The Business Strategies That Helped NorthPoint Pets & Co. Grow in 5 Years
Pet Product News’ 2019-2020 Growth Retailer of the Year Award winner is all about a commitment to nutrition, health, education and individuality.
Trust, knowledge, individuality, honesty, passion and efficiency all serve the ideology of NorthPoint Pets & Co. in Cheshire, Conn. The enterprise, owned and founded by Nicci Decrisantis, has experienced a remarkable evolution and growth since it first opened its doors.
“Honesty and a candid approach to pet nutrition may not be the most politically correct sales method, but people appreciate and trust this attitude,” Decrisantis says.
The one-time pharmaceutical and cancer researcher’s transition from the health and medical concerns of humans to those of pets developed organically. Decrisantis credits her father, a K-9 police officer, for instilling a love of animals in her, but it was her mother’s diagnosis of late-stage cancer that led to an overall disillusionment with conventional medicine.
“After my mother passed, I had to get away because she had been in one of the trials I was working on,” she says.
With a master’s degree focusing on nutrition, Decrisantis’ vexation at the traditional divide between diet and health was another contributor to that exodus.
“I became frustrated because we would have patients hooked up to chemotherapy and eating ice cream with their doctors telling them that nutrition doesn’t matter,” she adds.
These factors not only drove a career shift, but also provided her with the tools to influence the well-being of pets.
But it was her beloved dog Taser that placed Decrisantis firmly on the path to pet nutritional guru. When Taser suffered severe gastrointestinal issues as a puppy, Decrisantis embarked on a journey of research and study. The result was a customized diet for Taser, who enjoyed a full recovery.
“I think this all brings me perspective,” she says. “I may not always know the answer, but I have the ability to research, learn and interpret what we know from human medicine and nutrition, and apply that knowledge to pets.”
The doors to NorthPoints Pets & Co. opened in October 2014. The 2,000-square-foot facility was quickly outgrown. By 2017, the business relocated to a more spacious 6,000-square-foot site in a strip-mall shopping center just a few hundred feet up the street.
“We now have a loading dock, a huge classroom, offices, a dog wash and plenty of freezer space,” Decrisantis says. “It’s really state of the art and different from anything I’ve ever been in.”
Rather than calling the operation a retail store, Decrisantis prefers to define her endeavor as a “resource center.”
“People come to us with concerns and questions that I really feel they should be taking up with their veterinarians, but there is such a disconnect between the conventional and the alternative world,” she says. “I can help guide them through the different options that are available.”
However, Decrisantis also receives referrals from the more forward-thinking veterinarians in the area. Joining forces with a worldwide network of experts for up-to-the minute information and research, she says her own educational process is ongoing and extensive. This includes travel abroad in pursuit of current nutritional wisdom. For instance, she recently attended the Raw Feeding Veterinary Society conference in Bristol, England, and also partakes of continuing education opportunities with luminaries such as Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman, DVM, Ph.D., leader of the DogRisk and WiseNose research groups associated with the University of Helsinki in Finland.
“Sometimes I feel that people receiving our in-house expertise are also acquiring a global perspective at the same time, especially with some of the more challenging issues that we experience,” she says. “For a long time, human and pet nutrition were considered polar opposites, but recent research is showing what many knew all along: that the theories are very much alike and that preventative medicine should be approached in a similar way.”
While this nutritionally and medically focused knowledge and collaborative expertise is key, the trust engendered by treating each customer and their pet on an individual basis is at the foundation of the NorthPoint Pets & Co.’s stance.
“We take the time to have a conversation, we don’t shut people down and we don’t just tell them what we think they want to hear,” she says. “I believe that’s the biggest investment you can make in your customers.”
This philosophy permeates and is emphasized with staff members.
“I look for team players that also bring something to the table,” Decrisantis says. “They don’t have to agree with me, but they have to be passionate about learning and conscious of helping people to embrace their own path.”
While raw feeding is promoted, staff members are understanding of customers who might prefer other dietary choices for their pets.
“If a customer comes in and says they just want to feed kibble, that’s OK, but how can we help them to feed a little bit better while still respecting their wishes at the same time?” she says. “I would not tolerate someone on my team saying, ‘If you are not going to do it our way, then we can’t work with you.’ Because I believe there are multiple right answers, and to be part of our team, you have to respect and live by that ideal.”
Training is well rounded and includes shadowing, reading and online study. Familiarization with the ins and outs of running a small business is another component to the instructional process.
“It is helpful that staff members understand the complexities of small-business management and all the moving pieces, like shipping, stocking or procuring certain products,” she says.
It’s an accomplished group, many with medical and nutrition-based backgrounds.
“We do understand the value of conventional medicine and research, but we are able to take it a step further and bring more to the table,” Decrisantis says.
Attention to personal self-care is also encouraged, with exercise, proper diet and partaking of mental health days, if necessary, topping the list.
“We have to recognize these needs in our people, who are often dealing with those who are coming to us as a last resort, so there is a certain level of emotional heaviness, and it takes a toll,” she says.
Decrisantis cites delegation as another key to a smooth-running, successful venture. Recently, additional administrative staff have come on board in support of everyday store operations.
“I have an executive assistant and someone to assist in organizing events,” she says. “It’s really humbling when you think how far we have come in a few short years.”
Stock-room and office help boost behind-the-scenes staffing.
This organizational backing allows Decrisantis to concentrate on efforts in support of customer needs through research, studies and education.
Additionally, a new point-of-sale system has been central to refining the inventory management process.
“It has a pretty robust inventory management system, and I am starting to see how it makes life easier and less stressful,” Decrisantis says. “I have brought in people who are better at managing this than me. This system keeps inventory accurate, runs reports and allows us to make orders in a couple of minutes versus a couple of days.”
Customers entering the store to shop and browse are greeted warmly by sales associates and feel at home in the spacious cleanliness of NorthPoint Pets & Co.
“I want our customers to walk in and feel welcomed, to have a conversation,” Decrisantis says. “I think people appreciate that.”
An extensive selection of raw foods is sited right up front; however, staff members are always urged to listen prior to making dietary recommendations.
“I think embodying the individualized approach, listening to the customer and mitigating the common concerns that everyone has—cancer, diabetes, shortened life span—and focusing on those things is what ultimately builds the store,” she says. “If you concentrate on driving sales or certain brand growth, that’s the short game. Playing the long game, the ultimate game, is knowing your goals and how you want to change the world.”
Decrisantis also encourages rotation and incorporating seasonal fruits and vegetables into the diet of a pet.
“You have to focus on what you really believe in and build your tribe around that,” she says. “I don’t believe in selling something I wouldn’t feed my own pets.”
This unique approach has seen sales multiply. In addition to the glass-fronted freezers on the sales floor, a large walk-in freezer allows for bulk stocking and ordering.
“We probably turn about three tons of raw food per week,” she says. “We don’t focus on selling raw; we focus on fresh food and mitigating risks.”
Freeze-dried, canned and kibble selections are also in the product mix alongside a wide array of natural treats and chews.
Nutritional consultations take place by appointment. Decrisantis holds this popular service offering in the store’s Book Nook—a library chock-full of pet-related nutritional and medical journals, veterinary manuals and pet care literature. Her own writings complete the archive.
The 1,500-square-foot classroom is also put to good use hosting myriad events, including regular adoption days. Canines and Cocktails, a monthly workshop, showcases industry experts discussing a range of pet-health-related topics. Participants enjoy a light snack and a cocktail in an informal, after-hours atmosphere.
“Everyone struggles with time; this hour gives attendees and the guest speaker a chance to spend it with a group of people who are on the same page and giving their animals the same level of care,” Decrisantis says. “A lot of cool things happen.”
When the holidays roll around, the annual Holiday Sip and Shop supports local artisans and businesses.
“The vendors set up in the classroom area and must be local and independent to participate,” Decrisantis says. “Shoppers get a good glass of wine and we have snacks out, too. It’s fun, and everyone enjoys it.”
The store is also the perfect place for pets in need of a good scrub.
A two-bay, custom dog wash with raised tubs and enclosed wash bays is sited near the rear of the store, affording a quiet, private setting for pets requiring a calmer environment. Customers purchase their dog wash based on a tiered system. For example, bathers can bring their own towels and shampoos for a discount, or pay a little more for shampoo, towels and a blow dry. Other add-ons are available.
“We set it up that way from the beginning,” Decrisantis says. “It’s important not to exclude anyone.”
And that includes K-9 police dog clientele.
Local law enforcement K-9 police officers and their charges are near and dear to Decrisantis’ heart, and that love is shown through ongoing food donations and support. A favorite fundraiser is one blending manufacturer efforts with customer concern.
“Different brands will donate a year’s worth of food, and our customers can buy a $5 raffle ticket for a chance to win,” she says. “We hold this fundraiser for a month and have raised quite a bit of money, and the winner of the raffle receives a year’s worth of free food for $5. You can’t beat that.”
A regular contributor to a local police publication, Decrisantis also teaches canine nutrition to every police canine class at the local academy.
“We have seen quite a big difference in the nutrition of these dogs—a lot of them are eating at least a partial raw diet, and supplementing is preventative instead of reactive. We are seeing these dogs work a little bit harder and recover a little easier and enjoy a better quality of life after they retire,” she says. “This is being noticed locally and throughout the country, which is awesome.”
Local rescues, shelters and area food banks are also supported through food donations on an as-needed basis.
“We want to make sure that no dog or cat goes hungry,” she says. •
It’s A Retail Life
What is NorthPoint Pets & Co. best known for?
Nicci Decrisantis: Our honesty. We will provide the best answer, one that is tailored to an individual situation, even if it’s not something that we are going to sell.
What is the greatest challenge for pet retailers today?
Decrisantis: Misinformation, or a lack of information. To have people who really don’t know any better boil nutrition down to a simple thing or say it doesn’t matter is dangerous information.
What is the greatest challenge in the pet industry overall?
Are you watching any interesting trends right now?
Decrisantis: That’s a difficult question. What people generally define as a trend does not interest me. In some ways, a trend is industry, not consumer, driven.
What do you see for the future of NorthPoint Pets & Co.?
Decrisantis: I would love to be known as one of those stores that is primarily raw and consultation focused, even more so than we are now. I’d love to be able to start knocking down our shelves of kibble, but I think we have a long way to go before we arrive at that point. So, for the near future, we will continue to focus on the individuality of each customer and doing the best job we can for the client in front of us.
Griffin Dines Well
When Bryan and Lauren Heafy adopted Griffin, a blue pit bull, he suffered the food and skin allergies typical to the breed. Wanting the best for their new charge, the couple, having already been exposed to the benefits of a raw feeding, did their due diligence and implemented what they felt to be a stellar nutritional program. The issues, however, persisted.
They turned to NorthPoint Pets & Co. and Nicci Decrisantis for help. After more research and testing, Griffin was found to be allergic to the very meats he was consuming.
“Nicci was on point and encouraged us to do allergy panels, which led us to discover that even though we were feeding Griffin a raw diet, he was allergic to pork, chicken and beef. We were actually feeding him his allergy,” Lauren Heafy says.
Decrisantis pointed the Heafys to a Raw Answers diet of fermented meat.
“By going to her monthly seminars, we learned that when meat is fermented, it changes the shape of the protein and Griffin’s body wouldn’t recognize it as an allergen,” Heafy says. “We would never have known that and would have been spending more money on lamb or rabbit.
“The end result is he’s very comfortable, looks great and you would never know he is six years old,” Heafy adds.
“With all the coming and going, it seemed we would have exhausted her list, but Nicci always dropped everything and prioritized our Griffin like he was her own,” Heafy says.
“Nicci goes out and learns about new things, and is always integrating products, with good reason, into her store,” she says. “You are not going to get that anywhere else. No stone is left unturned, and she will never give you a ‘one size fits all’ answer.”