

This is an underutilized partnership, she said.

“Lots of small businesses miss a great opportunity to save money because they don’t know about a common shelving practice,” Clark said. “Business owners simply need to ask if a manufacturer is willing to extend this incentive.”

Some retailers try to repurpose used shelving, said Di Orio, but trying to adapt shelving from a liquidated Borders or Linens ‘n’ Things won’t meet their needs. He recommends retailers speak with a professional store planner first.

“It’s critical to have the right layout and design,” said Di Orio, who sells mostly to independents. “That whole process is free usually.”

He urges retailers to use moveable endcaps that “give them an option to move things around, see what and what doesn’t work,” as well as brightly colored shelving. The latter, he said, is an increasingly popular way for retailers to stand out.

“Some even use their own logo,” Di Orio said. “The goal is to use a different color other than the customary white that you see in any store—yellow or red, something that will really highlight the products for the customer walking into the store.”

Independents would be well-advised to keep abreast of what their big-box counterparts are doing, said Landon Phillips, director of client services at Information Planning & Management Service Inc., a retail consulting firm in Sterling, Va., that generally deals with national chains.

“I would be silly if I weren’t going into PetSmart and Petco and looking at what they were doing about shelf edges,” Phillips said.

Regardless of overall layout and fixturing, experts recommend retailers remember finer details. One shelving flaw Phillips sometimes spots is pricing visibility.

“If they don’t see a price on the shelf, rarely do they take the time to ask about the price and then buy it,” Phillips said. “Anything that you can do to keep the pricing integrity on the shelf is going to affect sales.”

Internal know-how can also be an asset to shelving design, retailers said. One of Wolfson’s business partners, Ben Huber, built several shelving spaces around the store: tiered shelves that wrap around the front counter, tiered tables for a treat table and standalone peg boards for hanging items.

“All of these items were custom-made for the space, so they always fit perfectly, and the raw materials are fairly inexpensive,” Wolfson said. “If we would have had to go out and find display solutions for our store it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.”

Pussy and Pooch was developed with a “very specific design aesthetic in mind” and relies upon almost entirely custom-made store fixturing, said Zakrajsek.

“Custom fixturing allows you to create the functionality and flexibility you want in a display cabinet or shelving fixture, in addition to creating a look that is unique to your brand experience,” Zakrajsek said. “When store planning, we create shopping ‘zones’ and then the fixtures are individually designed to function accordingly to the products that will be stocked/displayed on them.”

Flexibility is important when making purchasing decisions, Clark said.

“Buy shelving displays that offer lots of flexibility in anticipation of inevitable changing needs,” Clark said. “Shelves should always be adjustable and ideally should offer the option of shelves, hooks, or a combination of both.”

Flexibility also gives retailers opportunities to keep their stores fresh and interesting.

“Customers oftentimes fall into a routine and head directly for the thing they need and will bolt past a great display or new products without even looking,” Zakrajsek said. “For example, something as simple as moving our entire treat bar from one end of the store to the other created a shock with many regular clients.”

The move, she said, “gave them a reason to slow down, look around and enjoy.”

Shifting shelving and store layout also helps shape customer opinion of the business, Clark said.

“Maintaining dynamic product placement or shelving configuration gives customers the impression that a business is evolving and current,” Clark said.

Wolfson said he notices that customers sometimes can’t even remember the name of products they’re used to buying once the products are moved. Change must be balanced, he and other retailers cautioned.
“The line between too much change and too little is a fine one,” Clark said. “Too much change can frustrate customers and send them to a competitor who seems more consistent.”


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