Relationship Marketing with Ferret Shelters and Ferret Clubs

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Having a good relationship with ferret shelters and ferret clubs will lead to a successful business as well as a rewarding experience.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Pet Product News
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Historically, many ferret clubs and ferret shelters have not had a productive or positive relationship with petstores. This is unfortunate, because both entities can have a vital and supportive role. Furthermore, if you are effective in establishing a long-term relationship with other ferret organizations, your store can have a differential competitive advantage.
One reason behind the negative relationships is limited knowledge. Because ferrets are a relatively new phenomenon, and they are different from cats, dogs, and rodents, petstore personnel are not often equipped to handle the care and sale of ferrets, let alone the customer service support required by a new ferret owner. When disinformation is spread (or there is no information available), customers become dissatisfied because the ferret has not met preconceived expectations. These ferrets are neglected, dropped off at shelters, returned to your store, or worse, abandoned. In any of these cases, your customer is dissatisfied. Shelters are unhappy with petstores because so many ferrets from petstores end up at shelters. Clubs are unhappy because they receive complaints about petstores. With more information, petstores can reduce or eliminate complaints and unhappy customers.
One area where ferret owners exchange information is on the FML (Ferret Mailing List), which is an electronic mailing exchange with over 2,000 subscribers. The daily list regularly has complaints about petstores. A review of these complaints over the past three years has indicated common petstore problems. The top ten petstore complaints are listed below, along with information and solutions.
Kits (baby ferrets) too young
You should not receive kits in your store under eight weeks of age. Anything younger means the kits are not through nursing and may not have the teeth required to eat hard, kibbled food. Also, these kits lack socialization skills and are more likely to nip. Finally, early-weaned kits can suffer from prolapsed rectums, which can be very painful to the ferret. Any kits arriving at your store should have their teeth checked, and food should be softened with water if necessary. Do not feed kits milk or dairy products.
Ferrets need to be kept in large, well-ventilated enclosures. Aquariums are unsuitable for housing a ferret as they provide inadequate ventilation. If ferrets are housed in a cage, the cage must have solid flooring. If ferrets walk on wire, their feet can become deformed. Also, kits can fall through wire or get their limbs caught, causing damage.
Ferrets should not be kept on wood shavings, especially cedar. Ferrets have sensitive respiratory systems that cannot handle the dust and phenols from most shavings (excepting aspen). Likewise, corncob litter is too dusty, and ferrets may try to eat the pellets and choke or get intestinal blockages. The best kind of floor covering for ferrets are blankets, towels, or mats. If your store does not have laundry facilities for these items, try shredded newspaper (although this may stain fur). In addition, ferrets must have something to sleep in or on. Sleep sacks, fleece tubes, hammocks, and tents make wonderful display items that sell well along with the ferret.
Litterboxes and litter
Ferrets must be provided with litterboxes, and it is a good marketing tool to show how ferrets can use litterboxes. High-backed litterboxes are best. Do NOT use clumping litter, as this can be fatal. Use reconstituted wood pellets, pelleted newspaper, or alfalfa pellets. Place litterboxes in each corner of the ferret enclosure.
Food and Water
Ferrets should be "free fed," meaning food must be available at all times. The ferret metabolism is so fast (3-hour turnaround), that feeding on a scheduled basis in measured quantities is unhealthy. When kits miss meals, developmental and medical problems are likely. Make sure you are stocked up for the night or weekend! Also, feed and recommend appropriate food. Not all food labeled for ferrets is necessarily good. Food fed to ferrets should be at least 32% protein, 20% fat, and no more than 3% fiber. Additionally, protein must come from meat, not grain sources, because ferrets cannot digest vegetable materials. There are several kitten foods that meet these requirements. Ferrets must also have water at all times. Several water bottles are recommended, as ferrets drink large quantities of water, but may play in water if provided in bowls.
Ferrets are highly susceptible to canine distemper, and must receive a complete series of distemper shots to have adequate protection. Often, kits shipped to you have received only the first of their series of three shots (usually at 6, 8, and 12 weeks). If the second and third boosters are not received at two-week intervals after the initial shot, the ferret kits do not have adequate protection against distemper, which is highly contagious and fatal to ferrets. You can vaccinate kits yourself with Fervac-D or Galaxy-D, but be aware that some ferrets have dangerous reactions to these shots. You must also inform new owners of the necessity of this vaccination schedule. Depending on which state your store is in, it may be law for you to vaccinate ferrets for rabies at three or six months of age. Check with your state health department, and local ordinances. A veterinarian may have to administer the rabies shot. One way to ensure complete vaccinations is to sell the ferret along with pre-paid vaccination certificates from a local veterinarian.
Handling Ferrets/Socialization Training
Ferrets should be handled as much as possible; at least on a daily basis. Baby ferrets must be taught not to nip. The worst misinformation is that you should "thump" a ferret on the nose to teach it not to bite. Thumping ferrets is not only a form of animal cruelty, but it also teaches ferrets to bite harder. If a ferret is nipping, scruff the ferret by grasping the loose skin on the neck, and sternly say "NO!" The ferret will eventually learn that nipping is not acceptable. Of course an ill ferret, or one in pain, is likely to bite as a defense mechanism.
Another complaint is that pet store personnel do not know how to sex ferrets. Many a new ferret owner has gone home with "Missy" only to find out later that Missy is a big, strapping male. Female ferrets have two openings close together and near the base of the tail, while male ferrets have only one opening at the base of the tail and a "belly button."
Make sure that if your store is selling ferrets, it also stocks a variety of ferret products. Cages, litterboxes, litter, bedding, blankets, mats, sleep sacks, fleece tubes, food dishes, water bottles, sleeping boxes, tubes, nailclippers, toys, food, beds, shampoos, flea repellents, ear cleaners, furball medications, vitamin supplements, books, magazines, and so on should always be available. Many products designed for kittens are also ferret friendly – put these on the ferret aisle as well.
Knowledge and information.
Store employees should be well versed in ferret information. If they are not, they should defer to an employee who is, or refer the customer to appropriate literature. Much misinformation is passed along by employees who "make up" answers because it is easier than admitting ignorance. When the truth is found out later, the reputation of your store will be damaged. Employees should know the history of the ferret (domesticated over 2,000 years ago, NOT a wild animal), ability to get along with others (ferrets love other ferrets, gentle children, cats, and some dogs), exercise requirements (at least 90 minutes a day), health concerns, legal issues, and so on. This information is often available from ferret clubs and shelters.
Almost every state and many major cities have ferret clubs. These clubs are usually in the business of educating ferret owners, disseminating information, producing ferret shows, holding informational meetings and fundraisers, and working with other animal organizations, including petstores, animal control, shelters, and humane societies. To find your local ferret club, search the Ferret Central Internet Web site ( ) for listings of clubs and ferret contacts.
Ferret clubs can provide vast information resources for your store. Clubs usually have lists of ferret-specific veterinarians, rescue and pickup services, ferret owners, show dates, and other useful items. Additionally, ferret clubs are a good source of information to distribute at your petstore. Clubs often produce brochures, pamphlets, fliers, or other handouts that are suitable for handing out to potential or new ferret owners. Often, clubs will provide this information free of charge, as long as you are proactive in making the requests. Clubs are usually non-profit and run by volunteers, so you can’t always rely on a representative to keep you in stock. By providing information to your customers, you lessen the risk of a dissatisfied customer. The more educated your customers are about their purchases, the less chance of problems later. In return, the club gets publicity and can recruit potential members.
Clubs are also a great source of training. Members of the Ferret Lovers’ Club of Texas regularly volunteer to train employees at local pet stores. During staff meetings, club volunteers show employees how to handle ferrets properly, and tell them how to answer the most common questions. A more knowledgeable employee is more likely to make a sale and have a satisfied customer return for further purchases.
Clubs may also run ferret shows. Here is a great opportunity to get publicity for your store. Consider sponsoring an event, purchasing an advertisement in the show program, or renting booth space and selling ferret supplies. You can also donate items for raffles or fundraisers, or donate products for prizes. What better way to have a concentrated population of ferret enthusiasts available in one place to view your information or products? Show promotion costs are usually far less than those of commercial shows.
Ferret clubs often have newsletters distributed on a monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly basis. Consider advertising in a newsletter, or provide a new ferret product for review. Allow club members to use their membership cards for discounts at your store, and promote this feature prominently in club literature to attract additional customers. You can also have a club endorse products for your store, and place a shelf sign or sticker stating that the product is recommended by the Ferret Club. Also consider letting the club hold meetings at your store, if the facilities are available. All these ideas can really enhance product turnover at your store.
Many pet stores view ferret shelters as "the competition" because shelters typically adopt out ferrets at a substantially lower price than ferrets sold at petstores. Shelters often view petstores as "the enemy" because increased sales of pet store ferrets increase the number of abandoned ferrets that may eventually arrive at the shelter. However, establishing a relationship with your area ferret shelter can be quite rewarding, for both you and the shelter. First, you need to find the ferret shelter. Your local ferret club may be able to identify shelters, or you can check with the STAR* Ferrets (Shelters That Adopt and Rescue Ferrets) Listing. STAR* Ferrets provides a nationwide listing of member ferret shelters. You can send a self-addressed, stamped., long envelope to STAR* to request the listing of shelters in your state at P.O. Box 1714, Springfield, VA 22151-0714. STAR* is also available via email at or the shelter listing is available on the Internet at the Ferret Central site.
Your shelter director is likely to be an invaluable source of ferret information. If you are having
a problem with some of your ferrets, or a customer asks a difficult ferret-related question, your local shelter director is a quick answer. Providing specialized ferret information or ferret veterinarian referrals is a great way to increase customer service levels and thereby increase customer satisfaction.
Additionally, your local shelter will be willing to take "problem" ferrets off your hands. If you have a ferret in your store who is ill, deformed, has had an accident, or has behavioral problems (typically biting), please consider donating that ferret to your local shelter. Many of your ferret suppliers will offer a refund if a ferret arrives and has a medical problem or deformity. However, if these ferrets are returned to the supplier, they are typically destroyed. See if you can work out a refund with the supplier but turn the ferret over to your local shelter for medical attention and rehabilitation. Don’t risk your customers seeing an ill ferret or being bitten by one. The potential for complaints, animal control intervention, and even lawsuits is too high. An independent petstore in Carrollton, Texas received a biter ferret from an unhappy and frustrated owner, and called for a pickup immediately, before customers could be exposed. Kafka the ferret was turned over to the local ferret shelter and diagnosed as a possible abuse case who was so fearful of humans that he bit to protect himself. After 6 months of rehabilitation and training, Kafka is ready to adopt! The petstore manager found the situation very rewarding.
People often turn over unwanted ferrets to petstores because they do not know where else to turn. Ferrets are turned in because they were abandoned, found running loose, or the owner does not wish to have a ferret anymore. Typical reasons for releasing a ferret are (1) moving, (2) new family members, (3) too much work to provide care, (4) legal issues (landlord does not allow pets, or ferrets illegal in area), and (5) medical problems. To protect yourself and your store, have the person sign a release form (available from STAR* or your local shelter) to make sure you have legal possession of the ferret. If you have a quarantine or isolated area available, place the ferret here, provide food and water, and immediately call your ferret shelter or ferret club for a pickup. Do not consider reselling these ferrets unless you are willing to have a veterinarian checkup and inoculations provided. Do not risk spreading diseases throughout your own stock, or selling a "problem" ferret to a customer. Abandoned or neglected ferrets are often fearful, and may be biters or very destructive, until they have been rehabilitated. Your shelter is better equipped to handle these risky problems. A shelter can also find homes for older ferrets that are not as easy to sell from your store.
If your store does not sell ferrets, consider allowing the shelter to adopt out ferrets from your store. If your store does sell ferrets, let the shelter have its adoption table during a time when kits are not in season. There is a market for mature ferrets that are calmer, trained, and have had a complete inoculation series. Even if your store does not share in the adoption fee, the amount of ferret supplies that each new owner purchases (and repurchases later) is well worth the effort. Just make sure each ferret is adopted with a list of recommended ferret supplies, including cage, mats, litterboxes, litter, water bottles, food bowls, food, hammocks, sleep sacks, toys, collars, leashes, and other accessories. A best-seller is a complete, bundled "starter kit" that your store can put together and sell at a single price. Different bundles are recommended: a basic package that covers necessities, and a deluxe bundle that adds toys, a larger cage, or other extras.
Trish Curtis, of the Ferrets First Rescue and Shelter, says, "Petstores and shelters should work together and can work together in a symbiotic relationship. This is not a competition! We’re in it for the ferrets, and we can help each other out." Trish also reiterates that shelters are good at taking older, unwanted, or problem ferrets off the pet store’s hands, and in return would like to see pet stores spread more and better information for ferret care so less of them end up in shelters. She also appreciates those stores who donate items to the shelter such as overstocks, damaged items, or food past its expiration date.
Madeleine Martin, owner of the Pets Choice Retail Outlet in Merrimack, NH, has established a relationship with the Four Little Paws Ferret Shelter. Pets Choice sets up a table next to the shelter table at shows and demonstrations, and provides the ferret foods, toys, and supplies that the shelter requests. Ms. Martin reports that her relationship with the shelter has "definitely increased business" and has been "an educational experience."
Independent petstores can gain a competitive advantage by having lasting relationships with ferret clubs and ferret shelters. The key to maintaining these relationships is education, communication and cooperation. If store owners and employees are knowledgeable about ferrets, they are better able to please customers. When petstores maintain communication among their store, the local ferret club, and the local ferret shelter, everyone can help each other out. It may take some proactive effort on the part of store management to initiate these relationships, but the resulting networking and business growth will be worth the effort.