Pillar of the Community
Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 People and Pet Partner Retailer of the Year winner flourishes around an offering of nutritious food and an atmosphere of knowledge and empowerment.
Imagine a pair of spokescritters representing the furry, four-legged set—spreading the word about special events, offering nutritional guidance, or giving insights into the latest and greatest of all things pet. In one Oregon town, residents who wish to stay in touch with the animal world and beyond need look only to Ben, a boisterous canine, and his feline companion, Abby, for enlightenment. Even though the fleecy mouthpieces are puppets, they know the score.
“Originally, Ben served as the distinctive voice of our radio commercials and a video presence on social media, but we felt that the cat community was left out,” says Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express in Bend, Ore. “So we created an episode where Ben is excited to meet his new friend at the animal shelter and is then disappointed upon discovering Abby is a cat.”
Abby’s dismay equaled Ben’s, but the two forged a bond and now star in tandem, producing a visual learning platform that connects with the community. The vivacious ambassadors are also on hand at local functions and in-store events to further spread the word.
For Ben, Abby and the folks at Bend Pet Express, it’s all about embracing and empowering pets, people and the community.
The journey began in 1993 when Bend Pet Express owner Julie Hunter’s dog, CJ, became ill. A veterinarian advised an upgrade from the popular grocery store brand CJ had been eating to a premium product. Unable to find a convenient supplier, the entrepreneur ordered her own pallet. From her garage, Hunter shared the healthful food and a budding nutritional awareness with friends and neighbors. However, this customer base proved limited, and Hunter set an expansion in motion by offering a pet food delivery service.
“She began putting educational fliers in mailboxes around the community, and from there, things took off,” McCohan says.
Hunter’s reputation for knowledge and helpful caring blossomed, and within six months, the first brick-and-mortar store welcomed customers. Today, two locations, on the eastside and westside of town, strive to make a difference in the lives of pets and for the residents of Bend.
“Our community has driven the business since day one, and we keep growing around that connection,” says Stephanie Michelle, community events coordinator.
The sales staff is encouraged to cultivate personal ties with shoppers, stoking a thriving relationship with the citizens of Bend.
“It’s all about establishing trust,” Michelle says.
Livable wages and a generous benefits package support associates in considering Bend Pet Express a career choice.
Empowerment is another key component to the store culture, and that sense includes listening to the voices of staff members during the product selection process.
“If we find a need for a particular product, we will discuss it with the staff first for feedback,” Michelle says. “However, it is often the other way around, and our people will talk to us about a product that may or may not be working, or something they’d like to see included in our inventory.”
With education at the core of the Bend Pet Express ideology, a passion for animals and the pursuit of knowledge are sought-after qualities in a new hire. Once on board, tutelage includes 30 days of initial training, and continuing education is an ongoing process. This competence, combined with stellar product offerings, has cemented the company’s status as Bend’s “go-to” pet store.
Stress-Free and Local
Foods in the product lineup are free from corn, wheat and soy, with nothing sourced from China. In response to expanding demand for more biologically appropriate diets, seven freezers of raw foods stand at the ready.
“Our mix encompasses the most chi-chi gourmet raw to everything in between, including dehydrated and freeze-dried,” McCohan says. “We also carry high-quality kibble that will fit most people’s budget, but there won’t be any junk in it.”
A full range of pet supplies greets shoppers, and sourcing garners particular scrutiny.
“We carry a lot of USA-made items, and many that are manufactured in Oregon,” McCohan says. “When we can get products that originate here in Bend, we really make a big deal of it.”
It’s all about fostering empowerment when assisting customers in product selection, and to this end, three appropriate choices are generally recommended. From there, the decision rests with the pet owner as to which option will best suit the needs of their pet.
Dirty pooches looking for a cleanup can luxuriate in a sudsy soak at the eastside location’s self-serve dog wash. Additionally, non-do-it-yourselfers are welcome to hand Fido off to a store bather for a good lather or a little extra spa therapy, where employees utilize the same facility and product as self-bathing patrons.
“About four years ago, we began to focus on creating a stress-free, spalike environment,” Michelle says. “Our bathers don’t do any cutting or scissoring; it’s all about the bath.”
As with sales associates, the opinions of folks working in the bathing area “are central to creating a better bathing experience. Trainees hone their bathing skills by practicing with the dogs of fellow staffers.
“Our bathing employees have backgrounds in husbandry or volunteering and have come up with great ideas in reducing stress,” Michelle says.
The Home Fires
In-store promotions run the gamut of pet needs. For example, September focuses on nutrition, with weekly themes that might feature meal mixers one week, followed by joint supplements or quality protein. In November, veterans are saluted with seven days of discount shopping. Come snowy December, the Keep Them Warm campaign calls attention to jackets and coats, or interactive toys and chews for housebound pets needing more indoor stimulation.
Educational workshops are also at the forefront, with presentations by local shelter representatives, Bend Pet Express staffers and others. For example, a Feral Cat Day event taught children about ear tipping and the local trap and release program, while a first aid discussion included a take-home kit.
“We have also helped out Girl Scout troops working on their pet badges,” Michelle says.
In response to customer demand for further learning opportunities, 2018 will see an expanded array of seminars.
“Our staffers will present everything from basic 101 nutrition, such as how to read a label, to more complicated topics—for instance, raw and its differences,” McCohan says. “The training room at our eastside store has tables and chairs, and a large television on the wall for presentations.”
Adoption days are held on a regular basis in cooperation with rescues and three area shelters. In addition, breed familiarity is promoted—by celebrating Pit Bull Awareness Month, for example.
Support also includes donations, food discounts and fundraising for various entities.
Families adopting a furry companion from a local shelter receive an adoption kit, which provides a month’s worth of free food from Bend Pet Express.
“In this way, we can begin a conversation about healthful nutrition and proper care,” Michelle says.
A new puppy packet furnishes nutritional information, training tips, clickers for positive reinforcement training and a feeding cup.
Bend Pet Express also participates in the Humane Society of Central Oregon’s Camp Furry Friend summer program by offering campers a presentation on pet nutrition.
“It’s so amazing to work with these young minds,” Michelle says. “We are developing our own in-store seminars for children.”
However, perhaps the biggest community push commenced five years ago when Bend Pet Express partnered with The Bend Spay and Neuter Project to co-found a community food bank. Help Our Pets Eat, or HOPE, has served more than 10,000 families during this time. Based upon food donations from distributors and vendors, the program quickly outgrew its original storage warehouse, necessitating a move to a larger facility.
“The community just keeps guiding us on what this all looks like,” Michelle says. “We provide product to groups like Meals on Wheels, the Homeless Leadership Coalition, Veteran’s Outreach and local soup kitchens. We also have sites where families can stop by to pick up supplemental foods for their pets.”
HOPE provides 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food per month on average, and in-store events raise additional funding. For example, an annual Halloween party and springtime Easter egg hunt are earmarked for this cause.
“In times when we have run low on food, we’ve put out a Facebook posting asking for community assistance,” Michelle says. “We also have local volunteers who come out to help with distribution.”
Back to Beginnings
Bend Pet Express advertises in print, television and radio ads, in addition to maintaining a blog and a presence on social media. However, 2018 will see a marketing restructuring that will emphasize a one-on-one component within the community of Bend.
“We feel as if we were missing the personal contact that people love,” McCohan says. “As one example, our staff will be visiting the local dog park wearing a Bend Pet Express volunteer shirt and making connections there.”
This effort is also designed to embrace the millennial segment of the population.
“It’s a different generation, so we are basically turning to our staff to see what would be fun and fantastic and make them comfortable and happy out in the community as a representative of Bend Pet Express,” Michelle says. “We would be disillusioned to believe that just staying a brick-and-mortar store, without getting out in the community even more, would be a good move, and we are excited to see where it all leads.”
It’s a Retail Life
What is Bend Pet Express best known for?
Kim McCohan: Our knowledgeable customer service and our involvement with pets and the community.
What is the biggest challenge for pet retailers today?
McCohan: Online sales. We sell online as well but obviously cannot compete with the big sellers. So we are trying to educate the public to use caution when ordering online. We point out issues such as product warehousing. Is it climate controlled? What are the expiration dates of the delivered product? How is the food transported? We guarantee our foods, which can easily be returned to our stores.
Biggest challenge for the pet industry overall?
Stephanie Michelle: Consumers are demanding better food and looking for the same attributes that they value in their own diets. While it’s a challenge for those of us in the industry to catch up with these demands, I believe it is an awesome positive.
Are you watching any interesting trends right now?
Michelle: The growing awareness of food sourcing. People are beginning to question where supplies are coming from.
McCohan: Demand for CBD products. This may not be the case in other states, but here in Oregon, where marijuana is legal, demand has blown up.
What do you see for the future of Bend Pet Express?
McCohan: Bend Pet Express has done so well for so many years because we’ve stayed ahead of the game. We’re now looking at the millennial age group and all the technology it brings. We need to start looking at the destination aspect of our store. In this way, we are looking at our upcoming restructuring as a way to do things a little more from outside of the box.
Sage’s Port of Call
It’s been eight years since artist Jennifer Poncia of Bend, Ore., decided to check out Bend Pet Express. After hearing about its reputation for first-rate customer service and quality products, her first visit left a long-lasting impression.
“I’d ask questions and the sales staff was very knowledgeable,” she says. “As I shopped, associates respected my privacy, but when I needed help, they were there.”
Subsequently, Poncia’s beloved German wirehaired pointer, Sage, loved visiting Bend Pet Express, and when the two headed out for a morning walk, his favorite store was often on the itinerary.
“We’d come out of our driveway, and he’d make a beeline for Pet Express,” Poncia says.
With expediency the intent and sidewalks a circuitous inconvenience, Sage would cut through neighboring properties, devising the shortest route to Sage’s favorite four-legged establishment.
“One morning he wanted an early walk, and he was on task, so I knew we were headed to Pet Express,” Poncia says. “We arrived before opening, but Sage marched right up to the door and peered inside, trying to figure out where everyone was.”
Eventually, Sage settled on the front door mat and waited. The happy canine loved hanging with his Bend Pet Express family, being greeted by name and taking a little in-store amble.
“He loved to roam and sniff, and check out the inventory or to sit behind the counter and observe,” she says. “Staff members always brought him a little treat. It was precious.”
With Sage’s diagnosis of cancer, the connection grew, and concerned and caring staff members stood by the pair until Sage passed away in 2016.
“They knew him when he was full of energy and were part of the process throughout his illness,” she said. “When times were tough, I’d go there, and it was a very personal connection.”
This compassionate customer service has kept Poncia coming back to shop for Melon, her recently rescued pit bull/Rhodesian ridgeback mix.
“I see it regularly when I go in; I see sales staff having great conversations about coats or harnesses or different types of foods,” she says. “I feel good when I’m there.”
However, Sage’s presence still permeates his favorite store. Eight months after his death, a calling card was discovered.
“I received an email saying his name and rabies tags had shown up at the store,” Poncia says. “We’d lost those tags two years before on a walk and that they surfaced at Pet Express, after all that time, is absolutely amazing.”
Bend Pet Express At a Glance
Locations: 420 NE Windy Knolls Dr., Bend, OR 97701
133 SW Century Dr., Bend, OR 97702
Company officers: Julie Hunter, owner; Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer; Stephanie Michelle, community events coordinator
Employees: 14 full time, 8 part time
Years in business: 24
Average square feet: 4,200
Products and services: Dog and cat foods and supplies, self- and full-serve dog wash, adoption days, Help Our Pets Eat food bank, workshops