The Best of Both Worlds
Pet Supplies Plus has spent the past three decades constructing a consistent retail experience while leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit of its franchisee owner-operators.
In a pet specialty channel that has largely been polarized between large, national big-box chains and small, regional retailers, Pet Supplies Plus (PSP) has earned its success by operating somewhere between those two extremes.
The chain has spent the past three decades constructing a consistent retail experience across all of its stores while, at the same time, leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit and community connections that are the hallmark of its franchisee owner-operators. It has been an approach that has paid solid dividends for the company, which has been able to harness the best of both worlds in its approach to brand building.
With more than 360 locations in 27 states, PSP clearly has size on its side. Yet, according to Derek Panfil, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing, the company does not take the same broad approach as Petco and PetSmart when it comes to marketing its brand. “We don’t have the type of resources to do what a big-box retailer in the pet space would do—national media campaigns through television, radio and print,” he says. “We tend to be a bit more local and direct. We look at ways to leverage going direct to customers, instead of having a broad reach.”
This includes encouraging and empowering franchisees and store staff to engage with pet owners not only in the store, but out in the communities they serve. It is an approach that strengthens the bonds with loyal shoppers while expanding the company’s customer base.
“We rely on our store team members, as well as franchisees, to be able to get involved with and do things that support the local community, trying to draw new neighbors in through community involvement, as opposed to national campaigns,” says Panfil, noting that it is a strategy that is a particularly good fit for PSP’s franchise locations.
“When we have owners who are actually living in the communities where their stores are, they tend to be pretty intertwined. So, we feel that the franchise model we have really plays well, especially in an emotional category like pet, because it allows the franchisee to get very involved in the community.”
Still, while PSP has benefitted from a hyper-local approach to marketing, it is important that the company projects a consistent brand message. With this in mind, franchise and corporate stores alike are armed with the resources necessary to ensure that everyone is pulling in the same direction, even with the nuances that can be found from location to location. It is a process, however, that is still a work in progress.
“In the past, we didn’t have a lot of brand standards and the resources that could help franchisees propel their businesses forward,” Panfil says, referring to the marketing materials used to promote individual stores. “What we’ve been working on as we’ve evolved over the past few years is the ability to think like a local store, but also leverage our scale and size. We want franchisees to have some freedom, but there are guard rails that we have been putting into place while still allowing stores to deploy their marketing in a local way.
“We have brand standards that we have been working on, in terms of what the brand message out to our neighbors should be, as well as things like color palette, etc. We provide templates that can be customized for a local store or events at that store.”
PSP’s consistent, yet highly localized approach extends to not only traditional forms of promotion, such as direct-mail pieces and monthly or bi-weekly circulars, but also to digital platforms such as social media. This is an area that the company has identified as holding a lot of potential for its unique approach to marketing.
“We recognize that it is a great way to interact with both current and future neighbors,” says Panfil. “It’s a way for them to feel like they are part of a community. And we are working on giving our franchise and corporate stores the ability to partake in broad-based programs, but also be able to manage social media from their unique store.”
Part of maintaining a cohesive retail brand also includes providing a uniform shopping experience from one store to the next. This is another area in which PSP strives to find balance in empowering storeowners to demonstrate entrepreneurship while still providing chain-wide cohesiveness.
Although there may be up to a 20-percent difference in the total number of SKUs that can be found in any given store, depending on size, more than 95 percent of PSP locations are consistent in the product categories they participate in and most remain fairly consistent in the brands they stock.
“One of the key points we have that is different than other neighborhood pet stores is that we try to leverage our size and scale through negotiating with vendors, and then having a go-to-market pricing strategy that is analytical in nature,” explains Panfil.
That being said, “We do have certain stores that carry a few more brands, or a few less, depending on the size of the box and the actual sales at the location.”
To better leverage the unique personality of each location, the company is currently working on how to better customize its assortments by store. For example, the chain often allows individual storeowners to try out new, regional brands that may not have been on the corporate radar before—particularly when it comes to pet foods. It is a practice that, while sometimes challenging from a corporate standpoint, has the potential to have a positive impact chain-wide.
“We’re always looking for good, up-and-coming foods that are very nutritionally sound for pets,” says Panfil. “Doing the research on things that franchisees want to bring in is probably the most challenging aspect of it. But that being said, it’s like we have an extra buying team out there, seeing what our neighbors are asking for. It allows us to test some foods before we bring them in to all of the stores. And that’s how it generally goes with food—it doesn’t go from nothing to everyone; it starts with some subset of stores and goes from there.”
Product presentation is another important element of PSP’s consistent yet localized approach to pet product retailing. Here, the company does its best to apply a uniform merchandising strategy to stores that can vary significantly in size and shape.
“Every store is pretty unique, because we don’t do build-to-suits,” says Panfil. “However, we always place food up front because it makes it convenient to find what a majority of folks come in looking for. We do have some standard flows that we use—dog is in a prominent position, and cat will be on the opposite perimeter wall. But beyond that, the actual layout of the store and how it flows will be a little bit different.”
Of course, no merchandising strategy would be complete without special displays designed to capture the attention of passing customers. With this in mind, PSP deploys a monthly promotional schedule that utilizes a combination of promotional endcaps and in-aisle displays, further adding to the consistency that can be found from location to location. “It’s a way for us to promote products that neighbors may not have seen in the aisles, or are timely,” says Panfil, using flea and tick products as an example of items that would be a good fit for timely promotion.