Will the Real Independents Please Stand Up?


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What, exactly, is the definition of an “independent” pet retailer these days?

That is a question that has gotten much harder to answer over the past decade. In fact, it is probably downright impossible to come up with a clear definition that would be universally agreed upon by everyone in the pet industry.

Even the independents themselves often have trouble coming to a consensus on this issue. When I recently questioned the owners of two prominent retail chains that most industry experts would firmly place in the independent camp about the qualifications for such a designation, my inquiry was first met with a long, telling silence, followed by conflicting examples of which retail players fit the bill.

I cannot say I am surprised. The pet specialty retail landscape has changed pretty drastically over the years, and lines have been blurred by a number of factors, including the rise of online retailing, overwhelming interest from the investment community and—probably most prominently—the meteoric growth of a dozen or so regional pet store chains across the country.

At its core, the term “independent retailer” has traditionally referred to mom-and-pop enterprises that comprise up to a handful of owner-operated stores. More recently, however, the definition has been stretched by many to include chains with dozens of locations across multiple states. As a result, it appears that being considered an independent is less about a business’ size, and more about its approach to retailing—in the pet industry, that means focusing on delivering a high level of customer service and marketing super-premium foods.

Using a litmus test like this is inherently problematic, though, because it is highly subjective. After all, the owner of a regional chain with dozens of stores, its own warehouse facility and the considerable resources of a private-equity investor behind it may consider himself part of the independent class, but is that opinion shared by the single-store operator he is competing against? Probably not.

Maybe it would be easier to define the independent class by what it is not—i.e., Petco and PetSmart (and, according to some, the popular pet industry franchises). But this approach is also flawed. At some point, both Petco and PetSmart must have been considered independent retailers, and I have yet to find someone in the pet industry who can pinpoint when they no longer qualified. And when it comes to the franchises within the pet specialty channel, I have personally met some storeowners who, quite frankly, fit the classic definition of an independent retailer better than some of the regional chain operators out there.

Clearly, there is no simple answer. So, when evaluating whether or not suppliers are properly supporting the independent trade, it is no simple task for “independents” to decide who is or is not with them. After all, what does and does not constitute an independent retailer has really become a matter of perspective. And answering that question is probably only going to get harder as the pet specialty market continues to evolve.

 

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