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Business Builders: Brainstorming At Its Finest

Posted: April 17, 2014, 9:50 a.m. EDT

The "Idea Wall” at Backer Total Pet Expo sparked sharing best-practice marketing, merchandising and customer service/appreciation ideas.

By Keith Loria

Pet industry trade shows provide the perfect venue to research, network and determine bigger and better ways to improve customer service, rewards programs, employee training and much more.

At the 2013 Backer’s Total Pet Expo in Rosemont, Ill., more than 500 exhibitors and thousands of attendees brainstormed and exchanged ideas in the form of the "Idea Wall,” a 30-foot-long, paper-covered wall that served as a forum for sharing and spreading retail tips.

"When [retailers] registered, they received a form asking them to submit their best idea for the Idea Wall,” said Collette Fairchild, show director.

In order for the Idea Wall to pique the attention of passersby, an artist was on hand to add graphics, and colored markers made the whole thing pop.

"It went over really well, and we plan on doing it [at future shows],” Fairchild said. "I think it helps everyone. Both the retailers and exhibitors thought it was a great idea. It’s a way we can provide some education and help retailers become more successful.”

Ideas ranged from posting photos of customers’ pets on store walls or billboards to maintaining a relationship with a local humane society or animal shelter to remembering customers’ and pets’ names.

Idea Wall
Idea Wall at the 2013 Backer Total Pet Expo. Backer’s Total Pet Expo

The Idea Wall is a great way to provide space for collaboration among companies that normally compete with each other, said Caitlyn Bolton, executive director of the Pet Industry Sustainability Coalition in Longmont, Colo.

"There are looming issues that companies would love to see progress on and would even participate in if other companies also would lend a hand, so the Idea Wall creates a platform for expressing this interest and rallying participation,” Bolton said. "For [us], collaboration is the key methodology for improving the environmental and social performance of pet products, so we found it particularly exciting that there were several comments pertaining to the environment and the concept of a ‘paw print,’ equivalent to the human ‘carbon footprint.’”

The Winning Idea
Margie Seidewand, co-owner of Pet World in Rochester, N.Y., won the Idea Wall iPad grand prize with her idea: "Bag sample quantities of your best-selling $1 pet treats and feature them at checkout. Hook pets and their owners into those great-tasting treats. Don’t forget live foods for fish, plus bird and small-animal treats. Use 4-x-10-in. plastic bags with an attractive, eye-catching bow or a deli container. Enjoy the extra sales.”

"Both my husband and I thought the Idea Wall was a great concept,” said Seidewand, who has been in business for more than 40 years. "Allowing retailers to share what works for their businesses can make the pet industry that much stronger. We as retailers come to the trade shows to find new products but also to learn from the vendors and others how to improve our business and promote products that make a difference.”

"The dollar menu,” dubbed such by her husband, has been working in their store for years.

"I have always tried to make the front counter of the store a place to get an add-on sale, featuring new products, great treats or a conversation piece,” she said. "Because we are a very fish-orientated store I would sell $1 portions of live brine shrimp at the front counter. It was a great way to educate people about fish foods and nutrition, and both kids and adults love to watch the shrimp swimming around. That worked well—a dollar here a dollar there—and lots of good conversations.”

Seidewand found that when the store tried to sell expensive dog treats, customers didn’t want to spend $10 on something their dog might not enjoy, so she started dividing up the box into $1 portions and added those to her front-of-store selections.

"Taking a small plastic bag and filling it with the new treats and tying it with a bright-colored ribbon and putting it in a basket worked well,” she said. "So we started doing it with bird treats, small animal snacks; even 12 crickets works great. Changing up what you bag and making the counter look attractive each day can create a fun place for your customers to spend money.”

Retailers Rejoice
Kelley Parsons of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., appreciated that the Idea Wall presented her with the opportunity to share her store’s successful idea with other store managers and owners.

"It was also fun to see what worked for other stores,” she said. "I think we frequently miss out on the chance to learn from other stores. This gave me a unique experience of learning from many stores that I would otherwise not have encountered.”

Parsons’ idea for the wall was something the store has done for ages: offering employees of other pet stores and veterinarian offices a discount when making purchases at the store.

"We have quite a few customers who work for our competitors,” she said. "The employees from other stores then recommend our store when they do not carry something or are out of a product,” she said. "This is extremely helpful in promoting our store. I regularly help customers who tell me that they had never been to our store, but another pet store recommended us.”

Craig Weindling, owner of Smiley Dog in Bothell, Wash., wrote an idea that focused on charitable giving and feeling good by doing good.

Weindling explains his ideas as: "Choose a product. Approach a group you’d like to support. Offer to donate 20 to100 percent of sales of the product to the organization for an agreed upon period of time. Spread the word.”

"This is a direct result of seeing what Fluff & Tuff did,” he said. "They have an ongoing program that sends 50 cents for every toy sold to Leader Dogs for the Blind. If it’s possible to get participation from a manufacturer or distributor, it becomes easier to offer 100 percent of sales without breaking the bank. When the organization agrees to help spread the word, you may get some additional exposure to their supporters and in the press.”

Alison Schwartz, manager of All Pets Considered in Greensboro, N.C., believes creativity is what sets small, independently owned pet supply stores above big-box stores.

"I always love a collaborative area of ideas, which I think not only provides ideas among other small stores but also sparks new ideas,” she said.

Schwartz’s idea involved putting up an endcap focused on sustainable and environmentally friendly pet products sold at the store.

In the store, she highlighted such products as bamboo bowls, reusable pee pads, rubber toys made by West Paw Design that are recycled, biodegradable waste bags and several other items with a header: "Ways to decrease your carbon paw print.”

"At our store we focus on Made in the USA and environmentally friendly products; we believe a healthier planet for us and our pets goes along with feeding healthy food to our pets,” Schwartz said. "We had tremendous response from our customers and overall I think it helped strengthen our customers’ support in going green when purchasing pet products.”

Lauralee Hites, owner of Bark Raving Mad in Centerville, Ind., said she’s always looking for new ways to leverage social media, as well as online and offline marketing strategies, and that was the genesis behind her idea.

"Ask every customer at point of sale/check out to ‘like’ your store on Facebook and Google Plus in exchange for a free gift. This gift could be a small bag of sample dog treats or a small, inexpensive item.

"It’s a simple and inexpensive way to grow a customer base. For every ‘like’ on Facebook, their ‘friends’ will see the new ‘like’ and may ‘like’ the store too. Additionally, it’s a great organic way to grow followers instead of running a campaign or sponsored ‘like,’” she said. "Google Plus is critical for SEO, so asking them to follow on Google Plus is important too.”

Genesis of the Idea Wall
The inspiration for the Idea Wall came to Fairchild while attending a non-pet industry trade show and immediately after seeing it in action, she knew that it was something that was needed at Total Pet Expo.

"I saw people writing down these ideas on a wall at a booth and it was something I had not seen done by show management, and I thought with a focus at Total Pet Expo on education, this would be a great way to get people to share ideas and have people learn from it as well,” she said. "Anytime you do anything new, you never know how it’s going to be received, so my expectations were to maybe get 10 to 15 really solid ideas, but we wound up with closer to 40.”

The ideas were posted on all of the trade show’s social media sites and, throughout the year, Total Pet Expo will post other helpful ideas on its Facebook page to give folks even more informative tips.

One retailer who likes this is George Richter, owner of Dog.Dog.Cat. in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., who said he didn’t take the time at the show to read all of the ideas but is interested in learning about effective, innovative ways that small-business owners are improving their businesses and exploring.

Richter’s idea involved giving customers and their pets a chance to be featured in one of their ads.

"This brought in extra foot traffic; a surprising amount of people were anxious to have their pets featured in the ad, and we created the ad with many of their dogs,” he said. "We have changed the ad a bit several times for various publications, including a winter background and different dogs.”

Now that people have seen the Idea Wall and are more prepared for it, Fairchild expects that the amount of responses pasted to the wall will only grow from show to show.

"I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people that they are trying these ideas in the store,” Fairchild said. "We will promote [the next Idea Wall] more in advance and maybe attendees will have a little more time to think about it. Every year that we do this, we will continue to get more ideas; if it becomes more successful, we might give an iPad a day.”

Total Pet Expo’s Idea Wall Contributions

"Bag sample quantities of your best-selling $1 pet treats and feature them at checkout. Hook pets and their owners into those great-tasting treats. Don’t forget live foods for fish plus bird and small-animal treats. Use 4-x-10-in. plastic bags with an attractive, eye-catching bow or a deli container.”—Margie Seidewand, Pet World, Rochester, N.Y.

"Get small paper bags with your logo on them. Every time a dog comes into the store, they get a ‘treat bag.’ Give a sample of three to four treats for them to try before they buy.”—Pam Alerine, Style Mutt, Cleveland

"Put out a flier during each holiday (Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, Halloween, etc.) that promotes gift ideas. This could be aimed at pet owners and non-pet owners. An idea to include is a subscription gift service that sends a gift regularly at the buyers’ chosen frequency.”—A lady with lots of ideas, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

"Have a weekly walking group for pet owners and their dogs. Give each dog a T-shirt or tank top with your company name and logo on it so that others will become familiar with your store name. New walkers will then join the group and before you know it your client base will grow, too.”—Gregor Robertson, The Pet Stoppe Shoppe, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

"Never judge a customer by the way they are dressed, questions they ask or how many times they stop by without a purchase. The positive comments they share about your store and the welcome they feel mean more than the cash register ringing. How your community feels about you is priceless. It will keep your doors open and sales will come and the circle will be complete.”—Jo Johnson, Posh Pets Boutique, Columbus, Ohio

"Make split bags with more than one flavor in it. This is a great option for customers with picky pets.”—Paul Lucius, Bellows Falls Pet Shoppe, Bellows Falls, Vt.

"Product Spotlight Station: Recipe: Vendor w/DVD + Product + Simple Bookshelf = Much increased sales! Fill in additional shelf space with add-on products or impulse buys or related products. Great for limited space; we have three in our 1,400-square-foot store. Our experience: Up to 4x increased sales of products in spotlight station over placement elsewhere! Great for quick closeouts, too!”—Todd Ruppenthal, Happy Husky Bakery, Evanston, Ill.

"Follow your area’s trend: We are located in a very tourism-oriented area. In the summer, lake activities and motorcycle tours are popular, while in winter, football takes center stage. We are on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, so we carry pet accessories for both teams. Also, we encourage our customers to experience the animals by touching and holding them, and we even have some resident animals that are everyone’s favorites.”—The Pet Store, Siren, Wis.

"Teach employees selling dog and cat brushes to stop promoting the dual pin/bristle brush and instead sell slicker brushes and ‘coat king’ style rakes. Pin brushes can be ineffective for nonshedding dogs and owners become suspicious of recommendations.”—Robyn Michaels, Dog Groomer, Chicago

"We offer a ‘Toot and Scoot’ program where customers (senior citizens, handicapped, parents or just plain ‘lazy’) can ‘toot’ their car horn and we come out to their car to get their pets.”—Jan Grosskopf, Golrusk Pet Care Center, Green Bay, Wis.

"To inspire your clients to buy more, they must first understand ‘why’ you do what you do. Advertising: services, buy this, retail displays, colorful signs, ‘like’ us. I assure you nothing will appeal more to your clients than how you make them ‘feel.’ People follow shared ideas and dreams and will buy from leaders/companies they ‘believe’ in. Every part of your business should speak to why you do what you do. The $$ will follow.”—Maggy Saber, The Cats’ Inn, Belmont, Calif.

"Reduce Your Carbon Pawprint: Endcap display highlighting eco-friendly, biodegradable, sustainable pet products for Earth Day/April. Products can range from recycled collars to dog toys to pee pads and dog bowls. For signage use earth (green/blue) paw print.”—Alison Schwartz, All Pets Considered, Greensboro, N.C.

"Peace, love and happiness! Peace of mind to all customers! Love for all animals! And happiness from within for all to see and share.”—Nick Digger, Tails ‘N’ Whiskers, Wilmington, Ill.

"Give employees who work at other pet stores a discount. They appreciate it and it encourages them to shop at your store. Then when they are out of something or don’t sell it, the competition is sending customers to your store.”—Kelly Parsons, Denny’s Pet World, Kirkland, Wash.

"Pick a month (or 12). Pick a toy (or 12). Pick a cause (or 12; shelter, rescue, charity, etc.) where 100 percent of each toy sold that month gets donated to your cause. This involves your cause for 30 days and helps spread the word for you, for them, for all.”—Craig Weindling, Smiley Dog, Bothell, Wash.

"Develop voluntary best practices to guide companies toward more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices. Intuitive, business-oriented, affordable and clear so that customers have reliable info and companies have guidance.”—Caitlyn Bolton, Pet Industry Sustainability Coalition, Longmont, Colo.

"As an add-on grooming service, we offer pawdicures that include paw/foot soak, grape seed oil treatment and polish of their choice. It’s been a big hit that not only increases grooming service, it increases awareness of foot and pad care.”—Linda Hofmann, Mt. Tabor Boarding & Grooming, Winston Salem, N.C.

"Create a colorful brochure featuring your products and services. Offer a first-time customer discount coupon and feature special promotions (e.g., loyal customer program, senior days, pet shelter benefit days, etc.). Distribute to area real estate agents, visitors bureaus, welcome wagons, vets and shelters. Attract and keep new customers who bring in the coupon and get a discount plus promotional items featuring your company name and logo.”—Tracy Regole, Bunker Hill Dog Training, Grooming & Specialty Store, German Valley, Ill.

"In order for your clients to come back for future services you must build a trusting relationship with them first. Listening to all your customers’ feedback in person and through monthly surveys will allow you to grow and thrive. Stay in touch with your customers to learn from their suggestions, figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and make the necessary changes. In our business listening matters, kindness matters, and caring and compassion matter most.”—Samantha Cisneros, The Barkery Inc., San Carlos, Calif.

"Know your products and ensure your staff does as well.”—Shannon Giust, Chew-That, Gloucester, Ontario, Canada

"During the holiday season, create a stocking stuffer area. The customer gets to buy a certain-sized sock at a fixed price as well as the treats, toys, etc., to fill the stocking. They can also donate a portion to an animal rescue.”—Lori Leduc, Canine Oasis Day Spa, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

"Our store loves and praises the benefits of feeding a raw diet to your pet, so we have a ‘raw gang’ on our wall to help us promote it. We asked our customers to give us their pets’ photos as well as basic info to illustrate the varieties of animals and health problems that can benefit from a raw diet.”—Treat Play Love, Grand Forks, N.D.

"During a slow day of the week, offer a discount on services and retail. Our boutique offers ‘Wash Day Wednesdays’ (20 percent off bath comb-out service) and ‘Thrifty Thursdays’ (discount on retail items). What used to be our slow days are now some of our busiest days.”—Laura Szalva, Laura’s Classy Canines, Davie, Fla.

"Offer a pet payback card with punches given for dollars spent. This keeps the customer coming back to fill their cards for a final dollar off discount.”—Jan Guin, All Pet Supplies & Equine, Springfield, Mo.

"Put an Idea Wall in your store.”—Smart Guy, Chicago

"Allow your sales associates 15 minutes a shift to learn/read up on pet health, industry trends or products you carry in general. Within 30 days, you’ll have a store full of extremely knowledgeable associates eager to share what they’ve learned.”—Sara Rupp, On Corp US/Nipper & Chipper Pet Products, San Diego

"Invite customers and their pets to be ‘stars’ in your advertising. Promote a weekend to come in any time for possible inclusion in your next ad campaign. Photograph all the dogs, put them in your ad; then give copies with postage for them to mail to their friends and family.”—George Richter, Dog.Dog.Cat., South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

"Choose Dog Groom of the Month Post winner online. Give printed T-shirt for owner with your logo saying ‘My Dog was Dog of the Month.’ Same for the dog: ‘Winner of Dog of the Month.’”—Romaine Michelle, Master Grooming, Chicago

"Always have a relationship with your local humane society or animal shelter. Whether it is simply having a donation canister on your register or donating recently expired goods, etc., the goodwill and appreciation you earn will be well worth the effort.”—Brent Jensen, Wisconsin Humane Society, Milwaukee

"Introduce a frequent buyer card. Each time a customer makes a purchase over $X, they get their card stamped. After collecting 10 stamps, they’ll receive a gift card for $Y.”—Terry, Eco-Pup, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

"Keep a small area of a wall reserved for those special pets who have gone on to the ‘Rainbow Bridge.’ Allow space for photos, poems, songs and stories to be displayed. This is a place where you could display cards, CDs, photo frames and other special remembrances you sell in the store. You might even consider hosting a pet blessing on the Feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4) or pet memory workshops.”—Mary Simpson, E&M Pets, Countryside, Ill.

"Get with the future! Develop a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter page and use any other social media to expose your company to the world. Your future is in your control; grab the reins and take a chance. That is what makes this world beautiful.”—Randy Rees, The Red Zone, Spring Grove, Ill.

"It would be sweet if retailers (small and independent) could buy pieces of items at the end of this show.”—Melanie LaRocca, Ciao! Bow Wow, North Andover, Mass.

"Social media marketing tip: Ask each customer to ‘like’ you on Facebook at check-out to receive a free gift. Give away a dog treat bag or trial-size dog shampoo or other inexpensive prize. This is a great way to show ‘check-ins,’ and allows customers to sample something you sell.”—Lauralee Hites, Bark Raving Mad, Centerville, Ind.

"Make all your size bags (small, medium, large) the same width so they will display vertically and uniformly without wasted space! It will show and display 100 percent better.”—Bob Hames, Animal Jungle, Virginia Beach, Va.

"Know your customers by name. My husband, Paul, has a great memory and folks are always impressed when he said ‘Hi, Carol! How are Rusty and Tanner doing?’ He even remembers what they feed their dogs, so when I call from our other store asking a question for a customer, he knows exactly what they need.”— Doreen Lucius,  Muddy Paws Canine Center, Westminster, Vt.



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