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Omnichannel transformation means that “every single part of the business has got to be joined up,” says Joe Whitaker, Head of Digital Operations at Pets at Home.

“What is the purpose of a store, and … how do you allocate space for those digital consumers, and those physical consumers, shopping at stores?”

Like many retailers, Pets at Home found itself facing the need to rapidly transform its operations during the Covid-19 lockdowns when business overwhelmingly shifted online. However, this was just the start of a journey that prompted a radical rethink of how the petcare brand approached its stores, fulfilment, and its digital operation – with lessons that apply far beyond Covid.

Whitaker, together with Joe Till, Director at order management system OneStock, a partner of Pets at Home, lifted the lid on this journey in an insightful presentation at the Retail Technology Show 2024 in April. They explained how Pets at Home tackled the change management process of adopting one-hour click and collect and encouraged its store staff to embrace the transition, in the process moving towards truly seamless omnichannel retail.

Launching one-hour click and collect during the Covid-19 pandemic

Whitaker described Pets at Home’s store network (more than 450 branches at the time of writing) as the brand’s “crown jewel” with “amazing colleagues … that are full of knowledge and offer such a better experience than any online platform could”.

Prior to Pets at Home’s omnichannel transformation, digital consumers wanted to pick orders up from stores, but as the company wasn’t set up to fulfil these orders from store stock, they had to be delivered to the store from a distribution centre – “which is really costly, really inefficient – and adds a really inconvenient timescale to the customer’s fulfilment period”.

This posed an extra challenge when the arrival of the pandemic meant vastly increased digital traffic – Pets at Home stores were permitted to stay open as the retailer was classed as ‘essential’, so click and collect was still possible.

Till pointed out that Pets at Home “had stock closer to consumers” than the likes of Amazon, which had 20 warehouses to Pets at Home’s more than 400 stores – so the business could “leverage [its] asset” to offer an even more convenient experience to consumers.

Recognising the fulfilment challenge at hand, Pets at Home put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) that led to them partnering with OneStock. In late October 2020, the brand announced the impending launch of a one-hour click and collect service, with up-to-the-minute stock levels displayed to customers checking online.

Till noted that, “Even though omnichannel is meant to be touching all different parts of the business, quite often it can be fragmented, it can be slightly disjointed – but we [weren’t] just looking at the back end, we weren’t just looking at stores … we were looking at the front end as well … [so] the capabilities and constraints of the business were surfaced up front on the website.”

Winning the hearts and minds of store staff

Digital transformation is always a people challenge as much as it is a technical challenge, and Pets at Home didn’t want to underestimate the change this would bring to store staff, who would now be looking after ecommerce customers as well as in-store customers.

Prior to the launch of one-hour click and collect, Pets at Home went through a period of ‘business readiness’ with User Acceptance Testing (UAT) and training materials: “This is a really key piece, because this isn’t just landing a digital functionality,” said Whitaker. “It needs the full end-to-end operational buy-in, and it needs to be thought out really clearly and explained to different parts of the business.”

The next step was a 40-store pilot, which was run with stores that represented different levels of turnover (high and low), with different footprints, and also incorporated stores from Pets at Home’s ‘business change network’ – “Stores that already understand the business change process, embrace change really well, and could become firelighters and advocates for that change as we moved into a wider rollout.”

Pets at Home was also keenly aware of the need to win the “hearts and minds” of store staff, who “have now got ecommerce customers who are shopping your fixture, shopping your products, at all sorts of times of the day – all sorts of products that weren’t shopped before. … They’ll see that as a threat to their in-store sales, see that as a different part of the business that’s taking some of their sales opportunity,” said Whitaker.

Recognising the “legwork” that store colleagues would be putting in to make the click and collect proposition a success, Pets at Home began crediting those ecommerce sales back to the stores in question, “[so] immediately they could see the value … And in some cases it could be the difference between hitting sales target and not hitting sales target.”

Till added, “The whole concept of omnichannel is – there is no ‘retail’, and there is no ‘ecomm’. Even in 2024, that [separation] still exists in some businesses, so one of the key learnings is – make this part of their day, part of their job, and incentivise them on that basis. … If you get [that] right, people adopt it.”

Pets at Home also educated store staff on the impact of cancellations (where an order was cancelled due to an inability to fulfil it from the store) and the increased importance of stock checking – “And that was really easy, actually, because now that stores were getting the sales, you could articulate the value that they were losing because of the stock discrepancy,” said Whitaker.

Pets at Home looked at “who’s best-in-class across retail, not just … petcare”

Fast forward to the present, and 40% of Pets at Home’s ecommerce orders are now collected in-store, with 24% of online orders fulfilled via one-hour click and collect. Whitaker said of store collection: “It’s a really great way of getting our customers back into our petcare centres and really cross-pollinating those different parts of our ecosystem.”

Pets at Home later turned its attention to rolling out same-day home delivery, facilitated via a partnership with last mile delivery company Stuart, and is now offering this from 126 stores.

Pets at Home’s Pets Club loyalty programme has also been a crucial component of its omnichannel proposition, facilitating the joining of online and offline data; the programme currently has 7.8 million members, with 2% year-over-year growth, as recently reported by Marketing Week. “Because you’re getting more data, because you’re getting more targeted data in the app … You can plot out that petcare journey” across the lifetime of a pet, said Till – “and influence [customers] into coming back into stores. It is all about that omnichannel piece.”

And of course, retail is “all about margins” – with click and collect offering a much more margin-efficient fulfilment method than home delivery for ecommerce orders. Till noted that since partnering with Pets at Home, the brand’s omnichannel revenue has grown by 19% year on year, “primarily to do with the ability to sell all the stock – rather than having stock for ecommerce in the warehouse … You’ve got all of that extra stock to sell to your [store] customers.

“So, ‘Pets’ can now sell any product to any customer at any moment in time on any channel – and offer convenience from a delivery perspective.”

Till also attributed much of Pets at Home’s drive to better its proposition to the brand benchmarking itself against not just peers in its own category, but “who’s best-in-class across retail – not who’s best-in-class across petcare.

“…What it gave them is a contingency for new competitors – we know that the world [of] retail, ecommerce, changes really quickly … So, from a contingency perspective, from a resiliency perspective, you need to cover all of those bases.”

Econsultancy offers skills assessment and training in ecommerce, as well as running learning academies for global brands.