There are 90 million dogs running around the country; and 4 million more cats. While 68% of households are home to pets. That’s a lot of ecommerce potential – and particularly during the pandemic.
Like the rest of us, pet owners have been buying mostly online for the best part of one year. And in response, pet brands and retailers have adapted to digital solutions to take a slice of the $99 billion industry.
“Right now, in the middle of a pandemic,” said Steve King, CEO of the American Pet Products Association, “and certainly true during the early stages of the pandemic, many pet owners have been shopping online out of safety precautions.”
He continued that while “pet retailers are deemed essential and have remained open during the pandemic for the most part, many pet owners are choosing to play it safe, stay home and order online.”
Online demand has been growing and sustained higher levels throughout the pandemic. “There are a few key online-only retailers… contributing significantly to this trend,” added Steve, “who are marketing heavily to pet owners online and really focusing on customer service and retention, competitive pricing, and quality products.”
Meanwhile, pet retailers such as Petco and PetSmart are truly upping their game by increasing their digital presence and reaching out to their customers. Petco runs on HCL Commerce, an ecommerce platform that really only makes sense for a big brand to use for legacy reasons (HCL is the reincarnation of IBM WebSphere, and so keeping servers in-house completely makes sense.)
PetSmart runs on Salesforce Commerce Cloud, a forward-facing platform that is always looking to innovate. It is one of the default options for big-volume retailers that need complex solutions for complex issues – like showing separate sites depending on specific geographic locations and language.
“From a pet owner’s perspective,” added Steve, “there’s a lot of attraction in having bulky, heavy items delivered right to your doorstep… With items like food and litter, for example, that people know they need on a regular basis, being offered an often-reduced pricing on an auto-ship subscription is tough to compete with.”
To reach closer to customers, retailers could target them on the digital channels where they are located – through regular or targeted ads as well as through influencers on newer platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.
And at the other end of the consumer journey, expansions in the shopping, shipping, and delivery methods have given people greater flexibility.
“We know safety and convenience remain top priority for consumers,” said Petco’s digital chief Darren MacDonald, “so we continue to enhance our online and app experiences to ensure pet parents can shop safely, without hassle or shipment delays… From a logistical perspective, we believe focusing on BOPUS, curbside, ship-from-store, and online booking processes are crucial to remaining competitive.”
While ecommerce sales of pet products have surged, online pet services are also seeing an increase. “The approaches and techniques taught in online dog training are the same as a trainer would teach to a client in-person,” said owner of SpiritDog Trainer Steffi Trott. “We emphasize the same key aspects: making training positive, keeping the reward rate high, motivating the dog to do well, preventing him from rehearsing bad and unwanted behaviors.”
One of the key differences is precisely how the content is communicated to pet-owner customers – whereas in-person trainers have had to adapt to the digital space. “While an in-person trainer can literally take the leash into his or her own hands, an online dog trainer has to demonstrate in videos how behaviors are taught. This comes with additional challenges and requirements: only very good teachers can relay information through digital means as well as hands-on.”
And much like ecommerce in general, now that many have moved online for their pet services, there is a certain stickiness that will see this trend be sustained after the pandemic. “The pandemic jump-started online dog training – as it did many e-learning businesses,” added Steffi. “Owners are realizing the value and convenience of training their dog from home. It saves time and money.”
Think about it: a 10-minute online session with a trainer versus driving 40 minutes to a dog school. That time spent travelling could easily be transferred into time spent learning. “Online training lets great training happen with just a little bit of daily time commitment,” added Steffi. “It makes dog training accessible and feasible for a huge amount of dog owners.”