Killing Them Softly



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Are independent brick-and-mortar pet shops being quietly phased out by vendors looking to punch their own ticket on the freight train that is Internet retailing?

Well, from where I’m sitting, it certainly looks that way—and that is downright scary for the pet industry.

For years, I have heard many manufacturers loudly and boldly declare their undying devotion to the small, independent pet specialty retailer. These vendors have held up their refusal to do business with grocery and mass retailers—and in many cases even Petco and PetSmart—as proof that they are true loyal partners to the mom-and-pop pet shops that have long made this a vibrant and diverse market.

While I still hear that same love song being sung to independents, the notes seem to get flatter every time I notice many of these same companies’ products being sold through online retail outlets—particularly Amazon.com—at price points that simply cannot be matched by traditional retailers. Apparently, I did not get the memo that Amazon now qualifies as a pet specialty retailer, but it must, as there are more than a few self-styled “pet specialty brands” that can be found on what can only be considered the Internet’s version of Wal-Mart on steroids.

And it is not just Jeff Bezos’s digital behemoth that is giving independent pet shops fits when comes to being undercut by their “exclusive” brands online. There are a number of web-based outlets that, while truly falling under the classification of pet specialty, can use their incredibly low overhead and ability to move a high volume of product as pricing weapons that small pet retailers could never hope to compete with.

Making matters worse is the fact that it just seems that many suppliers now prefer to work with these Internet merchants instead of the independent retailers who have long been their partners.

Of course, I cannot begrudge a pet product manufacturer the opportunity to grow its business in what is steadily becoming a more important marketplace for the pet industry. We know that Internet retailing is here to stay and everyone in this industry must adapt. But, at the same time, vendors need to remember that many consumers—the majority of shoppers, in fact—are more comfortable visiting a traditional brick-and-mortar store to get their pet needs.

In the end, paying attention to one retail format—even a flashy and dynamic one like the Internet—at the expense of another format is shortsighted and will not help the overall pet industry grow. The industry needs to operate under a model that produces sales and profits for all.

As one vendor said, “There will always be people willing to give away products at below market prices.” However, unless these retailers are also willing to lose money on such a strategy, they cannot do so without the help of pet product suppliers. And in many cases, it is the same suppliers who pledge their allegiance to the mom-and-pop pet shops that built this industry in the first place.

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