Critter Comforts Go High-tech

This article was published in the January 2017 issue of STORES Magazine.

PetSmart adopts tech-savvy strategy to appeal to connected pet owners

PetSmart is about to give Amazon a run for its money. The largest pet specialty retailer in North America — it recently opened its 1,500th store — PetSmart wants to rely less on its bricks-and-mortar stores and more on digital integration and social interaction under new ownership (a consortium led by BC Partners) and new leadership.

Following an $8.7 billion leveraged buyout in 2015, the big-box pet supply chain is evolving into a multichannel brand bent on engaging customers on their laptops, on their mobile phones and in person. Overseeing the digital transformation is Eran Cohen, chief customer experience officer. In his new post, Cohen will keep tabs on the PetSmart customer experience, focused on all things digital and social.

Prior to joining PetSmart, Cohen was chief marketing officer at Diane von Furstenberg, where he oversaw global marketing, e-commerce and public relations. For Cohen, who has also held CMO roles at New York & Co. and Payless ShoeSource, the PetSmart experience might mark the most ambitious brand reinvention effort of his retail career. He shared his thoughts about a smarter branding strategy for PetSmart with STORES contributing writer Bruce Horovitz.

The often-emotional world of pets and pet care is fully hands-on, yet you are trying to turn PetSmart into a digital and social media powerhouse. Is this a very fine line you’re walking?

Our business is a business of love and family. We are a passionate and purpose-driven company. Our passion is that we love pets and believe that pets make us better people. Our purpose is to end pet homelessness. Our vision is to be the trusted partner to pet parents and pets in every moment of their lives.

“Our strategy is really about delivering a range of options and opportunities so that pet parents can connect and engage with us and shop with us when, where and how they choose.”

Eran Cohen

That means being able to engage with pet parents and deliver a comprehensive set of products, services, content and also entertainment … . The lines between the digital and physical world have completely disappeared. Our strategy is really about delivering a range of options and opportunities so that pet parents can connect and engage with us and shop with us when, where and how they choose.

Customers love to bring pets to the pet store. Does the cuddly connection get interrupted if PetSmart rebrands itself as a tech heavyweight?

Well, we aren’t branding ourselves as a tech heavyweight. Our goal is to provide what our pet parents have told us they want — innovative products and services, however and wherever they desire. Technology is a key enabler to what we do.

It’s important to point out that in addition to the digital channel investments we are making, we are also expanding our retail footprint with nearly 80 new stores in 2016 and more than that in 2017 — at a time when many retailers are closing stores and constricting their store chain.

On the bricks-and-mortar side, we are also opening test stores, such as the new PetSmart Pet Spa location in Oceanside, N.Y., which has a smaller footprint and a service-focused spa-like format. We launched a similar concept called PetSmart at The Beach in the Beaches community in Toronto.

We are also investing in back-office technology and recently launched a direct sourcing strategic initiative, which enables us to work directly with manufacturing partners. This helps us move more quickly in product design and sourcing and helps us to better respond to trends and continue to innovate for our pet parents.

The tech investment you are seeing is a direct complement to and part of our overall customer experience — in stores, online, mobile, text. We want to be available to pet parents where they are today.

Which of PetSmart’s new digital improvements is most critical?

It’s challenging to separate the investments critically from each other. While our new customer data foundation will provide the basis for better understanding our pet parents and more effectively allowing us to provide them what they want when they want it, it works hand-in-hand with our new and improved mobile-responsive

Our recent AllPaws acquisition is a natural extension of what we have been doing for years — adopting pets out of our stores. … We are now the leading source for pet adoption across North America with our in-store adoption program.

With PetSmart Charities and our 3,000 adoption partners (local animal welfare organizations), we have adopted more than 7 million pets since 1994 and adopt out more than 500,000 pets a year, more than any other bricks-and-mortar establishment. … AllPaws is an excellent example of enabling technology that helps us do what we do, better.

Which will be the most difficult to implement?

Large-scale technology upgrades are inherently difficult to implement and require thoughtful and very detailed work. Each new technology needs to integrate with other systems in our enterprise — legacy and new — and there are hundreds of points of interconnections at the corporate and store level.

In a bid to take on Amazon, PetSmart recently rolled out a new mobile-friendly site. Can PetSmart really out-Amazon Amazon in the pet supply world?

“To be relevant in retail today, we need to be proficient in both the digital and physical worlds.”

Eran Cohen

To be relevant in retail today, we need to be proficient in both the digital and physical worlds. It’s essential to be where our pet parents are, when they are there. We must provide goods, services and helpful content to customers how, when and where they want.

We recently rolled out our new mobile-responsive website … [which] offers features like auto-ship and same-day/scheduled delivery in select markets. In addition to, we have a large portfolio of digital assets that includes PetMD, the world’s largest digital resource for pet health and wellness information, Ask PetMD, a mobile app that delivers vet-qualified answers to pet parents’ questions, BlogPaws, the world’s only pet blogger and influencer network, and AllPaws.

Can you explain PetSmart’s same-day delivery offer?

We are very pleased to offer the option of same-day/scheduled delivery in select markets with Deliv. … Pet parents can place an order, then chose the same-day delivery option and they get a confirmation email that their order has been received. The Deliv driver picks up the order at a local store. When the order has been picked up, the pet parent receives notification that includes the ability to see who is delivering their package, and tracks them on their route to know exactly where they are and when they will arrive. The tracking is available on computers and mobile devices.

Does rolling out so many new tech tools at once make it harder to figure out which ones are working, and which aren’t?

Many of the new technologies we are rolling out are tightly interconnected across our enterprise. For example, for the new and improved, we rolled out Salesforce Commerce Cloud as our built-for-the-future technology platform in conjunction with Manhattan Associates’ order management system and new user experience. While interconnected, digital technology allows for direct analysis.

What specific role is PetSmart’s new owner and new executive team playing in this remake?

The new leadership and ownership is highly committed to serving pet parents and growing PetSmart’s business. We are driving the investment in all aspects of the company from store expansion, new technologies and our direct-sourcing initiatives.

What other key changes at PetSmart are on tap, near term and longer term?

We’ve announced an aggressive store growth strategy, a strategy of strengthening and expanding our digital capabilities, as well as to improve our sourcing capabilities — all to better serve our customers. In soon-to-be-announced news, Kobie will join us as our partner to help us design an engaging and exciting new loyalty program. We are also working on a new test store and partnering with Fitch.

Millennials are increasingly fond of smaller, local brands when choosing the products they purchase and where they buy them. How can a mega-chain like PetSmart compete at this “local” level?

Our research supports that Millennials are concerned about what their pets eat and where it comes from. We have, perhaps, the widest selection of Pinnacle Pet Nutrition, a collection of pet food products featuring high-protein, natural, grain-free, minimally processed and raw pet food. This pet food includes brands such as Only Natural Pet, exclusive to PetSmart as a national retailer. It is a natural pet line that is protein-first, sustainably produced [and] American-manufactured, as well as a line of supplements and other natural pet solutions.

We are rolling out a new Pinnacle Pet Nutrition section in our stores, beginning with our 1,500th store, which grand-opened just recently in Sheridan, Colo. Millennial pet parents live heavily in the digital world. This is one of the reasons we are making investments into the world they occupy to make certain that we serve them well.

We are always looking for new brands and products that attract Millennials. A great example is our launch of ED Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen’s first-ever pet collection, due in all stores in February. The comprehensive new pet collection will include pet apparel, beds, bowls, collars, leashes, harnesses, toys and pet carriers, as well as shampoo and other at-home natural grooming supplies.

You came to PetSmart from Diane von Furstenberg. What’s the cosmic connection between selling designer apparel and selling guinea pig cage liners?

Working at DVF was my dream job in fashion/retail and working with an icon like Diane shaped and bettered me in many ways. What I love about PetSmart and what attracted me to the brand is that our work is passionate and purpose-driven and is based on love, family and ending pet homelessness. The connection that pets and pet parents have is undeniable.