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Business Builder: Staying Social Complements Retail Goals

Posted: June 15, 2012, 1:30 p.m. EDT

Branding a pet store and its products and building community can mean profits for shop owners.
By Alison Bour

Networking used to consist of meeting potential business contacts face-to-face and striking up a relationship. But with the ever-increasing demands of the retail environment encroaching on pet store owners’ time and energy, connecting effectively can mean a lot more than simply attending to customers who come into the store.

While pet stores face pressure to add social media and networking to their already busy days, this medium can work in the pet industry because it creates the opportunity for dialogue.

Social media marketing for pet stores
“Traditional marketing remains critical, but most traditional methods allow only one side to speak,” said Tina VonderHaar, president and CEO of Brighton Agency, an advertising and marketing company located in St. Louis. “Social media is about two-way communication.”

The speed of social media often means retailers can reach their base faster, and more directly, than has traditionally been possible.

“On Facebook, it’s an instant upload, instant gratification,” said Meagan Hall, vice president of Emma Doodles All Natural Dog Treats in Atlanta. “People are sharing then passing it on, especially pictures.”

Strategies That Work
Telling the right narrative can be as simple as capturing a specific moment that can drive interest and gain attention.

Timing and a sense of what works are instrumental in finding these moments. When Julia Pilas, owner of Elephant Nose Pet Center in Morristown, N.J., saw a black lab peeking in her store, she asked the owner if she could take a picture. She then posted it on Facebook with the caption, “Please let me in, I promise to be good.’ Customers eat it up, Pilas said.

In some cases, store owners may spend too much time on the medium, but it can still serve as a way to educate customers. Although Chip Sammons, owner of Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore., said business owners often overuse social media. He uses the forum to educate consumers about what he learns at conferences and products he’s discovered.

Industry Voices
Do retailers need to use social media?

“There’s a lot of pressure to be engaged in social media, but it isn’t a fit for every business. Business owners should ask themselves a few questions about their resources before jumping on the bandwagon. ‘Is my customer base engaging in social media?’ If the interest is low, your marketing dollars may be better spent elsewhere. ‘Do I have the time and finances to support a robust social media presence?’ Facebook and Twitter may be free, but they require a significant time investment.”
—Tina VonderHaar, president and CEO of Brighten Agency in St. Louis

“I have felt that I had to do it. All of our competitors do, and all of our younger demographic use it, so it really is a necessity.”
—Veronique Michalik, owner of Lofty Dog, Lofty Dog Village and Lofty Dog Vet, and owner of Animal Lovers of Austin, Inc., in Austin, Texas

“The key to any type of effective marketing is to reach customers where they are. In the past, pet retailers may have had customers who read newspapers and magazines as their primary source to get information about brands. Today, the majority of consumers use the Internet to research brands and get information prior to shopping.”
—Lynn Switanowski, found and president of Creative Business Consulting Group in Boston

When making a connection, it may be true that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Emily Langdon, owner of Dog Dish in Tulsa, Okla., said pictures win out when offering what customers crave from social media. She plans to open an account on Pinterest, a virtual pinboard that focuses more on visuals than written posts.
Through Pinterest, Langdon plans to create album categories of both pictures and products she, her staff and her customers like.

In addition to putting the word out about products, stores can notify interested community members about calendar events. Merry Hurst, manager of Natural Pawz’s West University location in Houston, likes to alert her social media fans about upcoming events such as adoptions.

Social media allows retailers to control their message to a greater degree than may have been possible in the past. VonderHaar said three powerful ways to utilize social media include the ability to encourage fans to ask questions about the pet store, products and stock; dispel rumors about the store or its products; and notify customers of time-sensitive news, such as product recalls.

Retailers don’t always have to focus on business, either. Going off-topic is okay, said Shelby Quinlivan, director of public relations for The Ohlmann Group in Dayton, Ohio. She offered Mr. Clean’s Facebook page as an example.

“[Mr. Clean posts] photos of hairstyles dating back to the 1970s,” she said. “It’s funny, but it also shows how long the product has been around without shouting it from the rooftops.”

Social media is best used not as a place to talk, but to start a conversation and spark interest, Emma Doodles’ Hall said. She often looks to the news for something fresh to share.

Because fans of social networking pass on what they like, Hall added, they open up a brand new audience. Anything she shares on someone else’s Facebook page includes a link back to her own page, and she picks up Facebook fans she otherwise couldn’t reach.

When Pilas visited Hawaii, she posted a review of a hotel she loves on its Facebook page, and added new followers of her own. Because that hotel has about 19,000 fans, she instantly exposed her pet store to thousands more potential customers.

Branding Versus Sales
The question is, does laughing at a cute dog on social media translate into sales?

Natural Pawz’s Hurst thinks that might be the wrong question to ask. She views social media as a way to solidify the brand rather than boost sales. Her pet store managers continue to use traditional ways to track new customers, such as offering in-store samples to new customers.

Do's & Don'ts
Getting the hang of social media can be difficult, and Mike Gatti, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation’s marketing division offered these do’s and don’ts for retailers:

• The biggest don’t is, don’t open up a site and not monitor it. You have to have someone on the team provide the right level of customer engagement.

• Don’t be overly promotional. It shouldn’t be, “We want you to come in and buy something at 10 percent off.” People who get involved in social media want information. Don’t do what you’ve been doing in print media.

• Do talk about products, how they work and why you’re a fan of them.

• Do integrate social media in your print advertising.

• Do link varying social media together to create multiple posts about the same item.

Recognizability is a big factor when it comes to effectively using social networking fans should be able to glance briefly at a profile page or Twitter post and know whose store it is, Brighton Agency’s VonderHaar said. Two ways to accomplish this include the use of visuals and conversation.
“Know your business voice and ensure that it’s weaved into every communication, whether you’re announcing a new product or asking your fans about their weekend plans,” VonderHaar stated.

How Much Is Too Much?
Relatively newer forms of social media include Foursquare, a mobile-based social media platform that allows users to announce where they are at a given time, and receive incentive points or discounts for “checking in” to a location, as well as Google+, which offers users a way to create “circles,” sharing some things with only certain groups.

With more options popping up daily, should retailers use them all?

“There are a number of emerging social media platforms, but if your customer base isn’t engaging in these sites, creating a page can be the equivalent of putting on a show every night for an empty theater,” VonderHarr said.

Like other store owners with limited resources, Chip Sammons, owner of Holistic Pet Center in Clackamas, Ore., said he already puts in 12-hour days so he posts to Facebook about two or three times a week.

“Based on some of what I see, a lot of people overdo it,” Sammons stated.


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