Shelf Life

When Richard Lisk, DVM, started offering five or six different heartworm products for sale to his clients, he thought he was enhancing his service. After all, the more choices the better, right?

Not always. With experience and the help of practice consultant Wendy S. Myers of Communication Solutions in Highland Ranch, Colo., Dr. Lisk decided he wasn’t doing his clients—or himself—any favors by overstocking his retail space.

“Clients don’t always know what products are best. They’re looking for medical advice,” says Lisk, owner and operator of two adjacent veterinary practices in Houston: Bay Glen Animal Hospital and the Feline Medical Center.

So now Lisk carries one heartworm medication, in a 12-month supply, and he still feels the love from his clients. Plus, he frees up room in his hospitals and resources in his budget for other products and equipment.

Practitioners know the decision to sell products as a service to clients comes with limitations. How practices best use their limited space can go a long way toward determining the success of the practice.

Sales of products sometimes account for as much as 15 to 25 percent of a hospital’s revenue, say veterinarians and practice consultants.

Just by consolidating preventive inventory, Lisk’s hospitals are seeing thousands of dollars in financial benefit.

“We’ve been able to trim inventory by 30 to 40 percent or more,” Lisk says. “That’s $15,000 that no longer is on the shelf and instead is in the bank or can be invested in a piece of equipment that can better serve our patients and our practice.”

Veterinarians and consultants agree the first test of product-selling success remains: Are clients getting efficacious products that improve their lives and those of their pets?

“A lot of veterinarians fear selling products,” says Heather McCabe, a sales representative at MWI Veterinary Supply of Meridian, Idaho, who helps practices maximize retail opportunities. “They’re scientists by nature, and they fear being seen as a salesperson instead of as a medical person.”

McCabe says her first step often is to help veterinarians understand that they can both serve clients well and make a profit on products.

So a healthy number of practitioners are on board with developing a retail strategy. Now what?


Consultants say dental items are among the most important products to display and keep available for sale.


There seems to be consensus on a just-in-time approach to inventory instead of loading a stockroom with scores of 40-pound bags of food.

By all means, meet clients’ therapeutic diet needs, says Christine Pierson, vice president of sales at Bayer Animal Health, whose sales reps seek to fill a consulting role for practices.

“But if you don’t have a whole lot of storage space, don’t order a season’s worth at a time.”

By carefully managing computerized reorder points on items with consistent sales, practices can limit the need to store bulky items. For a special need, such as a diet formulated just for pugs, the practice can order from an online provider to keep the process seamless from clinic to client.

Having big bags of food in display areas isn’t an effective use of retail space, consultants say.

“Veterinarians will say, ‘Well, I sell so much food,’” McCabe says. “I remind them that the margin is 20 to 30 percent. With, say, a derm product, the margin is 70 percent. Now you don’t sell a derm product every hour like you might with food, but a client doesn’t have to touch and feel a bag of food to buy it.”

McCabe advises against displaying just one or two bottles of a product. “It looks like you might have gotten it for free as a sample and just put it out for sale,” she says. “Better to stock one brand and stock it nicely so it shows you have a commitment to the product.”

Mark Crootof, DVM, of Crootof Veterinary Consulting, works with some severely cramped practices. A 1,500-square-foot New York City clinic lacks even a reception desk on which to place items. In the clinic’s four exam rooms, Dr. Crootof helped devise a system of pull-out product displays. These rooms can be the ideal place to help clients understand the benefits of retail items.

“Even if the product is a shampoo, if the person is in a lab coat, the client is likely to be receptive to the message,” McCabe says.

Consultants say dental items are among the most important products to display and keep available for sale.

Veterinarians talk about dental disease at almost every exam, Myers notes. And clients willing to spend hundreds on a professional cleaning are likely to commit to home dental care.

Myers advises practitioners to bundle a toothbrush with toothpaste, a rinse and perhaps a dental chew—“whatever the practice believes in and can get behind.”

The best staff members are advocates for the patient and the practice, Myers says, citing the example of a popular dental chew that contains 600 calories. Offering an alternative with about one-tenth the calories not only aids pets but can help drive client satisfaction, Myers says.

Lisk notes that when he decided to carry just one kind of heartworm preventive, he educated his staff to ensure a consistent message. He also alerted clients to the change via a letter.

Since the switch, he has tracked compliance to make sure clients weren’t dropping preventive treatment. He has seen compliance grow at the same rate as the practice, he says.

Lisk used to stock lots of food on 5-foot-high racks in the waiting area. Now he has a less-obtrusive display that emphasizes preventives, shampoos, ear cleaners and other products he trusts and can recommend.

The lesson? “Clients don’t come to you for variety,” he says. “They want to know what’s best for their pet.” <HOME>

This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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