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Hanging with Hafen: 3 things veterinarians can learn from the retail world


Sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at the trends in other industries. Here's how retail design can be applied to your building project.

I just returned from the International Retail Design Conference. I’m used to attending veterinary and architectural conferences, but this was my first time attending a show for people who design retail environments. Boy, was this another world. But there’s a lot of retail design in veterinary facility design, so I was ready to learn something new.

Selling is all about the client experience. Shopping is a dynamic and social pastime. To create a successful retail environment where you sell more products, you need to engage and entertain shoppers. Starbucks isn’t about the coffee; it’s about social gatherings and interactions. Apple doesn’t sell computers; it sells an elite “geek” club with its own design ethos. For women’s apparel stores like Anthropologie, it’s not about the clothes; it’s about the exploration and discovery of an exotic new world.

Veterinary medicine isn’t just about retail sales, but clients don’t often judge a practice by the quality of medicine it provides. Instead, they judge a practice by the experience—the waiting area, the interaction with the receptionist, the exam room, and the doctor and team member conversations. So how do you provide a great experience?

1. Know your clients

First, you need to understand whom you’re selling to. By mining information from the Internet, customer analytics firms can create a very complete picture of your clients. For example, you might live in an area that could be described as “pleasant living, consisting of affluent, middle-aged, empty-nesting couples and singles in established suburban neighborhoods.” On the other hand, your area might better resemble the following: “Young, single, college educated, white-collar professionals living in luxury apartments and condos in fast-growing cities.”

Either one would be a good segment for veterinarians to target, but each client base is attracted to something completely different. The goal in creating a retail environment is to create a space that the shopper can identify with, aspire to, or be inspired by. The same thing applies to your veterinary hospital.

To create a truly memorable client experience, you need to give the buyer something that she doesn’t even know she needs. Her baseline needs are a nice-looking facility, a clean and odor-free reception area and exam room, little to no wait time, accurate billing, and value for their money. But in truth, she wants and needs more. The typical client wants someone who cares for her and her pet and who she can trust. So create an environment that is comforting, comfortable, and secure. Build a place where people want to linger.

Your facility should look a lot like what your client wants her living room to look like. If your typical client is a young cosmopolitan, your hospital should probably be urban, modern, high-tech, and maybe a little edgy. A white-collar suburban client probably wouldn’t gravitate toward this atmosphere, but that’s the point. Pick your target clientele and stick to it.

2. Build a community

Whole Foods makes it appoint to build stores that reflect the local community. Starbucks has tried to rebrand its stores as neighborhood coffee shops. Even as we move toward the consolidation of almost every commercial enterprise, the typical consumer wants to believe she is interacting with a local individual, not a corporate stand-in.

Authenticity is even bigger. The typical consumer wants to believe that the seller cares about her and is dialed into her needs. Studies by behavioral psychologists have shown that people are hard-wired to read when someone is telling the truth. No one likes a liar. The goal of a good retail or service environment or interaction is to not only be community-based and to look like you care, but to actually be the person you claim to be.

That means your facility should look like it grew out of your local community. For example, building a colonial-style building in California probably won’t work very well. This philosophy should also extend to your facility’s interior, including furnishings, artwork, and signage.

3. Get your green on

Recently, we surveyed the clients of a veterinary facility we were designing. Fifty-six percent had an interest in some kind of environmental consciousness, while only 10 percent had an interest in pets. This is an amazing statistic, though one we may need to take with a grain of salt. After all, it’s very “in” right now to be environmentally conscious.

Unfortunately, studies have shown that even though people value the environment, they’re not willing to pay extra for it. Instead, being green from the consumer point of view has become a given. So while you probably can’t win clients by running a green practice, you can lose them if you don’t make the effort.

Fortunately, there are a lot of inexpensive things you can do to show you value the environment. Plant xeriscape landscaping, provide bicycle racks for team members, use recycled paper products, and establish a recycling program. When you build your facility, maximize daylighting by installing skylights, use operable windows to capture natural cooling, and use green materials like linoleum flooring.

Going to the Retail design Conference helped me rediscover what we’re doing well already and pushed me to do more. Probably nothing I’ve said here is revolutionary, but when pieced together, it can create an environment that is comfortable, comforting, community-based, and green. And, if done correctly, it will be authentic and your clients will know it.

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