Whiskers Holistic Pet Care Remains Ahead of the Natural Trend
Whiskers Holistic Pet Care has educated New York City for nearly 25 years.
By Angela Pham
In 1988, the natural pet care industry was just a seed in the proverbial soil that would become the booming market it is today. Few pet stores fell into the niche of alternative diets and supplements. But one took the leap. That was the year Whiskers Holistic Pet Care opened in a 300-square-foot space in Manhattan, a New York City location that was once a bar and later a dingy, dilapidated sushi restaurant.
When Whiskers Holistic Pet Care opened in 1988, New York’s East Village was a “hairy, nasty neighborhood,” co-owner Phil Klein said. Today, it’s a much more inviting place.
To get the hole-in-the-wall space ready for a pet store that was different from the norm, husband and wife Phil and Randy Klein, now ages 71 and 55, respectively, cleared out the restaurant remains and made the most of the limited space. The oven and cooking area became their checkout counter. The walk-in refrigerator area became Randy’s office.
Randy and Phil Klein opened a second store and a grooming shop in Queens.
When Whiskers finally opened for business, the East Village location was a “hairy, nasty neighborhood,” Phil recalled.
The upside to the Village was an alternative culture that bred a blossoming interest in better ways to care for pets—before Internet search engines caught on. Healing animals and teaching people has been the mantra Phil subscribed to ever since he had a dog that contracted cancer, a condition that only worsened with every veterinary recommendation. Teaming up with holistic veterinarian Martin Goldstein to assist the dog, the Kleins realized the effort was more than a hobby; it was a lifestyle as well as a potential lifetime business.
“It was kind of like ‘Field of Dreams,’” Phil stated. “If you build it, then they will come? We built it, and they came.”
For over two decades, Whiskers has been a go-to resource for the city’s naturally inclined pet owners—and beyond. The Kleins ship all over the world, to China, Afghanistan and everything in between. Through phone, catalog and online orders, they serve a wide spectrum of customers.
But Phil prefers that people shop in his stores, which now include a second location in Queens and a Queens grooming shop called Whiskers Natural Pet Grooming Salon.
Each store measures about 1,000 square feet—the East Village location underwent a much-needed expansion—and employs 12 to 15 people.
The Kleins are choosy about their product selection and many times gauge the conscience of manufacturers: Are they creating foods for the benefit of the animal or for the benefit of their bank account?
Displaying perches next to toys can help remind customers of their importance.
Another standard they stick to is not stocking dry cat food. Phil favors wet foods such as those from Wysong, Pet Guard, Abady, Wellness and Solid Gold. He is a big supporter of feeding raw and has freezers along the stores’ perimeters.
As for health-targeted specialty foods and supplements, the Kleins sell a private label, Whiskers Own. Many products in the line are available online.
Not all of Whiskers’ 100-plus supplements can be purchased through the website, however.
“There are some I won’t put online simply because it’s absolutely my belief that the person administering it has to be trained in the usage of it,” Phil declared.
Words of Wisdom
Phil Klein, co-owner of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care in New York City, offered these pearls:
On advertising: “I’m not a fan of generalized newspaper advertising because you can’t match an income versus an outcome. In direct mail, we can, so we do that as much as we can.”
On the economic downturn: “It killed us, just like it killed everybody else—not only the general recession, but the loss of the major brokerage firms down the street. A lot of the Wall Street people are customers.”
On founding Whiskers Natural Pet Grooming Salon: “The groomers are more of a pain than the grooming. Between the crazy groomers and the crazy customers, sometimes we’re very unhappy we did this.”
On doing business with his wife and co-owner, Randy: “She’s the CFO, CEO, COO and CCBW [chief cook and bottle washer]. She’s bloody amazing and runs our three businesses and is very, very smart in fixing animals in the way that we do.”—AP
Education is indeed a priority. Phil dispenses advice with the patience and wisdom of a guy who’s long been immersed in the industry. Customers call or visit him for a play-by-play of what they should do to treat their pet’s ailments.
The owners’ loyalty to customers shows. The telephone rings all day, and lines extend out the door some weekends. Phil admitted that some customers want everything cheaply or for free, and he blames the Internet’s proliferation of temptingly affordable deals. When Phil dipped his toe into the online world of daily deals, it didn’t work out.
“It was a horrible experience,” he said. “The couple of seriously negative Yelp reviews we have were a direct result of [the daily deal site]. … I want people walking into the stores who are dedicated to a healthy, happy animal, not the proposition of shaving a nickel, dime or buck off the cost.”
Online and Off
Not all Internet ideas turned out badly. The Kleins hired a French Web developer for their online store and later transferred the site to the United States. A massive array of products is available, from food to supplements to supplies, and the site includes healthy advice as well. Whiskers also ventured into social media over the past year through Facebook and Twitter.
Another selling point is Whiskers’ free delivery service, which allows residents of four boroughs—the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens—to send orders straight to their door. The service has grown to two trucks and a dedicated employee.
Phil is proud that many of his employees have been with him for 10 to 15 years. He looks for those who own pets and are open to a lot of on-the-job training, with both manufacturer representatives and the Kleins.
“If you don’t care how you hire, then you’re going to open a thousand stores, but I do care who I hire, primarily for my customers,” he stated.
Even as other natural stores launch in New York, Phil said he isn’t concerned about competition. Whiskers has been in the game long enough to not flinch.
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.
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