Retail momentum in the pet industry has been steadily growing year over year in the U.S., as consumers continue to treat their animals as family members who deserve products that match the quality shoppers choose for themselves. In fact, it has seemed that the business of selling pet goods is a near disaster-proof venture.
For example, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as consumers spent more time at home during stay-at-home orders, they were also giving homes to pets in need. In May 2020, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported a nearly 70 percent rise in animals entering foster care in its New York City and Los Angeles programs. According to its November 2020 “COVID-19 Impact Report,” nonprofit organization Shelter Animals Count revealed that adoption rates for dogs and cats were up nine percent over 2019.
While retailers can leverage a business model that is exclusively product -focused to take advantage of this momentum, offering services such as grooming, daycare, boarding, training, dental cleanings and more to the store mix can greatly expand their reach. Striking a proper retail-service balance and identifying the offerings that will be best received by a store’s local consumer demographics will attract more customers whose needs extend beyond finding the necessities, which has become more common for the modern pet parent.
All About Trust
When considering the addition of services, it is important that retailers understand that a visit to a service provider such as a groomer, dental hygienist, daycare center or boarding facility can be as nerve-wracking for the human as it is for their animals. These customers are choosing services under the impression that the service provider will afford the same level of protection and affection for their pets while animals are in their care.
“Selling a food product is not the same as selling a service,” explains Carmen Rustenbeck, CEO and founder of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association. “Pet parents want to know that the service provider will treat their pet like family and with the utmost care. They build long term relationships with their pet care provider and trust them to always put their pet first.”
At The Urban Pet, a Los Angeles retail chain with five locations, founder Zack Grey offers an array of services, including dog training, grooming, vaccination and dental clinics with Mama’s Paw Teeth Cleaning, and professional photography for canines and cats with photographer Andy Stolarek of Furtographs. Three years after starting his business with dog-training classes in 2004, Grey decided to grow into retail, while maintaining his obedience services. Fourteen years after the launch of his retail business, former students are returning with additional dogs, as Grey is able to still conduct socially distanced classes in the private parking lot of his Mid-Wilshire, Calif., location.
“People will travel to take my classes,” Grey said. “I built my client base from that. [My group classes were key] to the success of the stores. I was teaching four a week back then and I would have 10 to 15 people in a class. Then they started shopping in the stores.”
As Grey expanded, he trusted the judgement he acquired over the course of years in the pet care business to choose the services that would receive the best customer response according to neighborhood. For instance, at his Silver Lake, Calif., location where teeth cleaning is performed, 40 percent of sales are feline, which has led Grey to build out an extensive cat section. Rather than employing every service at all locations, Grey was selective by including grooming at his Silver Lake location, and obedience and pet photography at the Mid-Wilshire shop, and vaccinations and dental clinics at all locations.
A background in a service position paved the way for Angela Pantalone, CEO of Stratford, Conn.’s Wag Central, whose services include dog boarding, daycare, grooming, training, and swimming in an indoor pool for pups that require hydro exercise or simply love the water. A former kindergarten teacher, Pantalone hashtags her outlook on social media as “#DogsAreTheNewKids” and emphasizes that safety is her priority, followed by personalization.
“In my business, it’s all about safety. Everybody wants to know that they have checked the boxes for what they need for their pet,” reveals Pantalone. “One of the first things I have to say to my clients is that this is all about safety. If you’re dropping off your dog for the day, it’s going to be safe. We’re checking our boxes with first aid and we’ll offer you something to help your pet later to be safer at home.”
In the interest of remaining mindful of safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pantalone has developed Training Tuesdays. Sessions on these days are one-on-one timeframes during which the student dog is instructed regarding a particular task, while a video recording is taken and sent home to pet parents in order to continue training.
Retail Still Leads the Pack
In addition to providing socialization, education and pampering for pets, retailers that offer services increase the likelihood of gaining customers who will also shop for products. The nature of being a service provider requires shop management to hire specialists in their fields, particularly for those offerings that fall under the categories of dental hygiene, grooming and obedience. Once an animal receives a service that is pet-parent approved, these customers are more inclined to learn about the products used during a session with their animals, from shampoo and detangler to treats.
“Besides being another revenue stream, it allows for sale of product based on service provider recommendations,” Rustenbeck says. “Consider retail stores that have included grooming and/or veterinarian services. In both cases, grooming products and health products for pets allowed for a one-stop-shopping process. Pet parents could pick up food, toys, treats while pet was being groomed and recommended products.”
This relationship between services and product sales is key for Michelle Olds, owner of Woof! Orlando, a 4,000-square-foot store that offers an indoor-outdoor playground, grooming salon and an open play-boarding area with sleeping quarters. Not only does Olds see the potential for services to entice online customers return to bricks-and-mortar shopping, there is also the opportunity to recommend product that pets have experienced during their time with the Woof! Orlando team. When retailers properly plan their product offerings to match their service menus, this can lead to a greater opportunity for sales on the retail floor.
“This promotes sales when clients inquire about products used on their pet,” Olds says. “In our training classes, trainers use treats we sell. When clients see how much their dog enjoys our treats over a basic cookie from the grocery store, they end up purchasing from us. It’s a win-win to match services with products, the products sell themselves through the services.”
At Wilmington, Del.-based Riverfront Pets, a three-year-old single-store operation that offers grooming, walking and training, blending retail with services is at the core of its business model. Many pet parents within the area live in apartments, which creates a crucial need for the services afforded by co-owner Laura Gangloff and the Riverfront Pets staff.
“If we are walking your dog, we can also bring him to the shop for a groom and deliver a bag of kibble,” says Gangloff. “If a pet owner comes to our shop to use the self-wash, we hope to introduce him to our grooming products. If she’s looking for a harness that will minimize pulling, we can discuss the benefits of training classes. At best, the relationship between retail and services is interdependent.”
By creating a community destination for pet parents to bring their animals and forge their relationship with a trusted caregiver, Gangloff hopes to eventually—after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted—continue to build a space that includes additional services that bring everyone together. By continuing its monthly adoption parties and pet prom, or seasonal happenings such as photos with Santa, a Halloween parade and an Easter-egg hunt, once on-site socializing is again the norm, Riverfront Pets will return to being a social gathering place for pet lovers, which will translate to increased sales.
Making Space For Services
Succeeding in the service category requires a space that welcomes pet parents. Aligning with pet parents’ need to feel safe bringing their animals to have services performed, they must also gain a sense that their furry loved ones will be comfortable in an atmosphere outside the home.
Opened in 2019, The Green K9 in Urbana, Md., includes a list of services such as dog daycare, professional grooming, self-wash, and birthday parties. Owner Marni Lewis, with 16 years of boarding and daycare experience, built the space to accommodate the services she wanted to offer, opting for an area that could accommodate private self-wash rooms. Once the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the U.S., these self-wash rooms increased in popularity.
“When designing the self-wash area, I chose private rooms instead of wash stations,” says Lewis. “This turned out to be a blessing in disguise once the pandemic hit. “Our self-wash business continued to flourish, because people were looking for excuses to get out of the house and still be safe. Our customers were able to social distance themselves in their own room, while competitors with the traditional self-wash stalls had to close them down.”
To afford greater convenience and safety to customers during the coronavirus pandemic, Lewis began offering pick-up and drop-off services for food, supplies and dogs who had grooming appointments. This is a service Lewis plans to continue once the coronavirus is under control, as it has afforded additional opportunities.
Starting with 2,500 sq. ft. when it first opened in 2006, Odyssey Pets has moved three times to different locations over the years, eventually arriving at its current 8,500 sq. ft. space in Dallas, where owner Sherry Redwine has typically offered boarding, daycare and grooming. During her time moving her single-store business into spaces of different sizes, Redwine has learned a lot about choosing the appropriate services to fit into a space. Noting that smaller spaces wouldn’t be suitable for offerings such as boarding, Redwine advises retailers who want to expand into services to explore grooming, which doesn’t require a large space.
“Grooming is booming right now, and it’s a big part of our business,” Redwine explains. “We have hired two more groomers this past year to keep up because at one point we were booked almost a month out. If I was going to give advice to another store going to expand into a service, grooming is definitely a good one and you can do it in a small space.”
One caveat Redwine offers regarding adding grooming services is the challenge of hiring qualified groomers, but the customer response is worth the hard work. According to Rustenbeck, following the relaxation of stay-at-home orders following the first COVID-19 wave, grooming services were the primary offering that pet parents sought.
Before embarking upon the addition of services, Rustenbeck emphasizes, retailers must consider additional financial costs to equip a facility in preparation to offer services. In addition to hiring experts in their fields, retailers will also need to ensure that these professionals will have all the tools that they need in order to ensure the success of the business.
“Understand what bringing in a service provider would mean financially for the business to include; equipment needs, insurance costs, permitting and on-going certifications costs,” Rustenbeck advised. “Other factors to consider are impact on store for loss of square footage dedicated to product, remodeling that may need to happen based on service provided.”
Once recovery continues, Rustenbeck foresees a return to daycare followed by boarding, as pet parents return to travel and, for some, their commutes. As pet ownership continues to rise, consumers are not only going to seek nutritious food and quality wellness products for their animals, they will also want those trusted service resources within their communities. PB