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Balancing Act

Posted: August 16, 2013, 12:45 p.m. EDT


Doggy Dao & Cat’s Meow focuses on nutrition, training and whole-animal health.

By Angela Pham

The big-name pet supply chains don’t worry Julie E. Van Vliet too much. The owner of Doggy Dao & Cat’s Meow in Hellertown, Pa., said she might not be able to be competitive on pricing, but her store still stands out—through products, services and special attention paid to each customer.

"Just knowing that [a particular customer] needs two cases of this food every 24 days and having it for her; that’s how we set ourselves apart,” Vliet said. "[We] make people feel like they’re special; that they’re important.”

Doggy Dao and Cat's Meow Store Front
The Hellertown, Pa. store offers training classes four days a week. Courtesy of Doggy Dao & Cat's Meow

It’s a method that works. Vliet shared the story of customers who have moved and still have products shipped to them from her store, even though they easily could order online from someone else and receive free shipping to boot.

While Vliet has helmed her store’s ship with that mantra of customer service since July 2012, her pet-business experience began long before that. In 1994, she began training service dogs for people with physical disabilities while also serving as a resident kennel manager. She ended up adopting some of the dogs that couldn’t make it through the training program, some of which also happened to suffer from congenital diseases. This experience triggered her exploration into natural pet care.

Learning how pet nutrition could benefit her dogs’ health led to a position as manager of Paws to Tail, a store in Saucon Valley, Pa., that eventually became Doggy Dao. Vliet bought out its inventory, relocated it to Hellertown and gave it a name that reflected her focus on the balance of whole-animal health: nutrition, stimulation and training of both the mind and body.

Small Store, Big Benefits
That focus on natural pet care is clear throughout the store. Nothing contains corn, wheat or soy, and much of it is U.S. made and eco-friendly. Vliet is proud to carry a large selection of raw food for cats and dogs, the sales of which continually grow, she said. One manufacturer’s sales rep even told her they were the third biggest-selling store in their northwest territory—including New York—a big feat for a small store. But Vliet said she makes it clear that owners with any budget can afford more healthful pet food.

"One of the things I’ve done for several people is say, ‘Tell me what your budget is, and I will find something, even if I don’t carry it,’” Vliet said. "I’ll special order it.”

Even if it’s not the "best” food, Vliet makes the effort to find a better version than the one the customer currently uses.

Doggie Dao is situated to be comfortable and personal, with 1,400 square feet of retail space and 1,300 square feet dedicated to a training area. The design is uniquely cozy, partially due to the fact that it was once a private apartment. The second floor was removed, and the vaulted ceilings and hardwood floors remained, as did the various nooks and crannies throughout the store.

"People come in and tell me it’s very Zen-like, very serene—it’s calm, and it’s warm,” Vliet said.

Her other employees are her nephews and two independent contractor trainers. Three foster cats roam the store alongside customers’ dogs or cats, which always are welcome.

Sometimes they’re accompanied by the Pocano greyhound rescue dogs that come every fourth Saturday of the month or by rescue pets from the Center for Animal Health and Welfare every first Saturday of the month. Vliet’s hoping to host more adoption days and lectures, in addition to the free training talks and vet lectures the store already hosts.

Future Plans: Doggy Dao & Cat’s Meow Looks Ahead

Owner Julie E. Van Vliet’s store has been open for less than a year, but she has lofty goals for the months ahead to keep her business educational, beneficial and fun.
She plans to expand and better promote the existing schedule of free lectures, as well as use the training room as an educational hub for adoption events and informative speakers. Vliet also wants to go beyond hosting nonprofit events and find more ways for her customers to give back to animals, especially since she’s a founder of a nonprofit organization herself.
"Even if it’s having the ASPCA come here tomorrow and posting that on the Facebook page, even if people aren’t looking for an animal, they need volunteers, and there are lots of ways you can help—whether donating cardboard boxes to use as litterboxes or offering low-cost vaccination clinics and things like that,” Vliet said. "And it would increase awareness of the store.”
She’s also interested in holding open-house fairs featuring different rescue groups and vendors during the warm-weather months. The educational edge Doggy Dao already enjoys would be amplified by its future-planned lending library, which currently is on Vliet’s wish list.
A little area of the training room soon will be transformed into a memorial and reading area with chairs and a table where people can trade and purchase educational books, and feel free to relax and read—a "beautiful space,” Vliet said. —AP

During the holiday season, Doggie Dao enlivens the atmosphere by offering customers handmade wooden ornaments that can be purchased to honor a person or pet who died and then hung on the store’s live Christmas tree, or the tribute tree, as Vliet calls it.

Basic Training
Paws to Tail didn’t feature training space, and Vliet kept in mind her desire to spread her training knowledge when scoping out a new location. Fortunately, the Hellertown space on Main Street is near a health food store, an organic mattress shop, a massage salon and a yoga studio—businesses that Vliet said are a good draw for people who tend to be conscious of the environment, ecology, nutrition and small, local companies. After all, "people who shop at the health food market for themselves aren’t going to feed their dogs and cats something they would get at the [standard] grocery store,” Vliet said.

Doggy Dao offers five training classes on three weeknights and a couple of Saturdays: puppy kindergarten, basic obedience, beyond basics obedience, trick classes, K9 good citizen testing and therapy dog certification through Gift of Sunshine, the nonprofit service dog organization Vliet started in 2002.

The training side has been a boon for business, she said, especially when trainers use treats that are sold in the store and that dogs love, leading the owners to make a retail purchase. The reverse happens, too. People visit the store, see training happening and enroll. Of course, word-of-mouth plays a big part in drawing in more customers, too.

Bringing in Business
In business for less than a year, Doggy Dao has dabbled in various marketing and advertising methods: local newspapers, alternative health magazines, coupons and special savings. Senior Citizen Tuesday discounts offer 10 percent off; those who spend more than $200 or $500 at a time receive high-volume discounts. Vliet said she also tries to price-match other stores’ regular-price offerings.

A website is in the works, and the store has a Facebook presence that Vliet said helps people find out about her store. Yelp also plays a part in informing the general public on directions and store hours, and Vliet is proud of her store’s hard-earned five-star rating.

To further foster the store’s community feel, a bulletin board features nonprofit fliers, nutritional articles, recipes and an area for business cards.

While Doggy Dao is a fairly new store that hasn’t yet weathered the ups and downs of growth over time, Vliet has noted the extras that people forgo to save money.

"We haven’t seen the growth we would’ve typically seen,” she reported. "But the people who feed their animals this caliber of food to begin with are not going to sacrifice it. A lot of people I know are young, struggling and their animals are really important for them—they’re going to give up some of their needs before they give up the healthy food of their pets.” <HOME>

 



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