December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Though a tad bony on brand selection, Petopia.com gets a blue ribbon for best of breed

Modesty may not be its strong point, but what else would you expect from a Web retailer that touts itself as the Internet Pet Paradise?

As one of the most ambitious and lavishly funded online pet sites, Petopia.com made a huge splash with a high-profile launch in August of 1999. It has won rave reviews from a host of industry analysts-Gomez Advisors rated it “number one” on its pet site scorecard-and it’s easy to see why. Petopia understands its customers’ devotion to their pets, and makes shopping for Fluffy and Rover easy and entertaining.

Entering Petopia is a warm and fuzzy experience. The site is well designed, easy to navigate, and complete with colorful cartoons. The large, unmistakable “Let’s Go Shopping” section, makes it hard to get lost when the next step is to click on a picture of the type of animal you’re shopping for: dogs, cats, birds, fish and small pets.

From there, the site neatly lists different categories of products. I was interested in a toy for my yellow Labrador, Dante, so I was pleased that the dog toys were nicely divided into sub-categories such as consumable toys, fleece and stuffed, nylon, rope, and toys for puppies. For Dante, all toys were potentially consumable, so I settled on that section of the site. Because Petopia partners with the brick and mortar retailer, Petco, the selection of chewable toys was about the same as any pet care center but the prices were lower and with Christmas around the corner, shipping was free. I loaded several Booda-brand chewable bones, which are made from cornstarch and safe to ingest, into my virtual cart and was again on my way.

Next on my list was something for my furry feline, Whitney. As many cat owners know, the litter box can create some very unpleasant odors, so I set my sights on finding a product that would help reduce the problem.

In the cat litter section of cat department, I was presented with a plethora of biodegradable, scoopable, and even flushable (never change your cat’s box again, it promised) litter choices. I was giddy with the possibilities.

Each product also featured a small picture of its package and a description of its features, which included such innovations as dust-free, reduced-tracking and even antibacterial and baking soda litter that minimizes odors-just what I was looking for.

After making my selection, I proceeded to checkout, where the contents of my cart were listed along with the quantity, price and a clear “remove” button for each item. Satisfied with my decisions, I continued with the checkout process.

After ordering, Petopia immediately sent me an email confirmation listing everything I had ordered and an estimated delivery time of three to seven days. I was eager to tell Dante and Whitney the good news.

Four business days later my package arrived and I was about to experience my first real disappointment. As I picked up the box to carry it up to my apartment, I noticed a noise and quickly realized it was the sound of kitty litter sifting out of the corner of the box. Upon opening the box, I discovered that the cap to the litter jug had been broken but I managed to salvage most of the contents after losing about one-fourth of the litter to my floor.

Even though I suspected the cap had been broken during shipping, I called Petopia the next day to explain what had happened and was told I would immediately be sent a new container of litter free-of-charge. The customer service representative also suggested I donate the remainder of litter from the damaged container to a nearby animal shelter. I was indeed sur-prised. And, impressed.

You see, in a letter posted on its Web site from Andrea Reisman, the company’s CEO, it is one of Petopia’s missions to give back to the animal community. It is in this vein that the company offers such products such as “High Hopes” brand cat and dog food, which donates a portion of its profits to feeding stray animals. Petopia also sponsors other animal charities, such as the Million Pet Mercy Mission, which works with shelters to place homeless animals in loving homes.

The letter also says that Petopia strives to be a “place where the human/pet bond can be celebrated. A place where the word ‘community’ really means something.” To back this up, the site hosts chat communities for different animals and different subjects. Visitors to the site can choose a type of pet then a subcategory of breed, health or behavior to chat with other pet owners with similar interests. Pet owners also can post photos of their baby pets.

“The pet industry is a very emotional market, and pet lovers gravitate to that,” says Carrie Ardito of Forrester Research. Petopia clearly understands the emotional bond people have with their pets. It offers seasonal pet products like Halloween costumes and Christmas stockings, along with the basics such as food, beds, health supplies, treats and toys.

But according to Matt Stamski of Gomez Advisors, what really sets Petopia apart from other online pet supply retailers is the site’s content and its level of expertise. Petopia features articles on a wide range of subjects, which are generally written by different animal experts, such as veterinarians.

Harley Manning an analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., praises the synergy between the editorial content and commerce. He notes that if you’re looking up an animal problem in the Pet Care section, products to help you solve the problems are right there as well.

The only minor downside to Petopia is that I wished the selection was a little broader, not in terms of products-they have many-but in brands. As an active pet parent, I occasionally indulge and buy my guys top-shelf products. To wit: a $12 mouse I found at a “pet boutique” in California is a favorite of Whitney’s, but I haven’t been able to locate it online. Petopia is starting to remedy this with the introduction of product lines such as “George,” premium toys for dogs.

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