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How To Compete With the "Big Boys"


By Bob Fenner


The pet trade has changed and is changing. It's leaner and more competitive. It's also better; cleaner, more professional, sophisticated. Many of these "opportunities" have come about as a result of the proliferation of mass-merchandiser and "super"-store chains. Depending on your presentation and opinion, this may be something less than a blessing. What will you do to increase, retain your market share? Reducing margins, enhancing/emphasizing service, carefully picking and monitoring product lines, enlarging employee training, cleaning up your store's image, inventory control and business practices in general, and more have been advanced as suggestions or necessities for warding off the mass-merchandiser/super-store menace.

Let's investigate the challenge of being in the pet-industry in the west in the 90's and possibilities for action.

What's Going On Here?

Will the U.S. follow the natural evolution the trade has undergone elsewhere? Look around you. Notice the consolidation of distributors, the graying of the line between manufacturer/distributor? The bad economy is not the root cause of their increased wheeling and dealing, enhanced services and training; it's only exacerbated and sped up the changes already happening in the industry.

Independent rep.s are getting scarcer and marginal independents too. Successful, read that remaining, shops and small chains have become adept at reading and adapting to alterations, many brought about by one or more of "the big boys" moving into town.

Allow me to parade out my suggestions, from the simplest to most involved.

What You Can Do: Some Possible Responses:

1) Do nothing. Oh yeah, they're not coming to my town. Get real. "They" are coming to your town. Resolve to lower your standard of living or react.

2) Discover and enlarge what you do best that is different than your competition. What I'm stressing here is to just do more and better what you already do. In particular service. It is often cited as being better at the independents. Is it? Do you offer water testing, beak, nail trimming, boarding, delivery, set-up, special order...? If you do, proudly broadcast it to the world via signs, PR releases, advertising, word of mouth...

3) Clean up your act. If nothing else, get off your duff and visit some of these outlets. What do you see? Smell? Most are clean, neat, brightly lit... pleasant, even an adventure to shop. your place should be too.

4) Are you and your staff better informed, more friendly, service-oriented than the mass-merchandisers? Is that the perception of your customer base? It might be high time to develop and implement an in-depth training program with the help of manufacturers, distributors and professional association's help.

5) Watch your pricing. What is the breakdown in your customer base? Price, compromise, quality/service? If they are price driven and there are no real practical alternate product lines to offer, you may well have to lower (note I didn't say match) your bottom line on these items. What to do? Talk with your distributor re their pricing, volume discounts, promotions. Take advantage of special and seasonal offers as they make sense.

6) And while we're on the subject of product lines. Some standards just have no viable alternate. Maybe you could/should try variable off-pricing, offering other sizes,... free delivery?

7) Merchandising: What does it mean to you? Are your displays catchy; dynamic? Why should customers come to and buy in your store(s)?

My Personal Experience:

I have been in the pet industry for almost thirty years, working in all capacities, clerk to manager to owner; for distributors, retailers, livestock collectors, big and small. I am currently the Aquatics (& reptile) Buyer for Petco, whom most people classify as a mass merchandiser. I am honored by our presentation. We offer the best of what the trade has to offer in all departments, with trained/skilled staff. Many of our outlets have marine and freshwater livestock. Our stores do an outstanding job of servicing customers needs & generating new hobbyists. We add several hundred hew aquarists every month and do our share to help make them successful. My point here is that there are many types of new, big, pet and pet-type businesses. Similar to the "mom and pops", some are of positive influence, other's not...


When the dust settles the "independents" will still be here, as they are in Western Europe. Not all the "fringe" formats will be around. "The" market is efficient and folks who will not learn and adapt and adopt/sharpen more niche-driven specialties will be gone, or otherwise unprofitable.

Who do you want to be? Research and define; be the best you can and should, must do. Don't waste your time worrying and whining about the mass merchandiser and super-store chains. They're here to stay and can, should be your stimulus and direction for bettering your business.


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