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14 Ways Indies Are Beating the Chain Competition Daily

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PetSmart. Petco. Target. Sam’s Club. Walmart. Costco. Heck, let’s even throw Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, HomeGoods, TJ Maxx and grocery store chains into the mix of big-box stores that compete for pet parents’ dollars.

But as you prove on a daily basis, bigger does not always mean better. As small-business owners, you offer more personalized customer service, including a deeper knowledge of the pet products and services you sell. You are invested in your communities. And you quickly adapt in an ever-changing industry.

All of this allows you to stay competitive.

But if you are having trouble in this area, or you want to find different ways to beat big-box stores, we invite you to find inspiration from your fellow indies.

EMBRACE BEING SMALL

1 Bark on Mulford in Rockford, IL, measures just under 1,000 square feet, and that suits Kaye Busse-Kleber just fine. The size of the store keeps customers where she can see them — and they can see her.

With that in mind, Busse-Kleber shares the story a pet parent told her about shopping at a big-box store.

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“She was at [a big-box pet retailer] looking for a collar, had to track down an employee to ask the price. He had no idea and asked what section it came from. She had to show him, and then he told her the price, but said it looked used. She put it back and came to see us.”

Customers never have to search for Busse-Kleber or a member of her team. Nor do they feel like they are not valued.

“We have a smaller selection of collars, but she came in telling me about the lack of customer service and that her experience with them ‘not caring if they sold something’ would keep her from going back.”

Limiting staff to just herself and two part-timers allows for a personal connection also not found at big-box stores.

“I can guarantee, that employee didn’t ask about her dogs. The customer has only been in my store twice, and I already know she has two dogs: a Rat Terrier named Theodore and a Jack Russell Terrier named Angel.”

Another way Busse-Kleber touts the benefits of shopping small are by bragging about unique items on social media with the hashtag #YouCantFindThisAtTarget.

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Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, also uses her store’s small size as a selling point.

“We convey it in as much of our advertising and social media as possible. Small Business Saturday is our second-highest volume day of the year. We ask our vendors for support and offer a basket raffle, and we debut new holiday items and discounts on most of our products. Food and beverages for humans — our customers really enjoy the day!”

Support other small businesses

2Woof Woof Pet Boutique & Biscuit Bar in New Bedford, MA, and Bristol, RI, gives shelf space to several local small businesses. Among them, Dylan Giampaolo says, are “Quincy & Co. We have a seamstress that handmakes all of our bandanas and bowties for different seasons and sports teams. She also makes leashes and collars. Matisse Jeans is a cat toy handmade from recycled jeans that have a custom catnip blend from Cape Cod, and 100 percent of the proceeds ben- efit Bristol Animal Shelter.
“We truly are a small business trying to carve out a place for ourselves, and we believe in supporting other small businesses!”

Tout locally owned & operated

3 Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, spends as much time as she possibly can on the sales floor working with customers.
“I want people to know that I am the owner and that I greatly appreciate their business,” she says. “So the funny thing that has happened because of that is that customers come in asking for me and say ‘I know Toni.’ When it was time for me to have my own personal Instagram page, my employees decided @IKnowToni had to be my handle.”

EARn IN (EXCLAMATION) POINTS WITH IN-depth knOWLEDGE

4Shane Somerville of Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, was more than prepared when a customer emailed her about canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).“I sent her a fairly long response with some info, attached the document I wrote for our customers (including an FAQ and links to resources from vets) and talked about the different options she could check out. She wrote back very quickly and said, ‘Shane, This is why we love you!!!!! Thank you so much!!!!’”

SURPRISE WITH PERSONAL SHOPPING

5 Annabell Bivens orders for The Dog Store in Alexandria, VA, with specific customers in mind.

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“We have an all-black Basset Labrador (Bassador), and he rocks his clothes, but his parents wanted something super visible since they spend a lot of time in the mountains at their cabin. So, in addition to the regular colors of the new line of RC Pets Polaris sweater, we ordered him the red sweater in his size and showed them the photos of the reflective stitching. They were so excited! (His color is red). I mentioned it to them when I ordered it, and it came in about four months later. They even asked when they saw winter stuff coming out because they remembered our conversation.”

Such personal shopping does not happen when big boxes do their ordering.

TAKE PRICE-MATCHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

6How does Fetch RI compete on price with the big-box stores? Johnna Devereaux does not advertise price-matching, but she does it when possible and sees the practice as an opportunity on multiple fronts. She shares what happens when a regular customer alerts her to lower prices elsewhere:

“First, it allows me to look at the specific item and provide a lower price to this customer, who is clearly showing loyalty by bringing this to our attention. Second, it allows me to reach out to my brand rep and discuss how I can buy better at a discount, which then allows me to reduce the price of those items for all of my customers. I do advertise that to my customers, letting them know that we pass on the savings to them from our purchase bargaining, and so they now have a lower price! Win-win!”

The Store at Paws ’N Effect in Hamden, CT, also price-matches, but Sandy House simply makes the adjustment.

“We price-compare about every six to eight weeks by both physically going into the stores and then checking online, if they sell that way as well. If I find a local brick-and-mortar store is selling something for less than us, I check what our wholesale price is, and then I make the adjustment before a customer asks.”

DIVERSIFY COMMUNITY SUPPORT

7 The national pet stores in Delavan, WI, donate to local animal-welfare organizations, but Karen Conell of The Bark Market in Delvan, WI, sees the importance of investing in her community as a whole.

“We support many local not-for-profits, such as a therapeutic riding program, school for the handicapped, vocational school for adults with disabilities, wildlife rehab center, child advocacy center, playground for children with disabilities, and multiple animal rescues and shelters. We are local, and our customers are involved and reach out to us often.”

While altruistic, these efforts create positive word of mouth, giving her an advantage against big-box competitors.

“We don’t do it for recognition, but it happens and we are grateful!”

PROVIDE FREEBIES

8 When converting customers to frozen raw — still an excellent way to compete with big-box stores — Conell of The Bark Market makes it hard to resist.

“We have manufacturers who encourage us to give away a free small bag to get them started,” she says. “Let’s just say folks are stunned by the free offerings and the gentle shove in a new direction.”

Freebies can also be fun activities to draw in customers. Sue Hepner hosts a variety of events at Cool Dog Gear in Roslyn, PA.

“We just had a Winter Fashion Show: Dogs on the Cat Walk. We used customers’ dogs as our models. These awesome dogs strutted their stuff in front of the crowds, highlighting all of our winter fashions while their people modeled our human line of gifts and clothing. We also offer free pet and family picture-taking opportunities with our fall and winter backdrops. And for the first time we will be having storytime for kids. Our first story will be all about teaching children about dog safety and, of course, we’ll have a special visit from our mascot Cool Dog — always a crowd favorite!”

And Southern Barker in Lexington and Louisville, KY, has begun hosting breed meetups in its stores.

“We do get a sales boost during our meetups,” says Leslie Stewart. “They are socializing, but also shopping because they are right in the middle of the store, so they can’t help but look around! We also offer 10 percent off during the meetup. Our first meetup was for Doodles, and we had over 30 dogs!”

Finally, be sure to take advantage of manufacturer loyalty programs not available to big-box stores.

HUMBLE BRAG ON SOCIAL MEDIA

9 Big-box stores don’t share customer pet pics on social media, at least not on a regular basis or from a local store’s page. Independents do, and Bubbly Paws stores in the Minneapolis, MN, area takes it a step further.

Keith Miller says, “We regram posts from many of our customers on Instagram. Social media is the best way to brag without looking like we are bragging. We just post happy customer pictures or quotes from reviews.”

OPT FOR THIRD-PARTY SAFETY TRAINING

10 Big-box stores have in-house training programs for their groomers. Third-party training and testing can provide a competitive advantage for independent salons. Knotty Dog in Chelsea, AL, staff go through PetTech First Aid and CPR training. BowMeow Regency in Sheffield, MA, is an American Kennel Club S.A.F.E. (Safety, Assurance, Fundamentals, Education) Certified Salon, and grooming staff are AKC S.A.F.E.-certified groomers. Both salons tout their status.

pARTNER WITH VETERINARIANS

11 With more and more big box locations offering veterinary services, it only makes sense to consider doing the same. Mike Murray has created multiple partnerships for Bonnie’s Barkery in Phoenix, AZ.

“We partner with a holistic vet to do a monthly anesthesia-free teeth-cleaning clinic, in conjunction with dental hygienists,” he says, sharing that the store gets a percentage of fees. “We also created an office in our last remodel that our vet partners utilize to see patients.”

And after the Food and Drug Administration released its report on canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and related foods, Murray invited a holistic vet to give a seminar on the topic.

“It went very well!” Murray says. “We had 30-plus customers attend. It was very interactive, with lots of questions asked and answered.

“Most who attended had a much better understanding of the potential risks of their dog getting DCM and learned ways to mitigate that potential risk.”

Some customers did ask about changing foods, Murray says, “but a lot of the discussion was around using toppers that can provide additional nutrients and taurine to the pet’s diet,” resulting in new regular sales of the products.

Mark Vitt has also created such partnerships for his six Mutts & Co. stores in Ohio.

“We have a mobile vaccination clinic, coordinated by a local vet office, at our stores every other Friday to provide low cost vaccination and wellness checks.”

TAKE A RISK ON UNIQUE, HIGH-END PRODUCTS

12 “You find unique products in our store,” says Connie Roller of The Feed Bag Pet Supply in Grafton, WI. “Department stores and big-box pet stores all have the same old, same old.”

Roller says her staff works hard at trade shows, looking for unique, fun or even quirky products.

“We are willing to gamble with slightly more high-end products because although our customers can squeeze a nickel to death, they won’t hesitate on a $195 ortho dog bed that matches their décor perfectly,” she says.

“We also have some handcrafted wood products like pet steps and diners, along with handcrafted cat trees that we drive a few hours to pick up. These are definitely on the higher-end of retail, but they actually look and feel more like furniture than what you can get at [big-box stores].”

The store carries most of these higher-end products year-round, but, Roller says, “we sell more during the holidays because people can justify splurging when they can call it a gift.”

The Hermitage, TN, location of Nashville Pet Products is a former convenience store and doesn’t try to hide it.

DON’T DO COOKIE-CUTTER WHEN DESIGNING YOUR STORE(S)

13 Nashville Pet Products has six stores. While signage provides brand consistency, each location has a different look and layout — partly because of commercial space availability, but also by design. Perhaps the most unusual is the Hermitage, TN, location, which is a former convenience store.

“We keep each store unique to avoid a cookie-cutter, big-box feel,” Keefer Dickerson says.

This advice also applies to stores with one location: Don’t try to look like a mini-big box.

Danielle Wilson of Bath & Biscuits in Granville, OH, explains.

“I had a vision in my head of how I wanted my store and salon to look. I didn’t want to look cookie-cutter. I wanted to decorate with vintage items and displays, to have real hardwood floors and inviting rooms to explore. I had been watching for my building to become available for a while and jumped on it as soon as I saw the ‘for rent’ sign.”

TREAT YOUR CUSTOMERS LIKE EXTENDED FAMILY

14 Customers at The Wagging Tail in Las Vegas, NV, get asked about their pets, but Kimberly Gatto also asks about the people.

“With our loyal repeat customers, we get to know them and their family. When their two-legged kids come in with them, we engage the kids (How was school? What did you learn? How’s the team going? etc.). If customers have brought up issues, we try our best to remember and ask how it is going (How’s your mom doing after her surgery? How’s the job hunt going? How was the Stones concert you saw last week?).

Gatto is not afraid to tell folks that she doesn’t think of them as customers, but as an extension of her family.

“We care about their entire family (human and animal). We mourn when they mourn. We feel joy when they feel joy. It’s all about community. Being a part of a community and being totally vested in it.”

Nancy Okun of Cats n Dogs in Port Charlotte, FL, shares that sentiment.

“One customer shared that she doesn’t have the best home situation, so when she comes into the store, we give her a big hug and let her know how great it is to see her. She talks. We listen. She leaves feeling better. It’s not about selling dog food.”

Nor is it all about selling with Charlsye Lewis of Metro Animals in Fort Worth, TX. Among the many practices at her store are “introducing them and their kids to our shop macaws, Baby and Blueberry; genuinely complimenting something about their dogs; and offering the Southern hospitality of greeting them when they come in, and as they leave.”

And Jack Carey of Food for Pets in Manchester, NH, has gone so far as to loan his car and money, in a sense, to customers.

“A few years ago, a customer locked her keys in her car. She had a second set at home, so I let her borrow my vehicle to go home and get the spare set. We’ve had a few cases of customers forgetting their credit card at work or home, and we tell them to take the product with them and call us with the credit card info. We appreciate our customers’ trust and want to return the favor.”

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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