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Pet stores: Following animal instincts

As Australians began self-isolating and working from home, many sought comfort in spending more time with their furry friends. Here, three pet retailers describe how coronavirus has impacted their businesses and how they have responded to customers.

George Wahby

CEO, Petbarn and Greencross Vets


How has COVID-19 impacted the pet industry and how has it changed consumer shopping behaviour?

In times of stress, people turn even more so to the retailers and service providers they trust. With over 800 vets and over 5000 team members, we’re here for our communities – providing advice and solutions to make things a little easier at what is an uncertain time. 

We want to make sure that communities can still access retail stores and pet services, as we are a specialty retailer offering essential products that are not readily available that pet parents need to safeguard their pet’s health, whilst being able to safeguard their health and that of our team members. We have introduced a number of measures to ensure our customers can still look after their furry family members in a way that works for them. 

Petbarn’s zero-contact click-and-collect services and zero-contact home delivery has been warmly welcomed by pet parents purchasing essential animal products. It’s not often you get someone in a retail offering to carry your purchases to your car – that’s in our DNA. Offering a contactless service was the obvious extension of that. 

And, through our newly introduced minimal contact vet offering, pet parents can now call to discuss the option of a telemedicine consultation or drop-off and collect their pet from our Greencross Vet clinics, whilst still practising social distancing. 

We’ve also just launched our store-to-door same-day delivery service with Uber. As part of the launch, we donated 20,000 free deliveries to help vulnerable and elderly pet parents.

Further, the Petbarn Foundation, together with Animal Rescue Cooperative, is providing $500,000 in pet care relief to help animal rescue groups doing it tough amidst this crisis. We understand that pets play such an important role in contributing to the joy and wellbeing of families, so we are doing our best to ensure pets continue to stay in their loving homes by creating essential Pet Care Relief Packages for pet parents who may be experiencing illness or financial difficulty as a result of COVID-19. 

Are there any categories where you’re seeing a spike in sales right now?

We know stock levels are a concern for many at this time, so we’re continuing to reassure pet parents that we have a healthy amount of product across our entire offering and are providing regular updates on our website. 

Communicating to our customers and ensuring they are informed has never been more important, especially when our products are vital for the health of their pets and not widely available. 

Due to the current change in shopper habits many retailers are experiencing, we have seen an uptake in the sale of pet essentials, like dog and cat food products. Ensuring the future wellbeing of pets is front of mind for pet owners at this time, particularly as people are getting to the shops less, so we’re also seeing strong demand in the purchase of items such as flea, tick and worm products, as well as prescription and restricted diet options. 

What have been some of the highlights for Petbarn in the past year? 

Our amazing vet team perform lifesaving procedures daily. Our Live Chat team spent 40 minutes with an elderly customer just yesterday to ensure she could keep her beloved pets fed whilst she is in isolation. 

The Petbarn Foundation has donated over 50 seeing eye dogs to people who have now, thanks to our team, regained their independence. We are proud not to be like a supermarket. 

We are incredibly proud of how we were able to support bushfire response efforts by donating much-needed product and equipment to look after suffering animals and sending our vets out to care for injured wildlife. Supporting animals who are yet to find their forever home is something that’s incredibly close to my heart and last year alone, we raised over $3.6 million and supported over 160 different charities. We have saved almost 50,000 animal lives through RSPCA and shelters which is just phenomenal and wouldn’t have been possible without the passion and support of team members and our community of customers. 

In recent years, Australians seem to be more focused on their pets. How has your customer evolved over the years? 

Australians have always had an affinity for their pets. The humble Aussie pet has moved from the backyard to inside the house, even earning the status of a family member. 

Even more, people are realising how important pets are for companionship and positive health and wellbeing. People are also gaining a greater understanding of pet care and embracing holistic wellbeing. Pets are now a bigger part of people’s lives; they’re a family member. 

At Petbarn, we address the holistic needs of a pet, from behavioural training at an early age, to grooming, food, comfort – and everything in between. 

Consumers are also becoming more conscious of re-homing and giving pets a second chance at a forever home, and the rise in the number of adoptions at our adoption centres is testament to this. 

What are some of the trends taking place in pets at the moment? 

We are seeing pet parents taking an increasingly holistic approach to pet health (much like how they approach their own health), including healthy food, grooming, how to de-stress your pet… even down to things such as bedding comfort. 

Customers are more conscious about the environment and pet health than ever before, and we’re seeing a real interest and rise in sustainable pet care options such as Aussie-made products, products with no preservatives or nasties, and biodegradable waste bags. 

Adoptions will continue to rise. Giving a forever home to a pet rather than the unthinkable reality many used to face makes us happy each and every day. To be at the forefront of that trend is extremely satisfying. We cannot wait to hit 50,000 adoptions through our stores in a few short months. Fifty thousand families have brought love into their homes, not only by saving a life, but all the positive aspects a pet brings to a home. 

David Young

Managing director,


How has coronavirus impacted PETstock and how you are serving customers now? 

As an essential service that looks after the health and wellbeing of all pets, we haven’t been impacted as severely as other retailers appear to have been. 

Our stores are still open, well stocked and ready to help pet parents navigate through these uncertain times. The health and safety of our team and customers has always been our main priority through COVID-19, so we have obviously had to adjust and abide by the Government’s guidelines as they are updated. 

In terms of how we are serving customers, our 150+ national store network remains open, however we put some vital measures such as EFT payment only and marking out zones at counters to ensure social distance measures are in place. 

In addition, we also offer the convenience and peace of mind of services like online home delivery and 15-minute zero-contact click-and-collect at all stores. As another essential service, our PETstock Vet network continues to meet the needs of sick and/or injured pets and our recently launched PETstock Vet Chat allows pet parents to video or text chat vets from the comfort of their own home.

What have been some of the highlights for PETstock in the past year? 

Without a doubt, our biggest highlight to date has been the response of our team in the face of the current environment. They have been simply amazing, serving our loyal customers with a smile on their faces, bringing joy to their pets and having a little bit of fun along the way. To be honest, our many other highlights for the year don’t compare to the effort, resilience and can-do attitude of our entire team. We are very proud of them.

How have pet stores evolved over time and how have they responded to changing customers’ needs? 

Over the years, the evolution of pet specialty services has been extraordinary in so many ways. Australians have a significant passion for all pets and as such truly do treat them as members of the family. 

This has meant that as an industry we have a real obligation to carry a vast range of products and services for all pets both healthy and in unfortunate cases, unwell. It is no longer just about important nutrition but also about providing products and services for enrichment. The customer demands convenience and this is no different in the pet sector, so ensuring that each of our locations provides as many additional services as possible such as puppy school, grooming, DIY dog wash, adoption, veterinarian hospitals are part of the emergence of having everything provided under the one roof. Our networks, both metropolitan and regional, have focused on being able to provide this to our customers for quite a few years now. 

Whilst there is still something exciting about visiting a store to see all that is on offer, customers also are time-poor and require the convenience of services such as online shopping, autoship and click-and-collect, of which we are proud to be offering a world-class standard 15-minute turnaround service.

What do you predict retail will be like post-coronavirus? 

There will be an accentuation of online channels short-term and our customers will expect more than ever to be able to shop how they want to shop. 

So being an ominchannel business like ours – with physical stores, an online store as well as shopping via our social media channels – means that we are well positioned to respond to customers’ needs. It will take some time to adjust, but I actually think things will make their way back to ‘normal’ and people will relish their shopping experience in stores as much as they ever have. 

Our range of in-store services – grooming salons, puppy school, DIY wash, adoption – are clearly not things you can do from a laptop, mobile or tablet. Our customers feel like they are part of a community here at PETstock, where our staff know them by name, their pets’ names and they have a sense of belonging.

James Edwards


Pet Circle

How has COVID-19 impacted Pet Circle?

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online in the pet category. Being a must-have product, people needed to find online sources for pet food and so we had an influx of new customers. Coupled with a degree of stockpiling, we are experiencing very significant increases in order volume that have led to us introducing a number of operational changes. These include running our distribution centres 24 hours a day!

How has Pet Circle changed the way it operates and addresses consumer concerns re: COVID-19?

The need for social distancing and cleanliness is particularly challenging in our distribution centres and logistics. Mostly, it has been fairly simple – separating individual desks to maintain distance, stopping overlapping shifts and constant cleaning – though operationally, it is very challenging. Additionally, we emphasised contact-less deliveries early on and limited quantities to prevent stockpiling since out- of-stocks would have been unfair to our auto-delivery customers, who we always prioritise.

We’ve stepped up our efforts to have clear communication. This is because people are less certain and delivery times are a few days longer than prior to COVID-19. That means going multi-channel as well as ensuring we are talking about the things that matter to our customers.

Pet seems like quite a competitive sector. What makes Pet Circle different to the competitors?

Early on, when our competitor set was other small onliners, Pet Circle excelled in logistics and operations, marketing, and – I like to think – in having a real vision for where a digitally-enabled pet specialist could go. Now we see our challenge as providing a deeply specialised experience digitally, so we’re more than just a catalogue website or a big, impersonal store. As pet parenthood gets increasingly complex, with nearly as many dietary and entertainment options as humans, we need to help busy people care for their pets as well as they can.

What plans do you have for Pet Circle this year?

Our number one is to deliver a standout pet specialist experience online. That means end-to-end value, whether it is information on the site, guidance in emails, or experts on Live Chat and Facebook. We plan to raise the profile of our Curious Box – a pack of fun and useful products – after a lot of market testing. We hope that people will delight their pets every month or two with a new Curious Box!

We have four vets on staff and plan to more than double that so we can create lots of helpful advice targeted to the right people, experiment with Facebook Live Q&A chats, and ramp up our Ask A Vet email service. We want pet parents around the country to trust that we have their pets’ wellbeing at the core of what we do.

Also, we plan to increase our ‘continual improvement’ in logistical excellence. We want to grow our range, have orders packed within hours and delivered to our metro customers the next day (with regional customers having faster deliveries too).

How would you describe the modern pet customer?

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all customer profile, though the suburban mum is our number-one decision maker. We also have empty-nesters who often have higher standards for the food and health products they purchase, digitally-savvy millennials who value delivery flexibility, not to mention the different pets and breeds that all have different requirements!

Simplicity and reliability are increasingly demanded by all our customers. Pets are an emotional topic, people want the best for them, so we find more people using our auto-delivery option, enquiring about upgrading their food or switching to natural, and consuming content that is purely advice. Pet parents are definitely more knowledgeable than they used to be!

How would you describe the current pet retail industry? 

Petbarn has driven a huge consolidation in the Australian pet retail industry over the past decade. Where once people relied on their friendly local pet store, they have now the option of a big box retailer or taking the lower variety and mid-quality of the supermarkets. 

In the US, has shown that providing a great customer experience is what pet parents really want, and that it’s as achievable online as it is in bricks-and-mortar. So we need to navigate the emerging needs of Australian consumers as they increasingly venture online, which is a fantastic challenge to have, since its solution is giving people what they actually value. That’s a really positive way to work for the team. Further, it is a great industry to be in as people spend more time and money looking after their pets who they increasingly view as members of their family.

This story is from the May 2020 issue of Inside Retail magazine. Subscribe here

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