Veterinarians and independent pet retailers, by nature, are closely aligned in that each profession revolves around a passion for pets. After all, both parties got into the business for the same reason: to provide pets of all kinds with the opportunity to live the best life possible through a series of nutritional, mental and physical needs.
The relationship between independents and the majority of veterinarians isn’t as disjointed as one may think; however, the relationship hasn’t always been smooth. As an example, a problem arose between pet food manufacturers and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, along with a handful of veterinarians, who contributed to or supported the report about DCM and canine heart disease. Nancy Guinn, president of Dog Krazy, explains, “we broke up with our vet of 15 years after the DCM debate started because she used fear tactics to turn customers against us.”
Despite prejudiced cases, there’s a strong foundation—built on the love of taking care of animals—that makes the relationship between veterinarians and independent pet retailers a mutually beneficial one. There are knowledge gaps on both sides: independent pet retailers typically know more about the ins and outs of the products they carry and their specific benefits, while veterinarians are the indisputable leaders in diagnosing problems and providing comprehensive physical and mental advice for pets.
“There are some services and advice that customers want to get from a knowledgeable vet that they trust and other services they go to their local store to fulfill,” said Adreanne Tesene, founder of Two Bostons. “When the offered advice is mirrored and reinforced at their local independent store, it creates an opportunity for an empowered pet parent who can advocate for their pets in both environments.”
Building A Network of Trust
Forming a partnership with a local veterinarian clinic isn’t as simple as it sounds. Generally, there are two routes independent retailers take—the personal route or the research route. The personal route revolves around partnering with your personal veterinarian, while the research side focuses on finding a practice that’s closely aligned on major issues and shares a similar mission.
The personal route is the easiest, but it’s only useful if the veterinarian clinic is in the same town and general area of the retailer store. A common mistake made here is that independents recommend their vet to clients without speaking with the doctor first. While retailers want to point their customers in a trusted direction, independents would be remiss if they didn’t take advantage of the recommendation power a veterinarian holds. After all, they may be the only people in town with a better pulse on the animal population than you.
“My husband and I found our vet not long before we opened the store,” said Laura Gangloff, co-founder of Riverfront Pets. “We appreciated his concise, no nonsense style; and yet, when our elderly cavalier passed, I was deeply touched by his compassion and empathy. Customers often ask us for veterinary referrals, and we have wholeheartedly recommended his services. Over time, we have noted that he refers his patients to us for grooming, training and retail.”
On the other hand, the research route requires independents to roll up their sleeves and dig into online research and follow up through phone calls and even in-person visits to flesh out the relationship. This allows both sides to get a better feel and set expectations for what’s to come.
Keep in mind that there are a variety of veterinarians—including holistic, research, exotic animal and specialists, to name a few—so cold calling isn’t your friend here. Instead, take the time to research and find a vet clinic that has a similar mission as your store, as an insufficient partnership will make both businesses suffer.
“I think that if there is a core values alignment between a store and a vet, there can be a lot of options to collaborate and support each other,” said Tesene. “If there is a mismatch, or one of the partners is not an equal partner, it doesn’t end up being a productive relationship.”
In addition to finding out where a vet clinic stands on hot-button industry issues and exchanging information, the other factor to consider in partnership is if the veterinary will be a useful partner for you. In some circumstances, veterinarians’ hands are tied as they’re beholden to recommend their clinic’s food of choice.
“There are a number of veterinarians that shop with us and feed quality foods, but will not give their clients this information as they are required to sell the food their practice carries yet they do not feed it to their own pets,” said Guinn. “In a perfect world, they would speak up to the owners of the practices they work for but in the meantime, natural pet food stores will continue to deliver our message feeding your pets what’s best for the pet standing in front of them, whether it be raw, home-cooked or kibble.”
A good ice breaker is to inquire about what animals and specific breeds the veterinarian sees most frequently, in addition to what common issues or complaints they get the most. While the veterinarian can’t provide in-depth detail, they should be able to provide a generic overview. (This information is also usable to tailor products offered in store, too!).
However, Gangloff explains that this exchanging of recommendations is only the start—the next step is entering a partnership where both sides work to educate each other to provide the most comprehensive overview of pets.
“Mutual referrals are a first step, but we also feel that a stronger partnership could provide the store with a lifeline should an emergency occur while an animal is under our care,” said Gangloff, citing Riverfront Pets’ grooming salon. “Also, we’ve always thought it should be possible to create a framework to provide prescribed or medical diets to pets in need.”
Opportunities for Collaboration
Aside from mutual recommendations and relying on the other to fill knowledge gaps, word-of-mouth exchanges are a strong foundation as it could provide coupons, promotions or regular word-of-mouth advertising. Additionally, it’s something pet owners love to see—after all, their two most trusted confidants are now working together.
“Our community loves seeing us working together,” says Guinn. “A local vet won me over this Christmas when they asked me to custom make treat bags for their top 25 customers. It opened our lines of communication even though they are a veterinarian I had never personally used in the past. Now I refer customers to them daily.”’
Instead of direct partnerships, retailers can also get creative when it comes to the hiring process. While everyone applying likely has a love of pets, chances are there are a few applicants in the pool currently going through vet school. On the flipside, part time employees at a vet clinic might be open to taking an additional part time job.
“We recently hired a pet groomer who also carries certification as a veterinary technician,” said Gangloff. “While we do not offer any veterinary services per se, she has been an invaluable addition to our team. She offers advice to pet owners, suggests remedies for minor aches and pains, recommends products that we carry, and is clear to our customers when a vet visit is required.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit to a venture between retailers and veterinarians revolves around sharing each other’s respective wealth of knowledge surrounding all things pet. As, “a close working relationship could only increase our knowledge base when it comes to supporting the well being of our community pets through such items as food, supplements and skin care products,” says Gangloff, the winners here are the beloved animals and their owners who seek to provide them with the best every day.
“A strong relationship between a local veterinarian and the retailer offers the best of both worlds,” says Dr. Bob and Susan Goldstein, co-founders of Earth Animal. “The integration of medical expertise, in combination with a retailer/healer who is in the know with regards to wellness and healing, is a huge benefit for the dog and cat.”
Ultimately, forming a strong bond with a local veterinarian will benefit pets the most, which is the reason any of us are involved in this industry.
“The reason we are in this business is to support the health and happiness of our community’s pets and their humans,” says Gangloff. “All pets will encounter nutritional, behavioral and overall health concerns across their lifetimes. The more evidence-based information and support we can provide to our customers, the more effective we can be.” PB