Veterinarians face off against PetMed Express

Veterinarians face off against PetMed Express

Panel, audience debate company's business strategies at NAVC after protest over exhibition plans
Mar 01, 2012

ORLANDO —Veterinarians got the chance to air their grievances about PetMed Express at the North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC) following attendee pushback about the online pharmacy's plans to sponsor and exhibit at the conference.

Dr. Doug Mader, NAVC's past president, says conference organizers expected some friction when PetMed Express approached them about participating in the conference.

"They wanted to be a sponsor and an exhibitor at NAVC. The board discussed it, and we were a little bit concerned because they don't have a lot of acceptance in the veterinary world," says Mader.

But since NAVC has allowed other online pharmacies to exhibit in the past, it couldn't turn PetMeds away, he says.

"We had quite the backlash," Mader says, explaining that a petition was generated calling for a boycott of NAVC if the PetMeds exhibit moved forward and a number of attendees withdrew their registration.

NAVC couldn't tell PetMeds not to exhibit, but Mader says when organizers explained the situation, the company voluntarily dropped its plans to exhibit and agreed to participate in a panel discussion instead.

"We saw that there was a little bit of contention and said 'hey we're coming here for you, so if you don't want us to be there, we won't be there,' " says Bonnie Levengood, PetMed Express marketing director.

Levengood says the company saw the opportunity to participate in the panel as a way to address veterinarians' concerns and open new dialogue.

"I think (pulling out as an exhibitor) was the best thing that could possibly have happened," Levengood says. "We got great discussion, and it ended up being a positive experience even though there were some tough issues brought up ... it was a lot more positive than I thought it would be."

Alabama veterinarian and solo practitioner Dr. Doralee Donaldson, who created the online petition about PetMed Express' plan to exhibit at NAVC, says she doesn't expect the panel discussion to result in much change anytime soon. But Donaldson thinks the exchange raised awareness for PetMed Express about how veterinarians feel about the company. It also brought veterinarians together, she says.

"I didn't expect a change, and I still don't expect a change," says Donaldson, who was invited to participate on the panel after PetMed Express withdrew as an NAVC exhibitor. "(PetMed Express) seemed shocked that veterinarians weren't happy with them. And I'm not so sure how that could have been such a big surprise. They really thought they had good relationships."

Donaldson says she's not a political person at all, but was motivated to create her online petition when she saw PetMed Express was planning to exhibit at NAVC.

Her petition, which garnered nearly 150 signatures in about a week, was not a campaign against PetMed Express, but to protest the company's participation at NAVC, she says.

"I didn't think a company so against the profession needed to be at the conference," she says. "It just really irritated me."

Veterinarians in the panel audience of about 150 asked PetMed Express about its business practices, specifically about where it obtains some of its products and why it seems to market itself against veterinarians.

"Most of the people there had their own issues with them in the past," says Donaldson. "Their advertising had always been so negative ... and they really are not promoting going to see a veterinarian.

"All of us out there agree this has nothing to do with competition. It's not a matter of them being a competitor," Donaldson adds. "It's the whole way they market that has people upset."

Mader agreed that PetMeds' marketing message was the main source of contention for veterinarians at the NAVC panel.