Up Close and Personal
Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 Retailer of the Year, Mutts & Co., embraces a singular goal: becoming the community’s leading pet wellness center, seasoned with a personal touch.
Mark and Deborah Vitt
Browse the “about” page of the Mutts & Co. website, and themes of community, pets as family and an emphasis on education are interwoven throughout.
Indeed, Mark Vitt, co-owner of Mutts & Co., which has five stores in the Columbus, Ohio, area, embraces that philosophy and walks the talk. In describing the business, which he co-owns along with his wife, Deborah, Vitt said the company focuses on a unique, local community evolution while stressing the all-important personal touch.
“We are relatively small, local and family owned, so community is super important,” Vitt said. “Our customers like a local success story and get behind a small business that is flourishing.”
Far from the Midwest, the Vitts’ journey to Mutts & Co. commenced in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the couple rescued their first dogs, and a deepening passion for pet nutrition and the plight of homeless animals ensued. At the time, Deborah enjoyed a professional career as an executive at The Gap and The Limited, directing merchandise and financial planning, while Mark’s career path led him to JPMorgan Chase as a marketing manager.
In 2005, the Vitts relocated to the Columbus, Ohio, area.
“I’m from Ohio. We moved back to be closer to family, and to obtain land where our children and dogs could run free,” Vitt said.
In the Bay Area, the couple frequented a pet supply store featuring healthful foods and treats, self-serve dog washing facilities, friendly staff and a focus on community outreach. However, a full-service facility of this nature was lacking in their new environs.
Further, Deborah had begun to question her career in the corporate world. Instead, she longed to apply her business-centered acumen around a labor of love—pets.
“After our second child was born, Deborah started researching the pet industry, speaking with other small retailers,” Vitt said. “We felt this was truly an untapped market, and after months of research and financial analysis, we found a space in Dublin, Ohio.”
That Personal Touch
The 2007 launch of Mutts & Co. in Dublin, with its concept of healthful pet foods, education, supplies, full-service and self-serve grooming, and community focus, elicited an overwhelming response from local pet lovers. As a result, the store soon outgrew its 1,800 square feet of space.
“We realized within six months that the reaction was beyond what we had anticipated and immediately started looking to expand,” Vitt said. “Fortunately, the space next door became available, and we grew to 5,000 square feet.”
A second store followed in 2011.
“We were cautious when we opened our second store—we wanted to ensure we were not just ‘lucking out’ to be in a good market in Dublin,” Vitt said.
In 2016, as the couple searched Central Ohio for the perfect fit for store No. 3, they discovered three locations meeting the traffic flow and pet owning demographics that had proven a successful fit at the first two locations. They took the leap.
“We felt these sites to be benchmark locations for our business,” Vitt said.
By the end of 2016, with Mutts & Co. five locations strong, Mark left his corporate position to be by Deborah’s side, full time, at Mutts & Co.
“It was time to join the family business,” he said. “We had to take advantage of these opportunities before someone else did.”
Stressing A Stress-Free Environment
Today, customers are welcomed to Mutts & Co. with a warm, natural ambience enhanced by 150-year-old barn wood walls and wood flooring.
“We carry natural and organic-based products and made a conscious effort in our store design to present an authentic, open concept, and that atmosphere is enhanced by our walls, fixtures and floors,” Vitt said. “It’s a look that distinguishes us from more generic pet supply establishments.”
Mutts & Co.’s signature kennel-free grooming and unique self-serve dog washing facilities are available at every location.
“Our grooming has been kennel free from the very first day,” Vitt said.
Four-legged clients arriving for a coiffure are greeted by their groomer. Expectations, along with any issues or concerns, are discussed with the pet owner and, should an issue arise during the course of the groom, clients are immediately notified. A more in-depth initial consultation takes place for new customers.
“We explain the safety benefits of a kennel-free environment, including the lack of stress for the dog and one-on-one attention,” he said.
Requests for a specific groomer are honored, and customers receive a 10-minute courtesy call when their dog is ready for pickup. Consideration is given to customers who are unable to bring their dogs in for grooming during the workday.
“We also groom on weekends—that’s when a large percentage of our business occurs—and offer some evening hours,” Vitt said.
At the centralized appointment center, added in 2016, a full-time specialist fields calls and handles scheduling for all five locations, leaving groomers and retail staff free to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Customer data, including notations regarding previous visits and special needs, are retained in a software system similar to one used in hair salons, and this information is easily accessible by groomers and staff at every location.
Do-it-yourselfers scrub away at self-serve bathing facilities, available on a walk-in basis. Safety is paramount, and for this reason, tubs are positioned in private bays, eliminating the potential distractions of several dogs in one large room.
“It’s an environment that is truly less stressful for both dog and owner,” Mark said.
While approximately 25 percent of Mutts & Co. business is allocated to grooming services, the other 75 percent comprises dog, cat, and small mammal foods, treats and supplies.
Upon opening in 2007, the couple quickly realized product demand had been underestimated.
“We needed to add capacity to product space, and, at that point, our mantra became ‘Not every dog or cat has to be groomed or bathed regularly, but they all need to eat,’” Vitt said. “Our customers want their pets to consume a healthy diet, and beyond food, they desire access to all products that will support a long and prosperous life.”
Mindful of changing needs, Mutts & Co. is always prepared to readjust, and budgetary restrictions are taken into consideration, with the inventory mix ranging from expensive to cost effective.
“Food product demand has definitely changed over time, and we now carry more raw, freeze-dried and grain-free offerings,” Vitt said. “Plus, every consumer interested in pet health should be able to afford a nutritious diet, and, in our world, this can be less expensive than the more traditional, brand-name, big-box approach.”
Along these lines, a frequent buyer program offers a “buy 12 and the 13th is free” bonus.
“This benefit is available for every food in our inventory, even if we must absorb the cost,” Vitt said. “It simplifies the message.”
The Mutts Rewards Program allows shoppers to earn credits and redeem rewards, and for every $200 spent, a 3 percent credit is earned toward eligible products and services.
Staying abreast of marketplace demands involves the study of trends, and this attention includes the exchange of ideas and feedback with other pet retailers through various online message boards.
“A lot of knowledge is available through this channel, and not just regarding new products, but best customer-service practices, advice on working with distributors or recall information,” Vitt said. “Through this networking, we stay ahead of the curve, and share what we’ve learned with staff, and, ultimately, with our customers.”
Pet Wellness Specialists
Superlative customer service is the cornerstone to the Mutts & Co. experience, and “pet wellness specialists” receive extensive and ongoing training in all aspects of pet care and nutrition. Tutelage includes one-on-one, group and manufacturer learning opportunities.
“We strive to create an atmosphere of nutritional knowledge for pets and want our customers to feel confident in our ability to answer to their questions,” Vitt said. “That’s the reason we spend so much time training our specialists.”
Further, customers are able to visit the Mutts & Co. website’s Learning Center with queries.
“However, ultimately, our goal is face-to-face engagement with these folks so we can talk about their needs and point them toward different nutrition options,” he said.
Pet wellness is another fundamental goal, and a local veterinarian with mobile facilities provides a monthly wellness clinic, including microchipping and low-cost vaccination services, on a rotating schedule between all five stores.
Ask a Trainer sessions are held in-store, with a professional dog trainer answering basic obedience questions from community pet owners. Those wishing to take training a step further partake of in-store training classes.
“It’s on an on-demand basis; we provide the facility but defer to professional dog behaviorists,” Vitt said.
Pets yearning for a forever family are offered a paw up at Mutts & Co., where adoption days are a regular occurrence.
“We want to provide a channel to raise awareness, and not just for adoptable animals, but for the organizations as a whole,” Vitt said.
A popular self-serve offering, Discounted Dog Wash Days often take place during holidays or evening hours, during which “100 percent of the proceeds are donated to the rescue group manning the stations,” Vitt said. “The discount brings more people in, particularly when they realize their fee is a donation to a great cause.”
Further, holiday photo fundraisers take place several times throughout the year.
“A selected rescue organizes the event, we provide the physical location and marketing efforts, and every single dollar goes back to the rescue,” he said.
In addition, Mutts & Co. is involved in supporting free microchipping clinics, mega adoption events, and spay and neuter clinics in cooperation with Save Ohio Pets, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that Deborah was instrumental in founding.
Support for the community is at the heart of the Mutts & Co. credo, and for this reason, Mutts Marketplace, sited in every store, presents a boutiquelike venue for local artisans to display their wares.
“It’s an Ohio-based approach,” Vitt said.
T-shirts with themes promoting local rescue and adoption awareness are in the mix, designed by The Pet Foundry, a Mutts & Co. branded apparel line.
The goings-on are myriad, and customers stay apprised through social media channels such as Facebook. Further, a Mutts & Co. newsletter is emailed to customers on a regular basis.
“Maintaining a constant communication channel is vital,” Vitt said. “It doesn’t just build our business, but provides assistance to those in need and raises awareness within our community.”
It’s a Retail Life
What is Mutts & Co. best known for?
Mark Vitt: Beyond giving back to the community, we may be best known for having the finest self-serve dog wash facilities in all of Central Ohio.
The greatest challenge for pet retailers today?
MV: Competing with the online space and showing the value derived from working with a small company that cares about its customers. The independent retailer offers so much—things like education and, more important, that personal touch.
In the pet industry overall?
MV: I think the biggest challenge is enticing consumers to purchase all their services, food and supplies from one location. Too many customers travel store to store, shopping for various products. The goal is to have them purchase everything in one stop.
Are you watching any interesting trends right now?
MV: Consumers feeding their pets a healthy diet are now going one step beyond. We’re seeing an overall awareness of supplements and health-related materials that previously would have been assumed unnecessary.
Goals going forward?
MV: We would like to expand our personal touch service into new markets.
Home Away From Home
In 2007, after an evening of holiday shopping, Audrey Bennett’s eyes were drawn across a busy shopping center parking lot to a gaily lit storefront.
“I thought, ‘Wow, a new dog store!’ and just had to go in,” she said.
Enthusiastically browsing the fledgling Mutts & Co. in Dublin, Ohio, she left with two comfy beds and an array of enticing dog treats.
At the time, Bennett and her husband, Chris, were the proud pet owners of a 3-month-old goldendoodle, Lucas, who had recently joined the family as a companion to 11-year-old Sophie, a golden retriever, who has since passed away.
“Lucas has been going to Mutts & Co. for bathing and grooming services since the store opened and considers it his home away from home,” she said. “When we’re out for walks, he loves to visit the store to say ‘hi’ to everyone.”
Bennett values the one-stop-shop convenience and frequents Mutts & Co. for all her pet needs. However, she named proximity to home and self-serve bathing facilities as list toppers, citing the design and safety of the separate bathing bays as a key factor.
“Mutts & Co. is [within] walking distance from my house, and after Lucas plays in the local pond during our walks, I love the self-serve bathing facilities,” she said. “We also do all of our pet food shopping there.”
Outstanding, knowledgeable customer service, seasoned with that all-important personal touch, is another key attribute that keeps the couple, and Lucas, coming back. In addition, the needs of the newest family member, a once-abandoned kitten named Cammy, are also met by Mutts & Co.
“The folks at Mutt & Co. are our friends,” she said. “They are so sweet, always offering to help or pointing out new treats and products. We just love that personal touch.”
Mutts & Co. At a Glance
Locations: Five in Ohio
Co-owners: Mark and Deborah Vitt
Years in business: 10
Average square feet: 4,000
Employees: 15 full time, 35 part time
Product and services: Dog, cat, and small animal foods and supplies, supplements, bakery treats, adoption days, grooming, self-serve dog wash, Mutts Marketplace, wellness clinics, Ask the Trainer, training classes