Retailer Of The Year: A Natural Advocate
Parker’s, A Natural Dog & Cat Market is Chicago’s brick-and-mortar bastion of promotion for nutrition, education and causes celebre for whole pet health.
Peering out of an Indiana “puppy mill” cage, had Jack glimpsed his future, the diminutive Pomeranian would have been incredulous. Rescued from squalor, Jack’s destiny propelled him to become a social media sensation, championing the plight of his fellow canine inmates and advocating for homeless pets suffering from cancer, all while enjoying a career in retail.
As a 3-year-old, Jack found his path, a forever home and a special partnership with Katie Pottenger, owner of Parker’s, A Natural Dog & Cat Market, recipient of the Pet Product News International 2014-2015 Retailer of the Year Award for Outstanding Promotion and Marketing.
“I was given this platform for a reason, and the more I can do with it, the better,” said Pottenger. “Jack served as my brand ambassador to raise awareness.”
Jack was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, and his death last year left a legacy of four-legged altruism, using social media, including his own 14,000-plus Facebook fan base, to raise nearly $7,000 to aid his fellow creatures.
Today, Pottenger and her rescued Pomeranians, Bebe Belle, Parker and Rachel, carry on.
Pottenger ventured into retail at a young age, managing a tack shop during high school and college. After graduating with a degree in equine studies, she continued her education—retail management.
She was in college when she adopted Parker.
“He was very sick as a puppy, so I began investigating nutrition, which turned to passion,” she said. “I was driving up to 45 minutes each way to buy his food and recognized a need for a natural pet food store in my community.”
Taking the Leap
On Sept. 29, 2007, the 1,500-square-foot Parker’s opened in Chicago’s Hyde Park, offering high-quality pet foods and accessories. In 2011, the store doubled in size, and grooming, training classes and self-wash facilities were added to its services.
For 2015, Parker’s has transitioned to a completely grain-free inventory; nine freezers and a 12-foot section feature freeze-dried foods.
“Any raw, even if fed once a week, will have a positive effect on the pet’s overall health,” she said.
As the only pet supply store within five miles, Pottenger caters to local pet lovers by conveniently stocking a broad selection of dog and cat treats, toys and supplies, and inventory for small animals and fish.
“I don’t care for the term ‘mini big box,’ but I try to carry a bit of everything,” she said. “Parker’s strives to offer the best quality and the most independent-friendly brands.”
However, being the only brick-and-mortar pet establishment in the community doesn’t mean Parker’s is the only game in town. Pottenger maintains fair pricing to ensure her customers won’t shop elsewhere.
A Level Playing Field
Staying competitive also means offering a generous loyalty rewards program, as well as participation in the frequent buyer programs offered by food manufacturers. Case discounts also are popular.
“Many people buy in bulk; case discounts keep them from going to the Internet,” she said. “For products not cased, we’ll make one up.”
Parker’s also delivers locally, which is especially appreciated by apartment and walk-up dwellers.
“It’s better than online, because they don’t have to carry bulky bags of dog food themselves,” Pottenger said, adding that Parker’s is working on taking its delivery service citywide.
Curbside take-out offers additional value. Special orders are encouraged, and in 2014, an Internet-based special order system was implemented to track order details.
While the Internet might be a source of competition, Pottenger uses online services extensively as marketing tools.
“I know my target market, and by using social media or TV commercials, we try to hit a little bit of everything that might grab that business,” she said.
That includes the Parker’s and Blind Dog Jack Facebook pages.
“Jack’s page has many very interactive followers who purchase his products,” said Pottenger. “While he was undergoing cancer treatment, we created pet T-shirts with Jack’s logo and the words ‘Suck It, Cancer!’ to raise funds for homeless pets suffering from cancer. It went viral.”
Similarly, the store’s Facebook page is used to post nutritional education and store events. When a grooming appointment opens up, it’s posted on Facebook. The Parker’s digital newsletter, which reaches 5,000 subscribers, is part of the loyalty program.
“We send coupons, discuss new products, provide tips and talk about upcoming events,” Pottenger said.
Supporting local small business and promoting the value of independent endeavors is another mission near and dear to Pottenger.
Participation in Small Business Saturday is an occasion for Parker’s, as shoppers garner Parkers Bucks to be redeemed in the new year. For every $25 in nonfood items purchased that day, customers receive $5 in Parkers Bucks.
“Our business goes up 350 percent on Small Business Saturday,” Pottenger said. “Our sales also increase in January, generally our slowest time.”
Another customer favorite is Pick a Discount. Held in conjunction with the Parker’s September anniversary party, discount amounts are inscribed on ice pop sticks or notes and are placed in a fish bowl at checkout. Customers draw for their deductions and have the option of continuing to shop for more items.
Championing and Advocating
Marketing and promotion come naturally to Pottenger, but these attributes extend far beyond profit margins.
For example, the two self-wash tubs double as fundraising platforms during the regularly held adoption events at Parker’s.
“Volunteers come in, wash dogs, and all proceeds go to the participating rescue,” Pottenger said.
Dogs living in foster care are bathed free of charge year-round.
The store’s concern also extends to homeless cats, with a satellite adoption center located in-store.
“A foster cat from Hyde Park Cats rescue is on the premises at all times,” said Pottenger. “Customers can play with and help socialize them.”
The Parker’s donation bin, an ongoing opportunity to which customers contribute, provides pet supplies to local rescues. Once full, word is spread via Facebook, and the first rescue group to arrive is entitled to the contents.
Pottenger has appeared before the Chicago City Council and the Cook County Board of Commissioners on behalf of the National Puppy Mill Project and worked to help pass an ordinance ordering the cessation of sales of dogs, cats and rabbits by March 2015.
Emphasis is placed on health and nutrition at Parker’s. Customers are encouraged to bring their pets in for consultations with a “whole-body approach.”
“We more accurately can determine things like body-condition score, or we might notice health concerns just from petting them,” Pottenger said.
Employee training includes weekly meetings, the use of a store manual and Pet Store Pro, and food manufacturer presentations.
“I arrange presentations of foods we don’t carry,” she said. “If a customer asks why we don’t offer a certain brand, staff members will be able to explain why.”
Customer education also is important at Parker’s. Clients of a local holistic veterinarian often are sent to Parker’s for nutritional consultations. Pet lovers wishing to further their own holistic studies can take part in in-store nutritional lectures. Other seminars provide lessons in pet massage or cat behavioral issues.
“We offer classes that promote whole-animal health,” Pottenger said, adding that an on-site veterinary clinic is in the works.
Currently, a certified canine massage therapist provides in-store services.
Taking her store’s educational objectives to the community, Pottenger and her canine emissaries visit local schools to teach children about proper pet care and the commitment involved in pet ownership.
“Our goal is to make the lives of every pet as happy and healthy as possible by providing assistance,” said Pottenger.
Parker’s, A Natural Dog & Cat Market
Location: 1340-1342 E. 55th St., Chicago, IL 60615
Owner: Katie Pottenger
Employees: 4 full-time, 3 part-time
Years in Business: 9
Square Feet: 3,000
Products and Services: Cat and dog boutique, grain-free foods and supplies; small mammal, wild bird and freshwater fish supplies; adoption days; grooming; self-wash; training; delivery; special orders; cat adoption; fostering on site