Mark Hafen

First what I learned about tractors…  or at least tractor supplies.
Recently I discovered a store that is an outlier while most “brick and mortar” stores are failing. The store is the Tractor Supply Company, and they sell farm equipment, supplies, clothing, guns and even baby chicks. Their tag line is “Everything you need for a life out here.” And when they say “out here” they mean out beyond suburbia, where the grass is tall, and the tractors roam fee.

Recently the Tractor Supply Company expanded to the point where they have 1,900 stores spread across rural America. In the last five years they have also seen their sales increase by 56%. Their success has come even while the rural population in America is getting older, smaller, spending less money, and while Amazon and other web-based retailers have stolen a gigantic portion of the retail market from most other “brick and mortar” stores. Obviously, the Tractor Supply Company is doing something right. Brian Nagel a retail analyst at Oppenheimer and Company says: “When it comes to retail, it’s really one of the few remaining growth stories out there.”

I think veterinarians could learn a thing or two from the Tractor Supply Company.
Talking about the farmers, ranchers and hobbyist that the store caters to, Greg Sandfort, CEO of the Tractor Supply Company says:  “You have to remember, these people are choosing this lifestyle. There’s value in that choice, and a big part of that life is going to a store and talking to someone.”

That made me think about how veterinarians’ clients are similar to those of the Tractor Supply Company.  Yes, some veterinarians have farmers and ranchers as clients, but more importantly veterinarians’ clients are like the farmers, farmers and hobbyist……they too have actively chosen a lifestyle. Pet owners aren’t made to own pets, they have chosen to have animals. Pets are part of the family. Owning a pet is a lifestyle decision. People have pets because they offer the love and interaction that a friend or family offers. Pet owners like to spend time with their pets doing leisure type things like walking in the park or playing catch. Pet owners also like to spend time with other pet owners. And like the Tractor Supply Company client a big part a pet owners’ life is going to their veterinarian and talking to someone, or at least it should be.

Now let’s see what I learned about books, or at least independent bookstores.
In the 1980’s, it seemed that every small town built a new, trendy, enclosed shopping mall, and every mall had a Waldenbooks or a B. Daltons bookstore. These shopping malls stole the market from the small-town downtowns, and in many cases these downtowns failed. Along with the failure of these downtowns, the independent small time, “mom and pop” bookstores failed too.

In the 1990’s, with the invention of big box retailers (Target, Home Depot and PetsMart for example) the shopping malls began to fail. Waldenbooks and B. Daltons failed too, because they couldn’t compete with big box retailers, Barnes and Noble or Borders with their 20,000 square foot free-standing stores that sold not only books, but toys, CDs and DVDs.

In 1995, Amazon entered the book market, selling any book you could possibly want at a great price and just a quick “click” away.  As on-line sales increased, the last remaining suburban shopping malls closed, and the big box retailers began to struggle. The American public was changing not only how they bought but where they bought.  The dominant American consumer, the Millennials, buy on-line because it is quick and easy. The only brick and mortar enterprises that Millennials frequent are ones offering, in addition to their products or services, a valued and attractive experience, preferably based on a shared value. Unfortunately for many of the big box retailers they failed in two ways. They were too corporate to offer a sought after “experience” or a “shared value.” Nor could they compete with on-line retailers based on convenience or cost. In the world of the big box bookstores, Borders failed and Barnes and Noble continues to exist but they are fighting for their life.

Luckily for those who buy books, into the abyss stepped (again) the independent bookstore. A well run, well positioned, small bookstore can sell books for about as much as the big box or on-line retailer, but more importantly, they can appeal to their clients based on shared values and the desirable experience they offer. In fact, in the last five years more than 500 small bookstores have opened and thrive because they base their business model on offering both a valued experience and shared values.

This makes me think about tractors again, and how people choose a lifestyle. Some people choose tractors, some choose books, some choose both. Small independent veterinary clinics can learn a lot from those who sell tractors and books.

A recent bookstore owner said, “Everything that goes around comes around… stores were getting bigger and bigger. Now the new independent stores that are opening are small, 2,500 square feet. They just need to curate the titles that they feel their customer will buy…” A veterinary clinic can do the same.

The key is the word “curate.” Independent bookstores are taking the time to really know their clientele, i.e. who they are and what books they are looking for. Bookstores have to know what motivates their book buyers. Veterinary clinics can do the same. Veterinary clinics need to know their market, their clients, and their individual needs. Most importantly they have to know their client’s lifestyle and why they chose it.

The big news for independent bookstores is the community they are building. Many bookstores offer coffee and pastries. Other independent bookstores offer a full calendar of events, including book groups, book clubs, kids’ story times, live jazz, trivia nights, poetry slams and (my favorite) wine tastings. They are offering their clients a valued experience–a place to gather, to talk, interact and engage. Bookstores are also building a community that in turn embodies a lifestyle.

Veterinarians can build spaces and places that offer a valued experience and shared values:

  • Dog parks and doggy fountains for doggy and client play time
  • Lobbies where clients can gather, linger and interact (instead of client “waiting” in waiting rooms)
  • Greeting kiosks where staff and clients can gather ‘round (instead of reception desks that are meant to impress and impede)
  • Expanded team rooms with a shared kitchen where clients can learn how to bake vegan puppy treats– or gather for a dog treats and wine tasting pairing.
  • Media centers where veterinarians can gather with a group of pet owners to talk pet health.

Most importantly veterinarians can build small veterinary clinics where two or three veterinarians and a handful of staff can offer a select group of clients and their pets very personal health care and caring.

Another independent bookstore owner said: “I’m not sure a bookstore can make it on just books anymore.” The same applies to veterinary clinics. Veterinarians have to do more than just sell medicine. Veterinarians need to think strategically.  If veterinarians are going to succeed in their battle with the corporate veterinary providers, they need to distinguish themselves, they need to be building a community based on a shared experience and values shared. Think: person to person, face to face.

For veterinarians, building a community can be as a simple as a free health screening fair in a tent in the parking lot on a Saturday morning, with a few of the docs and a couple of the staff, standing around talking with pet owners about their old and overweight pets. Small. Personal.

The Tractor Supply Company is not just selling tractors, and bookstores are not just selling books. They both are selling community, and veterinarians can do the same.

Mark R. Hafen
smaller can be better.
Phone: 303.324.1179

A little over the top but a bookstore in Asheville, NC-
Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar in Asheville, NC


Photo from the Fetch Park and Ice House, webpage;
Atlanta’s First Dog Park and Restaurant, opening Spring, 2019