Retail revolution: Completing the circle of care for your veterinary patients
Brendan Howard, Business Channel Director
Brendan Howard oversees veterinary business, practice management and life-balance content for dvm360.com, dvm360 magazine, Firstline and Vetted, and plans the Practice Management track at all three Fetch dvm360 conferences.Brendan has proudly served under the Veterinary Economics and dvm360 banners for more than 10 years. Before that, he worked as a journalist, writer and editor at Entrepreneur magazine and a top filmed entertainment magazine in Southern California. Brendan received a Masters in English Literature from University of California, Riverside, in 1999.
A pet's life is enriched by regular veterinary visits and medical care, but is the circle of a pet's life really complete if you don't take into account the work of all the other pet service professionals in the country? Let's dig into the wild and woolly world of the building down the street: the pet store.
Why should you-a veterinarian, practice manager, veterinary technician or other team member-care about pet stores?
First, your veterinary clients spend a lot of money at pet stores-almost as much as they do with you. In 2016, the average dog owner spent about $1,300 on boarding, grooming and pet retail items and about $1,600 on veterinary products and services, according to the American Pet Products Association (see “What pet owners spend” below).
What the average pet owner spends ...
At the veterinarian
> $474 surgical veterinarian visits
> $349 emergency veterinarian visits
> $257 routine veterinarian visits
> $204 sick veterinarian visits
> $132 other medications
> $102 heartworm medication
> $85 medicated flea- and tick-control products
At the pet retailer
> $322 kennel
> $235 food
> $104 other expenses
> $86 carriers
> $84 groomer/grooming aids
> $72 food treats
> $71 other supplies
> $62 cages/crates
> $58 vitamins/supplements
> $47 toys
> $43 bed
> $35 harnesses/halters
> $27 books/videos
> $25 nonmedicated shampoos/conditioners
> $23 leashes
> $21 nonmedicated collars
(Source: 2018 estimates from American Pet Products Association).
That means your veterinary clients spend a lot of time talking to pet store employees-most of those transactions come with a conversation in the aisle or at the cash register. And these pet store folks can strengthen or weaken your recommendations based on what they know, what they've heard from their sales reps, and what pet owners have reported back about their purchases. (Two anecdotes from dvm360.com/saywhat: “Don't feed that Rx diet, it'll kill your pet” and “Pets don't need vaccines.”)
Second, these pet store people are actually a lot like you: doing their best in a competitive market to help pet owners enjoy happier, healthier lives with the animals they share their homes with. In some cases, these pet retailers have decades of experience helping customers manage basic nutrition, behavior and lifestyle issues for their pets. Sure, it's anecdotal-not a lot of double-blinded, peer-reviewed research driving retail inventory decisions-but they hear every day about how their offerings work or don't work for pet owners they hope to make repeat customers. And they live and work in the same communities you do, serving a lot of the same individuals.
So have you talked to a pet retailer lately? What, if anything, could they learn from you-and vice versa?
From a big box
Many pet store owners and employees would love more information from veterinarians about medicine and health, especially preventive care. A thoughtful employee from a big-box pet store (who asked to remain anonymous) recently said her lack of knowledge about what's the right choice for pets-and why-starts with nutrition.
“There is a need for a deeper dive into the nutrients of the foods, treats and supplements, and what the needs of the animals are in the various stages of life,” this employee wrote to dvm360 in an email.
Pet store employees have heard secondhand-sometimes firsthand from veterinarians-that nutrition isn't a major focus in veterinary school. It can feel like the world is confused about pet nutrition, and they're caught in the middle.
“Why are there large discrepancies on the ‘vet-recommended' products?” asked this employee. “Some vets recommend Blue Buffalo, for instance, and some say absolutely not. I think that a lot of brands have differing formulas for various reasons. The brands should be better at communicating that to retailers and their customers.”
It gets even tougher for a pet retailer when pet parents come in with a veterinarian's recommendation for a particular therapeutic diet that's out of their price range.
“They're looking to us to recommend or make them feel better about choosing the affordable alternative, even if there isn't one,” said the employee.
The specificity of therapeutic diets has some pet owners nervous about which treat is the right choice, and thoughtful pet retailers can get confused.
“Pet parents are expecting treats now to do more than treat,” said one employee who asked to remain anonymous. “They want them to match the special diets their pet is on.”
What treat would that be? Is this a topic where pet-supply stores and veterinarians could come together to help advise pet owners?
Many pet store employees acknowledge that a veterinarian's recommendation for a product, service or treatment is often the best solution. But their customers aren't always willing to go to the veterinarian to ask their advice-or even at all. Then what?
“Customers come in looking for [pet store products] to help with the [signs] that are really only helped with [what] the veterinarian has prescribed,” this employee told us. “It even happens for wound care products. A lady wanted to buy a splint since her dog was just run over by a car. Poor dog.”
A real retail takeaway: Could you work with pet retailers to offer a referral discount or free new-client visit so those retailers could nudge their customers to visit a veterinarian?
From a franchise
There are the giant big-box stores like PetSmart and Petco, and then there are the regional chains that crop up all over the country. Team members at a new franchise location in the Kansas City area agreed that nutrition can be tricky-there's often a disconnect between the veterinarian's recommendation and the pet owner's understanding of that recommendation.
“Some customers come in with a veterinarian's recommendation for less than 300 calories,” says team lead Bailey Pruett. “Calorie count can be hard to find [on labels]. And many are 315 calories or higher.”
Pruett says her employees will show customers to the diets that veterinarians recommend, and they also carry their own brands, some locally sourced and manufactured.
The pet store is often the first stop for behavior issues as well-customers look for suggestions for indestructible toys if their dog tears them up or a special leash if their dog pulls on walks. Sometimes a product can solve the problem, but often Pruett knows the customer needs to visit a veterinarian.
One woman, for example, came in complaining that her dog was chewing on its feet. Pruett recommended that the pet might have allergies and need to see the doctor. The customer, however, wasn't interested-she just wanted an over-the-counter bitter spray or a bitter-flavored bandage to deter the behavior.
“I say, ‘Maybe you should see a vet,'” Pruett says. “Depends on the person whether they do.”
A real retail takeaway: Could it be worth your time to share jargon-free information with pet store owners or employees the same way you educate your clients? Sales reps do lunch-and-learns with pet stores just like they do with you. Could you host a lunch-and-learn for a local pet store?
From a family-owned fixture
The landscape is littered with big-box stores and retail chains, but the folks closest to the heart and entrepreneurial spirit of the veterinary practice owner are the independent pet store owners. We found a family-owned local fixture (since 1976) a few miles from big-box and franchised chains.
Greg Smith and sister Andi Smith are the second generation to run a suburban–Kansas City pet store with an “indoor zoo”-yes, you can check out puppies, birds, fish, reptiles, small mammals, arachnids and insects for sale alongside capuchin monkey Frankie (not for sale). Many of the owners and employees have 20 or more years' experience in the business.
“With four of us, we've got more than 150 years of pet store experience right here,” says Greg. Each team member has a special interest in one of the species sold, and they offer client handouts from a pet store group for their website and their in-store education.
And they don't think about veterinarians much, says Andi. “[Customers] don't start [conversations with,] ‘Well, my vet told me … '” she says, even though there's a veterinary hospital a few doors down and another in the area treats sick animals from the store. But when the issue touches on anything medical, “Food is the biggest issue I've ever heard,” she says.
That food aisle is hers, lined up in order of her preference and perceived customer satisfaction. A fisherman shows up on the bag of her favorite brand at the head of the aisle, and temporary diets she recommends for finicky puppies and working dogs (not fancy, but nutritious) are at the end.
Lining other aisles are topical products for itchy skin and ears, nearly invincible toys and an array of leashes. Sensitive to the dangers of retractable leashes, Greg tries to talk customers out of them, and he's sometimes successful. This may be the only behavior education his customers will get, as some of them visit the veterinarian seldom or not at all.
A real retail takeaway: Do you know what local pet stores sell to your clients and why? Would a walk through a few stores help you get a fresh perspective on the world pet owners frequent outside your walls?
Get real-are you ready to help?
The years of knowledge are a draw for this family-owned business: Its employees have been thinking about pets, selling pet products, working with satisfied repeat customers and adjusting for dissatisfied customers for decades. Pet owners trust them on nonurgent medical issues. And they're a cheap font of wisdom: “I don't charge an office visit,” jokes Andi.
Veterinarians are not a cheap font of wisdom-nor should they be. Doctors of veterinary medicine and credentialed veterinary technicians are medical professionals who went to school for these jobs. But what you don't know about pet retail could hurt you and your clients. And what clients don't know could hurt their pets.
Is it finally time to talk to the other people in a pet's world-the boarding facilities, the groomers, the pet store owners, the dog trainers? You can't control what people say or believe, what they sell or don't sell in their own businesses. But you can be a force for change in your local community by working with others who also have pets' best interests in mind.
Pets need every friend they can get, and the better-educated those friends are, the better the decisions are concerning their care.
Who's the best-educated? You are. Now get out there and educate.