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Business Builder: How Pet Retailers Prospect for Gold

Posted: May 7, 2013, 7 p.m. EST

Expand clientele with savvy marketing, steady effort and shrewd timing.
By Kathleen M. Mangan

No pet retailer can ever take for granted that new customers will magically replace those who move, choose to shop elsewhere or no longer own pets, which is why actively attracting and retaining new customers is every bit as vital as nurturing your loyal customer base. Devoting the time, mental energy and money to devising a winning marketing strategy aimed at inviting fresh faces into your store is a worthy and necessary challenge.

The return on that investment is attractive. Curt Jacques, co-owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., figures his typical customer visits the store once every three weeks and spends an average of $52, which adds to $9,360 in sales over a 10-year period, the average pet lifespan. Each new customer can represent a similar revenue stream, but you need a solid marketing strategy to secure that new clientele, said Jacques.

Prospecting for Gold
Traditional media outlets, such as TV, have proven successful in reaching new clients. Courtesy of Dave's Soda & Pet City

Of course, there is no one best method to ensure new customers will walk through the door. Local market trends and customer preferences and habits will determine what works best for individual stores, said Tom Shay, owner of Profits Plus in St. Petersburg, Fla.

How Pet Retailers Chat Up, Find Out
Retailers suggest taking into account customers' demographics and, if possible, conversing with them about what they read, watch and listen to, and when. This helps store owners match their findings with appropriate local marketing outlets.

Also, retailers should ask customers how they heard about the store and then take advantage of that information, said Rick Preuss, co-owner of Preuss Pets in Lansing, Mich. By doing just that, he discovered a third of his customers learned about the store simply by driving past. Capitalizing on that knowledge, he had the facade painted with a massive reef and bird mural, and he added a large waterfall feature in front. 
Pet Retailers Always Gain New Customers by Word-of-Mouth
However, many store owners agreed the Holy Grail for gaining loyal new customers remains word-of-mouth referrals. It's easier to sell to first-time visitors when they've come in based on the recommendation of a friend, pet professional or some other referral, because there's a certain implied level of trust, Jacques said.

Although referrals can happen naturally over time, some retailers have developed successful referral programs to jump-start the process.

Russ Herman, owner of Pet$aver Healthy Pet Superstore, which has two locations in Rochester, N.Y., developed a referral program targeting adoptive pet owners. He provides local animal shelters and rescue organizations $10 gift certificates that can be redeemed by the new owners when they enroll in the store's rewards program. New customers also receive $5 gift certificates each month for three more months to encourage return visits.

Prospecting for Gold
Hand out tokens for a free pet treat to help draw in new customers. Courtesy Best Buddies Dog Boutique & Bakery
An eye-opening 40 percent of these new customers return in subsequent months to use their $5 gift certificates, Herman said. Given the program's success, he's adding additional certificates for a free dog wash, a free engraved dog tag and manufacturer coupons.

Alan Ronay, owner of Best Buddies Dog Boutique & Bakery in St. Petersburg, Fla., gives a stack of tokens to referral sources, such as Realtors and dog trainers, and encourages them to hand out the tokens to clients as a bonus. Each round plastic token carries the store?s contact information and is good for a free gourmet cookie from the store's bakery.

"I found giving a tangible item works best," Ronay said. "Discounts seem too abstract."

But these programs work only if someone actually makes the referral. As an incentive, Herman offers pet shelters and rescue groups a $10 credit for every pet owner they refer. In addition, 5 percent of the adoptive pet owner's purchases are credited to the local pet charity they choose.

To encourage referrals from other pet-related businesses, such as groomers, doggie daycare providers and veterinary office staff, Herman offers a professional discount card for 10 percent off all pet supplies, plus an additional 10 percent off WellPet products.

Pet Retailers Resort to Traditional Media to get the Word Out
Some retailers have found great success using good-old traditional media: television, radio, newspapers and direct mailings.

"Cable television is our biggest marketing expense," said Dave Ratner, president of Dave's Soda & Pet City, which has seven stores in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut. "We like it best. It's inexpensive, and it's a great way to show the store."

Prospecting for Gold
Host community events or holiday photo shoots to help increase your store?s visibility. Courtesy of West Lebanon Feed & Supply

For the past 16 years, Ratner has hosted a weekly half-hour live TV program shot in the store. During the program Ratner talks to customers and offers solutions to their pet-related problems. Shows are also posted on YouTube and linked to his website. Ratner pays for the airtime, but he said the boost in sales and new business makes the expense worthwhile.

Preuss said he has seen similar results with his weekly Q&A radio program. He doesn't pay for the airtime but is one of the show's ad sponsors.

"It gives us name exposure and credibility, and is valuable for long-term branding," he said, adding that he posts links to his shows on his website for greater exposure.

Circulars are the medium of choice for Speck's Pet Supply Store, which has eight locations in Indianapolis, Ind. Manager Karen Smith said a local newspaper service distributes the circulars once a month, nine months a year to all homes in zip codes selected by the store.

"It's an inexpensive way to get the name out," Smith said, adding that manufacturers often are willing to offer financial support for circulars. "We always see a bump in foot traffic and sales."

Jacques' 12-page, multicolor newsprint flier is printed and inserted into his local newspaper for 13 cents each (design is done in-house). The 40,000-copy-run circular is inserted eight times a year, always on a Wednesday, and is typically the only flier in the paper that day, he said.

Instead of display advertising, Jacques recommended transaction ads, which are small blocks of copy on the back page of the first section.

Marketing Money
"We see five times the response compared to display ads, and it's cheaper," he said, adding that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the best days to run transaction ads.

Another tried-and-true technique is direct marketing. Ratner uses Val-Pak in certain communities, and Jacques uses direct mail postcards with a coupon.

"There's so much you can do to stimulate passion and bring people to your store," Jacques said. "It just takes energy to make it as contagious as you can."

Pet Retailers Always Find New Customers by Looking Good Online
New media--website optimization, Facebook, Twitter and email--offers their own unique advantages. Bob DeStefano, president of SVM E-Marketing Solutions in Somerset, N.J., said customers' shopping and buying habits make ignoring online marketing pure folly.

"Studies show 80 percent of consumers begin to shop digitally, decide what to purchase and then decide where they will purchase it, either online or at a store," he said. "If your store doesn't pop up in the search, you're at a disadvantage." 

DeStefano suggested retailers pay particular attention to search engine optimization and provide an array of quality content, such as educational materials, videos and virtual store tours. He also suggested retailers optimize their sites for mobile devices. By next year more people will access the Internet with mobile devices than with computers, he said.

An important point, he continued, is that results from online marketing can be measured much easier than with traditional media. Google Analytics, which is free to use, can provide specific information about a store's online customers to help fine tune its marketing strategy, he said.

Retailers said that although Facebook and Twitter can be useful for engaging existing customers, neither drives new business. DeStefano suggested that instead retailers use social media to draw people to their websites.

Ultimately, the goal of new-customer marketing is to motivate pet owners to come into a store and provide their email address so the retailer can continue the relationship, Ratner said.

"It's far more expensive to continually get new customers than to get existing customers to come back," he said.


Industry Voices
What low- to no-budget marketing techniques do you recommend to bring in new customers?

"Call your local talk radio station, and offer to be a guest as a pet nutrition expert on a call-in show. Write a press release for local newspapers about something new, an issue in the news or an industry trend, and offer your opinion, advice or solution. It will get picked up if it's newsy. Or submit an interesting photo with a caption featuring a local who won your latest contest. Post events and sales on Craig's List. All of these tactics are free."
--Dave Ratner, Dave's Soda & Pet City, Western Mass.

"Go to local dog parks and hand out coupons to get pet owners into your store. They always buy more than the coupon item; 70 percent of purchases are impulse decisions. Host a pet health fair to establish your expertise; ask your vendors for samples to give away; hold a drawing for a $50 gift card so you can capture email addresses."
--Russ Herman, Pet$aver Healthy Pet Superstore, Rochester, N.Y.

"When charities ask for products they can auction off at fundraising events, we donate an in-store birthday party to get the winner into the store. We like to get kids excited about pets, because they get their parents to bring them in to see the animals, so we present educational programs in the schools and take live animals to children's events."
--Rick Preuss, Preuss Pets, Lansing, Mich.

"Use your vendors to maximize your marketing budget. Ask manufacturers, distributors and reps to support campaigns, advertising and events, and to supply coupons and free samples. They have funds; you might as well get your chunk."
--Karen Smith, Speck's Pet Supply Store, Indianapolis, Ind.

"Be sure to put out signage on the road in front of your store for sales and special events; try a sandwich board with balloons to grab attention. Make it so your events support a local non-profit organization so customers feel good about shopping with your store."
--Curt Jacques, West Lebanon Feed & Supply, West Lebanon, N.H.

"We go to a lot of community events and hand out treat samples from our bakery and tokens to redeem in the store for a free dog cookie. It brings in more store traffic than other marketing tactics."
--Alan Ronay, Best Buddies Dog Boutique & Bakery, St. Petersburg, Fla.



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