Earlier this year, Walmart announced the opening of more veterinary clinics in stores across the US, as well as the launch of an online pet pharmacy. With its further expansion into the pet care industry, Walmart hopes to compete with the likes of Chewy.com and PetSmart.
The reaction to additional clinics was, and is, mixed. Some local veterinarians worry about competition, especially in an industry seeing high levels of corporate consolidation. Some see the addition of low-cost clinics as an opportunity to provide pet care for people without a lot of money to spend.
Jill Lopez, director of marketing and strategic partnerships for Essentials PetCare, the company that owns and operates Walmart clinics, says the main goal is to provide preventative, walk-in care to pets, especially those from lower income households.
“There’s a lot of people who love their pet but can’t afford to spend a lot of money,” Lopez explains. “We believe every pet should have access to quality care.”
Every Pet Should Have Access to Quality Care
Lopez cites a study conducted by the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition (AVCC) estimating that 29 million dogs and cats live in households participating in food stamp programs. The AVCC study additionally found that 28 percent of such pet owners experienced barriers to veterinary care.
Essentials PetCare clinics post prices online so customers know exactly what to expect when they walk in the clinic. Clinics do not schedule appointments; all patients are seen on a walk-in basis. The clinics focus on prevention, Lopez explains, providing wellness exams, vaccinations, minor illness care, and bloodwork.
While the clinics have a separate entrance from the main store, Lopez says many families choose to send one person with the pet while another gets the family shopping done.
Accessibility and convenience are high priorities for Essentials PetCare.
“We make veterinary care easy,” Lopez says. “We’re made for families. They’re parents first and pet owners second.”
That family-first orientation carries over to the company’s perspective on careers, Lopez says. The mentality was what drew her to the company. Essentials PetCare founders Dr. Douglas Spiker and Christine Battista are committed to providing work-life harmony for their employees.
“We’re focused on trying to do what’s right on the individual company level and out in the world,” Lopez explains. “Vets are getting burnt out across the industry. Our clinics offer routine care. When you’re done for the day, you just leave.”
She continues, “We have incredible veterinarians. They’ve all gone to great, top vet schools. Our company values quality.”
The expansion plan for coming clinics is well-developed, Lopez says. “Our goal is to have as many quality clinics across the company as possible. The number-one goal is quality. So we want to make sure it’s the right location and the right staff.”
Is Walmart Too Competitive?
While some see the addition of Walmart clinics as competition in an already competitive industry, Lopez says Essentials PetCare clinics fill a different niche, even referring patients to local full-service clinics when more advanced or ongoing care is needed.
“We’re complimentary to a full-service veterinary hospital. We’re never competitive. Many pets we see have never been to a vet. It’s rare that we’re taking clients from a full-service clinic,” Lopez says. “There’s a place for us and a place for full-service clinics. We can help those local clinics generate more revenue with referrals from our clinics.”
Karen Bolten, DVM, writes a blog focused on business practices for veterinarians at The Business Vet. Earlier this year, she posted about Walmart’s announcement.
“Many vets have an emotional response to this issue,” Bolten explains.
As a former practice owner herself and a business school student, Bolten says she now has a different response to the growth of Walmart’s clinics. She explains that while many veterinarians are practice owners, they might be missing the business owner perspective when it comes to Walmart.
Walmart’s clinics will likely cater to a different clientele, Bolten explains, echoing statements made by Lopez. She explains that many veterinarians are concerned about competing with Walmart’s online pharmacy.
“Most of us [veterinarians] can’t compete with an online pharmacy, even if we have access to partner with one,” Bolten explains.
Walmart’s buying power in the pharmacy world poses a threat to smaller, local veterinarians, for sure. However, Bolten says, in terms of medical care for patients, a shift in perspective is warranted.
“If any of us compete on cost, we just can’t do it,” she says. “We have to compete on something else, and then we all can win. The low-cost business strategy is never a bad strategy. It simply serves a different market.”
Focus on What Your Practice Does Well
Bolten hopes local veterinarians will understand Walmart isn’t a death sentence for their practice.
“You don’t have to go under because of Walmart,” she says. “Take it as an opportunity to discover what you’re really good at and focus on developing those parts of your practice.”
As she considers the marketing and management facets of business, especially as related to veterinary practices, Bolten offers a few suggestions.
“One of the most important things you can do is survey your customers,” she says. “Determine who your ideal customer is and spend some time understanding your target market.”
Then, Bolten says, veterinarians can determine the overlap of what clients want and what your practice best delivers. For many local clinics, she explains, that “sweet spot” will be different than what Walmart offers.
“If a lot of clinics did this, they would be happier and this Walmart thing wouldn’t be an issue,” Bolten says.
Bolten circles back to the statistics about pet owners experiencing financial barriers to care.
“What’s being lost in all of this discussion is that these pets aren’t getting care,” Bolten says. “I think there’s something good that could come out of this for the pets.”