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Small Mammal Marketplace: Plant Seeds of Education for Future Small Animal Grooming Product Sales

Posted: Sept. 18, 2012, 7:55 p.m. EDT

Marketing small mammal grooming products to new owners pays off in the long run.
By Karen Shugart

Shampoos, dust baths and brushes are not likely to be the first product a small mammal hobbyist grabs from retail shelves. That’s why retailers say that marketing these products takes more than a bit of retail savvy.

The key is to know the right time to make a sale, according to retailers, and rarely is there a better time than during the initial sale of a pet.

Small mammal grooming products can be a tough sell
Small mammal grooming products can be a tough sell. Courtesy of Sherri L. Collins/Pet Stop Warehouse
“If you don’t point them out to people, they’re just going to sit on the shelf,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa. “In your initial sales presentation of the animal, include grooming products, and then you’ll be much more likely to sell them. They’re not something that’s going to jump off of the shelf by themselves.”

That advice can plant the seed for future sales, Herron said.

“These products are a tough sell,” Herron said. “Talk about them in your initial sales presentation to educate the customer that they’re out there, and if they have the need, we have them.”

Sometimes customers want to get everything at once, which also makes the initial sale of the pet an ideal time to introduce to grooming products, said Amy Wombough, store manager of Mark’s Ark in Lake Worth, Fla.

“A lot of our customers come in and they want everything all at once,” she said. “We get them the basics and show them the add-ons. Nine out of 10 times, once you put the add-ons in their hands, they’ll buy it.”

These days, many customers come in already armed with Web-gleaned knowledge about the care of a new pet, she said.

“They pretty much know what they want,” Wombough said. “Maybe 10 years ago they would come in and ask a lot of questions and there would be much more of an actual sales or selling technique, but with the Internet, a lot of my customers, especially a lot of the ones who have kids, do their research.”

People come in knowing they want their ferret clean and fresh-smelling and that products exist to help make that happen, she said.

Industry Voices
What is the most important advice you can offer for growing product sales?

“Make sure the grooming products are near your animals. Use them yourself so you can show people how to use them. When they see that you use them in the store, they’ll ask why you use them, and you can explain to them the benefits.”
--Dan Lavallee, a manager of Pet World in Natick, Mass.

“Try to build a rapport with customers so that when Joe comes in, you know he needs one portion of crickets for his whatever. It’s personal touch.”
--Tom Herron, owner of Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws in Harleysville, Pa.

“I don’t carry all the products because I have PetSmart’s back wall literally against my store and Petco. is a block down the street. If I can’t beat them, I don’t carry it.”
--Rick Millspaugh, a manager of Pet Kingdom in San Diego, Calif.

“Educate yourself and your employees on the products that you carry. If you don’t know how to use it, how will anyone else know how to use it?”
--Jeremy Young, a sales associate at Mark’s Ark in Lake Worth, Fla.

“That’s something they automatically ask about,” Wombough said. “If there’s anything that we have to add on, it’s not so much grooming products as it is supplements and treats.”

An informed sales staff remains necessary, retailers said, because many customers still need a great deal of education on proper grooming and care techniques. Though many U.S. households have small mammals–5 million in 2010 compared to 3.6 million in 1990, according to the American Pet Products Association–many people are unfamiliar with the day-to-day handling of ferrets, hamsters and other small pets.

“That’s the biggest part of our job,” Herron said. “We stress to our employees that we’re not just trying to sell them stuff, we’re trying to sell them stuff that will be helpful for their success and make keeping their pets easier.”

Futhermore, Dan Lavalle said that some big-box stores do not offer the expertise the hobby demands–leaving independent retailers with a void to fill.

“You’re going to give more education to them now because the big-box stores aren’t doing that as much,” Lavalle said. “People will go to the independent retailer to get a little more information. Generally, we can answer most of the questions, or we can find out the answer for them if we don’t know.”

Without proper instruction, new hobbyists are more likely to have disappointing experiences with their new pets, Herron said. Part of such information-sharing involves setting reasonable expectations.

“If you’re going to use a ferret deodorizer, make sure they know it’s a temporary fix,” Herron said. “That way they’re not disappointed in the product. If they have the right information, they’re more likely to succeed and to buy more stuff.”

One way to address customers is to focus on the practical, Natick said. Rabbits might need grooming because they can get blockages if they ingest too much hair, he said. And starting the process at a young age might make such maintenance easier.

“The animal won’t be afraid of it, and it makes it a little bit better that way,” Natick said. “You’ll make care of the animal a little bit easier, and it keeps the kids involved because they can learn how to brush the animal.”

Education can help customers focus on long-range goals, said Jeremy Young, a sales associate at Mark’s Ark. While topical odor-control products might yield quick results, a product that’s placed in a ferret’s food may be more effective, he said.

“It might take a couple of days, but it works better than perfume,” he said. “If you start using it, you’re not going to walk in your house and say, ‘Oh, I have ferrets,’ That’s a harder sale. Most people want it done right now, but that’s just not the most effective way.”

Small mammal grooming products
Independent stores should pay close attention to the price point of small mammal products. Courtesy of Katie Ingmire/Anaheim Feed & Pet Supply
Customers might not heed such advice at first, he cautioned.

“If they don’t listen to us the first time, they’ll come back in a few weeks and say, ‘Oh, I think you’re right,’” Young said.

Customers’ reluctant spending habits can be important considerations, retailers said. Rick Millspaugh, the manager of Pet Kingdom in San Diego, Calif., recommended that independent stores pay close attention to the price point of the items they stock–especially for sales of small mammal products.

“There are a lot of products out there, but for somebody with pet rats, they’re not going to spend $9.99 for waterless shampoo for their rats,” Millspaugh said. “You spend more money on dogs than you do on small animals.”

Customers will pay–modestly–for services that make the hobby easier, retailers noted. Natick said his store associates offer to clip the nails of small mammals–an added service for owners who may be skittish about doing it themselves.

“It’s an easy opportunity to sell the brush,” Natick said.

Maybe they’ll be encouraged to buy a brush when their pet, anxious about the clipping, begins shedding, Natick said.

Or they’ll see that the task isn’t so difficult, and they’ll buy clippers themselves, said Herron, whose store also offers such a service.

“It’s a way to make a little bit of money, not exactly selling a product but selling a service,” Herron said. “We’re educating the customer on how to care for the animal.”

That educational process, from the purchase of a pet through its lifespan, is vital to establishing the kind of trustworthy reputation that reaps benefits to the bottom line.

“A lot of people trust that we’re going to give them the right advice because we take the time [to educate customers],” Wombough said. “We have a pretty good reputation for being an educational store. Take the time to actually sit down and explain to customers what is appropriate.”


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