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Business Builder: Community Outreach Benefits the Bottom Line

Posted: April 16, 2012, 4:15 p.m. EDT

Pet stores can build goodwill and gain customers through local projects and events.

Independent pet retailers generally report that, because they do business within a specific region or economic group, they find it beneficial to focus on engaging their communities. As a result, buzz builds up as customers respond and interest in social events grows, potentially helping business.

In early March, Melanie Dallas, owner of Sloppy Kisses pet store in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said she was already receiving calls from customers asking when her Yappy Hour events would start.

Although these dog socials don’t benefit a particular organization or cause, Dallas considers them a way for the store to spark community goodwill.

Dallas also commits to a variety of other community outreach events, including Halloween pet parades, selling dog chowder at a local Chowder Fest to benefit the American Cancer Society, and organizing a pet-friendly decal system for businesses that allow pets inside.

Dogs at Halloween event
Hosting holiday pet events, like a Halloween party, creates a sense of community.
“Any time we do an event with an entry fee, the proceeds go to a dog-affiliated organization,” Dallas said.

Saratoga Springs is a quaint Victorian town with a strong sense of community, Dallas added. That’s why she creates dog-related activities that piggyback on events such as the Halloween parade and Chowder Fest.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t dogs be included in events the town is known for?’” Dallas stated.

Endless Ideas
Knowing where to direct efforts may be difficult for some businesses, but others’ success can be instructive.

Animalerie Too Zoo, Inc., in Montreal, arranges events and fundraisers to benefit both Sun Youth—an organization that supports young people, homeless individuals and victims of fire—and also its local football team.

The store has sold logo-imprinted bags and held raffles to support the local community, said Sonia (last name withheld), an employee of the store.

Even though some of its fundraisers don’t support pet-related causes, it still makes sense to choose them, Sonia said.

“Lots of people have animals,” Sonia added.

Retailers reported they often focus on events that benefit local charities or organizations. Chuck and Don’s Pet Food Outlet, a business with 17 pet stores in Colorado and Minnesota, hosts a plethora of events to benefit a wide range of organizations, said Dana Andresen, director of operations for the company.

 “My model is, we are refusing to participate in the [economic slowdown]. If the pie is getting smaller, we’re going to get a bigger piece. We’re on the offense.”
—Russell Herman, owner of two Pet$aver Healthy Pet Superstores in the Rochester, N.Y. suburbs

These include adopting families on behalf of the Salvation Army, Adopt-a-Family Christmas program; Providing volunteer support to Feed My Starving Children; supporting Reading Education Assistance Dogs of Minnesota, by partnering dogs with kids to improve reading skills; Fulfilling pet-related wishes for kids with serious illnesses on behalf of Wishes and More.

Different ideas can target outreach in a variety of ways, with benefits for charities arising from sources other than the retailer’s direct efforts. Laura Bednarczyk, owner of Lulu and Luigi’s, a business with three stores in and around the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area, said one of the stores hosted a successful book signing with Suzann Yue, one of the authors of Snort’s Special Gift, a book about grieving for kids who’ve lost a pet. The author donated proceeds to the pet-related charity of her choice.

A Working Model
Putting energy into outreach may lead to reciprocal actions from the community and benefits for business.

Reach Out
Here are some ideas for creating successful community outreach projects, gleaned from industry participants’ suggestions and experiences.

1) Allow plenty of time to plan for the event after securing an agreement with a second participating organization. Make sure that organization plans to publicize the event to its membership.

2) Don’t forget to utilize social media, including the store’s internal email list, to advertise. Consider sending Constant Contact email blasts so potential attendees are qualified leads.

3) Make sure a partnering organization fits the store’s demographic or “psycho-grafic.” For example, if statistics show pet owners are often cognizant of their own healthy behaviors, this same group will likely want to hear an event speaker on the topic—even if it’s for them and not their dogs.

4) Consider requiring RSVPs to allocate proper space.

5) If pet owners can bring dogs to the event, consider having them sign waivers to protect the store.

6) Don’t over-commit. Stay rational.

“If you give back to the community, you end up getting back more than you put out,” said Amy Parsons, an animal trainer and president of Canine Creature Comforts in Malvern, Pa., suming up her philosophy about allocating store resources toward community events and fundraisers.

The reasons for reaching out to the local community are simple, according to Bob Negen, owner of WhizBang! Training in Grand Haven, Mich.

“That’s where the customers are,” Negen stated. “Local stores need local customers. You’re building buzz, doing good and getting new customers.”

However, choosing the right organizations to support is as important as the commitment to hosting community events and fundraisers, Parsons said, adding that numerous local organizations approach her routinely for support.

Being selective has its advantages. Parsons said she pays close attention to which local organizations retain good reputations and which don’t. She also likes working with breed-specific groups.

“They tend to be more organized,” said Parsons. “I’ve found they have a fairly dedicated volunteer base.”

The goal is to make sure pet store owners are seeing a return for their efforts. Barry Berman, founder of NexPet, a retailer co-op based in New York, said setting limits represents one way to ensure community outreach events remain successful.

“Stores should try to settle on ways of working with the local community that they can repeat frequently,” Berman stated.

Money and Management
Of course, such efforts can come with a substantial investment of time and energy. Retail stores utilize a variety of methods to manage the tough task of organizing events.

Utilizing an employee dedicated to orchestrating outreach efforts may make the most sense for some. Lulu and Luigi’s Bednarczyk hired the previous owner of Lulu and Luigi’s as a marketing director. Now an employee, the former owner dedicates her time solely to organizing and carrying out events and initiatives.

Pet store fundraiser to benefit pets in need
Many community events benefit a local animal-related non-profit.
Relying on other resources, such as family members or existing employees, may be an options for others. Sloppy Kisses’ Dallas jokingly calls her husband a one-man public relations and marketing department, and relies on him, herself and her kids to pull off events that support and bring the community together.

However stores choose to manage fundraisers and community outreach, Berman said one of the biggest mistakes they make is not allowing enough time to plan, publicize and execute events.

Establishing deadlines and keeping everything organized is a must, industry professionals said. Negen also stated that stores should create initiatives with a finite timeline in mind.

As far as allocating resources, Andresen said community support is part of Chuck and Don’s budgeting process and feel there’s no need to justify it. The business’ total contributions for 2011 totaled more than a quarter-million dollars.

In some cases, pet store owners put a lot of resourses into promoting outreach. Russell Herman, owner of Pet$aver Healthy Pet Superstore with two locations in Rochester, N.Y., created a community support program that might make some stores gasp.

A shopper can choose a local pet rescue that receives five percent of every purchase; Owners of adopted animals from a non-profit organization get a gift certificate to the store of 10 dollars. When they redeem it, Pet$aver donates another $10 back to the organization; Through its Responsible Pet Owners Club, Pet$aver customers get not only up to five ten-dollar certificates over five months: if they enroll in training classes they receive up to 25 dollars more in more certificates.

Herman initially set up the program so that customers receive up to $150, but found that number too high. But, even though he currently has $120,000 in gift certificates outstanding, he doesn’t see it as a liability, he said.

Keeping everything straight is another matter retailers have to consider in setting up such programs. Even though the paperwork he uses to ensure validity is cumbersome, Herman said, most people spend more than the gift certificate amount on each visit, and most become permanent customers.

“Even though it’s not an immediate return, it takes only one year to get the money back,” Herman added, stating the program also creates significant attention.

“It makes us the prime mover and shaker in the community when it comes to these initiatives,” he said.

A Step Further
After witnessing a huge increase in Italian mastiffs abandoned by dog-fighting rings, Canine Creature Comforts’ Parsons took community outreach a step further by creating a non-profit to serve this sector of dogs, called Big-Paws Big-Hearts Rescue.

Employees of Canine Creature Comforts work in the rescue shelter or in the store, depending on the day. To date, more than 100 dogs have been placed.

Parsons said it’s tough to stay rational and remember she can’t save every abandoned Italian mastiff. Any community outreach requires rational thought, she said.

“Stick to a plan that allows you to separate emotion from reality,” Parsons added.


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