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Tuesday, September 19, 2017 Vol. 81 No. 5

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Cover Story
Plants & Pooches
| Ellen C. Wells
>> Published Date: 10/26/2012
Americans are pet happy. We’ve been a nation of pet owners for generations now, but the extent to which we care for and love these animals seems to have grown and deepened. According to a recent Harris Interactive survey, 60% of Americans have a pet, and of those who do, 91% consider the pet to be part of the family. What else could explain the dog-in-stroller phenomenon?

With this increased sentimentality toward a furry (or feathered or scaled) companion comes a desire to provide for its well being, as well as to have some fun with this four-legged friend. And this means that pet owners’ purse strings are loosening.

Let’s consider some numbers from the American Pet Products Association’s 2011-2012 National Pet Owner Survey. There are approximately 72.8 million owned dogs and 86.4 million owned cats in the U.S., with 28% and 52% of pet owners owning more than one dog and one cat, respectively. The APPA estimates that U.S. pet owners will spend $52.87 billion, up from $50.96 in 2011. The largest percentage of those expenditures goes toward pet food (estimated 39% for 2012), with supplies and over-the-counter medicines coming in at 24%. And according to MarketResearch.com’s 2012 dog and cat owner trends, affluent Americans (those households with more than a $70,000 annual income) account for more than half of overall pet industry expenditures. 

Might garden centers have the opportunity to get in on some of these billions?

Fattening the Lean Months
Increasing foot traffic during the slower non-gardening months is a big reason garden centers get into pet products. “We were looking for ways to diversify and bring in more traffic,” says Kris Shepard of Alsip Home and Nursery in Frankfort, Illinois, where they’ve been in the pet category for more than 30 years. Both of Alsip’s two locations have about 10,000 sq. ft. dedicated to pets. “There was a need in our market—there weren’t the PetSmarts of the world—and it was an underserved category at the time.”

What’s key about the category is its independence from seasonal peaks and valleys and the fickleness of Mother Nature. “If you look at a graph of our overall sales it’s a rollercoaster like every other garden center, but if you look at the pet department it’s pretty steady month to month,” Kris says. “It’s nice to have that reliability. It’s 18% of our whole sales in our company.”

Wilson’s Garden Center in Newark, Ohio, entered the pet category more recently. “We did a huge remodel of our store in the winter of 2009-2010,” says Wilson’s manager/buyer John Gale. “We were looking for a way to get sales in the winter months since we were going to be open year round.” The folks at Wilson’s had seen the pet category do well in other garden centers, and decided to go the pet route.

Food and More for Furry Friends
Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, Illinois, has carried pet products since 1955. With nearly 55 years’ experience in the category, the store makes the most of its 2,600 sq. ft. dedicated to all things dog, cat and pet bird.

“Our real bread and butter [in the category] is the pet food line,” says Larry Thalmann III, president of Chalet. While they do carry some chews, leashes, dog beds and toys, the focus on boutique lines of pet food is the real driver of the category. “Designer brands [of pet foods] tend to be more health conscious,” Larry says. “The quality of the food is better, lots of things that are recommended by veterinarians. Generally speaking, these aren’t the brands you’d find at a pet mass merchandiser.”

Another pet-centric event at Chalet Nursery is the Pet Adoption Day, where families can find that special furry companion.

And that is by design. “We deal with dogs and cats that have dietary sensitivities and things like that, as well,” Larry adds. This specialty food focus drives in customers who are more conscious of their pets’ health than the average consumer would be.

For John at Wilson’s, the secret to spreading the word about the store’s new pet department was passing out hundreds of samples of dog food during Wilson’s grand re-opening and the weeks after. “That built into a good following of people who come back every time they need dog food,” he says. From what he sees, dog food outsells cat food three to one.

While food is the biggest and most consistent seller in the pet category, treats, toys and fashionable accessories such as collars, leashes and clothing also sell well. Sales of these items are consistent but do spike from October through the end of the year due to Halloween and Christmas. Costumes are a big deal for dog owners, too. According to a National Retail Federation Halloween Study, spending on Halloween pet costumes for 2012 was expected to increase $60 million to a total of $370 million. “I have three pets at home and they all dress up for Halloween,” admits Kris.

Welcome Them In
Halloween is just one of the many celebrations around which Chalet Nursery builds pet-centered events. Chalet’s Howl-o-ween Pet Parade welcomes four-legged critters dressed in their Halloween finest—and their owners often come dressed in costume as well—many times in coordinating outfits. Last year, about 150 pets paraded through the nursery. A $50 Chalet gift card is awarded to one winner in each of five categories, with the judging honors being conducted by the local animal shelter.

Chalet Nursery’s other pet events include a Pet Adoption Day and a Pamper Your Pooch Day. The latter event involves bringing dog groomers to the store to provide a wash and snip for Fido.

“Fresh” Product
What makes Alsip a bit unusual in the garden center set is it carries live animals—“everything we’re allowed to,” according to Kris—puppies, cats, fish, birds, hamsters and so forth. When it comes to the live pet world, Kris says the main thing is to be knowledgeable about laws and licensing, and to maintain good relationships with the Department of Agriculture and local animal welfare authorities. “You learn a lot just by getting hands on,” he says. “It doesn’t take a lot to get up to speed on pets, and it’s not hard to find good people who are knowledgeable about pets.”

Three years ago Alsip opened Groomingdale’s, a pet grooming service, within their two locations. “When you sell a good number of puppies each year there’s a built-in market,” Kris says. He likens the live pets and grooming service to an auto dealership. “You feel like you should take your car back to the dealer for oil changes and servicing,” Kris says. “Most dealerships’ profit centers are the service department, so it’s similar [to pets and grooming].” Alsip gives a grooming coupon to new puppy owners, who already trust them and will come back for grooming on a regular basis.

People With Passion
Chalet has one full-time and two part-time employees to staff what Larry says is the “leanest and meanest money-making opportunity in our business.” Where the plant-centered departments are labor intensive with watering, stocking and plant care, pet departments that carry food, supplies and accessories can run effectively and efficiently with just a few dedicated salespeople.

But, both Larry and Kris point out, these salespeople must be the pet equivalent of a passionate plant geek. “It takes a unique individual, somebody who loves pets and the whole nutrition component of it,” Larry points out. Chalet’s pet staff is trained in pet nutrition and the pet food lines by the pet food reps, and can speak knowledgeably and thoughtfully to pet owners looking for the appropriate foods for their pets.

Just as IGCs pride themselves on customer service and knowledge superior to that of mass merchandisers, pet departments also set themselves apart with knowledge and passion. “That’s what customers want, especially with their pets,” Kris says. “They want someone they can trust and who knows what they are talking about when it comes to giving advice on their pets and pet nutrition.”

Smart Product Choices

Mary Fab is with Pet Pages, a pet resource directory, and speaks with pet product retailers all day, every day. She’s familiar with how Mom-and-Pop pet product retailing works from both ends of the business.

“The challenge is landing on the right product lines,” she says. “People don’t necessarily want the frilly stuff … but sticking with the pet bowls and the collars and the leash, and really tailoring your merchandise properly is a challenge. Hopefully, people who are sticking their toe in are not going to load up on products that aren’t needed.”

It’s easy to load your shelves with too many of the cute fashions and cat toys. Rather, focus on carrying items of necessity such as holistic foods and treats.  

And just how do you know what to fill your shelves with? John Gale, for one, relies heavily on what sales reps suggest, and also listens to what customers ask for. These sales reps also helped kick-start Wilson’s pet department by attending the store’s grand re-opening and speaking with customers about the product lines.

Both Kris and Larry rely on their pet department managers to have a complete knowledge of the pet category and to smartly and efficiently stock products that will sell. To become familiar with all of the available pet product lines, there are several trade shows throughout the country that pet retailers can attend, such as the H.H. Backer Pet Industry Shows. And, Kris points out, some of the lawn and garden distributors are offering a wider selection of pet-centered products.

“The pet business continues to have steady growth despite the economy, and consumers are treating their pets as part of the family,” says Kevin Rewerts, head of True Value’s pet initiative. “This trend has allowed retailers to carry the basics as well as the ever-increasing premium products. The benefits to the retailers are that consumers shop a pet store in excess of 15 trips per year, and thus drive incremental retail trips that add additional basket rings.” This pet category can add up to the sound of lots of pitter-pattering paws walking through your doors on a routine basis. GP

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