Now, a full year into the pandemic, there finally seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. As lockdowns begin to ease and vaccine distribution ramps up across the country, we all look forward to a return to something that resembles normalcy in the months ahead—and with it the return of throngs of customers to pet stores.

Of course, many pet specialty retailers did an incredible job of adjusting to the realities of operating during a pandemic, keeping their businesses afloat by, for example, developing e-commerce capabilities that were, in many cases, nothing more than a long-term aspiration a little more than a year ago. Still, while resources like e-commerce and home delivery have served pet stores well over the past year, and will surely be important to their future success, it has really been retailers’ continued focus on their unique competitive strengths that has helped them not only survive, but often thrive during this difficult period.

Anyone who wants evidence of this need look no further than this month’s cover story about the Top 25 Pet Retailers in North America. Despite facing an ongoing pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, only one pet store chain on the list (Pet Valu) experienced a significant contraction in store locations, while several Top 25 retailers actually added multiple units to their chains. If that isn’t a sign of a strong retail channel, I don’t know what is.

And it’s not just the pet specialty channel’s biggest players that have been hanging tough in the face of extreme adversity. Pet retailers of all shapes and sizes have proven their resilience by leveraging their competitive advantages—advantages like the ability to consistently curate a wide selection of high-quality products and deliver a great in-store experience, complete with warm, friendly customer service and expert-level pet care advice.

Now, these strengths that were so crucial in getting through an extremely tough year will ultimately determine the success of pet stores as they approach the new normal of post-pandemic retailing. With this in mind, store owners and operators must take a close look at their businesses to make sure their entire arsenal of competitive weapons is sharper than ever. That means identifying and retaining COVID-era capabilities that will continue to pay dividends well into the future, while also preparing their stores to handle a level of customer traffic that has not been seen in what seems like ages.

To this end, I encourage every pet retailer to take advantage of the upcoming Global Pet Expo Digital Access event, which will be held online March 24-26. A combination virtual trade show and educational forum, this unique experience will provide retailers with an opportunity to not only see and learn about the latest innovations in pet products, but also gain valuable, actionable advice from expert-led presentations on a variety of topics—including a panel discussion that Pet Business will be hosting with some of the pet industry’s most successful neighborhood and independent retailers, who will share how they’ve weathered the COVID storm and plan to drive their businesses to new heights in a post-pandemic world.

Personally, I can’t think of a better way for retailers to prepare themselves for what comes next.