Building a Better Shopping Experience

There are nine areas that pet specialty retailers should focus on to give their customers a more convenient, and thus more attractive, shopping experience.


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It’s a scene played out daily in pet stores all over the country. The customer walks into the store but can’t find the product she wants. She looks around for an employee to help, but they are nowhere to be found. The customer is usually patient–after all, she loves shopping in this particular pet store–but today she has to rush home to pick up the kids from school and is time crunched. Fed up after waiting and looking in vain for several minutes, the customer storms out of the store, thinking, “This waiting game is becoming a common occurrence in this store. I am tired of this inconvenience. I know there are other stores out there where I can get better service.”

This probably isn’t an isolated incident; many other customers who shop at this particular pet store have likely reached a similar conclusion. As a result, the store has lost customers and money.

In these tough economic times, when pet retailers have to scrap for every customer, there is no excuse for not working harder to make customers’ shopping experience more convenient. While most independent pet specialty retailers understand that one of their biggest competitive strengths is offering shoppers a high level of customer service, many fail to consider convenience as part of equation.

“Customer service is much more than solving grievances,” says Shel Horowitz, a Hadley, Mass.-based market consultant and the author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.  “It’s also about accommodation. By putting shopper convenience at the center of their customer service strategy, pet retailers create great opportunities to add new customers while continuing to connect with existing ones.”

Diann Beason, director of sales for Only Natural Pet, a Boulder, Colo.-based pet retailer that primarily sells holistic pet products online, adds, “Relieving the customers’ busy lives by making the shopping experience as convenient as possible should be the goal of every retailer.”

Providing convenience for customers should involve every aspect of a pet store’s operations, both in the brick-and-mortar store and online. However, there are nine areas in particular that will have a big impact on how convenient a customer’s shopping experience will be in the pet store.


1. Operating Hours
A pet store’s operating hours should be designed to suit its customers, not the retailer. Of course, unless you’re a mass merchandiser like Wal-Mart, you can’t stay open 24 hours a day; nor should you. Instead, look at the store’s customer demographics and even survey shoppers to see if they find the store’s operating hours convenient.

“Ask yourself, ‘Do my operating hours meet customers’ expectations?’” suggests Jim Dion, a Chicago-based retail consultant and president of Dionco Inc. “Today, staying open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, isn’t good enough. You’re probably not catching your customers on the way to and from work.”

However, this doesn’t mean that pet retailers should extend their hours simply for the sake of doing so. “You may not have to stay open past 6 p.m. on the weekdays if you are a boutique pet store and focusing on a special segment of the retail market,” Dion explains. “The important point is to give some thought to how you set your operating hours.”


2. A User-Friendly Website
The good news is that pet stores really can be open 24 hours a day, assuming the retailer has a website that’s user friendly and convenient. While many pet specialty retailers already have some type of Internet presence, it’s important to regularly evaluate a store’s website to ensure that it is an attractive extension of the business. Retailers should ask themselves questions such as “Do the graphics give customers a good impression of the store, or do they turn shoppers off?” and “Do the features of the website make it easy to explore, or do they simply confuse visitors?”

“[A pet store’s] website should try to replicate the brick-and-mortar experience,” says Beason. “So, in designing the website, a pet retailer needs to think like a customer. For instance, our store tries to make helpful product suggestions online, just like a helpful retail clerk in the brick-and-mortar store.”

Horowitz points out that most websites are designed by computer technicians who won’t necessarily see the site from the viewpoint of the general public. “Customer convenience is not a priority for the [technicians],” he explains. “When your [web designer] finishes the website, you need to check their work. Test it. Also, make sure it includes a map with directions to your store and such basic brick-and-mortar information as your address and a phone number.”


3. Customer-Friendly Voicemail
Luckily, most small, independent pet retailers do not utilize a sophisticated phone system that will lead callers in circles and never let them talk to a real person. However, Dion says that pet stores should have a good answering system in place to provide information about the store and allows customers to leave messages after hours.

“When the store is closed, there should be a message telling the customer, ‘We are sorry that we missed you, but here are our hours,’” he says, noting that the call-answering system should also offer directions to the store and direct customers to the business’ website. According to Dion, such a phone system shouldn’t be very expensive and will prove to be a great asset in providing convenience to shoppers.


4. Merchandising
How a pet store displays its items for sale is key in creating a convenient shopping experience. According to Cheryl Flink, vice president of customer experience solutions for the Louisville, Colo.-based customer service consulting firm Market Force Information, there are three things that must be right when it comes to a convenient merchandising strategy. First, the item must be in stock, be easy to locate and be clearly labeled with a price. “Having the aisles clearly marked, the inventory checked regularly and the pricing continuously monitored goes a long way to ensuring that a customer will be satisfied with their shopping experience,” Flinkl says.

In merchandising, it’s the little things that can make a difference. For instance, why not price each item rather than have consumers search for a shelf tag?

For pet stores that actually sell pets, there is an added dimension that must be considered. Because these retailers are selling living, breathing animals, it is essential that customers easily understand what it will take to provide the proper care for the pet. To this end, B & B Pet Store in Mobile, Ala., makes their customers’ shopping experience as convenient as possible by taking the time to prepare free, one-page handouts on almost every pet their store sells.

“By reading the handouts, the customer will know the exact habitat and care requirements for their pets,” explains Sally Trufant, co-owner of B & B Pet Store. “In fact, armed with this knowledge, they may even select a different pet, one that better suits their lifestyle and temperament.”


5. Staff Training
In Dion’s opinion, the most important element of providing a convenient shopping experience in the pet store is a well-trained staff. “It’s real simple,” he explains. “Training means teaching the employee to put the customer first. When a customer comes into the store and no one is taking care of him, an employee–any employee–should drop everything. Customer service should be 90 percent of what an employee does. Like all skills, an employee’s customer service skills will improve with training.”

Sales associates should be trained to ask customers key questions when problems or questions arise. “Pet retailers need to understand what the customer is looking for or what their concern is, and then provide a quick solution,” Flink advises. “Sales associates should take the extra step to create a better customer shopping experience. For instance, they should gather the items for the customer, rather than leaving all the work to them.”

Flink provides this example: A customer goes into a pet store and explains to an employee that her dog Fido’s coat is dull, and she wants to make it have a nice sheen. In response, the sales associate could suggest, and point out, three or four products that are designed to help with dog coats–maybe some vitamin products or a certain type of brush, or perhaps a special shampoo or conditioning product.

“That type of knowledge and service can only come through extensive training,” Flink says.


6. The Checkout
When a customer is ready to check out, the last thing they want to see is a long line leading up to the register. According to Dion, long lines should never happen if a pet store has a good POS system. “A retailer needs to invest the money in a state-of-the-art POS,” Dion says. “It should be fast enough so that the customer can check out items quickly.”

Horowitz agrees that technology can really help improve customer service and suggests that pet retailers make an effort to keep up with trends. “Devices are now being sold that allow customers to scan items as they shop,” Horowitz reveals. “When the customer comes to the cash register, all he has to do is connect the device to the cash register and out comes the receipt. Obviously, the retailer will have to ensure that everything in the cart is on the receipt, but it’s a device that can help speed up [the checkout process].”

   
7. Payment Method
Great customer service will be severely undercut if a pet retailer doesn’t provide customers with convenient ways to pay for their orders. If enhancing customer convenience is the objective, it is essential that a retailer accept every possible payment method possible, from credit cards to good old-fashioned personal checks–a rarity among small, independent stores.

According to Horowitz, retailers who think that accepting personal checks is risky are mistaken. “There is no reason why a retailer should not accept personal checks,” he says. “If the retailer is worried about fraud, technology is available that can help prevent it.”


8. Attitude Adjustment                
Pet specialty retailers can enhance the convenience of the shopping experience by making the customer feel special. Returns, for instance, can be a real hassle, so try to make the experience as pain-free as possible. This can be accomplished by solving problems quickly. Customers don’t care about how difficult it may be for a retailer to resolve a problem, they just want results. Otherwise, they will take their business elsewhere.

How does a retailer know if they’ve solved the problem? By following up, of course. “Call a customer afterward to see if the problem has been solved, and ask him if there is anything else your store can do,” explains Joseph Jaffe, a Westport, Conn.-based marketing consultant and author of such best-selling books as Life After the 30-second Spot and Join the Conversation.

Also, retailers should do their best to make customers feel truly special by taking special orders and filling them quickly. “Big-box stores will never be able to handle special orders as well as we can,” says Ed Varty, the owner of Pets, Pets, Pets, in Califon, N.J. “We do everything special to ensure that our customers’ special orders are filled within a week.”

B & B Pet Stop has a Very Important Pet Club (VIP) membership program that goes a long way toward making its customers feel special. One of the benefits of being a VIP club member is that each week B & B puts items on sale for 50 percent for VIP members only. The store makes a special effort to let VIP club members know what the VIP sale items are for the month, since the items change each month.


9. Use Social Media
Engaging customers through social media is another great way to enhance the convenience of their shopping experience. Whether or not a pet store sells items online, free tools, like Twitter, Facebook and blogs, can be used to keep customers informed of sales and product inventory, as well as offer them helpful pet-related information.

“If your customers know when a product they like or buy a lot is going on sale, you can greatly improve their shopping experience and create a sense of goodwill,” explains Lyn Mettler, founder and co-owner of the Charleston, S.C.-based Step Ahead Inc., a social media, online marketing and public relations company.

“Providing coupons and special offers via social networks are other ways to develop a good relationship with your customers,” she adds. “It helps them to feel special by giving them information they can’t get elsewhere.”

When it comes to battling the big-box pet specialty stores, as well as the grocery stores and mass merchandisers, it’s no longer enough to simply market a small, independent retailer’s friendly atmosphere and pet care knowledge. To truly excel in today’s tough competitive climate, pet stores must to work harder at making the customer’s shopping experience more convenient. “Don’t make the customer work to buy something in your store,” Jaffe advises. “And don’t give them a reason to look elsewhere for what they want to buy.”


Contributing writer Ron Chepesiuk (www.ronchepesiuk.com) is a South Carolina-based freelance writer.

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