Beating The Box Stores: Six Tips For Dog Pros

When you run a small business there are days when it feels like the world’s got you beat. Days lost juggling business plans, start-up costs, emails, phone calls, piles of paperwork, excessively complicated tax forms, and the steady accumulation of dog hair on everything you own. And still there aren’t enough clients. Finding them can feel like a race with no finish line.

Then a national pet food chain or massive daycare operation opens up in your neighborhood, and with growing alarm you watch owners drop their poodles and pit bulls off for box-store grooming and training. Who could compete with that marketing budget? That five-acre parking lot? That a-la-carte biscuit bar?

Pick Your Fans
If you’re feeling bruised by the competition, take a breather on the sidelines. You’re not crazy – their game is stacked against you. The cold simple truth is that you can’t compete with the box store. Not with its budget. And not by its rules.

The big-budget chain stores exert a gravitational pull that many dog owners don’t think to fight. They’re the lost clients – the ones you’ll never reach. They’ll settle time and again for the big bright store, unaware of other, better options, and their four-legged friends will never benefit from your superior skills and attention. Why do they choose the box stores? We could hazard a guess, but the reasons don’t really matter. Cut your losses and quit that game. Cause there’s a better one to play.

Your true client – and her adorable Aussie/Yorkie mix with the matted coat and the debilitating fear of skateboards –is out there, looking for you. She may not know yet where to find you, or whether she can trust the glowing testimonials on your sharply-branded website, but chances are she won’t step through the box store doors. She may be immune to the charms of chain store convenience. She may have been alarmed at the chop job her friend’s Maltese got from the very young box store groomer. She may have heard something about positive reinforcement, or socialization, or clickers. She may be, like you, a small business owner, looking for something the box stores don’t sell.

Be A Good Sport
So how do you find these clients if you can’t compete with parking lots and network ads? Play by different rules. You’re not a chain stretched across an entire country. You’re an individual, in a community. Start with the people around you. Some might call this networking, but you’ll need to call upon a deeper skill. You’ll need to be engaging.

Introduce yourself to other local dog pros. It’s tempting to view them as competition, but we’ve seen dog pros reap better rewards from collaboration. Get to know your colleagues’ strengths: the separation anxiety cases a trainer has a knack for treating, or the groomer’s secret favorite breed. She will get to know yours as well, and the day will come when her caseload is full, and someone comes to her with a hand-shy cattle dog, and she’ll know just who to call.

But engagement goes beyond end-game motives. Two or more dog pros banding together can do more than just send each other new clients. They can vent, talk shop, and learn from each other’s work. Running a small business is hard. You don’t need to do it alone.

If you’re the sole R+ pro in a town full of choke chains and alpha rollers, you’ll need to look to surrounding communities. No matter where you live, schedule time every year for conferences, workshops, and seminars. Join Yahoo discussion groups. Skype with a friend from the training school you attended. Collaborate, keep your skills sharp, and polish those credentials that discerning clients value.

Build Your Marketing Team
The box stores spend more time and money on advertising than on building relationships with the community, which is good news for you. Referral relationships will be your hat trick, more powerful than a 30-second network ad. Reach out to locals who see a steady stream of dog owners in their daily work. Offer free training to vet, shelter, and rescue staff. Create marketing materials with free articles full of solid advice– Pre-adoption folders, articles on “How to Choose a Dog Walker,” or branded housetraining tip-sheets for new puppy owners. For the frazzled owner of a counter-surfing Labrador, a referral by her vet carries its weight in gold and relief.

The point is this: the box stores have more money, but you have more expertise. Think of your marketing budget not in terms of dollars, but hours. Use your time, experience, and professionalism to create materials and experiences that show off what you know and can do. Give talks, write articles, stage a public grooming or training demo, wear logo clothing while you walk dogs. The big guys simply can’t compete on that playing field.

Narrow Your Playing Field
All dog pro have their favorites. The breeds, temperaments, or behavior cases they love to take on. It may seem, with a box store down the street, that you should offer more, of every service, to every dog and every possible client, just to play it safe. But while the box stores are tied to the all-things-to-all people strategy, you aren’t. And that can be an advantage.

You can find evidence in every industry of the growing power of the niche. We join Facebook fan groups and LinkedIn pro groups for every possible pursuit. With so many channels and choices at our disposal, we seek out the trusted few who filter out the noise. The experts in their deep and narrow fields. Stand out by specializing. Figure out what you love to do, the thing only you can offer, then adjust your marketing. The client searching for a small-dog nosework class or doggie daycare will thank you.

Take To The Net
With most consumers now starting their buying decisions online, you won’t last many rounds in the new-client-battle while unplugged. Get yourself on the radar. Learn basic principles of search engine optimization (or better yet, hire an expert), so that your blog posts full of free expert advice push your brand to the top of Google’s “Tallahassee Groomer” search results.

Knock ‘Em Out
Box stores may get the foot traffic, but they don’t get the devotion. Every community has at least one small business with the fiercely loyal clientele, and it’s not the big chain. Instead, it’s the little sandwich shop with the around-the-block line at noon. The wine shop owner who didn’t smirk when you asked what was in a Zinfandel. The hardware store with every screw of every size you’ve ever needed, and the counter clerks who know your name, or at least the name of your bulldog. They all have one thing in common: they do more than what’s necessary. They give us better products, and better service, and we leave their stores smiling. The cumbersome box stores, heavy with bulk goods and bound by red tape, can only offer the average: the sullen, minimum-wage sales clerk making his rote pitch for the frequent buyer card.

You can play a better game as a more nimble player. A bright, committed, talented individual, who left a cubicle or a kitchen or a corner office to try a life with Kongs and dog hair. Most importantly, you can inspire a community’s devotion by giving more than the expected. You can give them an experience they can’t get from a box. You know all about positive reinforcement. So put it to use in all of your affairs. Your testimonials page – and your bank account – will benefit.

We never said this game was an easier one. It requires time, effort, persistence, and generosity. And though you may never have as many fans as the box store down the street, you don’t need as many, either. Focus on appealing to and pleasing the ones who have the better sense to choose you, and they’ll cheer loud and long to sustain you.