How veterinary practices can stand out amid e-commerce competition
Online shopping for pet products expanded in 2020 and 2021 due in part to the pandemic's influence on both customer behavior and global supply chains. The option to purchase pet essentials online and the growing competition for those dollars isn't new, but trend watchers anticipate an important year ahead for the animal health space.
A recent Cleveland Research Company (CRC) Pet Insights Council webinar reported that 2022 likely will be a critical year for cementing purchasing habits as home-delivery providers attempt to extract better margins and savings from manufacturers as well as increase private label presence and expand the assortment of products they carry.
Clients will continue to shop online for pet products, foods, and medications, regardless of whether their veterinarian offers the option. However, they may perceive not providing e-commerce as a gap in your veterinary services. Competitors certainly see such gaps as an opportunity, even an invitation, to snag your clients' trust and spending.
To maintain or grow client purchases from your own e-commerce efforts, consider these trends, strategies, and messaging techniques to stand out.
What to watch—Giants, top sellers, and new competition
CRC ranks veterinary home delivery platforms third in total sales, behind Chewy and Amazon but ahead of BarkBox and pet specialty websites.
CRC now estimates online sales will encompass 40 percent of all pet supply purchases by 2025, up 6 percent from the company's own pre-COVID estimates for the same time span. That means gains remain possible, even as veterinary platforms hold steady behind the giants.
CRC reports the top-selling product categories as follows:
- Flea and tick
- Pain relief and arthritis
- Anxiety and calming
- Allergy relief
- Other health conditions
- Ear and eye care
Watch for BarkBox to add more products that focus on animal health in 2022. CRC predicts the company will start with strong Chewy autoship categories such as flea and tick, heartworm, and ear and eye care products. In more rural areas experiencing growth thanks to remote employment options, anticipate gains and expansion from Tractor Supply, too.
On-site inventory isn't going away entirely. Even with online options, all shoppers choose to purchase goods in person at some point because of an immediate need or because small orders don't justify shipping costs.
When asked to predict e-commerce winners in 2022, CRC says simply, "whoever has product to sell," highlighting ongoing supply-chain issues. That's where an active, strong relationship with a trusted distributor gives you an edge. Though larger companies may struggle with inventory delays and gaps, veterinary practices, with the help of their distributor, can provide clients with direct access to needed items with the benefit of home delivery.
How to grow online sales and boost client service
For all pet product e-commerce providers, including those in animal health services, CRC recommends focusing on these priorities:
- Gaining new e-commerce customers, especially those choosing autoship to keep products and orders flowing on a predictable and compliance-boosting schedule
- Retaining current customers by meeting their need for an assortment of pet products and adding value through customer service
- Improving infrastructure, which in the veterinary world means strong integration with existing systems and everything you already do for patients and clients
"Practices need to join up the offline with the online," says Justin Phillips, founder of Practice Made Purrfect. "By this I mean, when a client visits the practice, they need reinforcement of the messages."
Help clients understand that your e-commerce store serves as an extension of in-person care and provide consistent prompts to use it, such as:
- Posters on exam room walls
- Signage at the reception desk
- Emails, social media posts, text messages, and notes on invoices
- Hands-on, in-clinic help creating online accounts and placing orders
"If you stick an online shop on your website and wait for it to take off by osmosis," Phillips says, "the bad news is it won't."
Based on her time working in general practice, Tannetje Crocker, DVM, at Veterinary Emergency Group in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, recommends veterinary staff help clients through e-commerce use while they are still on-site. That means using your laptop or their mobile device to help clients create an account and place their first order, including with autoship if appropriate.
Autoship and generous refill quantities help clients keep a good supply of therapeutic foods and life-saving medications such as those for heart conditions, seizures, and diabetes on hand to better weather any back orders or shipping delays.
Some cases may need a small same-day prescription filled for immediate use, but setting up refills via online orders saves everyone time and frustration later. It also lowers the chance that clients go home, struggle, and give up or get lured away by other online pharmacy sites.
"There is something to be said about the goodwill it creates when clients use a veterinary online pharmacy versus a corporate-entity pharmacy."
Routine/preventative products and preventive care plans, though, are where practices can win back product sales and boost client service and loyalty.
Phillips says, "Where practices can crush the internet pharmacy is by offering automated home delivery of the flea and heartworm treatments that clients have subscribed to via their monthly membership of the pet health plan. This way the price is bundled, removing price sensitivity, and parasiticides are delivered straight through [the mail], meaning clients never even need to Google it."
How to leverage in-house and online efficiencies
The back and forth required by outside e-commerce outlets eats up a lot of veterinary team time, with demands for short-notice refill approvals and paper prescriptions via postal mail in states that forbid faxed or digital transmission of prescriptions. The process frustrates everyone, often denting client satisfaction with you along the way, even though it's often the outside pharmacy or site that's the problem.
Because these third-party systems function entirely outside veterinary practice management software, they introduce too many hands-on tasks into the workflows such as having to print out and scan online pharmacy information or manually enter it into each pet's medical record, including which third-party pharmacy, how many refills, etc. That's time you can better use to provide animal health services to patients and clients in front of you. An integrated veterinary pharmacy system automates those write-backs between systems, likely freeing up at least 10 to 15 minutes per online prescription filled.
So, consider veterinary-driven e-commerce solutions to gain competitive footing through:
- Retention of in-house revenue by connecting offline services with online access as part of comprehensive animal health services
- Home delivery for common pet products, foods, and prescriptions, which shrinks the amount of money, space, and time tied up in on-site inventory
- Better practice software integration for getting order information into the pet's medical records without clunky workarounds
How to optimize the client experience
Jayme Motler, DVM, owner of Pleasant Valley Animal Hospital in the Hudson Valley of New York, added an online shop soon after purchasing the practice in 2014. She recommends others adding e-commerce evaluate in-house integrations and fees so that they fully understand the details of the decision for budgets and staffing efforts.
Crocker agrees and suggests veterinary teams focus on the goal of providing online pharmacy services to your clients, rather than typical profitability analysis or breakeven points. Future growth and economic resiliency come from expanding services, with tools such as e-commerce playing a supporting role.
How to communicate e-commerce value and effectiveness through client messaging
Creating e-commerce success means setting yourself apart from the third-party players and setting expectations for what's required and when.
What do you offer that they don't? As legitimate animal health services providers, veterinary practices bring so much more into the online purchasing equation, and clients need to know the difference:
- Professional veterinary expertise and services in the real-world clinical setting
- Individualized understanding and recommendations for each pet's needs, medical history, and exam timelines
- Consumer protection from counterfeit products from third-party sites or online resellers
- Easier returns and refunds because purchases go through your licensed online pharmacy
How to educate clients about using your e-commerce tools? Online ordering does take time so leverage your various communication channels to drive home the logistics and value of buying from the practice's online store:
- Use emails, text messages, and preventive care plans to support compliance so that patients stay current with all routine and condition-specific recheck exams and testing so that refill requests sail through smoothly and without delay
- Set expectations for how far ahead clients need to allow for order approvals and shipping, such as ordering at least 10 days in advance or whatever interval your team needs to efficiently handle requests
- Remind clients how using autoship helps them avoid going without necessary medications.
"You can choose if you want to do this or not," Crocker says. "There is something to be said about the goodwill it creates when clients use a veterinary online pharmacy versus a corporate-entity pharmacy."