When the UK went into lockdown six weeks ago, I, like many others, settled down for an extended period of time at home with a pet – in my case, a five-year-old Miniature Schnauzer called Walter.
Lockdown hasn’t been easy for Walter. He’s a real family dog – by that I mean he used to split his week between our house, my parents and the in-laws. He always had two walks a day and always along the same routes. And he’d often meet the same dogs along the way.
Now, his routine is out of the window and I can’t even tell him why, or for how long.
His is far from the most serious story to come out of this crisis, I know, but Walter’s experience of lockdown, and the impact it’s had on me, has been a challenge. But the extra time I’ve been able to spend with him has also made me consider what the future might hold for the industry, and the customers we need to look after.
Habits are changing
Before all of this, I wouldn’t have said that Walter was a dog of routine. How wrong I was. Turns out what I saw as a lack of routine – different houses, different dog-sitters, different days, – was exactly what he knew, and loved. Losing that made him feel quite unsettled, and he required more attention than normal for weeks until he finally got used to the new reality of being with me all day, every day.
This enforced proximity between us has meant I’ve noticed subtle changes in his behaviour, not just whether he’s either well, or not. This certainly matches the change in customer queries that many pet retailers have been receiving of late, with an increase in ‘day-to-day’ maintenance issues.
Pet owners who previously didn’t need to know everything, have had the time and the need to research. Retailers who haven’t already are going to have to adapt quickly to review their product ranges to meet this changing demand – during lockdown, and then for whatever comes after.
The pet health industry has historically been resilient. Pets will always need treatment, but if the economy suffers, owners may be more inclined to seek out cheaper alternatives, especially for chronic conditions.
The same goes for physical locations and social distancing. The way we operate will have to change. Fewer in-person appointments and more online advice will provide greater access when physical accessibility is limited.
How do we bring customers back?
Before lockdown, Walter would have regular visits from a mobile grooming company. No more. I’d never clipped his nails before, but now thanks to some urgent online purchases and video tutorials, I’m proficient with dog nail clippers and can give a decent dog shampoo.
In my case, this is certainly a temporary measure – I can’t wait for the professionals to return – but through necessity, many customers have been learning to do things themselves that previously they’d pay for. Will they all decide to return? Not unless we remind them why it was they came to us in the first place.
The same may be true for vets as they grapple with new social distancing rules. A customer who can’t get their pet seen at their regular practice if it doesn’t qualify as an emergency, may end up going elsewhere, and then staying there, regardless of any lingering loyalty to the previous healthcare provider. The health of their pet will take priority.
This just highlights the challenge we’re all going to face to keep our customers active and loyal as everyone faces new and difficult circumstances.
As an industry it’s important that we focus on the pet AND the owner. We’ve got to be mindful of the extra pressures they’re facing at home or work right now when, on top of everything else, they’ve got a sick pet to look after too.
My own pressure came in the form of launching a business while looking after an unsettled dog desperate to sit on my lap during every video call. But this time has certainly brought me even closer to him, and reminded me why I do what I do.
We’re in a different world now compared to just a couple of months ago – with more stress, upheaval and uncertainty. Right now, as we adapt to the new normal we all need pets like Walter more than ever.
Phil Younger is co-founder of The PharmPet Co, the online veterinary pharmacy and pet supplies website