Posted: Jan. 31, 2011
Pet store owners find new ways to reach customers and drive sales.
Social media and Internet-based market are all the rage. Business people hear about their power every day—news reports frequently discuss Facebook, Twitter, e-mail blasts and strategies for optimal Google search placement.
Meanwhile, pet retailers are hard pressed to find extra time to use these new marketing tools. Is a focus on this new wave of marketing worth the effort? Does it really build repeat business and reel in new customers?
Successful pet store owners across the country reported they believe it is and it does.
Susie Atherton, owner of Canine Creek Pet Wash & Boutique in Tehachapi, Calif., said she is committed to the idea of social media.
“In addition to bringing in new business, social media has strengthened the loyalty of regular customers, encouraging them to visit the store more often, and spend more each time they come in,” she said.
Other retailers echoed Atherton’s statement.
Many pet retailers are finding Facebook pages to be effective marketing tools.
“I think Facebook is exploding and I recommend it to all my clients,” said Leslie May, founder of Pawsiblemarketing.com, Johannthedog.com and Raiseagreendog.com. She calls Facebook “sticky,” meaning visitors who enjoy their online experience come back for more, she said.
However, experts believe misuse of Facebook backfires. Sue Negen, president of WhizBang! Training in Grandhaven, Mich. and author of “Marketing Your Retail Store in the Internet Age,” said she has recommendations for social media content: It must be useful, interesting, funny, solve a problem or offer a tip, and should always be new. Off-topic content works, too, such as inspirational quotes of the day.
Negan said products and promotions work fine on Facebook, but they shouldn’t represent a major focus.
Another, older technique also works: Retailers can get customers’ attention with funny photos. Daryl Conner, manager of Yankee Clipper Pet Grooming and Supplies Inc., based in Rockport, Maine, finds hilarious before-and-after grooming photos to entice newcomers to come into the store.
“People love to see pets,” Conner said. “We tell customers when their pets will be on Facebook. We get hundreds of hits because they tell all their friends.”
Simply posting pictures isn’t the only way to use Facebook’s image publishing facilities. May added that all kinds of photo-related contests draw people back again and again to Facebook sites, increasing page exposure and potentially leading to increased in-store activity.
Social media is a powerful tool for retailers, but there is also a danger of customers becoming overloaded. Dan Barton, owner of Hollywood Premiere Pets in Palm Desert, Calif., and founder of Splash and Dash, a franchised dog-washing business opportunity, found a way to avoid the annoyed response many people get when logging into e-mail to discover an abundance of what they consider junk.
Rather than use a traditional e-mail blast announcement, he uses in-store tracking to target customers, he said.
“If you send a cat food coupon or recall to a dog owner, it looks bad,” Barton said. “They see it as spam and they’ll unsubscribe.”
Collaboration with other local businesses may also be effective. Barton added that he shares targeted e-mails with a dry cleaner in the same shopping center. He said that because they share many of the same customers, it makes sense to send e-mails relating to both businesses, or encouraging customers to book a grooming appointment when they pick up their clean clothes.
Tips for Using Social Media
Many pet retailers report social media increases their sales. However, this new way to reach customers might backfire if not used effectively.
Here are tips, gathered from retailers, for capitalizing on Facebook and Twitter:
• Make sure to keep Facebook content updated and fresh. Otherwise it could have an adverse effect on business.
• When building a Facebook presence, make content that engages users—fun contests, educational tips, quotes of the day and similar items— first priority. If retailers tout products and promotions too much, they’re likely to lose regular visitors to the site.
• If using e-mail blasts, retailers should use point-of-sale tracking to target them toward what customers buy. For example, retailers shouldn’t send dog food recalls to customers who buy only cat products.
• Once retailers have an established relationship with customers, they should offer them the chance to receive tweets, and keep them short.
• Retailers will likely find it best to offer links to websites on their Facebook pages.
Although too many sales calls also turn off potential customers, Barton said he finds proper use of voice broadcasting--he calls it iBark--works, too. At the holidays, he sent a phone message to customers reminding them to book early with the option of a transfer to book on the spot. He also successfully uses a “book now to save on your next grooming appointment” broadcast, he said.
Various social web outlets can also help retailers get the word out about community involvement and outreach, aka “cause marketing,” potentially bolstering the bottom line. Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., sai he remains proud of one comment he often hears from customers: “I shop here because I like what you stand for.”
Donston posts updates on donations the store makes to causes in the store, as well as letters of thanks he receives.
“[This information] is in all my ads and everything I do,” he said.
While some customers read these boasts as marketing ploys, Donston said as long as stores back up their cause marketing with their actions, customers respond to it. As an example, he’s offered customers a discount when they bring in items for needy families.
The generated buzz is positive, and other retailers agreed regarding the tactic.
“I’ve found that cause marketing brings in the biggest return on investment,” Atherton said. “Rather than paying for traditional print and media advertising, we put more money into helping local pet rescues.”
A program Atherton calls 10/10/10 offers new pet parents a 10-percent discount if they shop within 10 days of adopting; the store then donates 10-percent of the purchase back to the rescue. One huge fringe benefit: no up-front costs.
Negen said local support represents one advantage small- and medium-sized stores have over big-box stores when it comes to cause marketing.
“Walmart can do cause marketing but not for a local high school band trip,” she said. “The big boxes can’t beat us on that.”
Outright charity, beyond involvement with social networking, is good for business, too. Claudia Gutierrez, COO of Doggie Style, a retailer with stores in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland, said her pet stores offer shelter dogs for adoption. About 85 percent of those who adopt spend money on their way home.
“And our customer retention rate is about 70 percent,” she said.
She also has an in-house vet. When news of the stabbing of an American bulldog broke, Doggie Style took in the dog—destined for euthanasia—and rehabbed it physically and emotionally.
News broke about the store’s mission to save the bulldog that employees named Hope, giving Doggie Style media press for its heroics. Customers also love the fact adoptees are kept in non-cage environments, said Gutierrez.
Giving back to customers as well as the community serves as another effective marketing technique. What Negen calls “The Rule of Reciprocity”—or “Givers Get”—guides her consulting work with clients. She stressed she’s not talking about coupons or birthday clubs, which limit customer choice.
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“The gesture of the gift is different,” Negen said. “And you don’t have to pay until the customer is in the store.”
She recommended looking for places where a store’s hot prospects hang out.
She also recommended that a gift certificate donation correlate with the store’s average sale. If an average sale is $20, and the cost of goods is 50 percent, a $10 gift equals the cost of profit only.
“You’ve acquired a customer at no cost,” she stated. “If you feel comfortable, you can go lower but that’s a good place to start.”
Other options exist, as well. Donston said he knows retailers who are afraid of frequent buyer programs, but he claims success with his. He offers customers cash if they visit a minimum of six times and spend a minimum amount each time. Because they often spend more than that minimum, he ends up winning.
“People say I’m crazy, but I’m not,” he said.
Several retailers find a mixed bag of marketing options works best. Gutierrez said she uses customer loyalty programs, educational e-newsletters, e-mail blasts and a gift card to those who sign up for e-mail offerings.
While Negen wrote a book about the Internet, she said she believes a blended marketing approach serves retailers best.
One marketing technique that trumps all others is customer service, Atherton said.
“The best marketing plan means nothing if you can’t deliver on your message,” she added.
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