Impulse Control

Zeroing in on impulse-buy items will spell greater profits and repeat business for pet boutiques.

Harper & Hound display.

Whether a pet specialty boutique focuses on essentials such as food and first aid or caters to more lavish sensibilities, impulse-purchase products are a powerful weapon in the battle to keep profits growing. A growing number of upscale retailers say that such items as treats, apparel, accessories and jewelry are helping them separate their operations from the competition.

“Impulse-buy items are a very important part of a pet specialty retailer’s business,” says Eric Bittman, CEO/president of Warren London, which manufactures dog grooming products, including Pawdicure Polish Pens. “Capitalizing on every dollar your shop can earn can make the difference between one that makes it and one that has to close down.”

It all makes perfect sense to many industry officials and operators of upscale retail establishments. “Anything that can add to the average ticket impacts the bottom line,” says Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a consulting firm located in Coxsackie, N.Y. “That’s because you really make a profit on the second item a customer buys; the first is eaten up by the cost of your marketing to get them in the door.”

Impulse-buy merchandise can also enable stores to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering customers things they can’t find elsewhere, explains Beth Weimerskirch, co-owner of Harper & Hound, which designs jewelry for dogs and humans. “Shoppers walk into specialty shops because they’re looking for unique items, but they also want to have a special experience,” she says. “Unique impulse-buys have the potential to give them that experience.”

The merchandising and marketing of pet products cannot all be serious business. For their own sake, as well as the consumer’s, retailers need to mix up their assortment and get consumers more involved in wanting to look down the next aisle. “As a specialty retailer, you need to have the frosting,” explains Sharon DaDalto, president of leanlix, a company that offers a low-calorie dog reward/treat system. “You have to have fun items in the store that bring people in and give them a reason to buy.”

Impulse-buy items can also introduce customers to a new product line, says Emy Hui, media and communications manager for 26 Bars & a Band, a pet accessories manufacturer. “As such, retailers can use these as a springboard for similar or complementary products,” Hui says. “Although generally an add-on to a primary sale, there is ample opportunity to turn an impulse-buy item into a popular best-seller.”

And yet, despite the value impulse-buy merchandise offers to retailers, these items are often not properly capitalized on, says Stephanie Davis, director of sales for Mirage Pet Products LLC, a pet product manufacturer. “Many retailers don’t merchandise well for impulse buys and tend to do their business a disservice in this regard,” she says.


Snap Series display from 26 Bars and a Band.

Identifying the Mistakes
So what are some of the more common impulse-buy merchandising mistakes pet specialty retailers are making? According to Phibbs, some of these include stagnant assortments, a lack of creative signage, and overstocked or thoughtlessly planned displays. “Think dog beds by the register,” he says. “These are too expensive for impulse. If someone wants a dog bed for $80, they’re coming in for it.”

Baked treats, on the other hand, lend themselves much better to impulse purchases. In addition, these products typically offer better profit margins than pet foods, says John Hart, president of Zuke’s, a manufacturer of natural dog and cat treats.

“The biggest misconception around baked treats is that consumers don’t want them anymore as they’ve become a bit outdated and perhaps less healthy than other treats. However, many of the new baked treats in the market are innovative and healthy,” says Hart. “The treat aisle is also very crowded and often difficult to shop, so creating impulse displays helps eliminate the frustration of shopping the regular treat aisle.”

Many retailers also have the inaccurate perception that baked treats take up a lot of room, says Amy Singelais, partner/president of Preppy Puppy Bakery, Inc., a gourmet treat manufacturer. “You don’t need a case; you can just put them out on a plate,” she says. “Some stores sell an incredible amount with very little space. Baked treats can be hugely profitable. I see stores that mark up their treats four times.”

Encouraging impulse purchasing of baked treats, however, does require some effort. Offering variety—different forms, flavors, treats for small and for large dogs, etc.—is essential, as is visual appeal and cleanliness. “Keeping product current is also important,” Singelais notes. “One of the biggest mistakes I see is retailers not changing the product out, for example leaving holiday treats out well past the holiday. This is a huge mistake, and I see it all the time. It sends an impression that every item in the case is old.”  

Retailers should talk to customers about baked treats, says Hart, explaining that unlike in the past, today’s baked treats often eschew wheat and fillers. “By focusing on benefits such as low calorie, antioxidant rich, and other healthy ingredients, retailers can change consumers’ perceptions of the baked category,” he says.

Experts point out, that no matter the assortment, employees play a key role in boosting impulse buying. “Having a friendly, knowledgeable sales team can make a difference,” he says. “A friendly conversation to find out what kind of consumer you have and what kind of dog he or she has can automatically lead to a couple of suggestions.”

Train staff to not only focus on the pet’s basic needs but also on the pet owner’s need to do something special for their furry buddy, says Weimerskirch. “We buy treats for our dogs because we know that a treat makes our dogs happy,” she says. “But what makes us buy a beautiful treat that looks like a donut or an ice cream cone? It is our need to feel like we’re giving our dogs something extra special.”

Store staff should be prepared to listen and respond to customers, Weimerskirch adds. For example, if someone is going on vacation, ask if they need a gift for their pet sitter. Or, if a pet has health issues, suggest ancillary products that could make the animal more comfortable or safer. “The sales staff should avoid sounding [insincere] when doing this,” she says. “But they should definitely perfect the use of normal conversation to help promote impulse sales.”

Impactful merchandising will also drive impulse purchasing upwards. Retailers should utilize manufacturer displays, since most are artfully designed to call attention to these kinds of products. But they should take their efforts a step further.

“Look to your shelving,” says Laurel Tielis, a San Francisco-based business advisor. “Grooming items are a must-have, but toys or other treats placed near them make sense because most pets are less than happy about being groomed. Owners can make their pets [and themselves] feel better by buying them together.”

Leanlix Lickable dog treats.

Consider placing picture frames or photo key chains near grooming products, since once the pet has been “prettied up,” says Tielis, it’s only natural that the owner would want to snap a picture. Another strategy is to bundle impulse items in a gift basket, making it easier for shoppers to purchase multiple items, she suggests.

Impulse-buy items should be the first things customers see when they walk through your doors, says Davis. “Depending on the type of spender each customer is, studies say you have two chances to get them to spend a little more than they had originally planned,” she says. “One way is to bombard their senses when they first walk in. Have your cutest displays of impulse buys set up at the door. The other is at the register, of course.”
Don’t limit sampling and product demos to your core inventory; sample the smaller merchandise as well, says DaDalto.

Hui agrees this strategy can make a difference. “What pet parents really love are in-store product demonstrations that allow them to touch, smell or play with the products,” she says. “Consider Costco’s approach at introducing new food items in their stores—rarely will people pass up free samples.”

Finally, train employees to think like the counter person at the corner deli, who never lets customers leave without asking them what else they want, says Tielis. “That happens because most people really do want the sides with the sandwich, just as your pet store customers will see the benefits of buying a complete package, once it’s set in front of them.” 

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