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With customers fully acclimated to the convenience and speed of online shopping, pet retailers might be missing out on a chunk of their local markets if they haven’t branched out into e-commerce. Luckily, there are several companies and tools poised to help retailers establish an online store or improve one they may already have.

“The biggest frustration these retailers have is they don’t have the time, they’re busy, there [are] so many platforms,” said Brandon Swenson, co-founder of NextPaw in Salt Lake City.

NextPaw combines a multitude of tools, so retailers can manage their online presence from a single dashboard, Swenson said. The company serves about 400 retailers across all 50 states. It was launched in January 2019, but its e-commerce software was a new addition in November 2020.

“When we went into this, we didn’t go into e-commerce first,” Swenson said. “We wanted to first build a product that would help an independent pet retailer gain more market share locally and compete with their big-box competition, as well as online big-box like Chewy and Amazon.”

Among the tools NextPaw offers are website creation and management, an online store platform and product catalog that, as of press time, contained around 30,000 SKUs (but is still growing), event marketing and more. One key feature is point-of-sale integration with the Clover, Square or Vend systems that syncs up price and inventory between a retailer’s store and their website in real time.

NextPaw’s biggest seller, however, is its search engine optimization that helps retailers get in front of local customers and drive website traffic and other conversions like phone calls, messages and views on Google Maps.

“Because we are so focused here on search engine optimization and digital marketing, everything we do blows up these retailers online,” Swenson said. “We have case study after case study where we drive 100 percent, 200 percent, 300 percent increases in the amount of time those products are viewed locally, how many messages they get, phone calls to the store, directions to the stores, people buying online.”

NextPaw also offers a universal messaging inbox that aggregates messages from a store’s social media, Google Business profile, email and website, so retailers can stay in touch with customers from one home base. Messages can be sent straight to the retailer’s mobile phone, so retailers can go back and forth with customers via text message.

“We do have the ability for people to request payments from customers via text message,” Swenson added. “Retailers can turn that conversation into an order right from the dashboard.”

eTailPet has been in the pet e-commerce game longer than NextPaw, having been launched out of Santa Monica, Calif., in April 2018. As of March 2020, eTailPet was serving about 400 independent retailers, but that number has grown to about 1,200 since the coronavirus pandemic began.

“All of a sudden, everyone is speaking our language,” said founder Bere Giannini. “The conversation has gone from trying to convince someone to trying to do e-commerce to, ‘What’s the best way to do it?’”

eTailPet offers clients access to a robust 80,000-SKU catalog—including product images, ingredients and guaranteed analysis for retailers’ online stores—with which retailers can build their own customizable online store.

eTailPet also offers integration with customer loyalty software Astro Loyalty, an analytics dashboard to help retailers strategize and social media post management through eTailSocial.

“Our hope is that we level the playing field for [retailers] versus the big-box versus online,” Giannini said. “We flat out want them to be able to compete against Chewy on a local level.”

The company recently introduced eTailPlus, a higher tier of services that manages in-store transactions and inventory, a smart order algorithm, appointment booking software for groomers and other service providers, a recipe builder for bakeries and more.

Giannini said eTailPet can build a retailer’s website overnight and have its online store up and running in as little as three days, while Swenson said NextPaw takes about one to two weeks to build a retailer’s website and about one to three weeks to get an online store ready to go live.

The two can also be used together. Flying M Pet Grocery in Houston uses NextPaw for its website and eTailPet for its online store.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were laser-focused on our in-store service,” said owner Trace Menchaca. “We were a little rattled when we had to initially pivot, but we made it work. … We used a combination of NextPaw and eTailPet, [and] we really did very little to get set up.”

Retailers had rave reviews for NextPaw’s customer service.

“We’re not the most savvy tech-wise, but NextPaw was like working with a friend that works from home,” said Cassie Rose, assistant manager of Cohutta Country Store in Blue Ridge, Ga. “We can send them a comment on our website, and within minutes to a couple hours, whatever our issue was is fixed.”

Leslie Stewart, owner of Southern Barker, which has two stores in Kentucky, said she has seen increased traffic to both her online and brick-and-mortar stores since joining NextPaw, but she wishes her staff had more time to devote to the website.

“My goal for 2021 is to hire an employee to run the website,” she said. “Your website could easily be a 9-to-5 job Monday through Friday.”

Beyond Curbside Pickup

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, curbside pickup has become an industry standard, but customers are also drawn to the convenience of the fast home delivery that Amazon and Chewy can provide. Offering shipping or delivery can put a strain on smaller retailers.

Cohutta Country Store ships smaller items here and there, but sticks mostly to pick-up orders.

“Trying to figure out shipping cost is what hinders our shipping ability,” Rose said.

Other retailers simply may not have the time or staff necessary to offer deliveries.

Fetching Dog in Scottsdale, Ariz., accepts online orders through NextPaw and delivers to its three closest zip codes. Co-owner Becci Scott said her husband does most of the deliveries himself and that they haven’t had to hire any additional staff.

“It hasn’t picked up to that volume,” she said. “If it does, that’s something we’ll have to consider, and then all the [employee] insurance and everything comes into play as well.”

However, there are ways to get purchases to customers’ doorsteps without headaches.

NextPaw has integrations for UPS and FedEx, as well as a local delivery tool that allows retailers to draw an area on a map to designate where they want to offer delivery to.

Giannini said most of eTailPet’s retail partners make their own deliveries, but the platform also works with Postmates couriers who pick up orders from the stores and deliver them to customers.

Retailers looking for an even simpler approach can use third-party logistics shipping through Animal Supply Co. While the Irving, Texas-based company’s core business is wholesale distribution, its Animal Supply Connect ship-to-home service has boomed since its soft launch in 2019, said senior director of digital commerce Matthew Roach.

Animal Supply Connect offers a catalog of more than 4,000 items and fulfills orders right from its 10 distribution centers. Orders go straight from the retailer’s website to Animal Supply Connect, so the retailer doesn’t have to worry about ordering, item selection or packaging. Most packages can be delivered within two business days, offering customers the same speed they can get from Amazon or Chewy.

Animal Supply Connect integrates directly with both eTailPet and Shopify and doesn’t charge retailers fees outside of the product cost and the shipping cost through FedEx. Retailers aren’t locked into a subscription or contract—the service is simply “pay as you go.”

“One of the things that we continue to work on is helping [retailers] dip their toe in the water and jump in [to e-commerce], because it is scary,” Roach said. “It can be a new language, new jargon they’re not used to. A lot of these independent retailers are mom-and-pop shops. … It scares them to allocate the right amount of time to really grow this part of the business.”

E-commerce isn’t going anywhere, even after the coronavirus pandemic, said Ken Fish, Animal Supply Co.’s executive vice president of corporate development. Fish anticipates that pet product e-commerce will fall back to an annual projected growth rate in the mid-teen percentages, like the industry saw prior to 2020.

“While e-commerce will continue to grow and consumers enjoy those services, by no means are we thinking that it will diminish the need for the small independent pet stores throughout the communities,” he said. “We really view [e-commerce] as a supplement as far as a broad relationship with the consumer versus a replacement.”