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Hamptons Fixture Keep Dogs Lookin' Dapper

Posted: June 28, 2010


By Stephanie Brown

When groomer Gay Ernst started selling pet supplies out of her Bridgehampton, N.Y., salon more than 20 years ago, it was simply to satisfy the requests of her grooming customers. Eventually, a storefront below the salon became available, and Gay took the retail aspect of her business to the next level.

Dapper Dog pet boutique officially opened in 1988. Back then, the company’s focus was more on grooming than the retail end. Gay’s daughter, Jennifer Ernst, recalls how in the early days, a door buzzer would alert the grooming salon staff upstairs when a customer entered.

Pet Style News“The girls would go running downstairs every time the buzzer rang, and in the beginning that’s how Dapper Dog was run,” says Jennifer, who has managed the boutique for 15 years. “It was really kind of run on the honor system initially.”

Today, the buzzer remains (although it’s more high-tech), and Dapper Dog boutique has become a Hamptons fixture.

“Opening the retail space was really a necessity because you couldn’t keep all the retail items in the grooming shop with all the hair in there. It’s evolved into a very good little business,” Jennifer says.

Dapper Dog offers mainly dog products as well as some cat supplies. Gay runs the grooming business and Jennifer manages the retail side. They have one part-time employee who works in both places.

Dapper Dog owners
Gay Ernst (left) runs the grooming shop at Dapper Dog, while her daughter Jennifer Ernst runs the boutique downstairs.

The boutique is in one of New York’s most sought-after vacation destinations, so it’s no surprise that summer is the busiest time of the year. But what might come as a surprise is that the Dapper Dog doesn’t necessarily cater to the Hamptons elite.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s the Hamptons,’ and think really high end, but that’s not really who my customer base is,” Jennifer says. “Yes, they come in on the weekend in the summer, but my customer base is mostly locals.”

Jennifer says she aims to appeal to both groups by carrying smart, practical items at different price points.

“I think that’s the problem with some of the high-end boutiques. They’re pushing a look and a price point that is not going to make it in this economy,” she says. “You’ve got to offer them options.”

Jennifer tries to steer clear of super-trendy items because she says her New York City customers probably will have seen those things a thousand times over. When they come to Dapper Dog, she wants to make sure they get something different.

“I tend to buy what I think is interesting and haven’t seen everywhere,” says Jennifer, who studied human fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “It really boils down to personal style.”

Jennifer keeps the store looking fresh by changing the floor plan about once every two weeks. Plus, Dapper Dog is roughly 500 square feet, so it helps to move inventory around to highlight certain items.

“This has proven to be one of the smarter things I’ve done, because I do have people that come in once a week,” Jennifer says.

Aside from inventory choices, another key to Dapper Dog’s longevity is serving as a resource for its customers. As a longtime cocker spaniel breeder and groomer for more than 30 years, Gay has a wealth of experience from which she can draw. Jennifer says she makes it part of her business to keep up on the latest information on pet nutrition and products.

“If you’re not educated, how are you going to educate your customers?” she says. “We pride ourselves on educating our customers properly.”

Jennifer recommends going the extra mile for customers whenever possible. For example, she will special-order products for a customer.

“It really comes down to service and knowledge,” she says.

Over the years, Jennifer says she has seen a lot of changes in the pet business. For example, when the she first started at the boutique, it often was difficult to pick up certain vendors if her distributors didn’t carry them. Now she says it’s much easier to work directly with the vendors themselves. Jennifer has noticed that product packaging has gotten smaller, which is beneficial to her store, given its space restrictions. She also noted that in the past, some sales representatives were very aggressive, trying to pressure her into buying whole lines of products. But she says that isn’t the case now.

“Those old-time sales people are gone,” she says. “You don’t have that kind of pressure anymore.”

One thing that has remained constant is her love for the pet business.

“I’ve always felt very strongly about helping people and their pets,” she says. “It’s fun and I really enjoy it. I couldn’t think of a better job.”

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