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The Cute Factor

Small mammals can make a big impact on retail sales.
By Peggy Scott

Healthy animals can promote in-store sales and make for happy customers.
As just about any pet industry retailer can attest, a shopkeeper must first get customers’ attention before getting their business. A clean, well-organized, reputable store can expect consumers to come back, but they have to come inside in the first place. A little help—that is, the help of little cute and fuzzy animals—can make a big difference in the bottom line.

Little but Mighty
It’s hard to overestimate the pull these little pipsqueaks can have, says Holly Judge, vice president of Southeast Pet, an Austell, Ga.-based supplier. Hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets and other small pets are top-notch promoters in their own right—and on their own behalf.

“It certainly is a draw to have pets in the store,” says Judge, whose business supplies more than 13,000 different pet products to independent retail outlets. “Children relate to animals. If you do promotions or pet kits, it can almost be a guaranteed sale.”

Misty Schneider, manager of Pet Kingdom ... Where Pets Rule in Algona, Iowa, agrees that her store’s hamsters, guinea pigs, rats and other little pets are a draw into the shop.

“It helps increase the sale of other [supplies],” Schneider says. “Three out of five times we sell the whole setup. And a lot of times it leads to repeat business. If they have a good experience, they come back.”

Schneider adds that the pets she sells continue promoting her store even after they’ve found a home.

“We sell a hamster and the kid’s friends come over and see it and play with it, and then they want one,” she explains. “Then they bring their parents to get one of their own.”

Big Improvements
It wasn’t so long ago that no one thought twice about small pets being sold in stores. From dime stores and discount chains to neighborhood pet shops, pet lovers could find a new little friend in lots of places. But after a few outbreaks of such maladies as wet tail, disease concerns and reports of alleged animal mistreatment, some retailers chose to discontinue the sale of live animals and focus on supplies. In the long run, experts note, this change was probably good for the industry as a whole.

“A lot of the stores operating irresponsibly have exited,” says Mike Liseno, vice president and general manager for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y., which offers pet rabbits and ferrets. “The regulations are tighter. You’re seeing better animals and more responsible management. Now, the large share of pet stores carrying pets are doing it responsibly and doing a great job.”

For some pet advocates, the logical solution was to promote breeders as a source for pets, rather than through retail sales. There’s no automatic guarantee that a private breeder’s animals will be healthier than pets found in a reputable store, and there’s always the possibility of supply problems.

“People may not be able to find a breeder,” Schneider says. “It can be hard for us to sometimes find certain animals. Some stores may have local people who have litters that they buy from, but not everyone does.”

Judge adds that it literally may not pay for a breeder to deal directly with a store.


“Children relate to animals. If you do promotions or pet kits, it can almost be a guaranteed sale.”
-Holly Judge, vice president, Southeast Pet


“In small numbers, there isn’t enough profit for breeders to deal directly with the consumer,” Judge says.

The experts agree that the ideal situation is for retailers to have reliable access to top-quality animals because the best advertisement for in-store sales is healthy animals, which leads to happy customers.

“Livestock distributors offer a great service,” Liseno says. “The really good ones know that quality is more important than price. Retailers need to not focus on the $2 or $3 cost difference—look at the situation farther down the road.”

Judge also remarks on the benefits of selling pets.

“The largest losses for a store are in livestock, but it’s also the highest profit margin,” she says.

Andy Nelson is director of training for Petland, a retail chain based in Chillicothe, Ohio. Nelson says that stores can best demonstrate how a retail shop benefits its customers through example.

“A well-run pet-retail store should offer a variety and selection not typically available from a single breeder,” Nelson says. “Additionally, there should be an opportunity for pet care education. The presentation of quality, well-socialized pets in clean, well-maintained enclosures is one of the biggest statements a retailer can make about the advantages of purchasing a pet from [a] pet store.”

Liseno says that changing attitudes have done much to spur change in the industry.

“The way animals are looked at and valued as pets — along with increased regulations—is a huge part,” Liseno says. “If people come into a store and see something bad, like sick animals, they’re going to tell someone.”

Knowledge Is Power
The key to a successful retail operation selling small pets is education.

“As a [commercial] breeder, it is our responsibility to teach stores how to take care of each type of animal,” Liseno says. “Training is better these days. Independents and chains are doing more to educate their staff. Independents can really shine in this category.”

Judge also sees improvements.

“Customers are seeing more cleanliness, sales associates use hand sanitizers and sterilize areas where people interact with animals,” she says, adding that demonstrating to customers that animal health and well-being are top priority is invaluable to a store’s reputation.

“There are programs like [Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council] that award certificates to stores when they complete education about handling, feeding and caring for various types of animals,” Judge says. “The stores can display those certificates and show customers that their associates are well informed.” <HOME>

*All photos courtesy of Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.


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