Woof! Pets.com goes to the dogs

Pet site plans 'huge' redesign, ad campaign. How much is that doggy in your window?

SAN FRANCISCO -- The dog days came early to Pets.com's offices, but that didn't slow the Net startup any.

In honor of Friday's first-ever "National Take Your Dog to Work Day," pooches galore populated this company's offices here in a former children's clothing factory.

CEO Julie L. Wainwright got into the act, bringing in one of her two dogs, a 10-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Tyson (her other dog is too hyper for an office visit, she says).

Tyson sits on her desk next to her phone when she's in her cubicle, and accompanies her to meetings. Later, he gives up trying to steal a sandwich and lays on the desk between Wainwright and a reporter as they talk.

But Tyson's owner has no time for lying down on the job.

Wainwright, who came to Pets.com in March from her former post as CEO at movie site Reel.com, has already added more than 50 people to the staff and completed a new round of venture capital funding, pulling in $50 million from the likes of Amazon.com and Hummer Winblad Ventures.

Big plans
That money is about to be put to good use.

Wainwright says that when Pets.com rolls out a "huge" redesign of its site in mid-July, it will also introduce a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to raise its profile.

The redesign should make the user interface more effective, Wainwright said. The company also wants to improve the scalability of its back-end transaction systems.

The company hopes to be the dominant online player in the $23 billion market for pet products and services. It wants to put 50,000 different types of products on the site (a superstore would carry about 10,000, the company says), offer top-notch customer service and order fulfillment, and include first-rate content.

But Pets.com has plenty of competition, led by PETsMART.com, Petstore.com and AcmePet.

Pets.com also needs to change the way consumers think about shopping for their pets, according to one analyst.

While mail-order catalogs succeed in selling pet medical supplies and big-ticket items, "a lot of the things you buy for your pets are things you run out of, so you need instant fulfillment," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group. "It's going to be a much longer ramp than books and CDs."

But accelerating the ramp is where the advertising campaign comes in. Wainwright declined to specify how much Pets.com will spend on advertising, other than to say that it will exceed the $6 million her former company, Reel.com, spent to put itself on the map.

Enderle said such an extended approach might work. "That's a real good idea -- it's going to be expensive for them, but it sounds like they're budgeting for that, and that's the way you'll build [customer awareness ]."

Building customer trust
Wainwright said Pets.com is still in the process of formulating policies on advertisements and promotions, issues that have dogged some popular Web sites. While the site currently has advertising on it, in the future, it may not.

"It's about trust," Wainwright said. "People take a real leap of faith when they come to a Web site. You don't have the face-to-face contact you get in a store, but people still feel like they have a relationship with you, and it's more intimate than it would be with a sales clerk.

"At Reel, we had customers who would take what we did on our site very personally. So we have to be very careful about this."

Wainwright also said that the company is talking with a specialty pet e-tailer, Coolpetstuff.com, about a cooperative relationship.

Amazon.com helping out
Pets.com has one big thing in its favor: Amazon.com's support. Not only does Amazon.com own a big piece of the pet site, but it links to it. Pets.com vice presidents also have a "buddy" at Amazon.com, someone they talk to regularly to get information and compare notes.

"Amazon.com has a lot of experience in the e-commerce market, so we can take advantage of that," Wainwright said.

The company is able to gain riders on some of Amazon's contracts, gaining better deals than it could negotiate on its own.