A recent upswing in owner demand for premium pet-food and pet-care products has created a market for vet clinics. Here’s how to make the most of this trend—for clients and your bottom line. By Merran White
With mounting operating costs and stiff competition, most veterinary practices have diversified services in recent years to bolster revenue streams, with many now stocking premium pet-care products as a courtesy to clients and a source of extra income.
Most practices now carry premium pet food, parasite preventatives and training aids at the very least; some also offer anxiety-alleviating vests, safety jackets, grooming products, non-spill food bowls, ‘healthy’ gourmet treats and ‘enrichment’ toys.
Helping practices out, some popular ‘super-premium’ and ‘vet-recommended’ brands, including Aussie-made Royal Canin and the Hills ranges, are available only from vets and selected pet-store chains. But is your practice doing the right things to encourage clients to buy?
Cater to client demand
Demand for ‘premium’ pet products—specialised dog and cat foods, parasite-preventatives, training and grooming aids and the like—is on the rise, fuelled by closer contact between people and pets. According to the Animal Medicines Australia (AMA) Pet Ownership in Australia 2016 report, most of today’s dog and cat owners (39 per cent and 29 per cent of us, respectively) view their pets as valued family members—and treat them as such.
In 2016, Australian households spent an estimated $12.2-plus billion on pet products and services, found the report—up 42 per cent since 2013—and while food-volume sales are declining with the trend towards smaller pets, pet-product sales should experience “stable growth, particularly as a result of premiumisation and humanisation”.
The AMA report found Australians spent significantly more on their cats (up 35 per cent), dogs (up 33 per cent) and fish (up 54 per cent) across most product categories in 2016 than they did three years prior, with dog owners the biggest spenders, averaging an estimated $1475 annually per animal; followed by cat owners ($1029)
Supporting these stats, Euromonitor International’s Pet Care in Australia (May 2016) points to growth in Australian businesses offering ‘pet pampering’ products and services: grooming, pet-sitting, ‘gourmet’ treats and accessories.
Cat and dog owners are also more likely to be aware of the links between meeting animals’ ongoing physical, psychological and nutritional needs and improved lifelong health outcomes—and are consequently more likely to pay a premium for products they believe meet these needs.
“Today’s pet owners do want to provide the best for their animals, dietary-wise. But sometimes it can be tricky to decipher what’s actually good for them,” says Penny Casey, practice manager at The Blackburn Vet in suburban Melbourne. And vets are uniquely positioned to advise.
Know your market
Sales expert Frances Pratt of Melbourne-based SMART-Connect Alliance says knowing your customers ensures you stock products your clients want and can afford. “The first thing I’d do is look at your practice demographics,” she suggests. “Do the sort of people who invest in higher-end products form part of your current clientele? If the answer’s yes, you’re onto first base. If it’s ‘no’, think about the types of products your current clients would buy.
“Talk to clients who do fit the demographics and ask them about their purchasing habits for a range of products, and if they’d consider buying from you. This could be as simple as, ‘We’re thinking of adding some grooming aids—is that something you’re interested in for your pet?’; ‘Where do you buy them now?’; and ‘What do you like/dislike about that product?’.”
Streamline your stock
Both practices we spoke with carried just two ‘super-premium’ brands: Hills and Royal Canin—though others, including Eukanuba, Ivory Coat and BlackHawk also fall into the ‘premium’ category.
Casey was swayed by research and sales support. “There’s lots of scientific research behind both brands; they provide regular training; and both offer broad ‘prescription-diet’ ranges,” she says.
Sophia Gillis, practice manager of North Randwick Vet Clinic in Sydney’s affluent eastern suburbs, made her choice partly on quality and service, partly on avoiding brands stocked by competing local stores and clinics, “though we’ll bring in brands on the [client’s] request”, she adds.
Both advise ‘curating’ your range, though Gillis, with her well-heeled clientele, carries more grooming aids and gourmet treats. “We’re steering away from stocking lots of merchandise—grooming aids, brushes, toys—because online and Pet-Warehouse-style stores have the space and buying power to stock huge quantities [cheaply],” says Casey. “We focus on premium pet food, medicines and things we can see a therapeutic reason for; such as Halti collars [and] car ‘safety’ harnesses.”
“We want to be looked on as a place where people can go to ask questions about health-related products and treatments and get the right information.”—Penny Casey, practice manager, The Blackburn Vet
Both practices carry a carefully chosen few parasite-prevention products—usually the latest and best—ensuring they issue reminders so clients return regularly for more.
Regular visits mean more sales
Most clients buy products from vet clinics while they’re there for other reasons, say practice managers. Issuing ‘routine visit’ reminders is one way to ensure they visit regularly, benefiting animals’ health along with your practice’s bottom line.
“The majority of our clients get their premium pet-care products from us when they visit for vaccinations, heartworm injections etcetera,” says Casey. “Otherwise it depends whether they’re close enough to swing by. Some will go out of their way, usually because we’ve sent reminders.”
Routine visits are also an opportunity to sell training aids, she says. “At the 18-month vaccination visit, we’ll discuss the behavioural side of things, and if a client’s finding it hard to exercise their dog because of pulling, we’ll recommend training aids,”—which they can buy on site.
Another way to encourage regular visits—and product purchases—is to offer ancillary services such as onsite grooming, which works well for clinics in affluent areas with lots of dog owners.
“Most of our clients are fairly wealthy but time-poor, so our grooming service serves as a drop-off point…while the family runs errands,” says Gillis. “They’ll often say, ‘While he’s here, just do everything he needs’,”—that’s anything from nail clipping to worming injections. “And that’s when they’ll stock up on products, too.”
Play to your strengths
When it comes to product sales, vet practices’ points of distinction are the expertise of their staff and the trust that exists between vets and patients’ owners. Unlike pet-store staff, who may be well-meaning but rarely have specialist veterinary training, vet-practice staff can typically back their detailed product advice with reputable research evidence.
These clear, science-based explanations are an invaluable ‘extra’—for many clients justifying the mark-ups that come with purchasing from a vet practice.
“We can never compete with big online ‘stores’ on price because we’re not buying in bulk and we have huge overheads,” Gillis explains. “However, what clients aren’t getting from those stores is the same advice. They’re also not getting the guarantee that we’re backing up those products with our name.”
“We want to be looked on as a place where people can go to ask questions about health-related products and treatments and get the right information,” stresses Casey. “We want our clients to have that trust.”
Encourage habitual buying
Incentives—‘discount-on-first-purchase’ vouchers; money-back guarantees; and loyalty schemes such as ‘11th bag free’—encourage clients to buy from you, so use them, advises Pratt.
North Randwick clinic has a ‘replacement-or-money-back’ guarantee, says Gillis, with free treatment provided if a client’s pet “has an adverse reaction” to any product purchased from the practice.
“Incentives work well when you’re asking people to change their current buying behaviour and buy habitually from you,” Pratt notes. “It makes sense to make the incentives around consumables or if you’re adding an extension line: ‘Buy dog food and get 20 per cent off a dog bowl’.
Invest in staff training
It’s important all front-of-house staff to receive training to ensure they can provide the expected expert advice, say practice managers. “You definitely need to train staff to sell,” asserts Casey. “Everyone needs to feel confident about what they’re recommending, especially with parasite control.”
All front-desk staff at North Randwick are trained up, says Gillis, noting that “you need quite extensive knowledge of the products to give correct advice”.
At a minimum, advises Pratt, invest in product education, “so staff know what products to recommend for which circumstances”. She also suggests general sales training if product sales are new for your practice, “so your staff know the right questions to ask and how to suggest products in a way that makes both them and your customers feel comfortable”.