A retail category that impacts the whole store

There’s something about the pet category that is becoming more and more apparent. Even retailers that don’t emphasize pet products need to understand this point.

I’m not referring to the fact that pet products have turned into highly profitable businesses for a wide range of retailers, although that is important.

My point goes beyond this. I’m addressing the growing pet passion of customers.

Pet is now more than a category. It’s a topic that connects to consumers so viscerally that its power has gone well beyond the pet aisle. It holds the key to customer engagement across the store.

Given this is a column about pet, you’d probably expect to read some corny pet language, like how consumer engagement helps you win in a ‘ruff’ retail climate. But if that’s what you’re expecting from this column, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Instead, let’s look at the best ways to measure the pet phenomenon. One way is sales, despite my point that the impact of pet goes well beyond dollar figures.

U.S. consumers spent $72.6 billion on pets last year, an increase of more than 4%, according to the American Pet Products Association. The spending included food (the largest segment), supplies/OTC meds, veterinary care, live animal purchases, and other services.

What’s driving the surge in pet momentum? For the first time consumers want everything for their pets that they have themselves, including specialized diets and premium foods. There’s an all-important generational driver to this trend. Here’s how it was stated in a DSN article last year:

“The growth in millennial pet parents and the trend toward humanizing pets have led to an increased demand for high-quality premium pet products.”

However, pet is a topic that defies the rules because it’s real impact goes beyond products and sales. For pet you also need to examine softer measurements of success with customers. These include good will, community building, customer engagement, traffic boosting, viral social posts, and more.

After all, today nearly 70% of all U.S. households own a pet, with dogs by far the most popular, according to a Forbes piece citing APPA data. Connecting with pet-loving consumers and households is an enormous opportunity. Netflix gets this, and delivers a steady stream of movies and TV shows that address this theme. This includes an original series called “Dogs,” which tracks “the unshakeable devotion between dogs and their owners, no matter the circumstances,” in settings ranging from war-torn Syria to a restaurant in Italy.

Retailers need to understand the importance of connecting with pet-owning families in new and deeper ways. There are some good examples of what this looks like.

Consider a recent pet initiative from retailer Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods, based in Washington State. The company discovered late last year that a local pet shelter was running low on food supplies. The retailer sprang to action not only by alerting the community via social media, but also by offering a 10% discount on pet food purchased for donation to the shelter. The initiative grew pet sales considerably, and the retailer even had to arrange for donation pickups several times a week. But the company gained more than sales. Cashiers received lots of positive comments from customers. Shoppers posted highly positive feedback on social media. The retailer had successfully engaged with the local pet community, and even won a merchandising award for its efforts from National Grocers Association.

Another retailer that understands how to engage with pet-loving consumers is Coborn’s, based in St. Cloud, Minn. This retailer has been growing its e-commerce program called CobornsDelivers, and its delivery drivers are coached on how to build good customer relationships. So perhaps it’s not surprising that drivers bring along dog biscuits on trips, because being nice to the family dog builds a lot of good will with customers.

Pet owners especially relay their passion during a holiday like Halloween. People dress their pets in costumes, often ones that match their own. Last fall a National Retail Federation survey about Halloween found “nearly 20% of celebrants planning to dress their pets in costumes,” up from 16% the year before. What kind of costumes were being planned? The top dog and cat outfits were pumpkins, hot dogs, and bumble bees.

Retailers should take note of all this pet passion, and the examples I’ve outlined, to figure out how they will engage. Even retailers that don’t plan to become major destinations for pet products can attract positive tail wags every so often from pet-loving customers.

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He currently is the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries. To read last month’s column, click here.