Even before this year full of unprecedented challenges, it was abundantly clear that our industry’s specialty retailers needed to come together to share information and develop resources they would all need to thrive—or even survive—in a rapidly changing marketplace. That is why, several years ago, a handful of retailers began organizing informal meetings with their peers at the SuperZoo trade show in Las Vegas to discuss common issues and exchange ideas on how to overcome longstanding and emerging threats to their way of doing business. But this small gathering of pet store owners and operators wouldn’t stay small for long. As more and more retailers learned about the valuable forum that was developing among their colleagues, attendance grew rapidly to include a wide range of independent pet retailers from across the country, such as:
All The Best Pet Care
Bentley’s Pet Stuff
Independent Pet Partners
K9 Playtime, Inc.
My Pet Market
Pet Food Express
Reber Ranch Inc.
Rumford Pet Express
Russell Feed & Supply
Skagit Farmers Supply Country Store
Skagit Farmers Supply Country Store
Soldans Pet Supplies
Western Farm Center
Of course, it wasn’t long before it became obvious that a more formal approach might benefit everyone involved. Thus, the idea was born for an association that represents and supports the unique interests of the pet industry’s independent retailers—IndiePet.
Given that Pet Business decided to honor all independent and neighborhood pet stores as our 2020 Retailers of the Year, it makes perfect sense that we include a discussion about the new IndiePet association. After all, if the adversity that retailers have faced in 2020 has taught us anything, it is that only by working together can members of this vital segment of the pet industry ensure their long-term health. While there is still much to be done in getting this fledging organization fully operational, one thing is apparent—the creation of formal retailer association like IndiePet has never been more important. That is an idea that certainly has not been lost on the member of the organization’s steering committee, which includes retailers such as All the Best Pet Care, Healthy Spot, Independent Pet Partners, Mud Bay, Pet Food Express, PetPeople and Tomlinson’s Feed.
To gain some insight into this first-of-its kind organization and the value it will bring to not only retailers, but the entire pet industry, Pet Business sat down for an exclusive interview with executives from three of the retailers that have been involved from the beginning—Al Puntillo of Mud Bay, Michael Levy of Pet Food Express and Scott Click of Tomlinson’s Feed.
The pet industry has the American Pet Products Association (APPA), Pet Food Institute (PFI), Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA), Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), Pet Sustainability Coalition (PSC) and World Pet Association (WPA). Why does it need another industry organization?
Michael Levy: APPA, PFI, PIDA, PIJAC, PSC and WPA all contribute to the pet industry in important ways, but they aren’t specifically focused on our part of the pet industry. PIDA, APPA, PFI represent manufacturers or distributors; WPA and PSC work on behalf of the entire pet industry; and PIJAC focuses on lobbying. IndiePet is the only organization that’s focused on North America’s 8,000 independent and neighborhood pet retailers. We’re definitely not competing against the other industry organizations. We’re collaborating with them to strengthen a key part of the pet industry—independent and neighborhood pet retailers.
Why are independent and neighborhood pet retailers key to the pet industry?
Al Puntillo: For decades, independent and neighborhood pet retailers have been the industry’s unsung leaders. We’re the essential link between great new pet products and pet parents. Innovative pet manufacturers, forward-looking pet distributors, passionate independent and neighborhood pet retailers and early-adopting pet owners have, together, created an indie pet ecosystem—an ecosystem that has driven much of the pet industry’s growth since the 1990s. We’ve also helped drive big improvements in the health and well being of pets.
How can IndiePet make a difference for independent and neighborhood pet retailers?
Scott Click: Owning, running and growing a pet retail operation can be lonely, but connecting and learning from our peers helps us think differently, adds to our toolboxes, and connects us to valuable resources. It can even feed our souls and give us a chance to share a laugh about how hard this business can be sometimes—especially this year.
What are some tangible examples of what IndiePet can do for retailers?
Puntillo: There are a number of big opportunities, but let’s talk about three. First, IndiePet will give independent and neighborhood pet retailers the ability to speak with one loud voice on the most important issues impacting our business.
Take DCM [canine dilated cardiomyopathy], for example. IndiePet retailers have been enormously impacted by DCM, but right now, we’re not part of the discussions going on with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We’re also not working in a coordinated way with pet food manufacturers and formulators to understand, control and accurately communicate about risks to the safety of the products in our stores. These are things we should be doing.
A second big opportunity is to gather input from a large number of IndiePet retailers and funnel it to manufacturers and distributors. How much innovation and growth could independents see in the next few years if manufacturers and distributors were privy to consistent insights from a few thousand retailers who are actually having conversations with hundreds of thousands of customers every day?
A third big opportunity we see is for IndiePet to share information with members that can help them operate their businesses more efficiently and make more informed product decisions.
What kind of information will be shared?
Puntillo: Who formulated this product and where is it made? How robust is this manufacturer’s quality assurance program? Which channels are this brand sold in? What is the suggested retail price, Minimum Retail Price (MRP) and Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) and actual current market price for this product? Does this manufacturer effectively enforce its MAPs?
When did you folks start talking about this? How did IndiePet come about?
Levy: Four years ago, a small group of independent and neighborhood pet retailers met for a couple of hours at SuperZoo to talk about the impact of online retail. Those conversations continued at each of the next three SuperZoos, but every year, the number of retailers expanded. The subjects we talked about expanded too. We realized that sharing knowledge with one another was very helpful.
By 2019, a number of us began to wonder if we should move from ad-hoc conversations to the creation of a permanent organization focused on strengthening independent and neighborhood pet retailers. We created a steering committee to investigate the idea, and earlier this year, our steering committee committed to establishing IndiePet. COVID-19 has slowed us down some, but we’re moving forward.
What will the structure of the IndiePet organization look like?
Puntillo: The initial IndiePet board of directors will be drawn from the retailers who have been part of the steering committee. The board’s top priority will initially be increasing membership and sponsorships that will allow us to hire an executive director. We believe that if we really want this to be an effective organization that can support independent retailers in useful ways, it needs to be more than just a volunteer organization.
Is there any type of cost that comes with membership? If so, will that cost be calculated on a sliding scale?
Click: Yes. To be a member, there will be annual membership dues. The dues are based on the number of retail locations that you have, with the goal being to make the cost of membership equitable for retailers of all sizes. Specific information can be found our website (indiepet.org/retailers).
What are some specific initiatives/programs that you expect the association to focus on from day one?
Puntillo: Our first job is to get the association staffed with people who really understand independent retail and who can begin the work of turning ideas or one-time initiatives into ongoing programs that can deliver long-term value for independent retailers.
Sharing information will be at the top of our list. We believe that every independent pet retailer needs information that makes their job easier and helps them figure out how they are doing compared to others. For a long time, data on the independent channel has just been thrown in with information from Petco and PetSmart and called “pet specialty.” As quickly as we can, we will begin sharing data and insights specific to the health of and trends happening in independent retail outlets, as well as showing how these trends compare to other channels. We will also be consolidating information on manufacturers, brands and items, to help retailers make informed decisions about the products they are stocking and the brands they are partnering with.
Aren’t some of the retailers involved competitors?
Click: Yes, but so are some of the members of PIDA, APPA and WPA. Through our conversations, we came to realize what I suppose pet manufacturers and distributors figured out long ago—a certain amount of competition between members of a trade organization doesn’t diminish the value of helping each other. And, by ensuring that the whole indie pet ecosystem is healthy and growing, we ensure that we all have the potential to succeed.
Speaking of distributors and manufacturers, how do they fit into IndiePet?
Puntillo: IndiePet definitely sees connecting IndiePet members with manufacturers and distributors that want to make independent and neighborhood pet retail a core part of their channel strategy as an important part of its work. IndiePet will help manufacturers and distributors understand how they can be great partners for independent and neighborhood pet retailers, and we’ll document and share what these manufacturers and distributors are doing with our retail members. As part of our initial effort to launch IndiePet, we’re offering manufacturers, distributors and others the opportunity to become one of IndiePet’s Founding Sponsors. Manufacturers who are interested can reach out to one of us, email IndiePet at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at indiepet.org.
Editor's Note: As of press time, several of the pet industry’s leading vendors supported the Independent & Neighborhood Pet Retail Association (IndiePet) by signing on as Founding Sponsors:
What about retailers who are interested in joining or learning more?
We also want everyone to be aware that there is an organization out there called the Independent Pet Retailers Association (IPRA) that is not associated with IndiePet. As far as we can tell, the organizers of this group have no association with the pet industry and own several similar sites where they look to collect membership fees. PB