Pet Marketing in the Time of COVID-19
As retailers broadly adopt operational changes to facilitate recommended social distancing practices while still serving customers under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, a comparison of the recent activity at major pet retailers shows differences in how they are approaching marketing in today’s rapidly changing world.
Petco is deftly wielding social media to make connections.
For National Puppy Day on March 23, Petco spun its social media messaging to empathize with self-isolating consumers while promoting its PupBox subscriptions: "While you protect your health and safety at home, you may be struggling to keep your dog busy. That's where PupBox comes in!” The retailer is dangling a three-month PupBox subscription through a Facebook giveaway open until March 26. In contrast, rival PetSmart did not address the occasion at all while other pet retailers executed typical seasonal messaging without tailoring posts to current events.
In earlier social media updates, Petco shared a video listing six pet “must-haves” to include in emergency preparedness kits: two-week supplies of food, water and medications, copies of registration and vet records, a pet first-aid kit, a carrier and bedding, plus waste bags or a litter box. The updates link to a pet essentials e-commerce shop Petco has created to corral relevant items within petco.com.
Further showcasing a comprehensive and tailored approach, Petco leveraged Instagram Stories to stream a live Q&A session with its head of veterinary medicine, and on Twitter has employed extra engagement tactics to spark discussions, such as asking followers to share what their pet "coworker" is doing while they work from home.
Meanwhile, operationally focused social media updates communicate stores' efforts to aid consumers and employees with social distancing, including reduced hours, adjusted services (some grooming salons remain open) and new promotional offers:
- 10% for in-store pickup orders that staff will have ready within two hours (with curbside pick-up "coming soon").
- free shipping with orders of $35 (down from $49).
- 35% (up from 30%) off first-time repeat delivery orders.
Social activity additionally has included a plea from Petco Foundation president Susanne Kogut to support animal shelters in preventing pet homelessness from increasing during the pandemic. The Foundation has partnered with the ASPCA to create regional pet food distribution centers in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and North Carolina (where the ASPCA has operations) that give dog and cat owners free access to critical food supplies as the outbreak continues to spread, according to a media release. (General Mills’ Blue Buffalo is also involved in the ASPCA’s relief efforts.)
On petco.com, a dedicated COVID-19 informational page includes a letter penned by 25-year veterinarian and member of the Petco Pet Wellness Council Dr. Thomas Edling, indicating that “Pet parents under no circumstances should be abandoning their pets because of COVID-19” as there is no known reason to believe that animals can spread the novel coronavirus. A display ad running on the bottom of the page reminds shoppers that are stocking up not to forget their pets and links to the aforementioned e-commerce shop for "top pet essentials."
In additional employee-facing moves, Petco has temporarily waived its standard attendance policy while introducing a paid "COVID leave" policy for those directly impacted, and has launched a relief fund to provide financial support during COVID-19 and other times of need with an initial $2 million investment from the pet retailer plus additional donations from the company's private equity sponsors at CVS Capital Partners and personal donations from every member of its Board of Directors and executive leadership team, including CEO Ron Coughlin.
Rival PetSmart is instead focusing its cause marketing on animal shelters as it too seeks to curtail an impending rise of homeless pets as fewer people consider adoption and more pet parents have to surrender pets due to health or economic hardship. The retailer is slating up to $1 million to help shelters and other organizations helping impacted pets in the areas with the highest number of reported cases: California, Washington, Massachusetts, New York and all provinces across Canada. On social media, PetSmart plugged its cause effort and shared its official company response but otherwise has remained relatively quiet regarding COVID-19.
Just earlier this month, PetSmart Charities held a record-breaking national adoption weekend that helped 32,985 pets find homes. The event was initiated more than 25 years ago and is typically held four times a year, with many stores staging large tented parking lot events with their local adoption partners to connect adoptable pets with families. It is unclear if the next June event will go on as scheduled as all future in-store events, including adoption events and seasonal events such as Easter bunny photo days, have been cancelled until further notice.
Operationally, PetSmart moved quickly to roll out curbside pick-up for online orders as of March 23, and has uniformly closed all its grooming salons and suspended group pet training classes through May 4. A dedicated COVID-19 page within petsmart.com details the changes and provides a letter from CEO J.K. Symanczyk as well as a video update from the company. A message on the home page of PetSmart's Chewy.com subsidiary warns shoppers that delivery times are running considerably longer than usual.
Other pet retailers including Pet Retail Brands’ Pet Valu and Pet Supermarket as well as Independent Pet Partners’ Chuck & Don's, Kriser's and Natural Paws also are adjusting store hours and policies, warning of delivery delays, introducing curbside pick-up or even trying to piecemeal together location-specific delivery services, according to their websites and social media accounts.
As foot traffic presumably slows and income from non-medical pet care services almost certainly drops, retailers will be looking to brands to help them make sure packaged goods sales remain strong. Packaged Facts takes an optimistic approach in its upcoming U.S. Pet Market Outlook 2020-2021, BridgeTower Media's Pet Age reported, indicating that while economic volatility is certain, economizing for U.S. pet owners in the age of the “pet parent” has often meant getting better deals on better products, rather than paying less for absolute essentials, and the “pets as family” mindset could ultimately help support increased pet market spending.