When it comes to specialty goods, whether it’s pet supplies, baby products, sporting goods, housewares or beyond, understanding your customers is critical. They’re looking to you for products that fulfill specialized needs that reflect their passions, personalities, and priorities—whether it’s their human babies, their fur babies, or the things they love and that make them feel special. That “special” can vary person-to-person but may also be shared within regions or even local communities.

Specialty retailers themselves, from the C-suite right down to the store floor, often share a fierce commitment to meeting their customers’ needs and strive to do so with localized assortments. And yet despite the sense of common purpose, there’s often a disconnect or even outright animosity between local store teams and those at the corporate office who have only virtual views into the local community demographics, trends, and preferences.

Take pets and babies as an example: Dogs in Manhattan tend to be quite a bit smaller than those you might find in the Dallas suburbs. Same with nurseries (and homes in general): typically small in the city and more spacious in the ‘burbs. Different climates also make specialty product needs quite different from place to place.

Take the case of the paw balm. Not long ago, a multi-store pet chain made the decision to rationalize space and HQ decided, based on chain-wide sales, to cut a particular paw balm from stores. For most stores, this wasn’t a problem. In fact, store managers were happy to give more space to their better selling products. But several stores had loyal customers that relied on that paw balm to protect their beloved pets’ paws during winter. When store managers in the northeast saw the paw balm removed from the new planogram, they hit the roof. Customers who counted on their stores were disappointed, and the managers couldn’t understand why HQ didn’t take their customers’ preferences—not to mention the regional weather, which should have been obvious—into account.

“Tailoring to consumers in a specialty environment like pets is so important,” says Jen Loesch, former Vice President of Merchandising for Petco and current CEO of BreathableBaby. “You need to be able to create a two-way dialogue, so stores understand why HQ is looking to make particular decisions from a financial or brand perspective, and HQ needs to better understand the local customer and store preferences in order to make mutually beneficial decisions.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard for retailers to have meaningful, market-specific dialogue when they’re using one-size-fits-most planogram software and old school communication tools like email, company intranets or phone tag. This often leads to ranking top selling-SKUs at a company or regional level, space planners fitting those into a variety of “like” planograms, and then publishing paper planograms out to the stores. The result often leads to frustration, noncompliance and an “us vs. them” mentality.

Without real-time communication, HQ can’t quickly respond to questions from store teams and store teams can’t easily share store-specific insights and feedback. Sure, there’s always email. But it’s all too easy for messages to get buried in inboxes or ignored and forgotten.

The way Loesch sees it, technology can play a pivotal role in bridging the divide. “It’s about meeting in the middle between the needs of customers, the reality in the store, and the needs of HQ,” she explains.

With tools like dynamic digital planograms, HQ can easily localize by store, and come up with solutions that meet the needs of individual markets or locations. Real-time communication tools side-by-side with planograms and instructions give store teams a chance to ask questions and register concerns. Says Loesch: “I can picture a future world where HQ can publish a pending digital planogram and say, ‘Here are our proposed changes. Any concerns?’ Then, HQ can use technology to aggregate common themes and decide what to address before rolling changes out.”

It’s the kind of world we’re striving to make a reality at One Door. Learn how our digital merchandising platform, Our platform, makes it easy for HQ and store teams to collaborate in real time, to make sure that both customer needs and HQ priorities are being met.

Jen Loesch has held a broad range of consumer-packaged goods and retail leadership roles, and is currently Operating Partner at VisioCap – private equity investors focused on pet and juvenile products – and CEO of BreathableBaby, a VisioCap portfolio company. She was previously General Manager of Sojos Pet Food, Vice President of Merchandising at Petco, and a 2018 Pet Age Women of Influence winner. She has a passion for driving growth and product innovation based on market and customer insights, establishing collaborative partnerships between retailers and manufacturers and building high performing teams.