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Recession-Proof Industry? For Some, It Is


Pet retailers use events, specialty products, good service to boost sales.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

Despite rising energy costs, shaky economic forecasts and an upcoming presidential election, most retailers report sales have remained steady this year. Higher-end boutique items and costlier merchandise remain on the shelves, but consumables, like food and litter, are still selling strong.

Pet Product News International talked to retailers across the U.S. and Canada, and they overwhelmingly agreed that excellent customer service, in-store events like fundraisers and festive parties, and specialty products, such as super-premium foods, will draw in customers and generate sales this holiday season.

Here’s what they’re saying about the current state of their business and how they plan to increase foot traffic for the holiday season:

Redbones Dog Bakery and Boutique
Fernandina Beach, Fla.

Of the six retailers, store owner Martinique Lemke was the only retailer to report that overall sales were down from last year. The store specializes in bakery items and holistic dog food, and it also offers boutique merchandise, such as collars, leashes, beds and toys.

“Business is good, but we are down from last year,” she says. “I notice it mostly in boutique items. The food and the treats are still right on track. I think people are being more frugal about spending money on boutique items.”

To counter fewer register rings, Lemke works closely with the Nassau County Humane Society. She hosts adoption events and fundraisers at her shop, such as 10 percent-off days with a portion of sales going to the organization and dog-wash marathons with donations going to the humane society.

Her annual pet parade, held in December, draws more than 100 dogs and their owners—and raises more than $1,000 for the humane society. The parade features dogs donning everything from Christmas sweaters to Santa Claus outfits and reindeer antlers. The best-dressed canines win gift baskets and gift certificates from Redbones.

“It’s a huge event,” Lemke says. “And then usually I’ll do a sale that day, too. The store’s usually packed because of the parade.”
Omar’s Exotic Birds
Southern California

Holiday Spirit For Sale

Looking for ideas to jump-start your holiday sales? Consider these suggestions offered by pet specialty retailers across the country:

• Throw a holiday party. Invite Santa Claus, offer pet portraits, give away holiday-themed treats and discount holiday items to get customers in the giving—and buying—spirit.

• Donate a portion of sales on a particular day to local animal rescue organizations and promote the event as much as possible through advertisements, coupons, e-mails and local newspapers.

• Give gift certificates and gift baskets to area fundraising events for raffle prizes and silent auctions.

• Participate in community walks and parades, and be sure to wear a hat or carry a sign with your store’s logo.

• Give away merchandise, like tote bags, bearing your store’s logo.

• Host pet-themed craft shows or bazaars, or partner with your distributor or manufacturer representative for a tent sale.

Owner Omar Gonzalez took a proactive approach to counter stagnant sales: He purchased items in larger quantities and passed on savings to his customers. The store specializes in live birds and bird products, and most of his sales come from repeat customers.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that we have not been affected by the economic downturn as much,” he says. “To counteract that, we have purchased larger quantities on certain things so we could get better pricing and pass that along.”

With bird season in full swing, sales of baby birds—and their associated products—have kept business soaring, he says. Gonzalez reports, however, that his customers are choosing lower-priced items when they have a choice.

“If they have a choice right now between a $700 cage and a $1,200 cage that are the same size, they’re usually buying the $700 cage,” he says. “If they’re buying a bird right now, they’re already spending a lot on the bird, so they don’t want to spend a lot on the cage, too. They may upgrade later, but for right now, the people that are buying birds are buying the lower-quality, less-expensive cages.”

For the holidays, Gonzalez plans to paint his storefront windows and have some sales, he says.

“I will keep trying to come up with new things or new products to continue enticing our old customers to buy more,” he says.
Style Mutt
Rocky River, Ohio

Store owner Pam Alerine has been in business for just over a year, and traffic through her 1,300-square-foot boutique has done nothing but increase. Formerly the president of Pet Zone, this seasoned pet retailer added pet sitting and grooming to her service offerings—something she says accounts for her success.

“My business keeps growing,” she says. “I’m at the point right now where I’m making money, and if I’m making money now when the economy is this bad, I must be on to something.”

Besides adding services to her retail repertoire, Alerine also hosts events to draw in customers and boost sales. She organizes weekly Yappy Hours, featuring hors d’oeuvres for the humans and treats for pups. She offers pet portraits with Santa for holiday cards. She throws Halloween parties and birthday parties for customers.

To boost sales for the holidays, Alerine plans to e-mail season-specific buy-one-get-one-half-off coupons to customers. In September, she sends out Halloween coupons. In October, she sends out Thanksgiving coupons. Every month features its own discount, she says.

“Every month I send out coupons,” she says. “Right now, getting ready for Ohio State football and the Browns, I’m sending out this coupon that’s a buy-one team item and get another 50 percent off, so they start getting ready for the football season.”
Teca Tu—A Pawsworthy Emporium and Deli
Santa Fe, N.M.

Joanne Buchannan, store manager, says business is up from last year. The store, which has been open for more than 13 years, offers a variety of boutique items as well as deli items like ice cream, baked goods and popcorn.

“We’re doing great, and our business is up,” she says. “Last year we had a banner year, and this year we’re up, too. Not as much as last year, but we’re up quite a bit.”

She attributes the store’s success to personalized customer service, an expanded merchandise selection, a larger deli and more parties and events.

“We do a lot of special service and personal service, and bend over backward to special-order for people and fit their dogs properly with our clothing,” Buchannan says. “We’re always introducing new treats, and people like bringing their dogs and joining in with other dogs, socializing them.”

An annual after-Thanksgiving bazaar will bolster holiday sales, she says. Held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the event features local artisans selling their pet-themed wares to a gift-seeking public.

“We include a lot of our local artists,” she says. “That’s been a big success. We set them up in the hallway and we get about 25 different vendors. That’s a real good event, and the timing is perfect.”
Urban Paws
Kingston, Ontario

Jennifer Allan, store owner, says in her store’s three-year history, sales have continually climbed. She and her staff educate their customers about the importance of healthful diets, and she says that brings them back.

“We tailor a lot of our inventory to our existing clientele, particularly around food, and so we’ve bred a lot of customer loyalty,” she says. “People understand the importance of feeding a quality food, so they will continue to keep that level of quality for their pets regardless of where they might be cutting back in other areas.”

While they’re picking up food, they often grab an accessory item with a higher markup, she says.

Hoping to continue on this revenue-increasing path, Allan says she seeks out ways to raise awareness about her business, whether it’s making donations to service organizations, offering items for raffles and silent auctions or participating in community walks.
“We’re always looking for events to gain customer awareness,” she says. “We’re always looking for things that are profile-raising. As long as we’re raising awareness in the community and bringing in new clients, that helps.

Petland Arboretum
Charlotte, N.C.

Store owner Cindy Parks says that business is up 3 percent over last year, and she’s thankful.

“What I hear on the streets is there aren’t many in our position,” she says. “We talk to the vendors and reps when they come in and very few of them have anything positive to say about what’s going on in the stores they cover.”

Customers may be hesitant to purchase higher-ticket items right now, Parks says, but she has been countering slowing sales with staff training and customer service.

“You have to focus on what’s going to make you different,” she says. “As a result of the economy and people being very conservative, we’ve really focused on training and customer service. Buying smarter, being smarter and running the store a little smarter affects the bottom line so you’re controlling your costs, but at the end of the day, you have to have sales, and that’s where customer service comes into play.”

For the holidays, Parks plans to dress up the store, host a Halloween party and welcome customers with photos with Santa Claus. Weekly coupons will entice shoppers to purchase gifts for their pets. Her main tactic, however, will center on catering to her customers. <HOME>

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