It’s no secret that online pet food sales continue to threaten independents’ very way of life. That’s why I wanted to highlight the reality of how enticing online pet food ordering can be.
I recently engaged in an experiment. I did it to see what it felt like and how easy it was to get away with. I wanted to experience it so that I could understand it and speak about it with true authority.
This “experiment” centers on something directly affecting our industry.
I recently ordered pet food online. Specifically, from Chewy.com.
Before you fire off the hate mail, please know that this was a first- and only-time thing. My husband has owned a small business for almost 20 years. I shop small whenever I can, use local service providers of all kinds, freelance for friends who own independent businesses and, of course, buy my pet food from a local independent pet store. I live the ups and downs, worries and wonders of small business, and I’m not about to betray my livelihood or conscience!
However, it’s no secret that online pet food sales continue to threaten independents’ very way of life. That’s why I wanted to highlight to Pet Product News readers the reality of how enticing online pet food ordering can be. If it’s as clear as a bell to someone like me, it’s easy to understand what other consumers are thinking.
No one can honestly say they’ve never ordered anything online... So what’s the big deal?
The bottom line is that the digital space is a serious problem—perhaps more serious than one might realize. Did Chewy.com feature a vast selection larger than any I’ve seen in-store? Beat my independent store on price? Offer discounts for regularly scheduled reorders? Simplify the process to the nth degree? Yes, on all counts. Throw in the fact that my order was delivered straight to my door for free …
OK. Online ordering isn’t new. No one can honestly say they’ve never ordered anything online, even from independent artisans such as those featured on Etsy. So what’s the big deal?
Here’s the thing. Independent pet retailers are banking their continued success on two things they offer that big-box and online retailers simply can’t: customer service and product expertise. However, Chewy.com and other large online retailers do have those pesky little customer-generated product ratings for each and every item sold. And thanks to the guise of online anonymity, customers are outspoken when it comes to their pets’ food.
And I have to say, within those reviews, many customers knew what they were talking about, offering praise and/or advice about a product, etc. Some shared a symptom or problem that the food seemed to fix. Others wrote about how they had tried different foods and only this one worked for their dogs. A few got into some pretty nitty-gritty ingredient and labeling specifics.
Now, if a busy consumer can research pet food online from reputable sources, get the benefit of intelligent reviews from other pet owners, almost in a community-minded fashion, and get exactly what they want at a discount with free delivery, where in that equation is there room for an independent pet retailer?
Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? I don’t believe it has to be. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to make a comeback, while sales at big-box stores are taking a hit, which might suggest the pendulum could swing in independents’ favor. I believe that when a welcoming environment with sincere human interaction and a sense of community is taken out of everyday life, people miss it.
So what is your strategy for making sure customers do have room for your store, your expertise and the services you offer? Offering free delivery and discounts on repeated regular food purchases is sure to get the attention of customers. Creating a greater sense of inclusion online through an active and fun Facebook page keeps customers returning for laughs, inspiration and perhaps coupons. Organizing and publicizing exciting events at your store—and taking part in larger community events—is a surefire way to ensure people remember you and your business.
And be sure to keep reading Pet Product News. Counter Points author Barry Berman, Market Outlook author David Lummis and our stable of Business Builder writers strive to offer some of the newest, unique and most useful merchandising, marketing, staff building, business management trends, tips and techniques for your store to remain competitive.
Last but not least—and I don’t think I can belabor the point—make sure you are the local authority on food, in person and on your website. Know what other pet food sites say and be ready to refute, dispute or affirm the topics customers bring up. Look your distraught customer in the eye as you take time to work toward the best diet solution for her dog’s dry skin condition. People care about and remember that stuff.
So I promise to not order any more pet food online if you promise to help keep the digital space from invading yours and keep working toward the day-to-day reality of a successful business. Make 2016 your happiest year yet.
Ellyce Rothrock, involved in the pet industry for 20 years, is editor-in-chief of Pet Product News International, student of all market and consumer trends, and owner of two rescued German shepherd dogs, Fritz and Mina. Email her at email@example.com.