Can a Pet Store Change Its Spots?
According to the tale of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, the change from one to two stores and then back to one again can be done sanely and smartly—and result in a business that’s better than ever.
Dorothy and Doyle Hunter, owners of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium LLC, opened their store in 2008. Dorothy first imagined owning a pet store when she was in third grade.
“I remember watching ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,’” she said. “Pee-wee’s girlfriend, Dottie, had a pet store, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do, too.’”
It took a few years and a variety of jobs with animals, including working at a zoo, marine mammal training, horse training and animal rescue, before Dorothy finally opened a 1,200-square-foot store. In the first year, it expanded to 2,000 square feet; in the second, it doubled to 4,000 square feet; in the third year, it became 8,000 square feet.
“In 2012, we opened a second store,” Dorothy said. “It wasn’t the best location, but we were a destination. We were located behind other buildings and in an automotive service area, not a retail area. We had 5,600 square feet, but the location was horrid. We had taken a calculated risk, but many of our customers humored us while we were there. As soon as the lease was up, we planned to move.”
“At the same time that we were planning to move the second store, the landlord raised our rent at our first location by 27.5 percent and planned to raise it more the next year, so we ended up moving both of our stores at the same time,” Dorothy said. “I don’t recommend moving two stores at the same time.
“We were watching the news on television one night, and a local architectural firm announced that they were moving from their old location in front of Costco and next to the building we already were looking at,” she continued. “We spoke to the landlord and asked if we could take over the architectural firm’s lease and move into the space six months early. We had a yes, and the new 11,000-square-foot store was born.”
The Hunters decided to move both locations into the 11,000-square-foot store in Kennewick, Wash.
Dorothy and her crew moved the smaller store first. They closed two hours early on moving day and loaded a 53-foot freight truck with everything in the store, including about $76,000 worth of merchandise. They moved the whole store overnight and opened the following day. Six days later they moved from their original location. That effort, which included moving approximately $170,000 worth of merchandise, took two days.
Prior to the move, customers had been notified for months with signs on the door, notices on receipts, notices inserted into shopping bags, Facebook posts and even news stories. But customers still said, “You didn’t tell us.”
It took awhile for customers to accept the new location, even though it was only 1.5 miles from one location and 4.9 miles from the other, Dorothy said.
“It was the best thing in the world for us,” she said. “We saved money by not having to pay for two rents, two electricity bills and other expenses.”
But Dorothy wondered if she could keep her employees.
“It’s true about location, location, location,” she said. “With the right location they will come. We’ve been in our new location for just over 90 days and we’ve had to hire more employees. We have been absolutely blessed with increased foot and car traffic. People who shop at Costco stop in for items they need for their pets.”
One year ago, videos of Dorothy eating cat and dog food to promote ingredient awareness were posted and went viral, and people all over the world discovered Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium. The store has customers from Alaska to Indiana, but many of the locals didn’t know about them until now. Though Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium has customers in other parts of the U.S., no sales are done online.
“It’s all by phone, no computers—it’s important to have that human connection,” Dorothy said. “We enjoy our customers. We know our customers by first name, their pet’s name and also often what they want to buy.
“The new store is three stories, with crown molding and nice carpeting,” she continued. “A balcony overhangs the rest of the store.
“Many sales reps thought we would sell less product since we went from two stores to one, but we are selling more,” Dorothy said.
So what makes Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium so successful, despite the upheaval and change?
The whole team goes the extra mile for their customers. Dorothy described how one lady needed a special outfit for her dog that had hip dysplasia; she fabricated the adjustments to the jacket at home.
“She makes herself available to the customers when they need personal pet services,” said one staff member.
Dorothy treats customers and employees in the best way that she can. The minimum wage in Washington is $9.47 an hour; after an employee is fully trained at Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium, they are paid up to $13.25 an hour before management-level pay.
“The higher pay definitely helps us retain employees, and they love working with pets,” she said.
The greatest factor, Dorothy said, is that she, her husband and the Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium team all are following a longtime passion of serving pets and people.
“If an X-ray were taken of my chest or any of our employees’ chests, there would be a paw print right next to our hearts,” she said.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Pet Product News.