Preparing for Life After Millennials
The pet industry’s efforts to engage Millennials appear to be paying off quite nicely; but what is being done to build the next generation of pet owners?
After much discussion and stress, the pet industry finally seems to have a solid grasp on how to properly market and sell to Millennial pet owners. But, as we have learned with Baby Boomers, the inevitable passage of time means that no generation can be counted on to fuel the economic engine of an industry forever.
With that in mind it’s never too early for retailers to start thinking about what they can do to help develop the next generation of pet owners and eventually earn their loyalty as shoppers. In fact, given that Post-Millennials are expected to make up an even bigger consumer base than their predecessors, efforts to groom this up-and-coming demographic will likely prove to be a quite lucrative endeavor in the long run.
While worries run amok that today’s children—whose eyes are often glued to electronic screens—no longer care about pets, retailers across the country are proving that nothing could be further than the truth. With the right amount of outreach through events, programs and in-store merchandising, kids have the potential to be as interested as ever in learning about and caring for pets. Sometimes, all that is needed is an open invitation or easy access point.
“It’s good to give kids this initial exposure,” says Jeff Manley, co-owner of TailsSpin Pet Stuff, a three-store retail operation in the Savannah, Ga., area. For TailsSpin, this exposure includes fundraising efforts, field trips and workshops for a local high school’s veterinary science program.
“Some [pet programs] in schools are being cut because of budgets,” Manley says. “Kids don’t have as much exposure to animals in the curriculum like in the past, so this is a way to reach out to schools and bring some type of animal awareness to them.”
Steve King, president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) and executive director of The Pet Care Trust, (PCT) has also noticed a shortage of animal-based learning in schools. To counteract this trend, PCT launched the Pets in the Classroom program, a grant-based initiative that provides small animals, fish and herptile pets to classrooms across North America. A resounding success so far, Pets in the Classroom has awarded more than 95,000 grants since it debuted. That translates to more than four million children having daily contact with a pet during the school year—contact that King says is vital to creating future pet owners.
“There’s a lot of things that are competing for our kids’ time and interest these days,” he says. “We see [Pets in the Classroom] as a way to engage kids in elementary and middle schools with having a classroom pet. It helps them recognize how fun it can be. Many kids who have access to a pet in the classroom will want to have a similar pet at home.”
Though Pets in the Classroom is focused on school settings, retailers can use in-store promotion of the program as an easy entry point for communicating with families and the greater community. Pets in the Classroom has fliers and posters available for retailers to hang and distribute in their stores, coupon programs with independent retailers as well as rebate-based sustaining grants available to teachers who choose to shop in any independent stores. A teacher simply sends PCT a receipt from the store to be reimbursed up to $125 for pet care necessities.
“Any independent pet retailer can participate at that level,” King says. “It’s one thing retailers can do to help reach out to the community and attract families.”
Engagement in Action
When it comes to engaging youngsters in the local community, one would be hard pressed to find a pet store that does a better job than Petland in Albuquerque, N.M., which has been hosting a free program for children called Learning Safari for the past four and a half years.
Held on Thursday evenings and open to all ages, Petland Albuquerque’s Learning Safari is a two-hour event that exposes children to all of the animals within the store.
“We do it kind of like an amusement park,” says owner Terri Hallberg, explaining that the store’s young guests are split into small groups that are guided by store associates. The children take turns holding small animals, reptiles and birds, and receive a tour of the store’s aquariums. Throughout the evening, there are opportunities for participants to ask questions and share thoughts on their favorite animals.
Drawing anywhere from 30 to 60 kids on a given night, the event has proven so popular that, in order to keep numbers in control, Hallberg sometimes avoids advertising it on Facebook.
“Most people are trying to find a fun and inexpensive activity for the kids,” she says. “Quite often, we’re getting first-time people in the store, but we also have regular kids that we get to know by name.”
Pet World in Lawrence, Kan., is another retailer that actively works to engage children in the local community. The store’s multifaceted approach includes a wide range of events, such as Feature Creature, which highlights a specific animal each week; Storytime Live!, a book reading with an accompanying animal; hosting birthday parties; a week-long spring break camp; and three week-long summer camps—Critter Camp, Animal Camp and Wilderness Camp.
“We started our outreach program as a way to help teachers who could not afford pets in their classrooms and as a service to keep young adolescents out of trouble,” co-owner Sherry Emerson says. “The camps, classes and parties came later in response to customer requests.”
Of course, building such a robust program offering took a fair amount of trial and error, so Pet World’s first experiments with birthday parties, classes and camps were free of charge.
“We stumbled our way through and, with the advice of the families, figured out what worked and what didn’t,” Emerson says. “Even with the financial loss, the kids programs were bringing in new families every weekend and inspiring children.”
Today, these programs are not only helping Pet World engage the next generation of prospective pet owners, they are actually contributing to the store’s bottom line. In fact, the camps sell out every summer, and the store’s parties are booked weeks—even months—in advance and generate what Emerson calls “a huge profit.”
Pet World’s example notwithstanding, hosting events or programs that cater to children in a store’s community is not usually going to bring a direct, immediate reward. Typically, these types of initiatives serve to help a pet store over the long run instead.
“It helps our community representation in the sense that if you’re looking to support a company that supports the community, we fit very well into that,” says Manley. “We are a company that truly wants to help our community, and I think that’s one of the things that helps to separate our business.”
It is a sentiment that is echoed by TailsSpin Pet Stuff co-owner Jusak Yang Bernhard, who notes that the parents of children who participate in the store’s programs are usually very supportive of the business.
“We all need to encourage shopping local and everyone’s involvement,” he says.
At Petland Albuquerque, Hallberg recognizes that not every child who comes to the store’s Learning Safari is going to buy one of the animals they are exposed to during the event. “But it definitely gets us talked about,” she says.
“I’m sure it makes quite an impact on the loyalty to our store. If they do decide to buy an animal later, I don’t know why they’d ever go anywhere else after they’ve held them all here.”
Hallberg also notes that hosting events like Learning Safari is one way that her store stands out from internet-based retailers like Chewy.com. These personal, face-to-face experiences give Petland Albuquerque an edge that shopping online simply cannot offer.
“Having this niche is something that can’t be duplicated online,” she says.
For retailers looking to make their first foray into the world of child and community engagement, Manley advises starting by building relationships with neighboring schools or local businesses that might make good future partners. In TailsSpin’s case, the store initially offered to host local car washes for groups looking to fundraise. From there, TailsSpin positioned itself as a business ready and willing to help out, and more opportunities followed.
“Try to find easy ways at first to get kids involved and excited,” Manley says. “Start to build those relationships.”
In the case of a continuous in-store event like Learning Safari at Petland Albuquerque, Hallberg suggests beginning by focusing on one particular animal that is special to your store.
“Pick a type of animal that’s easy for you to promote more or have out more,” she says. “Stores don’t do the ‘store pet’ as much as they used to, but it’s nice to have something that stays in the store and is known to the community.”
Above all, know that this type of community outreach is important and worthwhile, but not necessarily a ticket to increased profits.
“If a pet store is looking to make a quick buck by offering kids programs, they’ll be disappointed because it takes time,” Emerson says. “But we’ve found that if you offer what you can, a little at a time, for the right reasons, the incidental revenue follows.” PB