Upgrade Teaches Petco's Old Search Function New Tricks

Better search capability is boosting online sales for Petco Animal Supplies Inc.

Though the nation's No. 2 pet supplies retailer was coy about e-commerce's role in overall company sales, it admitted that search was becoming critical to closing sales on petco.com.

“In terms of the value in converting buyers, it's a very important part of our offerings on our site,” said Julie Anderson, director of e-commerce product management at Petco, San Diego.

The company estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of site visitors use search. And 20 percent of the buyers make a purchase from the search results page.

“Ours is a very SKU-intensive site, and search is extremely important because people typically know what they're looking for,” she said, “and it's less of a browsing kind of experience and it's more goal- and destination-oriented for the products they're looking for.”

Petco.com, on average, lists 7,000 SKUs vs. 10,000 for the stores. Like the 600 Petco stores, food and accessories sold online target owners of dogs, cats, fish, reptiles, birds and small animals.

Though petco.com has meaningful category names to navigate, it helps to have a search tool to quickly identify specific items a consumer seeks.

Aware of that, Petco upgraded its search engine from Mercado Software Inc. to a new version, v3.0 IntuiFind. The older version from the Fremont, CA, search and browsing technology firm retrieved results that had articles, services and products crammed into a page. The returned results were overwhelming.

“People couldn't find what they wanted,” Anderson said.

The new Mercado v3.0 IntuiFind checks for misspellings or alternative terminology. It leverages more than 50 linguistic knowledge banks, including spelling and thesauri.

Along with a new interface, Petco's goal is to pull results closest to the keywords entered in the search box.

For example, if someone types in “dog food,” the results page shows sizes, brands, flavors, prices, sales and the ability to sort or refine by pet type — all at a glance. Previously, consumers had to click on images and then drill down to view product details.

“Some people are very brand-conscious, so we can also allow them to see what categories things are under because we found that people didn't necessarily know where to find things on the site,” Anderson said.

The same search results page also lists links to related articles on another page. So while the engine is searching the product sought, it also is trawling for pertinent articles.

The Petco.com database carries 6,000 articles. Topics range from getting a new pet to healthcare, training, nutrition, behavioral issues, diseases and first aid. This database also serves a large cadre of consumers who visit the site to research.

The site offers Yellow Pages that let consumers search for pet-related suppliers and services by city, state or ZIP code. The Yellow Pages list only local service providers, parks and trails, shelters and rescue groups and animal hospitals and hotels. Petco competitors are not listed.

The pet food, supplies and services industry is benefiting from a growing pet population. And though exact numbers are hard to come by, clearly many pet owners are moving online to do research or purchase.

According to Petco statistics, the U.S. pet population has crossed 353 million animals, including 141 million cats and dogs. An estimated 62 percent of U.S. households own at least one pet, and three-quarters of those own two or more.

“We believe the trend to more pets and more pet-owning households will continue, driven by an increasing number of children under 18 and a growing number of empty nesters whose pets have become their new 'children,'” Petco said in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The company estimates that U.S. retail sales of pet food, supplies, services and small animals excluding cats and dogs reached $27 billion in 2001, the latest year for which research is available. That amount is split among market leader PETsMART, Petco, Drs. Foster & Smith, Pet Food Express, Pet Food Direct and others.

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