My wife and I live just two short blocks from the large PetSmart store on Atlantic Avenue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. This location is quite convenient for us because we have two cats and we are constantly buying things for them. Treats, dry food, wet food, kitty litter, toys, a 72-inch-tall cat condominium – etc. With all this stuff to get, we are buying things for them just about every week.

However, the weird thing is: we never go to the PetSmart store. In fact – we never actually buy anything from PetSmart at all. We get everything for our cats on Amazon and it arrives in a box outside our door two days later.

Since about a year and a half ago, my wife and I have practically stopped going to retail stores all together.

Here’s why:

1) It just takes a really long time:

Even going to the PetSmart store near our apartment is a pretty significant time commitment. Walking two blocks to the store (5 minutes), navigating the store layout to find what we want (15 minutes), checking out (5 minutes), and walking home carrying the potentially heavy objects (5 minutes) = 30 minutes we could be doing something else.

2) The In-Store Experience is Lousy

Let’s stop for a second and think about what the ideal in-store experience would be for PetSmart.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

  • I walk into the store and someone greets me in a friendly manor – this isn’t just a random store associate, it’s someone who knows me personally and someone I trust.
  • The representative knows I have two cats (Ted and Marshall), knows the essentials I need for our cats (wet food, dry food, kitty litter)
    • Further, they know exactly when I last bought each essential item and when I will run out
  • They also know that Marshall is a picky eater and Ted likes to play fetch with tiny foam soccer ball toys.
  • Without having to move, the store re-arranges around me showing me only the essentials I need (with a few recommendations of new things to try) and suggestions for how to solve Marshall’s picky eating habits and take Ted’s fetch game to the next level
  • The whole process takes only minutes – start to finish
  • I don’t have to carry anything heavy home

The in-store experience for PetSmart today is nowhere near this ideal experience. Today the experience includes mostly wandering around lost until you find a store associate to point you the right direction to find what you’re looking for.

I think there is a huge opportunity for an online retailer to completely dominate the pet space. Further – although they’re getting all of my pet money today – I don’t think this will be Amazon. Amazon has made their business on infrastructure and supply chain. Getting the widest array of goods to customers as fast as possible. I think the key for the next generation of retailers is going to be about deeply knowing your customers, very carefully curating their experience (on the website and off the website through email, direct mail and advertising) and delighting them with extremely personalized service.

Although it likely means hard times ahead for PetSmart and dozens of other traditional retailers – as a consumer – I’m looking forward to this future (and so are Ted and Marshall).

Disrupting the In-Store Experience
  • That is a pretty epic cat tree!

    Yeah, general retail kind of sucks. I wonder how much we can blame continual applications of store planners – you know, the people whose job it is to increase per customer attach rate (how much money each customer spends each time they buy something).

    Grocery stores are famous for e.g. putting the milk in the back of the store (one of the most common products purchased) to force people to walk through all the other products (and pick something “unplanned” up).

    If you do it once, great – but then since it worked out so well the first time (and have no noticeable impact), you do it again. And again. There’s the apocryphal store of why American Airlines first class salads no longer have any olives in them. There used to be 4-5, and they calculated that cutting one olive (in the 1980) would save > $30,000 (>$100,000 today). So they took one out. I mean, one olive, right?

    The next year, they performed the same cost-benefit calculation. And the year after that. Until there were no more olives (presumably they looked at other things after that).

    Likewise, the store gets marginally harder to navigate each time; not noticeable from one year to the next, but over 10 years? 20 years?

    Having the internet as an alternative is great, because – as you point out – it should force the entire retail channel to innovate in customer-positive ways (just to keep customers).

  • Exactly – if your strategy is to make the store difficult for the consumer to navigate in order to get them to buy more, there’s a chance you’re actually doing net damage to your business by driving customer online.

    Love the American Airlines story. I also read that’s why American Airlines planes are usually silver-metallic colored – they found that the paint added enough weight that it made a difference in their annual fuel cost.