A Silver Lining for Brick-and-Mortars

Retailers can use the free Pet Store Pro online training program to take advantage of the shift toward shopping small.


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The record number of brick-and-mortar retailers that closed for good in 2017 may fill some pet store owners with a sense of doom—but for small independents, it’snot all bad news.

 

Department and chain stores were the hardest hit—due more to declining public share prices than to online competition or changing market demographics. In fact, a survey by National Retail Federation found that 78 percent of people shopped at brick-and-mortar stores as much or more last year as they did the year before.

 

Fit Small Business, an online trade publication for small business owners, attributes part of the big-box decline to the fact that shopping small and local has come back in style. Today, even price-conscious, digitally connected consumers like to support neighborhood businesses and to feel involved with what they buy. The trend includes Millennials, who now make up the largest portion of the pet care market.

 

This shift gives independent pet stores a real advantage, if your employees have the right skills. Today’s pet parents tend to pamper their animal companions, viewing items like toys or treats as essentials. When it comes to important purchases, they are willing to pay more for prompt, personalized service than to sort through countless selections online or at a big-box store with a disinterested staff.

 

Pet parents can be loyal, profitable customers, but they are also demanding shoppers. Free online training from Pet Store Pro (petstorepro.com) is the cost- and time-efficient way to make sure your team has the specialized expertise to attract and retain these buyers.

 

 

Ten Years Strong and Still 100 Percent Free

Pet Store Pro was developed by the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) to specifically address independent pet store owners’ need for consistent, reliable employee training. The program was launched at Global Pet Expo in 2008 with a focus on business basics and pet care for entry-level employees. Now in its tenth year, Pet Store Pro has expanded to offer 30 associate- and management-level courses and remains 100 percent free, thanks to continued full funding by the distributor members of PIDA.

 

Pet Store Pro can be used alone or as part of an existing training program and does not promote specific brands. Courses focus on essential skills for any pet retailer—whether or not your store sells live pets. Training managers can customize curriculum by assigning only the chapters that apply to your business or to the skills your people need to develop.

 

Pet Store Pro’s online format is easy to navigate from a computer or tablet, letting students study independently whenever and wherever it works for them—and for
you. Chapters are fact-based and use examples that relate directly to pet stores, so your employees can put what they learned to use right away.

 

Bring Everyone On Board

A specialty business with a small staff or frequent turnover needs to get every new hire up to speed right away. Customers shop at independents to make important choices for their pets. They expect to receive knowledgeable service every time they walk in the door. The last thing a pet parent wants to hear from an associate is “let me see if I can find someone who can help.”

 

“People shop here instead of online or big-box stores so they can talk with us about their pet’s issues instead of troubleshooting them on their own,” says Matt Varela, manager of Liz’s Pet Shop, a family-owned business in Chicago. Most of Varela’s employees start out with no background in pet retail. Pet Store Pro is part of every new hire’s on-boarding program.

 

“When we first heard about Pet Store Pro, we were struggling to create a training program that would be efficient, effective and to the point,” he says. “Giving everyone a consistent curriculum makes it easier to determine if new associates are ready to face customers on their own.”

 

Pet Store Pro’s color-coded dashboard makes it easy for training managers to review and assign chapters, set deadlines and check progress. Test results help to identify employees’ areas of strength and weakness, so you know if they need more hands-on coaching.

 

Varela assigns all of Pet Store Pro’s pet care chapters and most of the business essentials to all employee. He prints the study guides and tests for students to complete at a scheduled time in the store’s back office, where they are free of distractions. “I try to schedule training when we’re less busy so I’m available to answer questions,” he says. He keeps a list of topics he wants to emphasize or clarify with trainees one-on-one. “I drill them with questions until they can answer properly, and I feel that they are prepared for the sales floor.”

 

Build Skills and Confidence

Leah Watkins is manager of Aquarium, a pond, reef and fish store in Knoxville, Tenn., where Pet Store Pro makes up the sales component of a six-week employee-training program. During week one, she assigns the customer service and sales and freshwater fish chapters. During week two, it’s merchandising fundamentals and saltwater fish.

 

Associates must complete the chapters before they move on to more technical training about the products and equipment the store sells. “Pet Store Pro is a great foundation for employees like me. I grew up as a fish owner, and thought I knew everything about them,” says Watkins. “But when I started the job, I discovered that there was much more to learn.”

 

Today’s shoppers are likely to research potential purchases online first and expect your associates to discuss their options with them in detail. Pet Store Pro’s basic pet care chapters gives Aquarium’s team the foundational knowledge to help shoppers choose the right products to keep fish happy and healthy. The retail business chapters develop the customer service and sales skills that help employees find out more about shoppers individually, and then suggest items they might not have been aware that they needed.

 

“There’s a lot involved in aquarium maintenance, so it’s not enough to just ask customers if they are familiar with caring for fish,” Watkins says. “Our whole team
must be able to provide consistent information upfront to make sure customers understand what’s required to help their pets thrive. Otherwise, they will hold us accountable if something goes wrong.”

 

An expert staff helps Aquarium build customer loyalty and grow sales. “Training convinces my people that what they do here matters,” Watkins says. “Instead of simply asking ‘yes or no’ questions, they have the confidence to chat with customers about their needs, which increases opportunities for sales.”

 

Connect with Customers

Establishing genuine connections is how brick-and-mortar retailers keep pet parents coming back. Customers—particularly Millennials—expect authentic interactions and are suspicious of a pushy hard sell. Associates miss valuable opportunities to build business if they come on too strong or if they avoid approaching shoppers because they don’t know what to say.

 

The right attitude might come naturally to experienced salespeople, but can be intimidating to new employees. That’s why Pet Store Pro developed a 15-minute “micro” course, Engaging Customers, to introduce new hires to the art of delivering great service. The chapter teaches simple techniques associates can use to establish initial connections, get customers talking and demonstrate their sincere interest in shoppers’ wants and needs.

 

Engaging Customers explains how to strike up natural conversations with customers throughout the store—at the entrance, in the aisles and at checkout—and encourage them to take a closer look at products and store displays. A downloadable workbook provides tips and examples of how to personalize shoppers’ experiences, as well as role-play scenarios employees can use to practice what they learned. The chapter can be used alone or in combination with Pet Store Pro’s complete business essentials curriculum for sales associates, which includes full-length chapters and additional micro courses.

 

Seize Your Advantage

Despite the discounts and convenience of big-box and online retail, people still like to shop in person. Pet stores that can provide the expert, knowledgeable service that customers can’t get online have the best chance to succeed. A structured training program like Pet Store Pro will prepare your team to win over pet parents of any type — and take advantage of the shift toward small. 

 

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. Since its launch in 2008, more than 30,000 pet store owners, managers and sales associates from more than 6,000 stores have used Pet Store Pro. Test drive Pet Store Pro at PIDA’s booth (#2301) today or log on to petstorepro.com any time to learn more about the program.

 

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