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Adjusting, Adopting

Posted: February 26, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EDT


Parker’s Naturals of Chicago stays on top of change and focuses on premium products.

By Angela Pham

In a neighborhood that borders the University of Chicago, Parker’s Naturals has a big college customer base that can largely shape its strategies: Busy students without cars help drive the delivery program the store is expanding. Sales rise as people stock up for summer and come up again as they return for fall classes. Bulk orders are offered at student-wallet-friendly discounts.

No matter the time of year, though, Parker’s Naturals can go with the flow. After all, since the store was founded in September 2007, it’s adapted fluidly to change.

When owner Katie Pottenger founded the store, she knew it would always have a focus on superpremium and natural products. Her dog, Parker, had food allergies, and the raw food he required was a half-hour’s drive away. So Pottenger started a store in the neighborhood where she grew up, Hyde Park, called Parker’s Pets.

Since then, Parker’s Pets has become Parker’s Naturals—and has continued to evolve. Two years ago, the 1,500-square-foot store claimed the space left behind when a bike shop next door closed up, adding another 1,500 square feet to its layout. It required moving out a big cinder-block wall space and took some creativity to make the new floor design work, but the expansion allowed three key components to the store’s growing success: training, grooming and a self-serve dog and cat wash.

Through it all, the store also underwent a sort of rebrand once Pottenger realized that customers were no longer going to her competitors for their needs, now that grooming, washing and training were a part of her business.

Katie Pottenger
Katie Pottenger founded Parker’s Naturals in 2007. Parker’s Naturals

"It increased our sales overall because we became a one-stop shop, less a boutique and more full line,” she said. "I rebranded us as more of a nutrition-focused and solutions-focused business, instead of ‘We know a lot about food and we have cute dog clothes.’”

Nuts & Bolts of Nutrition
Now, nutrition is at the forefront of the store’s philosophies. Pottenger works with many local veterinarians, both traditional and holistic, to better help her customers with special-needs pets. They specialize in raw diets but tailor recommendations based on a pet’s needs and what the owner can afford.

With the new space, Pottenger was able to bring in a wider selection of brands, although, she said, "I’m really particular about what brands I bring in the store.”

She looks to smaller companies that are solutions-focused with limited ingredients and interesting proteins and carbohydrates for different pets, and has other stringent standards as well: USA-made toys, no rawhide and no treats made in China.

Pottenger also firmly believes in developing a relationship with the food brands she carries.

"I’d rather give my money to smaller companies … Maybe irrationally so—when foods go into a big box store, I automatically get rid of them,” she said. "[Customers] have learned over the years to trust me, and if I get rid of a product, there’s a reason.”

Staying on top of nutrition news and trends requires a lot of time. Pottenger goes to all of the trade shows and does a lot of her own research—but the payoff is plentiful. In fact, she advises that other pet retailers dedicate their time to research, research, research, and to learn the trends—and develop a distinct brand that leads to customers’ trust.

"Develop a brand for yourself, like my brand is that I know nutrition,” she said. "I know my products, and there is a reason that everything is in my store. You can walk into my store and know what the focus is.”

Such focus goes beyond the storefront, too. Pottenger’s long-term close relationship with a local holistic vet has been invaluable to her business, with his knowledge supporting her philosophies and continuous referrals leading back to her store.

Drumming Up Business
While veterinarian referrals are powerful, Parker’s has a lot of other methods up its sleeve for publicizing the store. It does segments on food and training for local TV stations, though traditional print advertising hasn’t had the same payoff for Parker’s. Even more successful has been social media such as Facebook, which Parker’s got an early start in, thanks to Pottenger’s knowledge of the digital world.

"It’s always been something I’ve been aware of and saw the potential in,” Pottenger said.

Her store had a page before business pages became a staple on the site and was even interviewed by Facebook because her store had an active page for so long.

Elsewhere online, the Parker’s website also hosts a blog where several posts have gone viral, although Pottenger said that in the case of one post that started an argument among commenters on commercial food brands, going viral isn’t always a positive. But by pairing a social media presence with a website and a 4,600-person-strong email list that’s sent out twice monthly, Parker’s has a robust marketing arsenal.
 
It doesn’t hurt that customer service is at the forefront of the store’s strategy, and many aspects reflect that. There’s the loyalty program for 10 percent back on every $250 spent on nonfood items, in addition to all the foods’ frequent buyer programs. The store also is well-known for doing bulk ordering at a discount, which is popular among people who feed a lot of raw or want big bags of cat litter.

Parker’s also is working with a local restaurant delivery service to expand its deliveries throughout the city so people can easily get those large bags home.

A Welcome Feeling
Inside the store, the vibe is homey and approachable, with friendly music playing and staffers always willing to talk, whether a customer is making a purchase or not.

"We’re not sales-y salesmen,” Pottenger said of her eight employees, including three full-time groomers.

There are bags of free samples available for shoppers to take home, and the store couldn’t be any dog-friendlier; in fact, employees tell customers that if their dogs are unfriendly to other dogs and they want to use the self-wash, staffers will come in before or after hours to accommodate them.
 
The store also is usually home to a number of foster cats when their regular fosters go out of town on holidays. Ties to rescue organizations don’t stop there: Parker’s regularly fundraises for rescues and donates pet food, and even has a donation box at the front of the store that, once full, is shared as a photo on Facebook as available to whichever rescue responds to the post.

Business Matters
Throughout the evolution of the store, Pottenger has learned a lot. In the ways of hiring and training, she said it’s taken trial and error to learn how to hire correctly, although it helps that her sister works in human resources.

"I generally go to an interview and then if I get a good feeling about the person, I have them come in for a day for a working interview,” Pottenger said. "I used to only hire people from within the pet retail world, but I’ve found that you can’t—if people have a passion for it, it’s worth your time to train them.”

These trainings include manufacturer reps who are frequently in the store teaching and regular meetings to stay current on new products. Pottenger makes sure to keep the environment friendly and open for staff.
 
"If they don’t know something, they know they can ask me and I won’t judge them for not knowing,” she said.

One of the bigger lessons she learned? Pottenger wishes she could have started self-wash in the store from the beginning, even with the limited space. But Parker’s Naturals’ flexibility in its business strategies has certainly paid off—during the economic downturn, it proved its resilience well.

"I’m always in my store, always six days a week, so I saw what customers were buying and what wasn’t moving,” Pottenger said. "I had to bob and weave—the higher-ticket items, the fancier sweaters weren’t moving, so I brought in lower-priced options. I saw food was taking off, so I brought in more food. So it’s all about bobbing and weaving.”

The bottom line, she said, comes down to knowing what your customers will spend and what they want—and how you and your customer can form a symbiotic relationship.  

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