Updated: Sep 7
Get comfortable with who your customer is not so you can focus on what builds your business
Honesty = Loyalty
People within the industry often ask me how I have built such a loyal customer following, and how my business has continued to grow despite DCM, and COVID-19. The answer is really quite simple. First – my staff and I are unapologetically honest, both to our customers and to ourselves. Second, I know who my customer is NOT. Knowing who is not your customer is just as important as knowing who your customer is. Sometimes people walking out your door is the best thing for you, and for them, and it is something you should get comfortable with. Instead of chasing the customer that doesn’t share your philosophy or doesn’t want to be educated you can use that time and energy to invest in those that do.
We do this by defining ourselves and what we stand for, and by holding pet food, treat and toy companies accountable – So why aren’t we doing that? Why aren’t we asking tough questions? Why do so many independent retailers attempt to offer a similar product offering as Chewy while simultaneously complaining about fighting the never-ending battle of competing on price? If you set yourself up to be try and compete with Chewy – that is what you will spend your entire career doing, and you will lose. I don’t compete with Chewy, and to be honest they are rarely a thought that crosses my mind.
Own Your Philosophy
The first step to avoiding this and identifying your customer is to define your pet food philosophy – whatever that may be. Is it ‘science’ based brands? Is it independent only brands? Grain free? Raw only? Is it a little of everything? It doesn’t matter – I support you regardless of whatever that is as long as you stick by it unapologetically and hold those companies accountable to quality product. As an independent pet store owner, your pet food philosophy is important because it then allows you to tell your story, tailor your messaging and attract your customer to your store and serve them in the best way possible. In essence you’re not selling product – in the end you’re selling yourself and your philosophy. This doesn’t mean you can’t redefine your philosophy from time to time based on brand evolution, emerging data and science. However, redefining your philosophy better not be because a pet food company or distributor told you that you have to change to survive.
Once you have defined your customer you no longer will have to consume yourself with chasing those who are not your customer. Blanket tactics for advertising and promotion simply don’t work. Did a ‘potential’ customer walk out because you were more expensive than Chewy? Good – they weren’t your customer anyway. Did someone else walk out because you don’t have a food their vet recommended? Good – not your customer. You cannot speak to everyone, never mind please everyone – so don’t even try.
Choosing your Inventory
Defining your customer also prevents you from bringing in products that do not fit your customer base. Think about it – for your best customers, how confusing is it for them to see multiple brands with extreme variances in story and quality? How can they feel confident that you’re not just selling them on something for the sake of selling it? We’ve all fallen victim to bringing in a food line that flopped – sometimes manufacturers will buy it back, but usually we just end up donating it to clear the shelf for something that we are passionate about and will sell. Instead, your shelves should be stocked with a healthy, yet well-defined mix of products that at least include healthy margin, independent pet protections (no chewy or amazon) and are from manufacturers that do their due diligence before bringing products to market. Again, this collective mix of products should tell your story – whatever that story is.
An often forgotten benefit of having a well-defined inventory assortment that you believe in - is that you turn your inventory faster, which is good for business. Further - distributors and manufacturer reps take note of this practice and are often more willing to work out better pricing, employee incentives and customer coupons. These can further solidify customer loyalty and who doesn't want that?
The Long Game
Anyone who knows anything about me knows I am comfortable not being everyone’s cup of tea. Our customers embrace this – and it’s why they keep coming back, they know we’re going to tell them how it is. In fact, the day I become everyone’s cup of tea something is seriously wrong, and it will also likely be the day that my business fails. Think about it – would you rather have twice as many customers that shop with you half the time and purchase average industry product? Or would you rather have half the number of customers who are fiercely loyal and purchase 100% of their products from you and appreciate your time and expertise? I would take the latter all day long. This is called ‘The Long Game’. Why? Read on.
This ‘long game’ is important to understand and embrace for several reasons: it allows you to carry far less stress and instead focus time and attention on your best customers and solidify their loyalty. These customers will see a common theme in the products quality of products you carry. Again, those products define your store persona and your brand story. Those customers who you build loyalty into are invaluable because they will be your biggest source of new customers – regardless of how many marketing dollars you spend. There is nothing more valuable than a genuine referral from exceptional customer service from someone who truly believes in the products they sell – this breeds longevity in your customer base and guaranteed sales.
Another perk to the 'long game' is that eventually customers who are not receptive to change become fewer over time. In fact, I rarely have people walk out anymore because we have a reputation of carrying quality product, and being problem solvers. In other words, customers are walking in with an expectation of the experience. They're looking for a plan rather than a product (i.e. selling ourselves and our philosophy). Eventually, you'll start to see the same people who walked out over the years walk in and be receptive.
Stop The Cycle
The most important aspect to knowing who your customer is that you will no longer be worried or concerned about chasing someone who will never be your customer anyway. We have to stop the cycle of leaning into companies marketing (instead of science), otherwise you’ll continue to fall victim to the same BS we continue to see (i.e. DCM, formulation errors and recalls). The result of this approach is that your customers will see you advocating for them and appreciate you even more.