Get With the Program

Structured employee training builds the skills that are necessary to drive retail success.



A well-trained staff can separate independent pet retailers that succeed from those that just scrape by. Today’s pet owners can find nearly any product online at a discount and grab the staples they need at a mass-merchandiser or big-box store.

Independents can’t compete on price or the convenience of one-stop shopping. An expert staff that can connect with customers is how smaller retailers set themselves apart.

Pet parents go to independent stores for advice about what’s best for their pets. They expect your employees to take a genuine interest in their issues and be able to recommend products that resolve them. Customers who trust your team’s expertise spend more, come back often and spread the word about your store to others. It takes knowledge and confidence to deliver this kind of personalized service, so most successful retailers have a training program in place to build these skills in every employee. 

Training is an investment that requires time up front, but pays off quickly and provides long-term returns. That’s why the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA) developed a free online training program specifically for independent retailers. Used alone or as part of an existing training program, Pet Store Pro ( is the cost- and time-efficient way for busy pet store owners and their staff to hit the ground running. 

Teach Service That Drive Sales
“Customers know that they can count on any one of my associates for accurate advice to help them the find the right solutions for their needs,” says Dorothy Hunter, owner of Paws Natural Pet Emporium in Kennewick, Wash. “Pet Store Pro helps my team understand that the service they provide helps the store succeed and inspires them to make business better.”

“Training builds a confidence in selling that few young employees can achieve on their own,” says Phil Ray, who owns Best 4K9, which operates stores in Greensboro and Oak Ridge, N.C. “Pet Store Pro helps the pet people I hire become retail professionals. They learn how to ask leading questions and develop the listening skills to help customers make informed choices.”

Mark Reynolds owns Ruffin’s Pet Centres, a chain of 14 independently owned franchises in Ontario, Canada. Ruffin’s new franchise owners are provided with comprehensive training resources that include Pet Store Pro before they open their stores, and Reynolds stresses the benefits of employee training to every owner. “People come to us to make better buying decisions,” he says. “Associates who know how to dig a little deeper to find out more about what shoppers need can use that information to build sales.” 

Cover All the Bases
A well-trained staff gives owners more time to focus on strategic business issues because they don’t feel that they have to be everywhere at once. Associates who understand why the work they do matters and know how to do it well need less micromanagement. The many responsibilities of a small business owner can make it easy to overlook sloppy habits and commonplace tasks that aren’t getting done. 

To make the most of your investment, training should help your team develop skills quickly and efficiently, and maintain a consistent level of service. “We’re so small that there’s often only the trainee and one other staff member in the store at a time,” Ray says. “I’m not always available to supervise, but I ask customers how they’re treated when I’m not there, and I don’t get any complaints.” 

Ray assigns his team all of Pet Store Pro’s business essentials chapters and the pet nutrition chapter, which he uses to prepare associates for vendor training. “It gets my associates thinking about the relationship between pet diets and health, so they better understand specific brand information from manufacturers,” he says.

The most successful programs include both formal and informal training. Formal training has defined content and learning objectives, and it includes ways to evaluate how well students learned. It helps you make sure you’ve covered all the bases and spells out the rules that you expect everyone to follow. 

Informal training is more loosely structured and often includes shadowing more experienced team members to see how they approach customers and perform specific tasks. Using formal training programs like Pet Store Pro to teach the basics first will reduce the amount of hands-on training required, so you and your managers can get back to your regular duties.

“A structured training program that students can study independently means managers can spend less time coaching them on the sales floor,” Reynolds says. His franchise owners assign Pet Store Pro’s sales associate curriculum first, then prioritize the pet care chapters based on what their individual stores carry.

Pet Store Pro gives Hunter’s team foundational knowledge about caring for specific pets, so they can recommend related products to keep them happy and healthy. “They learn to recognize common pet care issues and provide solutions quickly, instead of asking a manager for help,” she says. 

Make Your Expectations Clear
Training takes time and requires oversight to maximize results. Routine management for Pet Store Pro includes assigning coursework, setting deadlines and motivating students to follow through. If those tasks need more time and attention than you are able to devote, consider appointing a manager or trusted employee to handle some of the responsibilities. Whether you administer Pet Store Pro yourself or put someone else in charge, it’s essential to document the details of your program and set clear expectations. Also, explain the reasons for and benefits of training to everyone in advance.

“I discuss my expectations with potential new hires during interviews, so they can decide if they are willing to commit before I hire them,” Ray says. He emails an onboarding kit to new hires, which includes their Pet Store Pro chapter assignments, along with timesheets, schedules and other information.

Hunter goes over the employee handbook with new associates on their first day on the job, including their training assignments and deadlines. “We make it clear during hiring interviews that associates are responsible for completing their Pet Store Pro chapters in a timely manner and that they will need to demonstrate what they’ve learned,” she says.

Setting realistic deadlines will help students stay on track and motivated. Allowing too much time to complete assignments may create the impression that the lessons aren’t important, while too little time will leave students overwhelmed. “When I opened my first store, I assigned my whole team everything at once, but later realized it was too much,” Ray says. Now he sets deadlines based on the complexity and volume of the material each chapter. 

“It’s easier for all of us when I assign a segment of a chapter at a time, then assign the next segment once my students complete it,” he says. “Since I’m not always at the store, I monitor progress online, send reminders and change deadlines if I feel it’s warranted. I don’t want to create extra stress for associates who also have to study for school.” 

Hunter’s employees are expected to pass all of their assignments within 12 months of their start date, after which they receive a pay increase. The sooner they finish, the sooner they get their raise.

“We boosted the size of their pay increase when our state raised the minimum wage,” she says. “I calculated the return on investment and found it was worth it. To keep good employees, we have to compete.”

Train for Success
Most pet store hires love pets. It’s an important quality, but it’s not enough. To differentiate your store from the competition, you need an expert staff who can connect with customers too. Pet Store Pro is introducing a new online tutorial to help you implement a consistent, structured training program to transform entry-level workers into essential, and long-term, employees. The chapter covers developing a curriculum, establishing procedures and rules, determining appropriate incentives, and launching the training program. A downloadable workbook is included to walk you through the process. 

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. 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 to grow their business. Now in its tenth year, the program 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. Test drive Pet Store Pro at PIDA booth #2301 today or log on to any time to learn more.

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