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3:54 AM   April 19, 2015
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Reaching Out the Old-fashioned Way

Mom-and-pop pet store Sand Bar Pet Shop thrives on the classic tactic: word of mouth

By Angela Pham


The Sand Bar Pet Shop
Courtesy of Sand Bar Pets
In Mission Viejo, Calif., strict city codes limit how much storefront advertising and signage can be used, leaving many small businesses reliant on other promotional means. For The Sand Bar Pet Shop, however, this isn’t much an issue: The store has been open in the same location since 1977, with an unwaveringly devoted customer base and an equally passionate set of owners, even though the store is only 2,000 square feet, tucked away in a plaza among seven other businesses.

Julie and Mark Pells began their full-service pet store with a vast range of supplies and pets for sale, including exotics like caimans and raccoons. Today, the pets sold tend to be more of the vanilla variety, with about 25 percent of the store’s sales deriving from live animals sold, 20 percent from fish and aquarium and the rest from supplies.

The store also provides aquarium maintenance for homes and businesses, and had a grooming service for 26 years as well. However, the store ended the grooming about six years ago, citing financial reasons, and filled the space with more aquariums.

“We went, ‘Hmm,’ electricity tripled in California,’” Julie noted. “We said, ‘Maybe we don’t want to do that anymore. It’s a service kind of thing: You pay for the supplies and pay [groomers] a decent amount of money, and if they’re any good they generally open their own shop.”

With just five employees on board, training is pretty informal and on an as-needed basis, such as when a new food line is introduced in the store and customers need to know what ingredients are in them and why. At Sand Bar, the focus is on premium foods such as Evo, Enova, Eagle Pack and Natural Balance, so educating pet owners on what they feed is a priority for the store.

“None of them are made in China,” Julie emphasized. “None of them get any of their products from China. Years ago, we carried other lines and got rid of those lines because of the problems they had with dog food.”

Still, the store makes a conscious effort to keep prices lower than those at big-box stores and stays competitive with personalized customer service.

“Almost everybody who comes to our store is a local,” Julie said. “I’ve had people move away to Los Angeles and come back to us because they trust the store.”

She said she believes it’s a “deception” that the bigger chain pet stores save customers money. While they may offer a temporary low price on a particular bag of food, the general prices at Sand Bar are consistently a value.

“We’ve been buying so long, I actually have the ability to price at a discounted rate,” Julie said. “And we keep them low across the board, instead of picking out one or two items to highlight. We try to do it on everything.”

Sand Bar
Courtesy of Sand Bar Pets
Senior discounts, price cuts for those who purchase pets at the store and a brand-new venture into Facebook help encourage repeat customers. The Pells haven’t felt the need to expand promotions beyond those means quite yet. A website was started some time ago but was short-lived due to lack of a webmaster, and a small staff renders them unable to devote much time to going to many large events. However, Julie said they do let people place pamphlets in the store for their dog-walking service at the harbor, for example, and sometimes they’ll attend area reptile shows.

More important to the Pells is the pet store’s drive to support their community. In January 2010, a woman walking her dog in nearby San Clemente, Calif., watched helplessly as an intoxicated stranger suddenly seized her miniature Schnauzer and beat it to death. It was a news story that riveted Julie and her husband, and she immediately thought of two puppies of the same breed that she had in her store at the time. With an offer of a new puppy to the family that lost their dog, the story ended on a happier note.

Since then, the family has brought in their gifted puppy several times to the store, and the puppy celebrated her first birthday recently.
“It still makes a lump in my throat,” Julie said. “It was one of those things you just hear about and think,’ oh my gosh, I have to help.’”
With a dedication to also helping local schools raise money for raffles, the store focuses its attention on being a strong member of the community. A small expansion is also planned inside, with some new changes to the fish section and an additional reef section due to increased demand for certain lights and filtration.

It may be a small space, but Sand Bar is always bustling with a good-old-fashioned mom-and-pop environment. Animals are “all over the place,” Julie said, with handfed cockatiels on the end of a counter, aquariums with tortoises, bearded dragons and crested geckos, and an open-door policy for any customers who want to shop alongside their pets. Customers bring in everything from dogs to reptiles with them, she noted, and it helps contribute to an atmosphere of welcome and homeliness.
“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are a real, old-fashioned pet store,’” she said. “It’s not just a sterile, packaged environment, and that’s really the No. 1 thing people say to us.” <HOME>



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