How to Start a Pet Business


A good promotion strategy is all about the mix-you need to get your message into as many publicity channels as possible to get the best results. Here's how to collar some valuable publicity at low or no cost:

  • Position yourself as an expert. The media are always looking for local or national experts who can talk about their products or comment on issues. Make yourself available by sending out a news release about anything newsworthy that comes your way. Here's an example: Tell "Good Morning America" about that new pet bed you designed that has cup holders, air conditioning and a rear windshield defogger for the doggie on the go. (That will get their attention.) Or follow up a news report about a dangerous, vicious dog in your community with a news release that shows how proper training can rehabilitate most dogs. Or have your public relations firm get those coveted media placements for you-they're experts at it.
  • Donate goods or services. Organizations are always looking for goods and services to auction off at fund-raising events. Just make sure what you donate is substantial enough to create some interest. For instance, a pet sitter/walker could donate a week of daily visits, a groomer could buff and fluff an average-sized pet, a trainer could offer private lessons, and product sellers could donate a month's supply of horse chow or one of those dog palaces mentioned above.
  • Support your community. Offer your time or a financial contribution to a pet rescue league, humane society or other animal welfare organization. Pet lovers will be happy to patronize a business with such a caring owner.
  • Become an activist. Support local animal organizations by seeking a seat on their boards and becoming a spokesperson for animal rights.

Good Stock
Now that you're on the way to selecting a suitable location for your pet-products business-either brick-and-mortar or virtual-it's time to give some thought to the products you'll be ordering to stock the shelves. And you don't have to be a budding retail magnate to need this information: All you dog trainers and pet groomers also may be interested in this information if you would like to sell retail products from your mobile "field office" or a retail area in your grooming salon or training facility.

All the Right Places
Among the places you can find merchandise for your site-based or virtual business are:

  • Manufacturers: It's possible to purchase product directly from the manufacturers once you find out where they live. Use the internet to research the various types of products you want to sell, from pet treats to pet jewelry, then contact the sales office directly and ask to speak to a manufacturer's representative. This kind of direct relationship is great because there's no middle person involved, which means you usually can negotiate better prices on the goods.

    Whenever possible (and this could be iffy because you are a small operator), work out a 30-day financing arrangement with the manufacturers. That way you'll have plenty of time to sell the items in question, make a profit and repay the supplier in a timely fashion. An association like the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) is an excellent source for finding companies that manufacture the products you want.
  • Wholesalers: Buying from a wholesaler can be advantageous because it will give you access to an array of products from many manufacturers. That can be a big time-saver because you won't have to make direct contacts with a whole lot of suppliers on your own. Once again, the internet can be a fantastic resource for locating wholesalers. And interestingly enough, wholesalers are even using eBay to sell product lots. As you probably know, product availability and quantities vary on eBay, so there may not be anything you'd be interested in buying for months. But it's worth checking it out from time to time to see what pops up.
  • Merchandise marts: Retailer-only merchandise markets are a great place to discover new products or inspiration and can be found nationwide.
  • Resident buying offices: Usually found around merchandise marts, resident buying offices are made up of national and/or international buyers who shop the marts regularly, then report back to retailers on products they feel might be of interest. They also can choose and purchase merchandise for you on a contract basis. These buying offices are especially useful for identifying purchase trends, pinpointing potentially hot products, and otherwise serving as your eyes and ears. To find a resident buying office, check the merchandising services category in the Yellow Pages directory that covers the area where the marts are located or see if your library has a copy of Sheldon's Major Stores & Chains & Resident Buying Offices (Pheldon, Sheldon & Marsar).
  • Trade shows: Pet-industry and consumer trade shows can be wonderful sources of information about new pet products and pet food on the market. Vendors and manufacturers alike often come to these shows in the hopes of selling product, and you'll be speaking directly to a manufacturers rep when you stop by their booths. Make sure to bring a good supply of your business cards to these shows, and pick up as many product catalogs and cards as possible from the vendors you might be interested in speaking to later. You'll find the names of some of the larger pet-industry trade shows on the last page of this article.
  • Private-label manufacturers: If you're planning a career selling pet food, you definitely should make some contacts among private-label pet-food manufacturers. These companies may have their own online or brick-and-mortar stores, but Bob Vetere, COO and managing director of the APPMA, says the smaller private-label companies don't turn away much business and will be more than willing to sell to you. You can find the names of 42 U.S. pet-food manufacturers in a report from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth called "A Market Analysis of the U.S. Pet Food Industry to Determine New Opportunities for the Cranberry Industry." The report is located
  • Artisans: Anyone can sell a designer dog handbag in supple leather. But for a one-of-a-kind product the likes of which a Hollywood starlet might crave, try enlisting the talents of artisans in your community. For instance, perhaps you know a genius with knitting needles who, if provided with the finest cashmere and silk yarn, could handcraft $500 "receiving blankets" for newborn puppies. Or perhaps you're acquainted with a seamstress who has a flair for fashion and could whip up designer carry-all bags for pooches. (Think Kate Spade-she started making her own bags and voilla! She's famous and rich.) Because these items would be handmade and custom-crafted, you wouldn't have many to sell, which would make them oh-so chic and command higher prices.
  • Contract facilities: As mentioned earlier, it's possible to get a contract manufacturer or contract packager to make products to your specifications-and it's not as hard or expensive as it might seem. "You can get your product and your formula produced without going into debt because there are bakeries and factories with excess capacity that would be happy to manufacture products for you," says Leonard Green, the Woodbridge, New Jersey, entrepreneur who owns holistic pet food company The Blue Buffalo. "In fact, part of entrepreneurship says don't take on employees, buildings or assets and put all your money into marketing instead, and that's a model you can follow successfully."

How to Start a Pet Business

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