The Strategy Brick-and-Mortars Need to Adopt to Beat Online Competition

Micro independent stores have been battling online commerce for a long time; now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more pet owners than ever have turned to their computer to make purchases. How do we get those buyers back into our stores as brick-and-mortar retail begins to reopen? 

Ever since the beginning of e-commerce, experts have been writing articles on how to get shoppers back into brick-and-mortar stores. The advice these experts have doled out has typically revolved around four themes or objectives: make your store a destination; promote "see it here, buy it here, and leave with it now;" offer market product knowledge that can’t be found online; and leverage the trust shoppers have in brick-and-mortar retailers. 

In reviewing those steps in today’s environment, I don’t think some of them apply anymore. For example, trust is no longer a factor. Years ago, some people didn’t trust online shopping because they had to give out personal information and worried the item might not show up, so they were more apt to trust brick-and-mortar stores. I don’t think that’s true anymore. People have come to trust e-commerce, and e-commerce retailers are much better now at communicating shipping information and offering assurances of privacy. 

"See it, buy it, and leave with it now" is not on buyers’ minds because advances in shipping mean people can generally have an item the next day and, in some cases, the same day they order it.  

The demand for knowledgeable retailers is still high; however, unfortunately, thanks to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and its reports on a suspected link between canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and certain dog foods, a lot of micro independents have taken a hit in that department. Some manufacturers and veterinarians have been promoting that micro independent pet stores do not have the proper knowledge to guide a consumer on their pet’s needs. 

So, we need to consider a different approach to getting shoppers back into brick-and-mortar stores these days.

My first reaction to the drastic drop in pet food sales in my store since the COVID-19 pandemic was to ramp up my advertising. I need to let people know we are here and that we want them to walk into our store. That is certainly not a new advertising campaign for me. However, passion is going to be my driving force in the advertising, just not my passion. I want to bring out the passion that pet owners have for their pets. 

How many times have you been sitting in a meeting and asked someone if they have a pet? Chances are they will light up and tell you all about their pets and usually bring out their phone to show you some cute pictures. What we have to do is reach those pet owners and tie that passion to the foods they are feeding. 

Reaching the right demographics is really the difficult part. I don’t care if you’re selling pet food or widgets, consumers can avoid commercials pretty easily. For my area and demographics, I am going to focus my attention on my social media marketing, and I might try to do some radio advertising. My ads are going to be short and sweet along the lines of "Pets are family, why wouldn’t you feed them that way?" 

Paying for my new advertising campaign is going to be hard. All of us micro independent stores have taken a hit thanks to COVID-19, but that just makes advertising more important. I’m going to lean hard on my manufacturers to support my campaigns in product. The smaller manufacturers we all deal with do not have the budget to help us with a full media campaign, but even the smallest manufacturer typically will provide some free product in trade. 

I’m actually the last person to suggest co-opting advertising. I don’t like feeling that I owe something to a manufacturer. My passion and loyalty is to my customers. If I believe that one brand of goat’s milk is better for a particular pet over another, that’s what I’m going to recommend regardless of my advertising deals. That philosophy just reinforces why I believe micro independents should only carry a few brands. In that example, I can go to the two manufacturers of goat’s milk that I stock in my store and pitch both of them to help me out. It’s been my experience that as long as both companies feel they are well represented in my campaign, they will support it. 

That’s right manufacturers: We need you to step up. Support your micro independents by helping us get customers back in our doors to buy your brands. I sure wish most of you would knock it off with the "buy us online" campaigns that you are running, but I understand that you are just trying to move your product in this difficult time. I suggest a campaign that says, "You can find us online or in your local independent pet store, and here’s a $5 coupon that’s only good at the brick-and-mortar store."

I love seeing all the manufacturers providing templates that store owners can share on their social media, but the problem is that typically only the existing customers will see them. What I think would help is manufacturers running campaigns for consumers on how to find their products in an independent pet store close to them. It is time to start thinking outside the box.

I love what our local radio station is doing. During its highly rated afternoon "drive time" show, it has a segment where businesses that are still open can call in and give a 15-second commercial. I recently called in and said, "Did you know your pet’s diet might need to change during these difficult times? Stop into your local mom-and-pop pet supply store and talk to us. We are here to help." And then I gave my pertinent information, all under 15 seconds. I don’t know if I reached anybody new, but I did have a couple of my regulars mention that they had heard it and ask me about it.

I recently read an article that projected 25 percent of the restaurants in the U.S. will close permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If manufacturers and micro independents work together, maybe we can save some stores. I know we can if we follow a few steps: get consumers passionate about feeding their pets, make your store a destination, market your knowledge and provide services. 

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B.C. Henschen is a well-known champion for pet owners who want the best in their pet’s food. He is the Association for Truth in Pet Food (ATPF) consumer advocate, and is a past director with the World Pet Association (WPA). Henschen is a popular speaker at industry events and meetings. A certified pet care technician and an accredited pet trainer, he is a partner in Platinum Paws, a full-service pet salon and premium pet food store in Carmel, Ind. His knowledge of the pet food industry makes Platinum Paws the go-to store for pet owners who want more for their pet than a bag off a shelf.