The Golden Fleece

I know this doesn’t reflect well on me, but my dog is something of a mess. His long fur is generally tangled and knotted, strewn with burrs and prickers. He sheds so much that we often remark that we could make a whole new golden retriever every day.

We used to take him to a local dog groomer to get bathed and trimmed, but last year that woman retired and no one stepped up to take her place. I’m not sure whether it’s a product of our full-employment economy or there has been some sort of fundamental change in our culture, but lately it seems awfully difficult to find people who do independent service jobs, like snow plowing, tree trimming, appliance repair, pest control, or whatever.

In most cases I’ve eventually found somebody to do those things, although they’ve become so picky about their clientele that I sometimes felt as though I was trying to get a child into an exclusive boarding school. In a few instances, I have actually had to resort to doing something myself.

I thought I had reached those dire straits in terms of dog maintenance, so I decided to look for some grooming tools. About a half-hour from my home there is one of those pet supply chain stores, and that seemed like a logical place to start.

So I went to the store, and sure enough, there was a whole aisle of products intended for people who wanted to groom their own pets at home. One display rack in particular featured the type of tool I was looking for, with numerous variations based on size of breed, length of coat, and so forth. The appropriate tool for my dog was priced at $69.99, plus tax.

That seemed like a lot of money for something that looked like a small hairbrush with a blade in it. (Knowing my dog, he would probably eat it.) I was going to buy it anyway, on the theory that it must be good quality if it was that expensive, but first I thought to Google it on my phone.

My search results showed that Amazon sells the same tool for $15.99. There is no sales tax, which means that the final cost of the product in the store is five times what it is online. I’ve been around the retail business long enough to know how discrepancies can happen, but 500 percent? Really?

Many years ago, before the Internet became a factor, I remember talking to a group of specialty toy retailers about a pricing problem they were having with mass-market board games. Customers would often come in and ask for the classic board games that we all played as kids, but Walmart was actually selling those games for less than small retailers could buy them for from the manufacturers.

My advice at the time was simply to buy the games from Walmart and mark them up slightly. Consumers expect to pay a little more at a specialty store, and they expect a toy store to carry classic toys. The goal is always to exceed expectations, but first we have to meet them.

The pet store had certainly not met mine, because I cannot envision a scenario in which that level of markup is okay. Even if there are customers who would pay that much, and I’m sure there are, how are those people going to feel about that store when they find out how badly they’ve been hosed? Probably not how you would like people to feel about your business.

Anyway, I was trying to find my way out of the place when I stumbled upon their dog-grooming station. It turns out that the store provides all sorts of pet services right there onsite (perhaps for owners who can’t afford the tools).

The grooming station had glass walls, so you could watch as they washed and trimmed other people’s dogs, and in fact they were working on a golden retriever at the time. He was remarkably well-behaved, so I figured he was one of those professional actors you see in commercials all the time. My dog would have trashed the place.

There was a countertop that had a sheet of paper taped to it, which looked just like a restaurant menu and had the prices listed for all the available services. While I was reading it, a customer approached me and told me how great the staff was at grooming dogs. It occurred to me that the woman could be a shill, but if so the store was working a lot harder than I would have expected.

Then I was approached by a store employee, who asked if I had any questions. I did.
“Could I have a copy of this menu?” No, it’s the only one they have.
“Do you have a brochure or something I could take with me?” No.
“Do I need to make an appointment?” Yes.
“Do you have a card or anything?” No.
“How am I supposed to know whom to call, or at what number?”
“It’s probably on the website.”
“Well, okay, maybe I’ll check that out.” Or maybe not.

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that there is a certain retail strategy that works well in the modern ecommerce and smartphone environment, and most successful brick-and-mortar stores fit that model. Basically, it boils down to three basic tenets.

First, it requires very careful product selection, deep but not too broad, in a very specific niche. Unless you’re Walmart or Home Depot, it’s pretty tough to be a generalist these days.

Second is the “in-store experience,” which needs to check off three boxes. It needs to be entertaining, it needs to sell something, and it must be personal and hands-on.

Finally, the service has to be perfect. By that I mean that the staff has to be extremely knowledgeable and willing to do just about anything to make customers happy.

So how did the pet supply place measure up? Well, the products I wanted were there all right, but if prices are higher than any sane person would pay it’s kind of a moot point.

The grooming station was pretty cool, so I’ll give them credit for an in-store experience. You can’t send your dog off to Amazon for a trim.

In terms of service, I think we could all find some flaws. If you want customers to make an appointment with one of your staffers, for example, give that staffer some business cards.

So, how does your store measure up?

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