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For practices the future will certainly be different

by
01 April 2015, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

CONSUMER confidence is a strange beast.

A quick scan of today’s newspaper shows growing ferment in the Middle East with radical extremism now involving more countries than ever before, a re-escalation of conflict in Ukraine with British troops being sent there as a warning, to ourselves as much as anyone else, that doing nothing on the sidelines will have disastrous consequences all round, and the plummet from grandee to embarrassment by two old political warhorses, both of whom should have known better than, allegedly, to offer their privileged parliamentary access for sale.

On the other hand, to counter the dark clouds of portent, the FTSE soared to a new high as consumer confidence gathers pace and people start investing again.

In addition, registrations of new cars continue to surge ahead, fuelled by stronger than expected economic confidence with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders commenting that “Demand is back to pre-recession levels following recordbreaking growth.”

Now, call me a cynic, but with an election just around the corner should we not expect to see a few examples of sleight of hand with the news?

No one doubts that the announcement that Greater Manchester will have full control of the entire healthcare budget was timed, to good effect, by the Chancellor who needed to defuse the Opposition’s arguments about empowering the NHS and greater devolution of power away from Whitehall in this critical electoral period. Does it really matter if the end result is the same and if there is widespread benefit to be gained from the news?

Probably not, in terms of what we learn and when we learn it, except that nothing stands in isolation and many people feel there is a mounting sense of manipulation in the manner in which news is broken.

Anyone watching the recent documentary about the Royal Family’s relationship with the media would have emerged from the programme feeling either that those who play with matches may suffer grievous burns or that the media is a noxious beast and we are all rather fortunate it’s not any more powerful than it already is.

In reality, both arguments are true and public confidence is necessarily at the mercy of the news’ editors whose job, as Piers Morgan famously reminded us, is not to report the news but to sell newspapers.

So, with the usual caveat that we largely get the news we deserve, should we not be doing something to capitalise on and to harness this newfound economic confidence?

Clearly, as can be seen by events in Greece, there’s only so much austerity an electorate can handle and whoever wins the forthcoming UK election will have the devilishly difficult job of balancing the books while gently encouraging the people to move forward and spend more.

It certainly looks as if the next four years will need to be a tap-dance between growth and restraint and so we should expect the consumer to be encouraged to spend more.

Part of our problem as a profession has been that while the world of pets, and the relationship that the British public has with them, has been largely recession-proof and very few practices went to the wall during the recession, the majority of any uplift in spending by British consumers on their pets failed to make it through to the veterinary practice till.

In contrast, total revenues at Pets at Home grew 7.8% in its third quarter to 1st January 2015 and its future plans include opening at least 25 stores, 60 veterinary practices and 50 grooming salons in this financial year.

On-line offerings

Consumer shopping habits are easier to chart when the company operates on such a scale but it has shown that more and more consumers are choosing to order on-line and collect from the store: some of that might be because the on-line offering for consumers is larger with 4,000 more items available on-line than in-store. And with 2.9 million pet owners signed up to its VIP club, it clearly understands what UK shoppers want.

The German on-line pet retailer Zooplus showed an increase of 34% year on year in total sales across 28 European countries, including the UK. I realise this is not exclusively UK data but when sales from new customers rose by 29% and sales from existing customers by a whopping 36%, it’s clear this is both a sustainable business and one which is pushing on an open door when it comes to understanding and meeting consumers’ needs.

So where does that leave the veterinary profession? Dare I say that it leaves us in limbo?

There are many UK practices doing really well and, in the main, those that are doing well are managing to succeed by being in close touch with their existing and potential client base.

It is harder to see how the more passive practices can improve their lot if they simply wait hopefully for new people to walk through the door.

The expectations and habits of shoppers continue to change and evolve and, outside the distress purchase where normal consumer behaviour will be displaced by urgent necessity, all the elective purchasing by pet-owning consumers will be governed by the availability of choice.

I had rather hoped for a crystal ball for Christmas but Santa rather let me down. Had he brought me a new, digital, high-tech portal to the future I suspect that, once I’d mastered turning it on, it would show me that the veterinary practice of tomorrow will be in close touch with all pet owners in its vicinity, pushing itself forward to be seen as being different and highly involved but, most importantly, constantly monitoring what consumers want and making sure it provides that.

It might be that sales of product, rather than being an income stream that matters to the business, might become little more than a service to customers and would be conducted as a cost of doing business rather than a profit centre.

It might be that many practices will retreat into doing the clinical and surgical work that no other retailers can challenge while others will differentiate their market offering by majoring on superlative service levels in the way luxury car dealers are now having to do.

It will certainly be different and who knows how things will develop? One thing is certain: if we don’t continually ask our clients how we can provide what they want, they may not be available to us to ask at all.