A Local Hangout in the Granite State
Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 Events and Customer Engagement Retailer of the Year winner has a full calendar of in-store events that entice tourists and locals alike.
New Hampshire’s lofty Mount Washington, the highest mountain peak in the Northeastern U.S., holds court over Mount Washington Valley and its quaint villages. The region’s populace swells during a prolonged tourist season that commences with summer fun, turns to fall leaf peeping and wraps up with winter sports. Springtime, or “mud season,” finds locals catching their breath. Year-round, however, residents support their friends and neighbors, including the area’s independent business owners.
It is in the bustling valley burg of North Conway that Kathy Ahearn and her husband, Brian, hung the Four Your Paws Only shingle in 1994. At the time, their son, Kevin, was six months old. Over the next 24 years, the family participated in hometown activities, including school, sports and extra-curricular events.
The couple was well prepared to assist customers and their pets, Brian having come from a profession as a pet supply store manager, while Kathy contributed expertise gleaned from a dog grooming career. Initially housed in 2,600 square feet of space, a relocation in 2009 more than doubled that number to 5,500.
From day one, the Ahearns considered their venture to be more than “just a business,” and as they put down roots, relationships with local families and their pets blossomed on a personal level.
“Many of our families have been coming to our store for 20 years or longer—we’ve seen them start with puppies, lose those pets and bring in new ones,” Kathy says.
This affinity fosters an intimacy that runs the gamut from knowing which cookie will tickle the taste buds of a furry visitor to an awareness of a pet’s special nutritional needs. More important, four-legged visitors are greeted by name.
“It’s just the way we live and the way we look at our animals,” Kathy says. “They are our children, and we opened our business feeling as if every dog should be treated like our own.”
However, beyond pets, the Ahearns have watched more than one generation of two-legged patrons enter their doors.
“The kids that started coming in with their parents when we opened are now bringing in their own kids and their pets,” Brian says. “It’s just amazing.”
A Place Where Everyone Knows Your Name
The energy that visiting pets bring to the store is always welcomed. This philosophy applies to the store dogs as well, including the Ahearns’ golden retrievers, Haylee and Sawyer. Besides greeting duties, Ripley, a dog that belongs to a staff member, also serves as a social media modeling sensation.
“Sometimes I use an app that has the dogs talking on Facebook,” Kathy says. “It’s created quite a following, and helps customers connect because they know and care about our dogs.”
Further, pets dropping in for a visit receive personalized service, for instance, with the observation of body condition or behavioral issues, or the proper fitting of harnesses and sweaters. At that point, suggestions can be made and products recommended.
For canine comfort, water bowls are conveniently placed, and a designated outside “potty” area provides relief.
“People coming up in the summer often tell us that we are their first stop after a long drive,” Kathy says.
In fact, regular customers report that when approaching the store, their dogs grow excited, whine and peer out the car window.
Should a visiting dog or puppy have an accident in the store, a staff member always handles the cleanup duties.
“We expect accidents to happen, and we don’t make a big deal over it, we just go clean it up,” Brian says.
Further, shoppers appreciate the carryout service, which is always available.
It’s a Treat
The increased square footage at the new location allowed for the installation of a treat bakery. The aroma of the freshly baked delicacies wafts throughout the store. For selection ease, the bakery features large glass-front cases, and the entire bakery operation is visible to customers.
“It’s awesome—we can talk to people while we’re baking and tell them what’s in the cookies and what their dogs might like,” Kathy says. “Kids love it.”
Birthday pets love to pop in for a mini celebration on their special day, with festivities that include a toothsome bakery cookie, photo-op, party hat and serenade.
“When they walk in, we all stop what we are doing to sing Happy Birthday,” Kathy says.
The bakery also serves as a community service platform. For instance, an annual project undertaken by members of a local Girl Scout troop finds the girls baking cookies for local animal shelter pets. In addition, students often shadow staff members as part of the local high school’s mentoring/training program.
“We are very involved in our community,” Kathy says.
The call for store-made canine goodies is thriving, and two bakers currently handle the culinary duties, with Kathy filling in as needed. In addition, baked goods are shipped all over the country.
For folks wishing to serve themselves, the Biscuit Bar beckons, with 20 feet of acrylic bins filled with a wide variety of grain-free bulk cookies and treats.
Corn-, soy- and byproduct-free foods comprise a major percentage of sales at Four Your Paws Only. Frozen, raw and dehydrated offerings are included in the mix, with family-owned manufacturers in the U.S. receiving first consideration.
When the store opened in 1994, doggie raincoats, boots and other pet apparel were among the offerings.
“It’s funny, when I read articles about this new trend in apparel, I think, ‘Oh my gosh, we were like that from the beginning,’” Kathy says.
Further, for custom fittings and orders, many coats and sweaters are crafted by local independent artisans.
Sales associate education is ongoing and includes product information covered during monthly sales meetings and vendor presentations, both online, via telephone and in person.
“It is super important to stay up-to-date with the products we carry,” Kathy says.
Early on, the influx of puppies after the holiday season prompted a decision to tap into that market.
“We decided to do something special and ended up throwing a little puppy party,” Kathy says.
The fete was a hit and perseveres today. Furry youngsters and their owners receive a puppy starter kit, discounts on foods and supplies, goody bags, photos, nail trims, and plenty of samples and treats. Frisky pups romp in a lively playgroup.
The puppy party evolved to serve as a kickoff for Puppy Month, and the entire month of March is one of store specials and displays of products devoted to the younger canine set.
The early puppy party days also spotlighted another need.
Brian, who also conducts dog-training classes, noticed that many of the puppies under his tutelage were not receiving proper socialization with other dogs. An ongoing playgroup would address this issue.
“We also became aware that, during the winter months, people want to get out and do something with their pet,” he says.
“The party playgroup started in our first store, and the response was so good it became a regular, one-hour meeting on Saturdays,” Kathy adds.
In the larger facility, space was devoted to construction of a puppy playroom, visible to customers inside the store. Windows also face the street, enticing passersby to stop and enjoy the frolicking antics. One size does not fit all, and the Saturday morning group quickly grew to three: small, medium and large.
“We realized pretty quick that a little two-pound Chihuahua and a Great Dane puppy really didn’t mix well,” Brian says.
The offering has recently expanded to include a Sunday group.
“It’s difficult to get into the parking lot on the weekends during playtime, it’s so busy,” Kathy says.
The playgroups are always monitored by Brian or a Four Your Paws Only staffer specifically trained for the task.
“We like strong minded, confident people who understand how to read a dog’s body language and know when trouble is going to happen,” Brian says.
Puppy kits are provided year-round to new pet owners, with manufacturer-sponsored puppy food, a calendar of store events, including playgroup information, treats and toys.
A Helping Hand
Pets are not sold at Four Your Paws Only. However, adoption is encouraged, and the store hosts “meet and greets” to promote awareness of area shelters and rescues. For these events, participating organizations meet with folks interested in pet adoption and share information about available pets.
“We are huge supporters of our local Humane Society, where I am a founding board member, and we also have friends running smaller rescue groups,” Kathy says. “We are pretty much involved with anything to do with animal rescue around here.”
“Go home” bags, with discount coupons, pet food, treats and information regarding pet services, are offered by Four Your Paws Only and provided at the shelter with an adopted pet.
Additionally, a “wishing well,” located in the store, collects customers’ spare change.
“Each month, we select a different rescue or animal-related cause to receive the monies collected,” Kathy says.
Further, wholesale pricing and charge accounts are extended to these organizations, on an as-needed basis.
To assist in disaster animal response, the White Mountain Disaster Animal Response Team, or DART, an affiliation with the state of the New Hampshire DART agency, holds monthly meetings at Four Your Paws Only, with many store and community members involved in rescue and fundraising efforts.
“We literally hold 10 events per year here,” Brian says.
For example, when the holiday season is in full swing, Local’s Shopping Night offers customers the opportunity to dress up, mingle, do a little after-hours discount shopping, sample offerings from area breweries and wine shops, and have a great time.
“This is our way of doing something for our local people that shop with us all year long,” Kathy says. “Because so many are employed in retail, we hold it after hours so they can come.”
“The party starts at 7 p.m., and by 7:02, I can’t see from one end of the store to the other,” Brian says.
The spring snowmelt, or “mud season,” signals a short respite from tourism. As activities slow down, the Customer Appreciation Day and Mega Pet Food Sale is the perfect opportunity to give back to local customers. The event has taken place annually for the past 20 years.
“This is the slowest time of year in the valley and a time when local people will appreciate a discount,” Kathy says.
However, assistance is also ongoing. For example, seniors and veterans enjoy their own designated discount shopping days on a weekly basis.
“We know how hard it is to make a living up here, and we try to continuously thank our customers; we know they have choices,” Kathy says.
Where Customer Service Is Paramount
Mount Washington Valley native Chris McNevich and his wife, Cara, think nothing of taking the half hour drive from their sleepy mountain town of West Ossipee, N.H., to pay a visit to Four Your Paws Only.
“A drive across town to natives here can literally mean an hour,” he says. “For the most part, everyone commutes to Conway or North Conway for work.”
However, that doesn’t stop the couple from popping in on a Saturday morning to watch a puppy playgroup and do a little shopping for their 7-year-old rescued West Highland white terrier, Sam, or Siamese cat, Luna, also a rescue.
It’s the stellar customer service that keeps them coming back.
“Four Your Paws Only should honestly be a model for any locally owned and operated business,” he says. “Every time I walk in, I am greeted with an immediate ‘hello.’”
Besides the warm welcome, McNevich appreciates the knowledge and education imparted by staffers.
“Having worked in sales my entire life, I am passionate about how people are treated,” he says. “The staff is unbelievable and so well-trained and knowledgeable. I honestly feel I can ask anyone in that store for a recommendation or feedback on any product and they will know the answer.”
McNevich’s relationship with the Ahearns and their establishment extends beyond being a customer; during a 10-year career in advertising with the local Mount Washington Radio Group, he was involved in many Four Your Paws Only campaigns. A friendship developed from that collaboration.
A favorite event for McNevich is the Puppy Bowl, held the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday, when the puppy playroom is transformed into a football field and co-owner Brian Ahearn dons a referee’s uniform. The adorable four-legged athletes are cheered on by a standing-room-only crowd.
“We got really creative on the radio side, making sure people called in to say which team they were rooting for,” he says. “I had so much fun working with the Ahearns.”
McNevich estimates 70 to 75 percent of businesses in the valley region are locally owned and operated.
“The Ahearns have been able to dial in to an industry that they are very passionate about, and then, when you add our unique little community and the fact that we are a three, nearly four-season tourist destination, their accomplishments are outstanding,” he says. “I can’t imagine shopping anywhere else.”
It’s A Retail Life
What is Four Your Paws Only best known for?
Brian Ahearn: Our customer service and community involvement.
What is the biggest challenge for an independent pet retailer today?
Brian: The internet. We often see customers walking through the store with their phone in hand, comparing prices to see if they can get an item cheaper online.
The biggest challenge for the pet industry overall?
Brian: We see all these little companies that are suddenly part of a conglomerate, instead of saying, “I’m doing a good job without these giant corporations.”
Any interesting trends right now?
Kathy Ahearn: I think social media really controls a lot of consumer decisions. One person can post that their dog became ill eating a certain food, and 12 people will come in within an hour and say they aren’t feeding that food anymore.
What do you see for the future of your business?
Kathy: Two big-box stores have recently opened within a half-mile of our store, so, in response, we have been busy focusing on doing what we do best. We live here, people know us personally and know what to expect when they walk into our store. It all goes back to trust. This is who we are, and we have stayed true to ourselves for 24 years, and we hope to be here another 24 years.
Four Your Paws Only At a Glance
Location: 1821 White Mountain Hwy, North Conway, NH
Owners: Kathy and Brian Ahearn
Number of employees: 9 full time, 1 part time
Years in business: 24
Average Square feet: 5,500
Products and services: Pet bakery, natural pet foods, health and wellness products, pet supplies, toys, travel needs, seasonal supplies, birds and small animal supplies, gift items, loyalty program, puppy playgroup