How Pet Stores Will Survive the Coronavirus



One week after pet industry leaders penned an open letter to state and local government officials on why pet businesses must remain open through the coronavirus pandemic, the same case is being made in countless pet stores across the country as shoppers flock to their local independent retailers to stock up on essential care items for their animal companions.

I've spoken with numerous pet store owners from just about every region of the U.S. over the past several days, and they all reported sales spikes ranging anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent or more during the past two weeks. There is even anecdotal evidence that traditional pet stores are stealing business from online retailers like Amazon and Chewy, as pet owners don't want to wait even a couple of days for products to arrive and these outlets experience lags in delivery time.

Of course, these sales spikes have largely been a product of shoppers loading their pantries with enough supplies to get through the coming weeks, so they were destined to taper off eventually. In fact, many stores have reported that their sales have come down to average or slightly above average levels over the past couple of days. Still, the fact that pet retailers are still doing even that much business during a time when so many other stores are empty is very telling about the important role that these businesses play as a resource for pet owners.

Now comes the hard part. With most pet store shoppers stocked up on food, treats and other necessities, sales will inevitably dip below average at some point in the near future. But these customers will need to resupply at some point, and their local neighborhood pet retailer will be ready and waiting to help—provided they take the right steps to ensure the health of their business in the long term. With that in mind, here are five keys to how pet stores will survive what looks like it will be an ongoing crisis for weeks, and maybe even months, to come.


Delivery Is Crucial
As consumers increasingly limit their exposure to public places, business has been particularly brisk for pet retailers that offer home delivery and curbside or in-store pick up. In fact, one chain retailer reported that his same-day delivery orders accounted for up to 20 percent of sales in recent days—a trend that will likely grow in the days and weeks ahead. With that in mind, retailers that don't already offer same-day home delivery and curbside or in-store pick up must look into adding these services as soon as possible. For those that do offer the convenience of buying pet supplies without having to roam the aisles, now is the time to ensure that this part of their operations is reliable and scalable. Pet stores should even consider temporarily removing any minimum purchase requirements for home-delivery. Not only will this send a positive message to customers, many retailers that have already removed such requirements report that they're still seeing the same average spend per delivery. 


Communicate With Suppliers
One of the great things about the independent pet retail industry is its in-it-together culture. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers all seem understand that the future of their businesses depend on the health of their supply chain partners and support each other accordingly. So, I'm not surprised that all of the retailers I've spoken with during this crisis have reported overwhelming support from their suppliers. Whether its a distributor making extra deliveries to keep product on the shelf or manufacturers offering any assistance they can provide during these trying times, pet stores are finding that they can count on their supply chain partners as vital resources in an unprecedented sales environment. But help cannot be supplied to retailers that won't (or don't know how to) ask for it, so it is essential that pet store owners and operators maintain a clear and open line of communication with their suppliers. Doing so will give these partners an accurate picture of what's going on in the stores and what retailers need to maintain the health of their business. 


Use Technology to Engage Customers
With fewer shoppers venturing out to their local pet shop, it is becoming more important than every for retailers to reach outside the four walls of their stores to communicate with customers. That means leveraging tools like websites, email and social media to pass along important pet care information, updates on store hours and the availability of services, and—most importantly—what the store is doing to ensure the safety of shoppers. But despite the prevalence of computer-based communication in today's society, it's also important that pet businesses don't forget the good old telephone. Customers, who have become more isolated than ever, will appreciate being able to reach a friendly voice when they call the store for information, or even getting a call from their neighborhood pet retailer to check in on their pet. 


Make Contingency Plans
A big competitive advantage that most independent pet retailers have is they are nimble enough to quickly adapt to changing business conditions, and now is the time to put that to full use. As mentioned, the next several weeks are sure to bring big changes in consumers shopping habits, and pet stores will have to adjust accordingly. Whether that means expanding delivery services, shortening store hours or even temporarily consolidating locations, retailers must have plans in place for how they will react to these changes as they come. And this doesn't just apply to dealing with negative developments; there will be life after the pandemic subsides, and those businesses that start planning for that day sooner, rather than later, will have a decided advantage.


Reach Out to Local Representatives
As mentioned at the beginning of this story, pet industry leaders recently drafted an open letter to state and local goverment officials urging them to allow pet stores to remain open through the coronavirus pandemic so that pet owners will have access to essential animal care products. But this alone will not be enough to ensure that every pet store in every municipality in the U.S. is allowed keep their doors open. Pet retailers must be proactive in enaging with their local representative to make sure the vital role that these businesses play in the lives of Americans, whether its by sharing that open letter verbatim or crafting a similar plea in their own words. The good news is that reports that I've gotten from retailers is that they are finding that goverment officials are quite open to this message, so let's make sure that it is getting delivered across the country.


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