Danielle Schwartz didn’t ask for an oil portray of her cat. But she loves the portrait of Stinky that hangs in her upstate New York home, a surprise gift from an unlikely place: an online pet store.
It’s one of the crucial more than 1,000 free paintings that Chewy sends to make a choice customers each and every week — even all the way through the pandemic — tapping into people’s obsession with their fur children and, it hopes, winning customers for life.
In the cutthroat world of online shopping, that personal touch and a bit of kitsch is how Chewy is having a look to stand out a number of the competition, which has only gotten stiffer as more people shop online and add pandemic pets to their families. Pet ownership is expected to grow 4% in 2020, the first increase in several years, according to the Petco Foundation.
Chewy’s strategy appears to be working on Schwartz, whose blue-eyed cat likes to rub up against the portray from his cat tree.
“I just need to buy everything from them,” she says. “They’re a big company. I used to be shocked that they did something so personal.”
The portraits have change into a hit on social media, where people share images of them or beg for their pets to be turned into artistic endeavors.
Eric Sheridan, a sales specialist from Lee, Florida, asked for a portrait through the Twitter account of Gozer, his Boston terrier with more than 3,000 followers. A Chewy representative messaged back: “My paws are crossed that we’ll have the ability to send you one.” It arrived a month and a half later. “Christmas came early,” Sheridan tweeted from Gozer’s account.
Not everyone is delighted by getting a mystery portrait — the company acknowledges that some perplexed customers send them back. But many who get a pet portrait document it for social media, giving Chewy free advertising — a trend the company noticed when it first started shipping them out.
“Customers were going bananas,” says co-founder Ryan Cohen, who helped get a hold of the idea in 2013 before leaving the company.
Chewy used to be founded in 2011, marrying the fast delivery of Amazon with the friendliness of a native pet store. It also aimed to seize a piece of the fortune Americans spend on their pets, which used to be expected to complete $99 billion in 2020, according to the American Pet Products Organization. Pet store chain PetSmart bought Chewy in 2017 for more than $3 billion to grow its online commerce, but then spun Chewy off two years later into a publicly-traded company now worth approximately $40 billion, even if it has never made a profit.
Amazon and Chewy dominate the online pet supplies industry, with Amazon’s market share at more than 50% and Chewy’s at 34%, according to retail consulting firm 1010data. But the pandemic has been particularly good for Chewy as people steer clear of physical stores. Its inventory price more than tripled in 2020. Sales soared 45% in the August to October quarter. And it added 5 million new customers in the final year, bringing its complete customer base to almost 18 million.
Phillip M. Cooper, a pet industry consultant, credits the customer service. “It set the usual,” he says.
The company’s 2,500 agents are trained to respond to pet parents’ questions, like which foods are best for older pooches or where to find a shelter. Chewy sends new customers handwritten paper money and all shoppers get snail-mail holiday cards. It even sends flowers to people whose pets died.
“It helped ease the pain,” says Jordan Redman of Norman, Oklahoma, who received a bouquet of flowers after Bud, her golden retriever, died.
But it’s the paintings that have customers panting. There’s no way to purchase one from Chewy, and the company doesn’t precisely say how someone will be selected. But it usually sends them out to those who have pet photos on their Chewy account or have shared one with a customer service agent.
For clues, look to the experience of Danielle Moore, who said Chewy asked her to send a photo of her Australian cattle dog Kana all the way through a call approximately returning an order. Kana’s likeness showed up three months later. Moore loved it such a lot she tried to purchase another through Chewy, but the customer service agent wouldn’t budge. Instead, the chemist from Dallas commissioned one for $36 on Etsy, and the paintings hang on a wall together.
Chewy doesn’t disclose the price of making and sending the portraits. It has worked with hundreds of artists around the country who are emailed photos of their subjects by the company.
Josh Lawson, who paints 20 to 50 portraits a week, has done snakes, goats and even what he thinks were bison. It can take two hours or more to do a portrait. Fluffy kittens, as an example, need additional attention and a long-tip brush to receive the correct amount of fluff. “I need to cause them to look real,” he says.
There’s pressure to take action. Chewy says it rejects artwork that doesn’t look enough like the pet or sends it back to be reworked. The goal is for people to talk up Chewy to others and to receive a prime spot on shopper’s walls, serving as a billboard for the company.
Annesley Clark, a law student in St. Louis, used to be surprised by how much the free portray gave the impression of her pit bull mix, Willow. “I used to be beside myself,” she says. “It’s her precisely.”
She couldn’t wait to show it off. The next day to come, she took it to a socially-distanced picnic with four others and held up the artwork. “I said, ‘Look at this. It’s perfect.’“ Her friends agreed.
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)
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