business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It would seem there is a problem at PetSmart.

Judging from the reader reaction to a story Kevin ran last week, many MNB readers view a visit to PetSmart as a terrible chore. It’s cold and dismal, an experience to be avoided whenever possible. One reader suggested to Kevin he should start doubling up his dog food purchases to reduce his trips to PetSmart by half.

Brutal stuff, but honestly, I can’t disagree. As readers of this column know, I have a rather strained relationship with my beagle, Hunter. He has me extremely well trained, while I don’t have much luck with him.

Until recently, we purchased dog food for Hunter at PetSmart’s main rival, PetCo. (PetSmart lost our business a few years back.) At both stores, we saw all the problems readers reported at PetSmart. Each time I went it was a cold, empty transaction. Walking through the aisles of the pet superstore, there was something that always occurred to me: Many of the employees didn’t seem to care much about pets. In essence, they were simply selling boxes, bags, cans and the occasional salamander.

So we switched (well, actually, my wife switched.) She went to a store where Hunter—my personal canine garbage disposal—could be fed a more gentle diet for his aging system. (Why this is necessary for a dog that eats wood chips is beyond me, but my wife believes.)

PetCo probably didn’t notice us leaving and I’m doubt Hunter really cared. But let’s try to ponder this for a second in a more literary light.

Consider Robert Burns’ old Scottish poem, which translated into English says: “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” In other words, it’s so easy for us to comment on the failings of PetSmart, but what would others say about us?

For instance, consider the comment that PetSmart is a dismal trip and a chore to be avoided. I don’t know about you, but that’s a complaint I’ve heard about supermarkets quite often. If PetSmart is a trip to be avoided by stacking up purchases, is there some parallel with research that shows shoppers reducing their weekly trips to the food store? Maybe it isn’t all about gasoline prices.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a supermarket where I’ve wondered if the workers cared about food. Or were they simply moving boxes, bags and cans, just like the folks in my nearby PetCo. And will shoppers simply move those purchases elsewhere, just like my wife and I did with our dog.

Complicating matters, the choices keep getting easier for shoppers. If the store experience is no longer special, what keeps someone from giving up and moving food purchases on line, for example. It might seem like a remote idea today, but lots of remote ideas grow into big problems when not addressed. Especially when gas prices keep increasing and shoppers keep looking for ways to cut out some trips.

Phil Francis of PetSmart, who used to run Shaw’s Supermarkets, is a better retailer than I would ever be and I wouldn’t bet against him in his goal to reinvigorate his company. Check out the PetSmart website for the corporate officers. Nearly every one is photographed with a pet, including one officer holding a goldfish bowl.

Now check out a typical supermarket website. How often are the executives photographed in a kitchen or a store holding their favorite food or recipe?

Sure, PetSmart has problems. But are they really alone? Instead of criticizing them, maybe it’s time to pull out a mirror and look at ourselves.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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