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Business Builder: Teach Your Customers Well

Posted: October 22, 2013, 9:45 a.m. EDT


Providing quality education to consumers is perhaps the greatest advantage independent retailers have over big-box competitors.

By Cheryl Reeves

How can today’s small, independent pet store owners best compete with the likes of volume-empowered mass retailers that are expanding pet product aisles, as well as online competitors, such as Wag.com, that offer the convenience of delivery and lower prices?

One word: Education. 

Expertly guiding consumers through the rapidly evolving product wonderland of specialized diets, supplements, enrichment toys, greener and cleaner substrate options, digitized habitat climate-control devices and more can be a small retailer’s ticket to higher profits and enduring customer loyalty.

This ability to enjoy quality face time with each customer is the number-one advantage in helping animals achieve longer, happier lives, as well as a means of ramping up bottom line profits—if the retailer is on top of trends and understands how to communicate them, and builds an outstanding group of expert sales associates.

Customer Education
Customer education is one of retailers’ greatest advantages over big-box stores. Loyal Biscuit Co.

According to industry insiders, a strong focus on customer education, for both the short and long term, helps retail businesses carve a profitable niche within the diverse and growing pet retail industry.

"The pet specialty channel is viewed as the unequivocal expert on pet food and pet products,” said Michael Johnson, vice president of marketing and information for Chuck Latham Associates Inc., a pet sales, marketing and retail agency based in Parker, Colo. "Consumers shopping this channel expect the retailer and the store associates to provide meaningful and necessary information regarding the health and well-being of their pets. Thus, customer education becomes a key draw, a key differentiator for pet specialty versus the food, drug and mass channels where this expertise does not exist.”

Jusak Yang Bernhard, co-owner of the Georgia-based three-store chain TailsSpin, said customer education is one of the cornerstones of his business.

"In a landscape filled with big-box discount stores, we know that in order to survive and thrive, our team members need to think of themselves as teachers, with our customers as their students,” he said.

For example, said Bernhard, first-time shoppers often come into one of his stores because they are experiencing issues with their pets, such as itching and hot spots, excessive pulling on the leash or not wanting to eat their food.

"We have to assess the problems and suggest solutions,” Bernhard said.

Indeed, according to interviewed retailers, the best educational strategies encompass short- and long-term customer needs.

"Education plays the biggest part in our day-to-day business and overall vision,” said Lorin Grow, the owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif. "We aren’t here just to ‘sell’ anybody anything. You can’t keep a customer that way.”

Grow said her philosophy is to partner with her clients in the care of their pets.

"In order to do that, education of what, how and why is a requirement central to every transaction,” she said. "Why this product, what does it do, how will it work, and what results are to be expected?”

Use Customer Feedback to Your Advantage
Feedback—positive and negative—can be a valuable source of information that when used to create a better business model can keep a store current in today’s quickly changing marketplace.

"We are constantly listening to our customers so that we understand and are able to meet their needs,” said Susan Parker, executive vice president and COO at Cutter’s Mill, a five-store chain with locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. "We have not changed our business model per se, but we have tweaked it based on customer comments and feedback. We have comment cards in the stores, and store associates forward these to the executive team at the close of business on a daily basis.”

Alternatively, store owners should be discerning about what advice they take from customers, said retailers.

Andrew Kim, founder and managing partner of Healthy Spot, which has three locations in the Los Angeles area, said that while customer feedback is the lifeline of the business, it is also important not to take the easy way out and only carry products that customers think they want for their dog.

"We try to find a healthy balance to carry products that customers want but that also meet the strict requirements to be put on the shelves in our stores,” said Kim.

Industry Voices
Does customer education significantly influence and drive trends in the pet marketplace?

"Without knowledgeable and caring small independent business owners recommending great products for customers with dogs and cats, the pet industry would be a ship without a rudder. We are the ones who gently guide the masses to better health by researching, recognizing and studying the effectiveness of trends like raw feeding, natural flea control, honest supplementation and the merits of freeze-dried food. Without small independent pet store owners taking the time to share accurate information with customers, the growth of many healthy trends for dogs and cats would not take place.”—Chip Sammons, owner of Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore.


"I find that an educated employee has a great impact on the retail floor. It is truly worth the investment in training that retailers and manufacturers make in these individuals.”—Susan Parker, executive vice president/COO of Cutter’s Mill with stores in New Jersey and Pennsylvania


"Customer education drives trends so much more than many manufacturers would like to acknowledge. We do seminars every 45 to 60 days or so that we call our Continuing Education Seminars. We do them for free, open to the public, and cover different topics from nutrition (our most popular) to holistic health to over-vaccination/wellness to training for humans and more. Clients love them and tell many others about them, which allows us access to more people we get to educate and help—which means we get to affect the overall long-term well-being of their animals.”—Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif.

Grow said her store’s business model is always evolving, and that customer feedback plays a large role in the direction of her business.

"Who we were when we opened 10 years ago is so vastly different from who we are today,” she said. "And in that 10-year span, we changed several times. Sometimes those changes were subtle; sometimes they were major. Listening to feedback, watching trends, feeling the directional changes and allowing them to flow ever forward naturally—rather than forcing the business to be what you originally thought it should be—all of this is key to growth and development, and fitting into the community you serve.”

TailsSpin’s Bernhard said that feedback from customers, as well as from discussions among the store’s management staff, sales associates, product manufacturers and distributors, contributed greatly toward establishing his company’s mission and culture.

"From these discussions, we made the decision to focus on being a hypoallergenic pet store. We stopped carrying several products, especially anything with corn, wheat or soy, and brought in new offerings to complement our existing hypoallergenic inventory,” Bernhard said, adding that the process took about eight months to accomplish and turned out to be a successful strategy.

Johnson of Chuck Latham Associates suggested that the best way to get feedback is to simply ask for it, whether it’s through the use of a comment jar, online surveys, social media or comment boards on review/ratings websites.

"I personally like the idea of the manager on duty meeting and greeting customers and pets (both always by name) as they enter or leave the store,” Johnson said. "This gives the manager the opportunity to ask, ‘How are we doing?’ and ‘Is there any way I can make this visit or your next visit particularly memorable?’”

He added that no matter whether the feedback is positive or negative, always let the shopper know their comments are welcome.

Investing in Quality Sales Associates
Customer education, at its best, helps a retailer increase loyalty and shopper frequency, and enables the retailer to upsell to a higher-quality, higher-ring product, Johnson said, adding that a well-trained sales staff is crucial.

"Store interactions should be as personal and warm as possible,” he said. "The engagement becomes a natural conversation with the store associate seeking to understand while actively listening to the shopper, then asking gently probing questions to better ascertain the situation and need. This dialogue serves only to befriend, assist and satisfy, not to sell or pontificate, and becomes a collaborative journey between the associate and the customer to find the ideal solution. This is the ‘sales pitch’ that the consumer will appreciate and remember most positively.”

Healthy Spot’s Kim said he believes every customer should be treated individually; there is no blanket, cookie-cutter way of building a relationship.

"We value authenticity and believe our customers value this, too,” he said. "Every staff is different and every customer is as well, so it would not be possible to create an authentic connection in a standardized process. What we train for, and encourage, is a standard of excellence achieved through a sales associate’s own unique style.”

Bernhard said his staff is strongly encouraged to explore Pet Store Pro and to become certified in every aspect of the industry.

"Our goal is to have every single staff member complete Pet Store Pro’s intensive tests,” he said. "We also regularly ask each of our manufacturers to schedule time to explain their products to our staff members. Further, throughout the year we hold seminars with trainers, groomers and veterinarians to increase staff knowledge of the industry.”

At Furry Face, there are policies, guidelines and directives in place to optimize quality education and customer service standards. However, said Grow, it’s a mistake to take the stance that "the customer is always right.”

"We will do everything we can to make someone happy and better informed, but sometimes that isn’t ever going to happen with a particular customer here and there,” she said. "It’s important to recognize that sometimes you aren’t going to be a good fit with that customer, and vice versa, and that’s OK. Providing excellent services, expertise, products and information should always be the focus of what the customer should expect of us.”

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