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5:02 PM   April 19, 2015
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Treats Unleashed Stores Offer a Feeling of Home

Treats Unleashed’s seven Midwest stores are cozy, comforting and full of functional foods and supplies for pets.
By Angela Pham

Natural Pet Product MerchandiserThe seven locations that comprise Treats Unleashed look vastly different from the company’s humble beginnings: a single kiosk planted inside a shopping mall. Today, 10 years later, owners Ian and Teresa Miller maintain that cozy, personal kiosk feel, creating an aura that has kept customers coming back.

Teresa Miller

Treats Unleashed co-owner Teresa Miller provides customers with pet foods that are natural and functional.
Patrons of Treats Unleashed, which has six stores in Missouri and one in Kansas, are not always browsing for fresh, natural treats and high-quality, made-in-the-USA supplies. Sometimes they’re just visiting.

On Thursday evenings, shoppers regularly meet up with pets in tow, setting up dog park dates and talking about birthday party plans. They take a seat and hang out around the full kitchens in each store, where the ovens are always baking or warming homemade, health-centric treats. Nearby office workers even stop in during their breaks for a few minutes of stress relief by petting the canine visitors, Teresa said.

“We try to make it like walking into a friend’s kitchen,” Teresa, 42, observed. “It’s personal, homey and just easy to hang out in.”

Natural, but Functional
The vibe makes sense, considering that each store spans 1,600 to 2,500 square feet, which accommodates a substantial lineup of goods but doesn’t cast  a superstore feel. For example, the Millers don’t have room to display large dog crates, carriers and vehicle barriers, so those are special-order items.

It’s all a far cry from the kiosk the couple opened soon after moving from New York City, when Teresa was working for an Internet company and her husband was employed at Macy’s.

Now the pair focuses on selling natural but functional foods and supplies. They aren’t much for selling dog clothes but do stock lots of leashes, collars, toys and locally sourced products, including consignment items. A big part of the business comes from raw foods, with about five lines available. They make it a point to carry budget-friendly products, too.

“The worst thing you can do in an economic crunch time is make people feel like they’re not doing the right things,” Teresa said. “We tell you to do the most you possibly can. If you want to add more supplemental items later, when your budget [improves], we certainly have them available. We’re not going to pressure you.”

Carob Chip Cookies

Treats Unleashed ovens are always on, creating healthful goodies for pets.
It’s that laidback atmosphere that makes education a priority over sales. Teresa advises customers to go home and read online about the food she suggests. The more education customers get, the more healthy products sold, she believes.

Teresa isn’t bothered when  other natural stores enter the marketplace. They occupy their own niche, she said, and all work together to spread the message of healthy pets.

“I’d prefer you buy these foods either with us or with another local, independent store rather than going to a big-box store,” she said.

Marketing Push
Given the company’s name and that treat tables are front and center, the Millers work to clarify in their marketing that they operate much more than a treat bakery—they have a grasp on the entire spectrum of pet nutrition. After all, their first recipes were developed with Teresa’s father, who has an animal nutritional background and a doctorate in food science.

Hiring, Training Secrets
More than half of Treats Unleashed’s 40-plus employees have been with the company for more than three years. It’s a statistic that co-owners Teresa and Ian Miller are proud to share as an example of the company’s robust hiring and training program.

“The main tip is that we’ve been very slow to hire,” Teresa said. “We look for people who are interested in being in the retail side of things but who are also pet lovers—people willing to expand their knowledge base.”

Once a candidate is hired, the training is heavy-duty. Not one staff member is taught a singular task; instead, everyone is taught to do any job—from baking to operating the cash register to working the floor.

“Some people aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the training process once they get onboard,” Teresa noted. “It’s often more in-depth than some people think. But we have a great care of managers and try to treat our employees really well.”

Because of the stores’ low-pressure selling atmosphere, Teresa looks for people who want to help customers find the right product.

Opportunities for advancement are present. Staff and supervisors can be promoted to area managers over time, which encourages a low turnover rate.

Treats Unleashed also does its best to foster pet passion in employees by supporting those who take time off to volunteer and get involved with the community.

“It’s been nice to see us grow, have such good customers and make such good friendships,” Teresa added. —AP

Walk-in traffic is vital to any retailer, and Treats Unleashed captures it through the stores’ strategic locations: in strip malls, grocery centers and plazas. Parking is plentiful and nearby, which permits easy curbside pickup for customers who request it.

A customer loyalty program, the Frequent Barker Club, allows shoppers to accumulate points in return for rewards. In addition, cards good for a free “birthday dinner”—a can of food and a toy, or a bone and a cake—are mailed to cats and dogs.

When it comes to Treats Unleashed coupons, “You don’t have to print out any of our coupons—you can just show it to us on your smartphone,” Teresa said. “We’re trying to go fairly paperless.”

Sample Saturdays are another promotional winner. Once a month or so, a bunch of food and treat packages are opened, enabling customers to take home goody bags.

Besides birthdays, holidays provide opportunities, from in-store Halloween trick-or-treating and Easter egg hunts to Christmas and Hanukkah shows. Summer means ice cream socials in the bakeries, and lots of outdoor events.

Treats Unleashed participates in and sponsors many rescue groups’ festivals, and this summer the Millers put on their own nutrition festival, which featured  free samples. They’ve also attended Pet-a-Palooza in St. Louis, and every October they participate in a breast cancer awareness initiative. Event signs are plastered all around the checkout counters.

On the Web
Not all the promotional efforts take place inside or outside the stores. Treats Unleashed is active on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and the company’s website is filled with links and feeds to the social media sites.

All these outlets create conversations, Teresa said. Recently, customers took to Facebook to vote on whether Treats Unleashed should carry a new, offbeat collar that features an attached necktie. Enough people wanted it that she placed an order.

“We’re always looking for different ways to keep things creative and keep things fun for customers, so we may as well make the Facebook thing fun, too,” she noted.

Future Growth
Treats Unleashed has opened about one store a year since 2006, and new locations are coming soon in the Kansas City and Columbia, Mo., markets. A grooming and self-wash option at the Leawood, Kan., store has been so successful that the Millers will roll out the offering at several other spots this year.

The owners usually time openings for the fall so employees can be trained before the holiday season. To Teresa, “It’s a great way to introduce ourselves to a new location by opening near the holidays.”

The couple learns a lesson with every store opening.

“You have to see what sticks and works,” she observed. “Try and improve from there.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.


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