During the COVID-19 pandemic, pet stores across the nation launched curbside pickup and delivery services to better serve their customers as well as to maintain a revenue stream. While these services were unable to fill the financial gap completely, it did help many pet stores stay afloat. But as more and more retailers begin to hang their "open" signs, will they continue these services? According to industry insiders, the answer is yes.
"I absolutely think these new methods of fulfillment are here to stay," said Michele Salerno, director of marketing and assistant vice president of Celerant Technology Corp., a Staten Island, N.Y.-based retail software vendor. "The retail industry was already evolving and changing at a rapid rate, and now COVID-19 has excelled that even further, and at an even more rapid rate."
As consumers were forced to stay home, savvy retailers needed to make quick changes in order to continue servicing their customers, Salerno added.
"I anticipate that those changes will continue, long past COVID-19," Salerno said. "After experiencing these new methods, consumers have come to appreciate them and will expect them to continue. In today’s climate, buyers want options, and it’s those retailers who can provide the options and meet each of those needs that will be most successful."
Pet specialty retailers agree and are doing just that.
"We will definitely continue these services," said Sherry Redwine, owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas. "People are busy and like the convenience."
Odyssey Pets began offering curbside pickup and delivery services immediately, Redwine said.
"We also set up an online website that could support sales as we did not have one before," Redwine said. "Orders started coming in through email, Facebook messages, the new website and by phone. We started to encourage people to leave their credit card numbers on file so we can easily charge them the next time they order."
Kathy Hyland, owner of Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich., also began offering these added services immediately after the shelter-in-place orders began—and she plans to continue doing so.
"We feel that curbside is a thing of the future for some time to come," Hyland said. "People love it."
Weighing the Benefits & Overcoming Obstacles
Some retailers may still be on the fence about offering such services, or just haven’t had the time to implement them, but the benefits may be greater than one thinks.
"By offering services like curbside pickup and/or delivery, quite simply gives pet parents the convenience and, in some cases, during this pandemic, the safety they are looking for while still supporting their favorite local store," said Michael Baker, president and CEO of Pet Food Experts, a Pawtucket, R.I.-based distributor that serves 32 states. "Additionally, retailers will be able to get more products out to their community, especially the indie-only brands that can’t be found at big-box stores all while reaping the benefits of additional sales."
"With curbside pickup, retailers can offer quick, same-day pickup or delivery to customers, just as they would be able to service their customers if their store were fully open," Salerno said. "With e-commerce, shoppers can order online, but have to wait a couple of days for the order to be shipped and received. But when a customer needs the product now for their pet, waiting several days is simply not an option, and they will go elsewhere to make their purchase."
That’s not to say there may not be some obstacles in beginning or even maintaining such services, according to insiders.
"We quickly learned we had to create a system," Hyland said. "Having customers give a time for pickup clarified many issues, and setting up a form online to ease some of the phone congestion."
Redwine said the implementation of offering curbside and delivery services has gone fairly smoothly, but they still have challenges, such as people trying to order outside their delivery zone and people ordering items out of stock.
To help retailers with these efforts, Celerant Technology offers a curbside pickup app for retailers.
"In speaking with so many of our retail clients, we quickly noticed that many were having trouble with their curbside efforts, as the process can be unorganized and challenging as your orders start to rise," Salerno said. "We immediately created our new curbside application to help streamline and organize the process, and in an effort to help, we decided to offer it for free, for three months, to any of our retail clients who needed it."
Orders can flow into the curbside application from either the retailer’s website or they can be entered manually, say for example, phone orders, Salerno added. Store associates are alerted via text message or email once a new order is available. Once the associate has the order ready for pickup, they click to change the status within the platform to ‘ready for pick-up’, which sends an automated text message to the customer letting them know and telling them where to pick it up, such as curbside, parking lot, etc.
"There is also a link within the text message, in which the customer is instructed to click on once they arrive at the curb, at which time another alert is then texted to the store associate, letting them know their customer is outside and waiting," Salerno said. "The package can then be delivered to the back-seat or trunk of the vehicle, all while no contact is made."
This is also a good time to evaluate e-commerce services, according to Salerno.
"Many smaller merchants who didn’t have e-commerce, had to quickly move into the online world in order to stay in front of their customers," Salerno said. "Having the web presence will now future-proof their business moving forward, combined with successful, same-day curbside/in store pickup and/or delivery."
Baker agreed, citing a study of more than 540 retail chains that compared the responses to sales data from pre-COVID-19, during the panic buying and post-panic buying periods. The data showed that those with e-commerce platforms outsold those without by an average of 18 percent during the panic buying period, and by more than 25 percent in the post-panic buying period, according to Baker.
"As a small business owner, expanding your business to include an e-commerce platform for services like curbside pickup and delivery can seem like an overwhelming task," Baker said. "Especially now when stores may be understaffed or more focused on keeping people safe and reopening their doors. There are several e-commerce options available to independent pet retailers, and owners are going to want to be sure they choose the correct fit for their business."
Baker pointed to eTailPet.
"A platform like eTailPet, which is specifically dedicated to empowering the independent pet industry, comes preloaded with 20,000-plus of the most popular independent pet items out there, allowing set up to take days instead of weeks or even months. In fact, a majority of our survey responders have seen significant success using eTailPet to supplement their curbside efforts and have expressed to us they are grateful to have invested the time to get started when they did.