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Pet Portraits Promote Passion for Chewy

If you have a dog or cat yourself or know someone who does, you know about the adoration people develop for their pets. Tapping into that feeling to promote a brand is the genius behind Chewy’s strategy of sending out free oil paintings of people’s pets.

AP News reported that Chewy has sent out over a thousand of them, selecting its recipients each week: “In the cutthroat world of online shopping, that personal touch and a bit of kitsch is how Chewy is looking to stand out among the competition, which has only gotten stiffer as more people shop online and add pandemic pets to their families.”

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The article quotes one of the recipients of a free portrait, Danielle Schwartz, saying that she was so impressed to get “something so personal,” that now she would “buy everything from them.”

The idea of delighting customers by wowing them is one that the late founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, advocated in his book, Delivering Happiness. As eCommerce brands need to distinguish themselves somehow to draw in customers on something other than price, it becomes a challenge to win them over through a positive experience. Hence the surprise painting.

Customers who are delighted to receive an oil painting not only feel more loyal; they share their enthusiasm with the world on social media. That translates into the equivalent of word-of-mouth recommendation at scale – something money alone can’t buy without the suspicion of influencers singing the praises of those who pay them.

The personal touch is completely on brand for Chewy. As AP reports, the company makes a point of sending out handwritten notes to customers, as well as paper holiday cards to all. Those bereaved of their pets even get flowers. Aw!

Chewy is now entering its second decade, though it has yet to achieve a profit, according to the AP report. Despite that, it is now valued at over $40 billion.

It has been increasing its share of pet spending in the United States. It’s been climbing steadily, estimated to have hit $99 billion this past year. Amazon still beats it for online pet supplies at the rate of 50% to 34%, AP explains, citing retail consulting firm, 1010data.

But the lockdowns and fear of visiting stores in person have increased online orders in general, not to mention pet ownership. As a result, Chewy gained 5 million customers within the year, an increase that brings its total number to close to 18 million. It also enjoyed huge gains in its stock price.

“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 exactly say how someone will be selected. But it typically sends them out to those that 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, during a call about returning an order. Kana’s likeness showed up three months later. Moore loved it so much 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 cost 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, for example, need extra attention and a long-tip brush to get the right amount of fluff. “I want to make them look real,” he says.

There’s pressure to do so. 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 get a prime spot on shopper’s walls, serving as a billboard for the company.

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