February 28, 2013, 3:32 PM

An e-retail executive returns to his pet-friendly roots

PupLife.com’s president is back at the e-retailer after a year with SupplyGeeks.com.

Lead Photo

The lure of wagging tails and four-legged fun drew Eric Houtkooper back to PupLife.com, the e-retail business he co-founded with his wife in 2003. He left PupLife a little more than a year ago to help launch e-commerce for SOS Office, a business-to-business office supply retailer selling online as SupplyGeeks.com.

Houtkooper says he learned a lot from his experience as director of e-commerce at SupplyGeeks.com, but found it tough to effectively market the same products available from much larger merchants like Amazon.com Inc., Staples Inc. and Office Depot. “Pets are a lot more fun,” Houtkooper says, “and there’s a lot more innovation in the pet supply business than in the office supply sector.” That makes it possible for PupLife to differentiate what it does and sells from other retailers that sell pet products online. Amazon.com is No. 1 in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide. Staples is No. 2 and Office Depot is No. 6.

“We’ll have the stuff you aren’t going to find in the big-box stores or on Amazon,” he says. “From us you want these really cool beds from Bowsers and cool, arty tags from Lucky Pup out of L.A.” Bowsers Pet Products and Lucky Pup Designs are niche manufacturers of pet products, which Houtkooper says help set PupLife.com apart from other e-retailers.

Houtkooper remained on board with PupLife as a consultant while at SupplyGeeks.com. Watching people treat their dogs as members of the family—and tracking higher spending along with that treatment—helped convince him it was time to rededicate himself to PupLife. U.S. consumers spent approximately $53 billion in 2012 on their pets, up 5% from 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association trade group. That’s a lot of chew toys.

Houtkooper, who earlier in his career was an art director and web designer, has, since his return to PupLife, redesigned the site following responsive web design principles. He says PupLife.com needed an overhaul and about 20% to 25% of its traffic came from consumers using mobile devices, largely tablet computers. Responsive web design is a method of crafting a single web site so that it will render properly no matter the device a consumer uses.

Moving forward, Houtkooper anticipates hiring four to six new staffers in the coming year, essentially tripling PupLife’s current employee base. The retailer recently gave up the lease on its warehouse, which Houtkooper says used to be packed full of products, in favor of drop-shipping. Houtkooper says 99% of products PupLife.com sells are now fulfilled by the suppliers. That frees PupLife up to focus on marketing the site and the products it sells.

Some of that marketing is on Facebook, where consumers like to share and post fun details about their own human-pet interactions. PupLife poses a question on Facebook each Friday meant to encourage interactions, such as “Do you ever sing to your dog?” That question generated dozens of Likes and comments, including one from a fan who posted a YouTube video of his performance and his dog’s (rather mortified) reaction. “You are not going to find that in the office supply sector,” Houtkooper says.

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