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A Refreshing, Natural Pawz

A focused, customer-based approach lets this retailer open a third and fourth store.
By Anne Sedjo

Natural Pawz owners Biff Picone and Nadine Joli-Coeur stand with Erica Orr (middle) of PaintedPups.com, who painted the portrait of their dogs.
Perhaps the best testament to doing well in this economy, other than maintaining high sales, is opening two stores in 2008. The owners of Natural Pawz did just that in November by welcoming customers to their fourth and latest cat- and dog-based, natural-food-focused location in West University Place, Texas.

The third store, in Sugar Land, Texas, has existed only since June. Husband-and-wife team Biff Picone and Nadine Joli-Coeur opened their first store just three and a half years ago in The Woodlands, outside of Houston. They added a second location in Tomball at the start of 2007.

The Natural Pawz folks have at least two factors going for them that work toward making stores successful, especially in these rough times. They have carved out a niche in the large pet-product market, and they make customers and their pets their top priority.

Not Part of the Plan
Joli-Coeur says they never planned to have four stores.

“It’s funny how we got started,” she explains. “You don’t say, ‘I’m going to open this business and have all of these stores.’ It just kind of happened. We are really fortunate that it’s going so well.”

They started with five employees and will have about 40 once the newest store is fully staffed. Store sizes range from 1,200 square feet to 3,000 square feet (for a total of about 8,500 square feet).

At least one of the couple’s three dogs had something to do with their getting started in the pet-product retail business. They have two chocolate Labs, Callie and Lucky, and one cocker spaniel, Joey. Joli-Coeur says they needed to figure out a way to deal with Callie’s allergies.

“One of our chocolate Labs, Callie, had terrible allergies, and it got to the point where I had to do something with allergy shots or find some other way to treat them,” she says. “After staph infections and loss of hair, we started looking for alternatives in terms of food. We started doing research.”

AT A GLANCE


Natural Pawz

Location: The Woodlands, Tomball, Sugar Land, West University Place (all in Texas)

Owner: Biff Picone and Nadine Joli-Coeur

Size: Four stores ranging from 1,200 square feet to 3,000 square feet (8,500 square-feet total)

Employees: 40

Years in Business: 3 1/2

Products and Services Offered: Human-grade, all-natural food; all-natural and U.S.- or Canadian-made treats; natural doggy bakery; beds, toys, collars and leads; grooming; spa services.

This research developed into a more hands-on method of dealing with food for Callie, and, later on, other people’s pets.

“Then five and a half years ago, I started doing a delivery of natural foods,” she notes. “I did it part time as a hobby. We grew the business to 300 customers. We decided to look at doing a store. At the time, places that did carry [natural foods] might have one bag. They didn’t have the quantity or the selection.”

Picone also expresses frustration at the lack of natural food.

“There was no resource or anything available to us,” he states. “Fortunately, my wife found some food that we carry. Our friends saw the changes [when our dogs were] at the dog park and wondered, ‘How can I get that food?’”

At the time, Picone traveled for high tech while Joli-Coeur did marketing within the same industry.

“We said if a store ever opened up next to a vet, it would be a great place,” Picone explains. “This phone store went out of business right next to our vet. We had never done retail before. It was kind of scary, but we just believed we had a niche and an opportunity and we were going to explore it.

“Houston was a much underserved market in what we have,” he elaborates. “It was different in places like Portland [Ore.] and Seattle. We still were bringing in some of the commercial foods, but we thought ‘why do that?’”

Picone says starting from scratch and expanding to four stores has ruined his retirement.

“Our expansion to four stores was not the original plan,” he notes. “This was supposed to be my retirement plan—a quarter of a mile from our house; a couple of employees; walk to work; take it easy. Lo and behold, it took off and we ran out of capacity with the first store; needed the second store to keep everything we needed; and the third and fourth were because of customer demand. People would drive 50 or 60 miles, and the requests kept coming and coming.”

Maintaining a Focus

Natural Pawz has a niche market with human-grade all-natural food for dogs and cats.
One of the reasons people drive far distances to Natural Pawz is the stores’ wide variety of and focus on human-grade, all-natural food. Their food categories include special-needs; dry, canned, freeze-dried and raw foods; as well as treats that are all-natural and U.S.- or Canadian-made.

The website states: “Natural Pawz carries only all-natural, humane-grade dog and cat food. No pet foods at Natural Pawz contain soy, corn, wheat or by-products. None has been recalled.”

Having narrowed the market to just dog and cat products helps the stores compete in this economy. The stores offer a natural doggy bakery, beds, collars and leads, and toys. Master groomer Lori Janes works with six other groomers at three of the stores. The stores also have spa services.

Joli-Coeur admits that many stores carry similar products, but they also carry grocery-store type brands. Natural Pawz stores have a focused mission.

“We are not so much boutique,” she says. “We are a natural-food store that carries other items. We have cat and dog; you can’t be everything to everyone. All the foods and treats are made in the U.S. The toys, it’s very difficult to have all of them made in the U.S. A large selection is made in the U.S.; rubber toys are made in the U.S. Ninety percent of beds are made in the U.S. Some beds use recycled materials.”

She notes how the natural trend has evolved during their three and a half years in the business.

“Now there’s West Paw, Planet Dog, more and more companies,” she explains. “It’s interesting how it’s becoming trendy. We have carried [natural items] for a while. We look at where they are sourced, how they are made and what company they come from.

“It’s important for us to provide products we believe in and stand behind,” she adds. “One manufacturer might have the same ingredients as another one, but we look at the integrity of the company. Where did they source their products? It’s about what you’d stand behind in terms of product.”

Picone expands on their stores’ theme.

“Our niche is natural and holistic,” he says. “We’re not doing the $500 collars. We have natural, nutritious, healthful human-grade supplements, treats and foods. People see the benefits in their pets’ lives. There are so many parallels. If we eat junk, our bodies respond accordingly. If we eat vitamins and minerals, our bodies are enhanced.

“When animals have allergies, are losing hair, are overweight, they are not predisposed to have the issues they have,” Picone states. “They have it because of the quality of food they are getting.”

Being a Resource for Customers
He also notes there is a whole other part to their mission.

“We really have built a reputation,” he offers. “We are a retail store, yes, but really our mission is to be a resource. We give [customers] the info, as well as show them how to get more through the web. They then do the research and go talk to their vets. We tell them, ‘Here’s what we say and why we say it.’ Most vets will concur, saying, ‘Yes, that makes sense; try it.’”

Picone touches on the fact that they use the Internet as a learning tool for themselves and customers. In addition, they have a website that allows people to sign up for a not-quite-monthly newsletter. Customers also can sign up at store counters. At the time of writing, 800 people were signed up for the newsletter.

Employees also play a big part with helping customers with the web.

“We really pride ourselves on our employees,” Joli-Coeur says. “We pride ourselves as being a resource for our customers; knowing the products. If we don’t have the right thing, we look it up for them, find it on the Internet and send them in the right direction.

“We hire people who like to find answers to questions,” she adds. “We look for people naturally gifted in wanting to know about things and who are open to alternatives in looking for foods for their own pets.”

Joli-Coeur acknowledges they plan to do an overhaul on the website this year. There’s a fine line between spending time working on the website and spending time with customers, she says. They would like to get some products online, although she says they do not want to be a PetFoodDirect. They have plans to offer ID tags, some holistic items or maybe some beds, she adds.

They also have a demo center and display built out of wood that houses treats and chews. The triangle-shaped treat center has a TV with Internet connectivity where employees can look up information or feature pictures of customers and their pets. They report an increase in treat sales of more than 100 percent with the display. The stores also have info centers with flatscreens set up for customers to do research.

The stores’ community interaction includes working with rescue groups and animal shelters, with rescue days at three locations. From October to December, they host events almost every Saturday, Joli-Coeur says. They give out food and treats, and work with a local veterinarian to provide the initial exam free of charge. In addition, they work with Planet Dog, Girl Scout troops and schools.

Whatever else works for Natural Pawz, it always comes back to the customers and their animals. Picone talks of helping a woman get food for her dogs after the store was closed.

“A lady called and was going to take a trip for two weeks, leaving her dogs behind,” he notes. “She was worried her sitter would not get the food. She looked us up in the phonebook at 8 at night. I met her at 9:30 at the store to get her food. We treat our customers like we would want to be treated.”

It also comes down to having a purpose, a vision, a mission—an obtainable, worthwhile goal.

“You can’t just put things on a shelf,” Picone says. “People ask, ‘When are you going to franchise?’ It’s not about the money. It’s about the passion and the things we do. People tell us, ‘You’ve made such a difference in my dog’s life.’ That’s more than we can get from anything monetary. People respond to that. That’s all we can ask for.” <HOME>


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