Veterinarians face off against PetMed Express

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Veterinarians got the chance to air their grievances about PetMed Express at NAVC.

ORLANDO —Veterinarians got the chance to air their grievances about PetMed Express at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) following attendee pushback about the online pharmacy's plans to sponsor and exhibit at the conference.

Dr. Doug Mader, NAVC's past president, says conference organizers expected some friction when PetMed Express approached them about participating in the conference.

"They wanted to be a sponsor and an exhibitor at NAVC. The board discussed it, and we were a little bit concerned because they don't have a lot of acceptance in the veterinary world," says Mader.

But since NAVC has allowed other online pharmacies to exhibit in the past, it couldn't turn PetMeds away, he says.

"We had quite the backlash," Mader says, explaining that a petition was generated calling for a boycott of NAVC if the PetMeds exhibit moved forward and a number of attendees withdrew their registration.

NAVC couldn't tell PetMeds not to exhibit, but Mader says when organizers explained the situation, the company voluntarily dropped its plans to exhibit and agreed to participate in a panel discussion instead.

"We saw that there was a little bit of contention and said 'hey we're coming here for you, so if you don't want us to be there, we won't be there,' " says Bonnie Levengood, PetMed Express marketing director.

Levengood says the company saw the opportunity to participate in the panel as a way to address veterinarians' concerns and open new dialogue.

"I think (pulling out as an exhibitor) was the best thing that could possibly have happened," Levengood says. "We got great discussion, and it ended up being a positive experience even though there were some tough issues brought up ... it was a lot more positive than I thought it would be."

Alabama veterinarian and solo practitioner Dr. Doralee Donaldson, who created the online petition about PetMed Express' plan to exhibit at NAVC, says she doesn't expect the panel discussion to result in much change anytime soon. But Donaldson thinks the exchange raised awareness for PetMed Express about how veterinarians feel about the company. It also brought veterinarians together, she says.

"I didn't expect a change, and I still don't expect a change," says Donaldson, who was invited to participate on the panel after PetMed Express withdrew as an NAVC exhibitor. "(PetMed Express) seemed shocked that veterinarians weren't happy with them. And I'm not so sure how that could have been such a big surprise. They really thought they had good relationships."

Donaldson says she's not a political person at all, but was motivated to create her online petition when she saw PetMed Express was planning to exhibit at NAVC.

Her petition, which garnered nearly 150 signatures in about a week, was not a campaign against PetMed Express, but to protest the company's participation at NAVC, she says.

"I didn't think a company so against the profession needed to be at the conference," she says. "It just really irritated me."

Veterinarians in the panel audience of about 150 asked PetMed Express about its business practices, specifically about where it obtains some of its products and why it seems to market itself against veterinarians.

"Most of the people there had their own issues with them in the past," says Donaldson. "Their advertising had always been so negative ... and they really are not promoting going to see a veterinarian.

"All of us out there agree this has nothing to do with competition. It's not a matter of them being a competitor," Donaldson adds. "It's the whole way they market that has people upset."

Mader agreed that PetMeds' marketing message was the main source of contention for veterinarians at the NAVC panel.

The problem, he says, is that some veterinarians felt that PetMeds isn't only pitching cost-savings, but attacking veterinarians in the process.

"If they promote a relationship with veterinarians, it's to their own best interests," Mader says. "They need to be saying 'save money with us and that same money you save with us you could go see a veterinarian and get better healthcare.' Turn it into a positive," Mader says.

"The problem vets have (with PetMeds) in advertising their savings (is) they're comparing it to vets' prices," Donaldson adds.

Levengood says low pricing is a core part of PetMed Express' marketing platform, and one the company is not going to change any time soon. But she thinks her presentation helped some veterinarians understand the value PetMeds provides consumers.

"In reality, we get letters all the time from customers about how they were going to have to put their pet to sleep or they were not going to be able to afford medications at all. But because we were able to save them money, they were able to buy these medications," Levengood says. "Obviously savings has to be a core part of our advertising message because this is what we're providing them. And this is what customers want."

As far as where PetMeds obtains its products, Levengood says the company has confidentiality agreements with certain manufacturers and can't discuss those relationships. But, she says, the online pharmacy undergoes a thorough accreditation process, and the company has been audited on its product sources.

"We have a lot of relationships directly with manufacturers and distributors, and then we also work with authorized wholesalers," Levengood says. "We can't discuss an individual manufacturer ... but ... if you're proving an authorization for a prescription medication, a vet has nothing to worry about."

Levengood also addressed questions about past policies and concerns about improper prescription authorization. Many policies have changed as the company has grown, but the growth has also brought new problems, she adds.

"We are constantly trying to protect our trademark," Levengood explains, adding some companies are using PetMeds' reputation to try to snag some of its market share. Those companies may send out unauthorized prescriptions in the name of PetMed Express, or a client may use an alternate company after PetMeds gets a denial from a veterinarian for a medical reason and refuses the order. In those cases, Levengood says the veterinarian may only remember the authorization request from PetMeds and assume that company is to blame for filling the unauthorized prescription.

"I explained to veterinarians how it's possible for this to happen and one of the reasons is we have a tremendous amount of copycats who use our name and pretend they're us," Levengood says. "We do our best to just give our customers the best experience we can and have a great relationship with vets."

As for policies no longer in place at PetMeds and problems that happened in the past, Levengood says PetMeds is working hard to improve its relationship with veterinarians.

"We have actually improved so many parts of our communication and advertising because we wanted to have a great relationship with vets," Levengood says.

But Donaldson says she thinks the company is only seeking a better relationship with veterinarians because of increasing competition from big-box stores and other online pharmacies.

PetMed Express cites this increasingly competitive space in recent financial reports. In fact, the company reported a 12 percent decline in sales for the third quarter of 2011 compared to the third quarter of 2010.

Yet, the company still added 150,000 new customers in the third quarter and reports that new order sales are up 29 percent in the third quarter of 2011 over 2010, according to the PetMeds' third quarter financial statement, released Jan. 23.

Levengood says the company is hoping to work more closely with veterinarians, who could provide educational resources for PetMed Express customers. She says after the panel at NAVC, she has had a number of veterinarians call or write her expressing interest in providing input for the company's educational sections, blogs and product pages.

"We got some interesting insight from vets, but one of the things we got out of this was that veterinarians really just wanted to be heard. They wanted to let us know what their feelings were," Levengood says. "We had a lot of vets come up to us after the panel was done and just thank us and say 'we never had this opportunity to talk directly to you.' "

But Donaldson says the issue spurred a national dialogue among veterinarians—something that she doesn't think happens often enough.

"I did feel like it was a victory for the profession," she says. "It was really cool the way the profession came together nationwide in such a short time.

"I think (PetMed Express) is aware that vets are going to stand up a little bit," Donaldson adds. "I think the awareness is up; the profession kind of bonded over it."

Mader says PetMed Express deserves credit for facing veterinarians on their own turf and tackling the issues at hand.

"I was playing Switzerland in this whole argument. I have my opinions, and I'm not going to share them. There was a lot of pretty harsh rhetoric back and forth but that's to be expected," he says. "But you have to give them props because they got stoned the whole time (and) they handled it very well; they were very professional."

Levengood says the company also is planning to move forward with a suggestion made by Mader during the panel discussion to form a veterinary focus group to guide the company in the future.

Mader says the company will have a face-to-face meeting with a group of up to 20 veterinarians to screen and comment on PedMeds' new advertisements before they air.

"To me, that's a win, that's very positive," he says.

Overall, though, veterinarians were positive about the panel experience. Levengood says she received calls and emails from veterinarians thanking her as has Mader.

"I got nothing but positive feedback thanking us for having the panel and thanking us for letting people voice their concerns," Mader adds.

Now the question will be what PetMed Express does with its new knowledge about its relationship with veterinarians and how veterinarians respond to inevitable changes in the way they do business.

"Veterinarians need to look at the writing on the wall. If that new Fairness to Pet Owners Act passes—and it will once they clean up the language—we will no longer be able to dictate that clients buy medications from us," Mader says. "Veterinarians are going to have to adjust and make a living being veterinarians, not pharmacists."

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