12 Lessons From the Best of the Best
Pet Product News honors the best pet stores every summer with its prestigious Retailer of the Year Award. Here’s a look back at what past winners reveal as secrets to their success.
1) Moochie & Co., based in Worthington, Ohio, saw opportunity where others didn’t with mall-based pet stores.
“Its very difficult for us to draw people to the mall, but we can draw them to the store once they’re in the mall, and once they are in the store, we are very good at turning them into customers,” said Mike Dagne, who co-owned the store with Al Bell, when they were honored for merchandising in 2008.
Their keys to successful merchandising: “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” said Dagne. “Make sure everything looks nice. That’s what makes good merchandising.
“Whether you have six or 600 stores, you need to differentiate yourself,” Dagne continued. “Everybody should be able to articulate how they’re different and what makes them better than the competition. If you can do that, your business will be successful.”
2) Four Your Paws Only in Conway, N.H., took home the Retailer of the Year prize in 2009. Brian Ahearn, who owns the store with his wife, Kathy, explained their success in a nutshell.
“From a business perspective it’s pretty simple,” said Brian. “You treat a customer well at the beginning, and you will have that customer for the rest of the pet’s life.”
“We live and breathe our store,” said Kathy. “We are very well known in the community, and people trust us because we practice what we preach. We’re constantly trying something different, and our customers appreciate that.”
3) Pattie Storms’ Well Bred in Chester, N.J., was early in offering high-quality human-grade treats. For Storms, it’s important that pet owners can come in and talk with people who understand them.
“I like to make it fun for customers to be around people who care and are interested,” she said. “People like to have some place to go where no one will think they are crazy. They want to be able to say that ‘My dog doesn’t like the blue toy; he likes the pink.’ I can say ‘Look around you; I don’t think you’re crazy. I mean, consider where you are and who you are talking to!’”
4) Best in Show on Castro St. in San Francisco was started by Richard Shiu and George Freeman. They sought to reflect the values of their community—in this case a largely gay and politically active customer base.
“Pick a cause that is near and dear to your heart and that you are passionate about,” said Shiu. “We wanted to help people affected by HIV/AIDS—the No. 1 issue in [our] community. Find what you’re passionate about and any nonprofit will welcome you with open arms.”
5) Heidi Taiger, who founded Poochey Couture in Montreal, said you can’t sit and wait for customers to find you—you have to go out and find them. So when she first opened her high-end boutique, she visited dog parks, handing out $5 gift cards and doing cross promotions with veterinarians, groomers and dog sitters. As the business grew, her reach evolved into a strong presence on social media, which follows through to the store where she throws events like breed-specific playdates.
“For my customers, it’s not just about shopping, it’s a social event,” Taiger said. “We always gather as much information as we can about our clients—including email addresses.
“Having a business is a 24/7 job, but all the work you put into it—customers appreciate that,” she added.
6) TailsSpin Pet Food & Accessories has remained heavily engaged with its community since opening its first store in Savannah, Ga., 10 years ago. Since then, it has grown to three stores, all of which play a role in their respective communities.
“At the end of the day, we can’t exist by ourselves,” said Jeffrey Allen Manley, co-owner. “We don’t always know where these associations will lead, but so often, doors suddenly open.”
TailsSpin also is going after the next generation of pet owners with programs aimed at students. Elementary school students partnered with TailsSpin in a pet care and adoption fair at the school’s annual carnival, and TailsSpin worked with a local high school’s veterinary science class, offering internships and mentoring for students. TailsSpin also promoted and marketed a line of treats developed by the students.
“We want students to understand the responsibility of pet ownership,” said co-owner Jusak Yang Bernhard.
7) Brad and Karin Logan owned three Petland franchise stores in Las Vegas when they won in 2009. For them, one of the keys to success was training employees for three main functions: store managers, pet counselors or animal care technicians.
“What we have tried to do is be very systematic about it,” Brad said. “We track our employees’ progress, award certifications and give people a sense of accomplishment.
“A lot of training is done during the course of the day,” he added. “One of the main jobs of our managers is to provide training on the floor. If they see someone do something that is not part of the system, they pull them aside and explain why we do things a certain way.”
8) Katrina Boucher opened Cape Cod Dog in 2005. Her challenge—as well as the secret to her success—is that she has a local customer base and, in summer, a huge tourist clientele. From May to September she kept the store open seven days a week and then scaled back to six days at Christmas. She also tweaks her inventory for the two different groups of shoppers.
“Our product line is a delicate balance between what tourists want and what locals need,” Boucher said. “In the summer, we order more frequently and increase inventory of some items, such as the logo items, but keep inventory of other items the same. My business just keeps growing and growing,” she said.
9) Pet Pantry Warehouse, which has five locations in Connecticut, sells a full range of pet supplies as well as fish and aquatic supplies. The business places an emphasis on healthful food choices, and that has meant training staff so that they can answer the many questions customers have.
“It’s really important to us that if one of our staff doesn’t have the answer they will find it,” said Joshua Roth, vice president.
But the education doesn’t stop with employees. Pet Pantry plans to create educational programs for pet owners—and their kids.
“Catering to family, and especially children, is a big belief for us,” said Ari Jacobson, vice president. “Down the road we are looking at presenting workshops and learning sessions to teach children about specific animals. Without children, we wouldn’t have the industry we do.”
10) Tomlinson’s Feed and Pets has been in business since 1946, and under its most recent owners, Renae and Scott Click, it has continued to grow—with seven stores in the Austin, Texas, area. In 2012, Tomlinson’s won Pet Product News’ Retailer of the Year Award. Growth for Tomlinson’s has come through searching out new customers—either with in-store events, community involvement or, long before social media, collecting addresses and staying in contact.
One apparently old school way of attracting business is advertising in-store specials in Red Plum fliers. But the secret, the Clicks have found, is to only promote items that customers are very familiar with—not new products.
“It doesn’t seem to work as well on an item that people are unfamiliar with,” said Renae. “We really want to bring in new customers, and that’s why we use the fliers. They offer six specials every month and reach out to the manufacturers they are promoting to provide customer discounts and ensure that they have enough product for increased demand.”
11) Times change, and businesses have to change with them to succeed. And Curt and Sharon Jacques, who own West Lebanon Feed & Supply in New Hampshire, learned that lesson. When the pair first bought the store in the early ’90s there were nine feed stores in a 20-mile radius of West Lebanon, and the agricultural community was still the big focus of the business. Now only two of those feed stores remain.
“We don’t sell to dairy farms anymore—our customers are horse people or folks who garden and raise backyard poultry,” Curt said. “They move into the area from the city for a more laidback life, to enjoy that sense of peace.”
Knowing that customer base encouraged them to expand garden supplies, too.
“We find that by going to trade shows—whether lawn and garden or pet—we are able to pick up interesting items that people can’t find elsewhere,” he added. “It’s just part of being forward thinking or innovative in retail today. You have to make it interesting and convenient for your customers.”
12) In a decade, Kriser’s Natural Pet has grown from a single store in the Chicago area to a chain of 24 with 160 full-time employees. Like many, Kriser’s stores have become involved in the local animal communities near their locations, hosting in-store adoption events. But the core of its business focuses on the food it sells and building customer trust. That means rejecting brands that might offer inferior product with higher profit margins and even following up with visits to manufacturers to verify claims. Once Kriser’s has confirmed a brand meets its standards, the food is stickered “Kriser’s Approved.”
“We want our customers to trust the Kriser’s brand,” said Brad Kriser, founder and CEO. “This way, if a pet has an allergy, a customer can come in and safely shop without wondering where that product is sourced.”
And with 160 employees, it was important to find ways to make sure everyone maintained the standard. This involves education as well as an emphasis on teamwork, Kriser said.
“When we started this company we built a culture around everyone being part of our family,” he said.