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Shoppers Keep Using a Local Pet Shop to Browse … and Then Buy Online. What’s a Store Owner to Do?




Lara unlocked the door to her pet store and stepped inside just as she’d done every Saturday for the last 10 years. Everything looked perfect for the weekend shoppers: The shelves were restocked, the floor cleaned, and the fish tanks were full of happy, healthy fish.


Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual pet businesses and people.


Nancy E. Hassel is founder and president of American Pet Professionals (APP), an award-winning networking and educational organization dedicated to helping pet entrepreneurs, businesses and animal rescues to grow, work together and unite the pet industry. Contact her at .

“Let’s hope sales are better this weekend,” she thought and turned on the cash register. She felt the knot in the pit of her stomach tighten when she remembered it was time to do her books later today.

The doorbell interrupted her thoughts, and she smiled at the young couple and their young son walking through the door.

“Mommy, Mommy, look!” the boy laughed and ran straight over to the fish tanks. “They have sharks and piranhas and everything here!”


Lara giggled and turned to his parents.

“Jax here wants a pet, and we thought a fish tank might be a good start,” the mom began. “We want something that’s easy to clean, and that doesn’t need too much equipment.”

“I have just the thing,” Lara beamed and walked over to the beginner tanks. “This one’s got all the pumps and filters built in. All you need to do is add some water, and the fish of course.”

Then she crouched down and winked at the boy.

“It’s even got a glow-in-the-dark pirate ship inside!”

The boy’s eyes grew wide as he peered inside the fish tank. The boy’s mom asked a couple of questions about what fish would be suitable for the tank, and while they were talking, Lara could see the dad lean down to look at the tank’s packaging and tapping on his smartphone. As he put his phone down, she saw a flash of a popular price-busting website on the screen. She groaned inwardly as the man leaned in to whisper something in his wife’s ear.


“I’m sorry, but it looks like we can get this a whole lot cheaper online,” the woman said sheepishly and reached for her son. “We’ll just wait for the tank to be delivered and then come and get some fish from you next weekend.”

Lara was tempted to say she’d price-match whatever offer they’d just seen online, but then she remembered how ridiculously small her margins were already. If she lowered her price, she’d practically be giving the fish tank away for free. Lara kept quiet and struggled to keep smiling as she waved the little boy and his parents goodbye.

Saturdays used to be Lara’s favorite day of the week, with families coming in to buy food and toys for their pets and chatting about their animals.

“It’s just not the same anymore,” she thought with a sigh. “It’s like my store has turned into an expensive showroom for the internet stores, but I don’t get any of the sales!”

She brought up a spreadsheet showing this year’s revenue on her computer, and it didn’t look good. No matter how she stacked the numbers, the truth was staring her in the face: Sales were down, the internet giants were taking over, and she had no idea what to do about it.

The Big Questions

  • How can Lara incentivize customers to buy her products when they’re in her store, instead of going online later?
  • How can Lara’s small store compete with the online pet retailers low prices and fierce promotions?
  • What products, services or events could Lara consider introducing to distinguish her store from the online competition?

Real Deal Responses

Jennipher S. Norwich, CT

Customer interaction is huge! We drive home to our team that we are the place people want to go for pet supplies … but why? We are friendly, helpful, trustworthy and happy in our environment! Way better than poking on a cellphone alone!

Janet M. Rockledge, FL

We deal with this daily when it comes to food. My argument is that when buying online you never know how the food is stored. Is it in an air-conditioned facility? Then when it ships to you, it’s in hot trucks and then delivered to your door, where it bakes in the sun if you’re not home. What do you think happens to it?

Jane B.  Los Angeles, CA

Perhaps she could reinforce the “get it now” instinct most buyers have and narrow the gap between her price and the online price by throwing in some high-margin freebies at zero or discounted pricing.

Elvis J. San Rafael, CA

We’ve been dealing with price gouging since before the internet. So, the answer is to do what we’ve been doing for 20 years: Sometimes you have to give the tank away at wholesale. It can serve as an act of goodwill that the customer will remember. Also, many times the kits come with stuff many people don’t want, so don’t stock the kits that are sold cheaply online. Make some custom kits that are exclusive to your store. There will be no way for a shopper to quickly check the internet.

Charlotte S. Issaquah, WA

We have the same thing. All we can do is price-match, offer superior service and convenience, and then hope we make up the margin elsewhere.

Thomas N. Merrillville, IN

We brick-and-mortar stores need to wake up. The blame for this problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the manufacturers. They are the ones that created this problem! They pretend to support the independents, but their actions of selling to the internet giants again and again at way below our cost betrays us. Stop supporting those companies immediately and tell them why. Second, compare the online guys’ price before you buy some of these promotional items like aquarium kits and filter. Don’t buy if going in you can’t compete. Third, find a rep from these companies and ask them for some additional help if you purchase some given quantity. Last, especially in aquatics, look for manufactures who recognize this problem and actually do something to help you compete, and then stop supporting those that don’t.

Maggie V. Fort Smith, AR

I believe our best chance to compete is to keep our inventory lean, carrying what actually sells and skipping what doesn’t.

Sal S. Webster, NY

If I were in Laura’s shoes I would approach this from a display approach. I would have all equipment out on the floor with no marketing boxes out. All boxes in the back stock room. I would price the system to include two fish and some gravel. You can’t price-match a package as easily as you can a individual item.



P.L.A.Y. Media Spotlight

At P.L.A.Y. — Pet Lifestyle & You — toy design is definitely a team effort! Watch PETS+ interviewer Chloe DiVita and P.L.A.Y.’s Director of Sales Lisa Hisamune as they talk about the toy design process, the fine-tuning that makes each toy so special and why every P.L.A.Y. collection is made with independent retailers top of mind.

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