Owner viewing border collie through smart phone

AmazONLINE Part 1: What our internet overlord means for real-world pet retailers

Amazon is king of the digital world. Or it sure seems that way. But if you’re in the pet food and treats business, there’s no seem about it. Amazon rules the eRoost. Or the iScratching post. You get the idea.

It should surprise exactly no one who has looked at a flat (or even flattish) screen over the last few years that Amazon is an online juggernaut in most every industry that considers retail sales important (i.e., every industry). In the pet consumables market, Amazon is a snowball, snatching up more and more sales that traditionally rolled out the doors of your brick-and-mortars. In fact, third-party analysts predict that Amazon’s pet consumable sales will reach $8.2 billion in 2018. That’s more than 10 percent of all pet food sales, according to 2017 numbers reported by Petfood Industry. Woof!

But the tail also wags the dog. As important as Amazon is to pet food sales, pet food sales are pretty important to our reigning eKing. On Amazon’s increasingly popular line of Alexa-based home devices, pet products have consistently ranked in the top three purchases by voice-activated shoppers. In 2017, Amazon’s total sales hit $178 billllllllllllion. If we do the math, it’s not hard to see that pet food and related sales could account for close to 5 percent of the great online Dane’s total intake. That means that Amazon won’t be giving up its milkbones anytime soon.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

As much as we love shopping from the comfort of our own video game chairs (and marketing to those who prefer to shop from the comfort of their own video game chairs), almost 90 percent of our pet retail world still takes place in the real world. The world of human interaction, paper or plastic, and bricks and mortar. We’re not all avatars all the time yet! So let’s talk about how our brick-and-mortars can stack up against our digital deity.

Experience matters, exponentially

What can brick-and-mortar pet product peddlers do to entice buyers to leave the comfort of their own homes and venture into the real live world? How does a business with real overhead — from rent to utilities to (gasp) paychecks for real people — compete with the typically lower prices and higher convenience of Amazon?

Easy. Just remember the two words that should be gospel to any customer-facing business, (and not excluding the pixelated kind): Experience matters. Every time a customer walks through some real-life doors to see your brand on the shelves, they’re having an experience. It’s more vital than ever to make sure that experience is a positive one. There are a few ways to do that.

Utilize the face-to-face interaction. The primary difference between the physical and the digital buying experience is the people presence. Money changing hands. Pleasant conversation. In the pet retail industry especially, chances are your customers and retail employees have at least one thing in common. Everyone likes talking about their pets, so encourage employees to eagerly engage. Even a simple “Cool dog!” can make a positive imprint on a customer. And that’s more than half the battle! If you can associate that positive experience with your brand, you’ve paved some inroads with your customers. Give the retailer some incentive to put your brand on their customers’ minds. Is it a button they wear? A coupon? A free sample? If they leave that store with an impression of your products, an image of your logo or just a good word from an employee, you’ve made more impact than any banner ad ever will.

If you have any sort of cause-related initiatives, this is the place where it will make the biggest impression on potential customers. If there’s a cause your brand fights for, the brick-and-mortar experience is where customers should see it. They’re already having an experience; they’re already on their journey. If you can make that journey mean more to your audience through cause marketing, you’ve won at least one battle. That goes for the retailers and their employees as well. If you have a cause-related initiative, offer material or talking points about the cause to the retailers. Give them the chance to make your cause their cause. If it makes them feel good to share something, they’ll organically promote your brand. And the customers will trust marketing materials more if there’s a cause associated with it.

Help them know their (your) stuff. “What is the difference between these formulas?” If the be-smocked high-schooler patrolling the aisles that display your brand can answer this question, you’ve probably just won a repeat customer.

A major hurdle to buying online is the lack of information. Or, even worse, the flood of information. If you Google hard enough, you can find conflicting reports about every single thing. Rarely, however, do you find an actual person who can answer your questions thoughtfully and then be there for immediate follow-ups. Natural human interaction! It matters!

That said, it’s often on the brand to educate the retailer, or incentivize the retailer to educate about your products. You can do this as simply or as creatively as you have bandwidth to manage. A shelf hanger that explains the difference between your standard line and your limited-ingredient line can be helpful, for instance. Or offering videos, webinars, brand background or even swag to retailers.  Retailers want open, honest communication with the brands they offer. If they trust that you’re going above and beyond to drive traffic to their stores, they’ll become your advocates. Make them feel like partners, as opposed to product pushers.  Anything that makes it easier or appealing (from knowledge to financial incentive) for the boots-on-the-ground to spread your gospel.

Beware, however. If the retailer is unable or unwilling to answer questions about your products, or if the interaction isn’t satisfactory, you can find yourself further behind than if the customer never went into the store in the first place. Even one negative experience can turn someone against you forever. Don’t let it happen. Amazon’s loving digital tendrils are open 24/7!

Uh, sell…online?

To really compete with the online juggernauts, the best thing a brick-and-mortar shop can do is become an online juggernaut its own self. If you can help them do so, you can develop your own digital brand champions. Give the retailer exclusive online-only promotions, or maybe do a little quid-pro-quo online promotion yourself. Letting your customers know where they can find your products, even in the digital universe, can build a lot of good will with customers as well as retailers. Digital marketing is the wave of, well, the last ten years, but it’s also the riptide of the future. Not only do you need to be online, your customer experience needs to be online. Use the brick-and-mortars-cum-online-retailers to share that experience with your customers.

If you want to beat them, sometimes you gotta join them. It’s easier than ever for brands to sell directly with Amazon Seller Accounts that are open to anyone who wants a digital storefront combined with the power of Amazon’s reach and convenience. Amazon might technically be the enemy, but it does offer smaller retailers an incredible number of valuable marketing resources. And, by infiltrating Amazon, you’ll build a positive repertoire with the Big Bad Wolf, which is never a bad thing. Think of Amazon as akin to Google; you might not want to be part of it, but you kind of can’t live without it. And if you play nice, the benefits can be very rewarding.

When building an Amazon Seller profile, you have to be cognizant of pricing; there are many pet-consumable manufacturers that set MAP pricing to be competitive, so doing the research on competitive brands will help you figure out the best place for your decimals. And while the pricing won’t always be perfect, having an effective MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) plan for each brand you sell helps level the playing field for all.

Amazon is likely going to continue taking a larger chunk of pet consumable sales for the immediate future. And if it isn’t Amazon, it’ll be another online behemoth. While online isn’t going away, this certainly doesn’t spell doom for brick-and-mortars. After all, you can’t pet a dog on Amazon. Physical pet stores will always exist for this reason alone. But for them to thrive, they have to do what they do best. And then try to beat Amazon at its own game.