Selling Points columnist Brian Conrad is practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Washington, and a past president of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association.
Read Articles Written by Brian Conrad
Who is fronting the merchandise at your veterinary hospital? Rotating it? Freshening the stock? Creating and building a new point-of-purchase display? These types of actions are happening almost everywhere today throughout Retail America but probably not at most veterinary clinics. Why not? Not a priority? Don’t see value in the effort? Or are you of the opinion that the status quo is getting the job done?
Judging by the grumbling of practice owners and managers, along with so-so pharmaceutical and retail sales in our hospitals, we might want to reprioritize slightly. Maybe we should have a contest to see who has the oldest food shelves in their clinics.
Here is a quick, free thought: Rust is never a good look. Neither is the large dust bunny behind the expired flea carpet powder that never took off with clients.
Creating product centers near the reception desk or inside exam rooms can be difficult. Difficult because each clinic is so different. Some hospitals boast 2,000 square feet of retail space, while others might be lucky to carve out 20 square feet. Whether you are at one extreme or somewhere in the middle, what is important is to showcase what you have to offer. Through foresight and strategic planning, you can make necessary improvements and reap the rewards of increased sales and greater client compliance.
Understand the Competition
By no means am I advocating that we try to copy or be like the box stores. Those stores are about product choices and other options. Veterinary hospitals are about education and deliberate, methodical recommendations. There is a big difference between the two.
Let’s describe the two different shopping experiences.
Shoppers who head to a pet specialty retailer might be greeted warmly, encouraged to bring their pet and find clean, organized, colorful displays. They might find a product of interest and quickly locate a price. They have the chance to touch and feel the item, read the instructions or ingredients, and purchase it in multiple sizes or quantities.
Conversely, the same pet owners stop at their veterinary office in search of a product. A recommendation might have taken place during a prior visit. They look around and find little to no rhyme or reason for how the products are laid out. In fact, they find a dusty, disorganized collection. A couple of packages displayed near the front window are bleached from sunshine. The fact that the products here do not move quickly is obvious. The products are not even priced. The client might think that asking about a product would impose on the receptionist.
While some of this has been obviously dramatized, the scenario happens more often than you think. And then we wonder why our pharmaceutical and product sales are on the decline.
Another scenario involves online pharmacies, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Clients can take their time and read instructions, ingredient lists and customer reviews. They can evaluate prices, return policies and shipping options, and even sign up for a rewards program.
How to Do Better
So yes, maybe we could take some time to reevaluate our strategies for promoting and displaying pharmaceutical and retail products. And yes, maybe we could review how easy or difficult we make it for clients to purchase from us. Dare we even attempt to make it fun and rewarding? It’s time to elevate our game.
I have always said that we are in the service business as it relates to veterinary medicine. As part of that service business, we are daily advocates for our clients and their pets. With that responsibility, our goal and focus are to educate clients about what’s in the best interest of their pets. Part of this duty is to research pharmaceutical and product lines and select those that will meet the needs and wants of our clientele.
Take pet nutrition as an example. Most hospitals select one or two food lines they feel best match the criteria. A box store will carry 27 brands. This goes back to the contrast of the two business models — options versus education and recommendation.
Whether you have a large retail area or a small shelf at the counter, put someone in charge of it. The responsible employee could be a receptionist or a veterinary assistant who has a desire to improve your current offerings. The ultimate objective of the team member should be to evaluate your products and merchandising strategy and then dream of what could be.
Start with a smartphone. Take “before” pictures wherever products are displayed. Print 8-by-10-inch glossies. This will give everyone a new perspective and probably create an urgency to make immediate changes.
Invite Outside Assistance
Work with your pharmaceutical reps. I have found over the years that many of them have incredible displays, posters, shelving units, prices and talking-point cards. If they don’t already have something, many times they have access to new materials. Take advantage of the opportunity. You might find that your current materials are from two logo changes ago. Often times, the reps are so tired of hearing “No” or “We don’t need it” that they are reluctant to raise the subject. Have your rep work with your point person and see what they can come up with together.
If that suggestion is not viable, hundreds of vendors sell retail and merchandising units. I am not suggesting you spend $10,000 on new displays, but for under $100 I was able to create a revolving treat tree that featured multiple layers that clients could browse while waiting or checking out. All our treats could be easily seen, touched, felt and purchased.
Ask your point person to be creative. Rope lights can double as backlighting. Imagine ordering a life-size cardboard cutout of your pets and indicating the flea and tick product that protects them year-round. You could do the same with parasite control.
Small half shelves purchased from retailers such as Pier One and Pottery Barn have a professional, elegant look. They are perfect for showcasing recommended products in an exam room. If space is at a premium, maybe use a large rotating picture screen that flashes different products and educates clients as they wait for the doctor.
Try this: Divide the year into quarters. Each one has a theme or focus. Maybe in the summer you highlight flea and tick products or heartworm preventives. In the winter perhaps you focus on dental care. Your displays would be updated and refocused at the start of each.
Invite a rep to a staff meeting to educate about a particular disease or ailment. Have the person discuss the product or products she would recommend for such cases. After the talk, the staff could be divided into teams of five or six people. Each team would create a new point-of-purchase display. Have everyone vote on the concepts, and then get to building the favorite design.
There is no right or wrong answer as long as you try to innovate and improve. Delegating a point person who is passionate about the task and creative will pay dividends.
Our goal as patient advocates is to solidify our education and recommendations and then make a client’s purchases and repurchases easy within an environment conducive to a positive experience. A positive shopping experience starts with your trained and friendly staff. From there, we need products that are organized, easy to obtain and easy to purchase. The last thing any client wants is having to wait in line while on their 30-minute lunch break as an employee searches in the back for an item.
We live in an age where we can work with local printing companies that can create personalized and exciting educational material that heightens client awareness. The good news is we don’t have to deal with mannequins. After all, no one wants to dress a dummy!