Interview: James Davidson, co-founder of Tails.com

One of the less obvious areas to witness a spike in demand due to the lockdown is the dog food sector. That is partly due to owners stockpiling, but also because more people are adopting dogs for company during self-isolation, according to a recent report from ResearchAndMarkets.com.

That trend certainly seems to be true for personalised dog food business Tails.com. “We’ve seen a boost in sales.. in March people were adjusting orders to bring food in earlier and we’ve also seen a lot of new customers signing up,” says James Davidson, co-founder of the company. 

However, the pandemic is still presenting some challenges to its operational plans. “The last six-seven weeks has been a very strange time for us,” he tells Essential Retail.

In his recent contribution to a report by marketing company ControlvExposed: The 10 Pillars of Success for DTC Brands, Davidson noted the benefit of still having face-to-face interactions with customers, such as having run pop-up shops in shopping centres. 

Growth in the UK and expansion in Europe were previously key priorities, he pointed out, but like all businesses the company has had to put its plans on hold. 

He says: “I was so sick of hearing about Brexit, now I want to hear more about it!” Due to the possibility of a no-deal scenario, Tails had to abandon plans to fulfil other European markets from the UK and open a manufacturing centre in continental Europe instead. 

“But now with mobility restrictions we can only do desk research on sites. So we’re pretty keen to know whether it’s feasible to continue with the hard deadline of October 31.”

Tech-led personalisation 

Tails began in 2013 and now feeds 145,000 dogs and makes more than £20 million in subscription revenue. It has also received a series of investments, with Nestlé Purina PetCare acquiring a majority stake in 2018.

Technology has played a huge role in that journey, he says. “So much of our investment was down to having this capability for a high level of customisation… and because we built our own manufacturing platform to fulfil that, it is scalable and helps us manage margin. So we can offer Tails food at about the same price as customers are paying for a standard brand.”

Its products are unique to the individual dog’s nutritional requirements, so two Labrador owners might pay different amounts for their food - as one might be tailored to address issues with its coat. “It’s more than just personalised packaging or a personalised journey.”

Part of what has made the company successful is engaging with the customer at an in-depth level from the beginning, using a sign-up system which asks 50 questions. That helped create a low drop-off rate “because people were so keen on telling us about their dog… which is something they really care about.”

But despite its high tech credentials, Davidson still takes quite an old fashioned approach to personalisation. “When a customer connects to me - whether by LinkedIn or email - I do answer every question if they have addressed me personally.

“We are very data centric. We use machine learning to identify and correlate trends… but when it comes down to it, if an owner is worried about their dog I know exactly how that feels and I would like them not to worry anymore.”