By Stephanie Brown
Clients visiting Fur Balls Pet Grooming Salon of Bayville, N.J., will immediately notice the scent of lavender and the melodic chirping of canaries. It makes for a relaxing experience and feels more like walking into a home than a shop.
For owners Mitch and Katie Horowitz, that sense of comfort is exactly what they hope to create for their clientele. The Horowitzes say they take a holistic approach to pet grooming; they consider the entire grooming experience and use natural methods to keep the dogs relaxed.
“The objective is to create a stress-free environment to keep the dog calm and groomable—to diffuse as much stress as possible...because they’re out of their element,” Mitch says.
The Horowitzes, who are married, founded Fur Balls in 2001. Katie, a graduate of the New York School of Dog Grooming, had been a groomer for about 10 years and Mitch was running his family’s textile business. The desire to open their own pet grooming business stemmed from their love for animals and each other.
Fur Balls Owners Mitch and Katie Horowitz
“We’re big time animal nuts so we wanted to figure out a way to do something that we love and something we can do together,” Mitch says.
The couple found the 1,200-square-foot storefront after looking online for available existing pet grooming shops. Mitch says purchasing an existing grooming business made more sense financially than building a new one.
“It’s tremendously expensive to do it from scratch, but if you take over an existing business, maybe one that’s not doing so great, you can save a ton of money,” Mitch says.
Over the years, the Horowitzes have created a business model that reflects their own holistic lifestyle.
“The business is an extension of our home,” Mitch says. “My personal reasons for getting on the holistic path were health reasons. Katie’s were ethical reasons.”
Aside from the lavender and canaries, the Horowitzes say they use all-natural grooming products and non-confining safety restraints. Sometimes Mitch reads the daily newspaper to a dog while it is being groomed to keep the dog occupied.
“Dogs are creatures of habit, and when you put them in an unfamiliar environment it’s a different animal,” Mitch says. “Our job is to just reassure the dogs that they are safe.”
With employees, Mitch and Katie feel that hiring a person who has a good rapport with animals is more important than finding someone with extensive grooming experience.
“That’s more important than technical ability,” Mitch says. “We’ve had girls who, technically, were very good, but not gifted enough for us with how they interacted with the animals. That’s always the first consideration with us.”
The all-natural holistic theme also comes into to play with the products the Horowitzes offer for take-home purchase. Retail sales account for about 20 percent of the shop’s revenue, according to Mitch.
When it comes to pet food, Fur Balls carries only one commercial brand—Solid Gold—which they chose because the company says that it uses only all natural ingredients. The Horowitzes also sell their own homemade products, like “doggie chicken stew” and salmon cookies.
Mitch and Katie say they are constantly researching pet health trends and they try to educate their customers on the benefits of natural pet food. They even keep a list of pet foods featured in the Whole Dog Journal to provide to customers whose dogs are experiencing health problems.
“Every day we see the effects of cheap dog food on the dogs,” Mitch says. “The telltale sign would be the licking of the feet, itching, general poor condition ... so we try to educate [the owners] a bit.”
The Horowitzes have found that providing customers information on proper pet nutrition is also good for business.
“When we recommend a diet change for their dog, and the customer notices a difference—at that point they perceive me as an expert,” Mitch says.
And that, in turn, can lead to customer referrals and increased sales.
In addition to food and treats, Fur Balls also carries dog collars, leashes and apparel. Katie custom makes dog sweaters, some of which she knits from wool shorn from the couple’s own alpaca. Fur Balls also carries collars made of healing energy stones, like jade and rose quartz, made by one the shop’s employees. Mitch has set up a photography studio in a corner of the shop where he takes photos of pets and turns them into holiday greeting cards.
“We found that if you offer them something unique, people want to spend,” Mitch says.
Challenges in Advertising
When they started the business, Mitch and Katie had only one filing cabinet drawer full of clients. Now their client files fill multiple drawers, and they see about 100 clients a week. Still, they say the biggest challenge in owning a grooming salon is getting the word out about the business.
“That old mantra that if you build it, they will come, that’s over,” Mitch says. “You have to constantly put yourself out there. It’s not just competition against other dog groomers, it’s competition for the extra spending dollars that I’m up against.”
The Horowitzes have taken a do-it-yourself approach to marketing. Mitch created the company’s website and says he is constantly working to ensure it is on the top of the search engine results lists. They have purchased a van, which serves as moving billboard for the store.
The Horowitzes also say they work to establish relationships within their community. For example, Fur Balls recently partnered with a local animal shelter to provide free grooming services once a month to rescues. For the most part, though, the Horowitzes say they simply enjoy giving back to the community and view any new customers who might result from that effort as an added bonus.
In the future, the Horowitzes would like to open a second location. However, given the downturn in the economy, they are hesitant to make that leap.
“Right now we’re sort of in that wait and see what’s going to happen state,” Mitch says.
Ultimately, Mitch says his long-term goal is to create a grooming chain and build the Fur Balls brand.
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