One recent evening, I happened to wander into a Petco. It was very different than the pet stores of my childhood. Instead of wide-eyed children gazing at puppies and bunnies, I saw two things. Supplies and fish. Apparently, Petco has scaled back.
Or maybe it's always been this way. I can't imagine that a national chain like Petco wouldn't be able to logistically handle dogs and cats, but perhaps those are better left to independent breeders and animal shelters. Or maybe puppies are just low-margin merchandise. (Sorta breaks your heart to think of it that way, huh?)
But you know, the longer a puppy "sits on the shelf," so to speak, the more expensive he becomes to maintain. Employees have to feed him, walk him and love him, and even at minimum wage, all that loving can get expensive.
But a fish has got to have better shelf life. And I'd imagine the markups are decent. So perhaps supplies and fish were more of a business decision than anything else. After all, Petco is a business too. Even though it's peddling love and appealing to shoppers' emotions, it's still a large corporation with shareholders (or recently, private investors) to please.
Anyway, I am not in the market for a pet of any species, but I had some time to kill. So I decided to browse the fish aisle. There I was, gazing into tanks and making pucker faces, when I noticed a small sign.
"15-DAY GUARANTEE ON FRESHWATER FISH. In a properly established system, we guarantee Freshwater Fish for 15 days from the date of purchase with a receipt, plus the fish and a water sample in separate containers."
This was unlike any return policy I have ever seen. I'm going to take it one phrase at a time.
First, Petco is saying their fish will live for 15 days. I don't know if you've ever had a pet goldfish, but in my experience, lifespan varies widely. We'd come home with four new fish in a bag. One would be dead that night, two more would go in a month, and the last one would live for five years. So how they heck are they providing this sort of guarantee? Do they inject their fish with 15-day miracle vitamins? I was skeptical.
But then, they specify a "properly established system." Upon inquiry, it turns out that a proper system takes all sorts of factors into account, such as water temperature, filters and lighting. The Petco employee had a whole bunch of take-home literature on how to properly establish your system. It was actually quite useful, and I'd imagine that if I were buying my first fish, I would read up. So maybe this guarantee has an educational benefit. But I still wasn't totally convinced. Would anyone else make the effort to learn?
Finally, you not only have to bring a receipt, you have to bring the fish. THE FISH. They are not kidding around! Apparently dead fish transportation receptacles have recently included Tupperware containers and pillboxes. Oh, and a water sample. You have to save some of your dead fish's water for inspection. Doesn't this seem like a lot of work for one lousy free fish?
Apparently, it's not. People are indeed taking advantage of this fish guarantee. And I actually think it's quite clever. Petco knows that fish are notoriously short-lived, and I have to imagine it was getting multiple complaints a day, from angry shoppers, about dying goldfish. So the folks at corporate must have realized that the best way to take control of the situation was to give some responsibility back to their customers. Petco can't be liable for every dead-pet heartbreak in town, but it can carve out an area where its responsibility ends, and the customer's begins.
So they wrote this return policy in no uncertain terms. I imagine it's quite effective.
First, there's the education opportunity. The "properly established system" part means that if you didn't read our guidelines, it's your own fault. Imagine what takes place when a customer brings back Fishy. The employee gives him a little fish physical - takes his temperature, looks at his color and size. Then she tests the water's chlorine levels and looks for foreign particles. If something is up, the employee can diagnose it, teach the person what went wrong, and instruct them on what to do differently next time. It's like saying "We told you so" in the nicest of ways. Plus, education is rewarded; if you did everything we told you, then it wasn't your fault and you will get a new fish.
Second, there's the emotional response. I'm sure this is disproportionate for fish. I mean, if your toaster breaks, that is irritating. But when your child's new friend kicks the bucket, that is a sad day. A very sad day. That child is in the darkest hour of his little life. So just when Dad is most pissed, and Joey is most distraught, in swoops Petco to save the day. Joey learns a valuable lesson in the transience of life and death, and Dad learns to read the fine print. I'd imagine this return policy wins major points with parents.
And third, there is the business impact. Which is basically, zero. How much do you think a fish costs Petco? Ten cents? Small investment for what must be big rewards. They'd probably have to give away a free fish, every 15 days for a year before they lost money. And I'm sure someone did the math. Maybe they found that 10% of their stock typically die in less than 15 days, while the other 90% live longer. Ten percent of inventory is pretty manageable. Many retailers make similar estimates regarding their own "shrinkage." I'm sure the fish warranty makes only the tiniest of dents in the bottom line.
Education allows for loyal, informed customers. Replacement allows for happy children. And education + loyalty - small cost = big value. Good job, guys.
PS: I thought perhaps Petco's policy might give it a leg up on PetSmart, its arch nemesis. A quick call told me that PetSmart only offers a 14-day fish guarantee. Ha, ha. How's that for a competitive advantage?