Efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, have transformed the world and our daily activities in extraordinary ways. As we navigate this unprecedented time, our first priority is the health and safety of our family and loved ones, including our pets.
With most states enforcing stay-at-home orders and many storefronts shuttered, pet parents are rightly concerned about their ability to get the food and supplies they need for their pets to thrive. Our pets provide us happiness, love and comfort, and that has never been more needed than now. Thankfully, the solution to ensure pets remain healthy is likely right around the corner at the local independent pet supply store.
Small businesses nationwide face growing economic uncertainty, with 26% in “immediate risk” of closing and another 28% in “near-term risk” of the same fate. These businesses collectively employ about 47.8 million Americans and are pillars of our local communities and economies. And they include the neighborhood pet stores that play a critical role in meeting the unique needs of our finned, feathered and furry family members.
Large e-Commerce sites, mass grocery and big national pet retailers aren’t the only or best option for many pets. Independent pet stores in every state were designated essential businesses because they stock a full assortment of items that many grocery stores don’t. From specialty food to CBD products and more, these retailers play a role in our pets’ lives that grocery can’t fill. And like many small local businesses, COVID-19 has put them at risk.
Despite an initial spike in mid-March as consumers stocked up, pet supply sales slowed at the end of March and early April. To overcome these headwinds, independent pet retailers are finding creative ways to meet their customers’ evolving needs and preferences while maintaining the stellar customer service and personalized experience that sets them apart.
Mud Bay, a regional retailer in the Pacific Northwest, has implemented several changes to its operations to continue to serve pet parents while doing its part to flatten the curve. For customers, that includes free curbside pickup and social distancing measures in stores. But they didn’t stop there. They’ve set-up portable hand washing stations at the front of all locations and sanitize scopes for bulk items after every use. For their employees, who they call “Muddies,” they provide masks, increased paid time off and wellness guidelines, and provide “thank you” pay of an additional $2/hour.
Other examples we’ve heard from our retail partners include:
- At Agri Feed Pet Supply in West Knoxville, Tenn., third-generation owner Britt Sturm has worked to change the stores’ operation by adding online ordering, delivery and a drive-thru system, to serve his customers and the community where they have been open for more than 40 years.
- All Pets Considered in Greensboro, N.C. is leveraging its strong social media following for virtual events and activities that keep their customers engaged, like their recent Virtual Spirit Week and pet Easter Egg Hunt Bags. Participating pet parents won prizes, BOGO deals, samples and more.
- Pet in the City in Charlotte, N.C. is starting virtual adoptions where participants receive special coupons. They are also offering same day delivery to best serve their pet parents.
For independent retailers looking to follow in these stores’ footsteps, providing an online shopping option is an important step as many people continue to shelter in place and others return to public life slowly through a phased approach. Pet supply storefronts that continue to remain open can keep customers healthy and safe by applying best practices, like shortening hours to give staff time to thoroughly clean and sanitize each day as well as offering designated shopping time for seniors and other vulnerable populations. Providing alternative shopping and delivery methods like call-ahead ordering, FaceTime shopping and curbside pickup provide additional convenience and comfort for customers.
In these unprecedented times, consumers want to shop local, and independent pet retailers across the country are stepping up to the challenge by providing them with the tools and options to do so in a way that meets their changing needs. Together, we can help keep pets and our communities happy, healthy and safe.
Don McIntyre is the CEO of Animal Supply Co., a distributor with headquarters in Irving, Texas. His work is guided by a “win-win-win” approach to the vendor-distributor-customer relationship. His past experience as a vendor in the food industry helps guide his insight into how to best connect the Animal Supply Co. brand and its retail partners. This experience includes serving as president of Western Region as well as SVP of National Supply Chain and Strategy for United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI). Prior to that, he served as president and CEO of Claridge Foods and also held several senior positions within subsidiaries of Sara Lee Corporation, including President and CEO of Sara Lee Coffee & Tea.