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Community Staples

Posted: September 4, 2013, 4:45 p.m. EDT


Healthy Pets Northwest’s three stores form a strong local bond in Portland, Ore.

By Angela Pham

Each tucked into different eclectic neighborhoods, the three Portland, Ore., locations of Healthy Pets Northwest aren’t the prototypical generic storefronts you might find at a mall or strip plaza.

One location is hosted in the Hawthorne neighborhood, an area with coffee shops, bars and lots of young people who might pick up a smaller bag of cat litter for their apartments.

The Alberta shop is in a new building with tall ceilings and windows that let in plenty of light and has a high-end feel to it, with lots of brushed metal.

Healthy Pets Northwest
The stores’ foods contain no byproducts, chemical preservatives, artificial colors or ingredients sourced from China. Healthy Pets Northwest

And the Multnomah Village store is in a quaint pocket of town with a large Jewish community, so the shop makes sure to carry some kosher products.

The stores serve a diverse mix of demographics, but all share common ground: spreading a message of educating its customers about the benefits of natural food and remedies. It’s been this way since 1999, when the Hawthorne store first opened, followed by Alberta in 2004 and Multnomah in 2007. The growth came at a fast and unexpected clip, necessitating more locations.

After all, even in the earthy world of Portland, Ore., 1999 wasn’t a time when natural pet food was popular. Healthy Pets Northwest has since seen the boom of natural growth—and felt the success of it.

Founding partner and co-owner Julie Cantonwine, and remaining co-owners Laura Amiton, Michael Carroll and Barb Cantonwine, meticulously research every product they carry, making sure there’s no food containing byproducts, chemical preservatives, artificial colors or ingredients sourced from China. They emphasize domestically and locally made products.

Their fastidiousness about nutrition stems from a lot of research, including online, at trade shows, from vendors and from customer recommendations.

"You really have to stay on top of that stuff,” Cantonwine said, noting that products and companies change hands all the time. "You really have to look at the ingredient panels.”

They are more than willing to share the knowledge.

Aiming for Education
With about 14 full-time and part-time staff among the three locations, including the owners (who always keep a high profile, working in their respective stores), Healthy Pets Northwest boasts a knowledgeable team that can answer customers’ questions about food allergies, various treatments and natural flea control.

This is critical, Cantonwine said, because customers frequently call or come into the store asking for advice. The stores’ clientele trusts the Healthy Pets Northwest brand; Cantonwine attests that one reason for its survival through the economic downturn is the distinct lack of recalled brands on its shelves.

Owners and staffers are kept up to date with training; in fact, Healthy Pets Northwest has a company manual it uses for training that contains ingredient information for supplement and pet food lines, including solutions for pets with allergies.

"Every time we bring in a new product now, we don’t put it on the shelves until I put together an information sheet and email it out to all the employees,” Cantonwine said. "Companies have to agree to do training with our employees, then they really get behind their product.”

But beyond the stores’ walls, the educational movement goes even further.

Healthy Pets Northwest Exterior
The light and bright Alberta store offers customers a high-end feel. Healthy Pets Northwest

The stores enjoy a big presence in the community, holding an annual fundraiser for the Best Friends Animal Society in Salt Lake City and a benefit for another local shelter. They play a big part in the annual Doggie Dash with the Oregon Humane Society, in addition to hosting animals from greyhound groups and no-kill shelters for adoption opportunities.

And every store has a community bulletin board where dog walkers, doggy daycares, shelters and others who fit within their local, natural values share their services.

A bulletin board posts classes offered at the Multnomah store, where in addition to the 1,700-square-foot retail space, it offers a 1,100-square-foot training space for classes like puppy kindergarten and basic manners. The area is spacious and flexible, allowing the store to accommodate not just training classes but also seminars and talks with animal welfare groups, foster dog adoption events and anesthesia-free dental cleaning for dogs.

"These are the kinds of things our customers really appreciate because they would not have known about anesthesia-free teeth cleaning otherwise,” Cantonwine said. "It all fits into the educational piece.”

Training classes started last year when the Multnomah location expanded through the purchase of the adjacent space, and the owners say it’s been a success on all counts.

Trainers share their natural values and positive-reinforcement philosophies, and the pairing works out well because customers frequently come in asking for references for good trainers. Many people attending the classes will come into the store as well and buy the collars, leashes and tools that they need.

Bonus: The big space can also help accommodate overflow for back stock storage.

And during the holidays, every store space undergoes a bit of decorating, with Christmas and Hanukkah themes. They even work with a no-kill organization called Family Dogs New Life Shelter to feature a tree dotted with ornaments from the adoptable dogs, each one describing what the dog wants for Christmas.

Customers come in and pick an ornament off the tree, buy that bone or toy for the dog, and send it off in a box for the shelter.

Staying Competitive
Healthy Pets has a healthy online following on its website and Facebook, which Cantonwine says has helped their business gain an even greater brand presence. That their logo is a distinct yin-yang that they’ve trademarked also helps them stand out when they have a booth at a community event or when they’re running an ad in the local paper or coupon book.

In the future they’d like to expand their website and get an online shopping cart started, but in the meantime they take a lot of special orders in person, which Cantonwine stresses is another component of customer service that they strive to accommodate, along with happily complying with any vendor’s frequent buying program.

Yet more than marketing and advertising tactics, simply joining the locals and becoming a real part of the city has helped Healthy Pets Northwest become a trusted brand and natural-food proponent. Cantonwine says getting involved in the community has helped more than anything else, whether it’s schools, fellow businesses, a homeless shelter, or a little street fair.

"That’s where our success is,” she said. "People trust you, they keep coming back. It’s a matter of being seen and sticking your name out there.”

Business Tips for  Growing Stores
Healthy Pets Northwest’s three Portland, Ore., locations are doing so well that co-owner Julie Cantonwine said they’re planning to open up a new storefront in Salt Lake City and hoping to expand into two additional Utah stores after that.

Here are lessons Cantonwine said she has learned so far:
• "The new store is Healthy Pets Mountain West, and it will have a classroom and grooming and a self-serve dog wash. That’s the new prototype of store, and the direction we’re going in. It’s a hit with customers, to utilize and promote healthy new products without pesticides and chemicals, plus you give back to the community with those services and a groomer that fits in with your value systems.”
• "It’s really helpful for small businesses to be sustainable and have good buying practices, like buying a large number of products when you can. It’s easy for us because we have each store as partners, so we can buy a pallet of something and each store pays for a third of it. It keeps our buying power robust.”
• "Watch your margins. You can get lazy and not keep track of price changes from your distributors, but it’s actually really important.”
• "During [the economic downturn], we were really diligent about cutting back everywhere we could, whether it was a $30 garbage fee or whatever. The owners worked a lot and I think it’s important to the success of our stores that people see our faces, they see us and they know us.”
• "When I started I had no idea we’d grow so fast, but it’s like small business 101: have plenty of capital in the bank. Make sure you have enough operating capital before you start.”
• "I think that the new prototype we’re working toward with the community space and training and dog wash services is a good concept. It’s more about convenience for people. A service has a lot higher margin, and that’s a good thing for a small pet store to do. Better offerings along with pet foods.” <HOME>

 



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