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When Online Takes Off

Posted: August 16, 2013, 12:15 p.m. EDT

Brick-and-mortar Natural Pet Market quickly grew beyond the Web.

By Angela Pham

For many mom-and-pop pet retailers, an online presence doesn’t become prominent until the physical location does first. After all, a brick-and-mortar local market can serve as a test launch pad before expanding to a national or international online consumer base.

Natural Pet Market of Wheaton, Ill., did things a little differently. With a focus on ecologically friendly and holistic foods, supplements and supplies, the online store opened in August 2002 at /redirect.aspx? when web developer and founder Tracy Werner started learning about the benefits of natural nutrition for her golden retriever, who was diagnosed with cancer.

Natural Pet Store
Natural Pet Market strives to offer holistic solutions for pet owner concerns. Courtesy of Natural Pet Market.

"When I started the online site, I wanted to test the waters,” Werner said. "But brick and mortar was always the goal, because there was never anything locally like it.”

In February 2003, Werner expanded her presence offline, knowing there were people in her area with a need or interest in holistic pet products.

Now, the store features the Wheaton area’s largest selection of supplements that Werner has seen, and it specializes in food for dogs and cats with food sensitivities.

Yet Natural Pet Market’s mantra reaches well beyond nutritional health.

"Being holistic is not only about nutrition or stuff we put in[to] our dogs and cats, but also keeping away from lawn chemicals, not overvaccinating, obviously proper nutrition, keeping their minds and bodies in tune with each other and keeping them trained,” Werner said.

Both online and off, the store favors products made in the USA and takes that preference further by stocking many locally produced goods. Some of the chews Natural Pet Market carries are from nearby Wisconsin, some raw frozen bones are sourced from a nearby town and the antler chews and dehydrated treats are procured from northern Illinois, she said.

The store’s mission statement is made easier with the help of Werner’s three employees, one of which is a former dog trainer and another a veterinary technician, all of whom came from pet-loving families.

Growing Up
The current location spans about 2,000 square feet and is situated within a busy shopping center that recently underwent a big facelift, and it’s near a Whole Foods, which helps draw in eco-conscious consumers.

There’s plenty of parking space outside and lots of space within the store, although it wasn’t always this way. Natural Pet Market’s first physical store was just 750 square feet, until Werner moved two years later in 2005 to avoid "bumping into my customers so often,” she said.

Her website still brings in orders, and it’s served her business well. Some customers visit online first to browse the physical store before coming in; others order online late at night and request pickup at the store be ready the next day.

Going beyond a simple shopping cart, the website includes sections with helpful links, articles and an alphabetical breakdown of ingredients so people have resource support. It’s been that way since the beginning.

"These products, at that time in particular, were new and a little different,” Werner said. "People weren’t sure if they would work.”

To make sure customers are comfortable, she keeps her site full of resources and maintains a good return policy, showing that she stands by her products. It helps open customers up to trying new things that can benefit their animals, she said, adding that she is diligent about stocking a variety of price points, from Fromm Family Foods’ Gold line to its higher-priced Four-Star line, which is another company from nearby Wisconsin.

How Technology Can Bolster Business
Tracy Werner, owner of Natural Pet Market of Wheaton, Ill., knows a thing or two about the big role technology can play in a pet store business. Her store started out exclusively online but has since grown into a mature physical business. As a web developer herself, Werner offers some technology tips:
+ "We have a rewards program that is point based; once [customers] hit a certain amount of rewards, they get $10 for a purchase of $25 or more. … We actually switched over from a traditional punchcard system to tracking on a computer and made it much easier. The computer pops up and says you have a reward, which gives them a nice, warm fuzzy, which is awesome.”
+ "We’re really active on Facebook, and my Twitter automatically updates on Facebook when my Twitter does. No double-entry or neglecting one or the other. We have a Pinterest board and are not that active on it. "
+ "If I have a new product, I’ll take a photo of it and put it up [on Facebook]. Sometimes people have commented on the same day that they saw it online.”
+ We have a nice email list for newsletters periodically, two times monthly, to try to send out new product information, or if there’s a product recall, even if we don’t carry it.”
+ "We have a Yelp! listing and a bunch of viewers. I’m happy to say that most them are five stars, if not four stars.” —AP

Customers and Community
As a store owner for more than a decade, Werner has learned a lot about the business. She is committed to stocking foods with no wheat, corn or soy; overall, she is a big proponent of companies dedicated to the health and welfare of the animals they serve—those that stand behind their products, she said.

Werner stays aware of the market by talking to distributors and sales reps, as well as doing her own research in trade magazines to learn about new products. She’s a regular at the Backer show every fall, in addition to local shows, and hopes to attend SuperZoo in Las Vegas in July.

Beyond shopping, other opportunities exist for customers to get involved with the store. Natural Pet Market hosts fundraisers, such as those for Don’t Bully My Breed, a dog rescue organization, and a cause to help bring back a soldier’s deported cat. The store also hosts adoptions with other local rescues and donates a percentage of sales to a charity that helps trap, neuter and release feral cats. Werner plans to host more speakers in the future in addition to the seminars and animal intuitive readings regularly conducted at the store.

A donation jar sits prominently on the counter for rescues, and nearby is a big bin where people can put stuff they don’t want anymore; whether it’s cookbooks, video games, candles or pet-related—it’s free for the taking, Werner said. One of her employees came up with the donation-bin idea, and it’s stuck ever since.

The store décor brings a sense of community with rotating displays, seasonal decorations and a central bulletin board. Right now, the store’s spring display shows off grass-saving items, flea and tick products, and Thundershirts.

With speakers piping throughout the store, Werner is conscientious of what music she plays. Sometimes she plays CDs that are made especially for dogs, which she happens to sell at the store.

For more gift items, Natural Pet Market stocks pet-focused human novelties, such as greeting cards and a cruelty-free chocolate line for people called Rescue Chocolate, whose profits go to animal charities.

Keep ’Em Coming
Despite Werner’s advertising efforts in local newspapers, local magazines, national magazines, local radio spots and local mailers, she believes that "good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth” is the strongest seller for her store. Consumers often report learning about the store from their veterinarians, who refer them to certain products, or other stores will suggest Natural Pet Market if they don’t carry a particular supplement. Sometimes Werner hears of customers coming in after hearing about the store in a dog park.

"Truly, word-of-mouth is the key to my success,” she said.

Even as the recession dipped down and up, and Werner saw people sticking to lower-cost food or feeding kibble along with raw, she said business has been performing better than last year.

"We definitely don’t use high-pressure sales tactics,” Werner said. "We take everyone as an individual with their pets’ lifestyles and their ages, and what their problems are and their income.”

In fact, if a product is out of a customer’s price range, Werner tries to offer a DIY solution, such as adding water to a dog’s kibble to slow down its eating, instead of spending on a special food bowl.

It is face-to-face consumer tips like these that keep businesses thriving and growing, Werner said. Next up, she plans to expand the Natural Pet Market by knocking back a wall. <HOME>


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