Paw Prince: Pet Shop Pioneer
The first pet boutique in Anchorage, Alaska, succeeds by keeping things focused locally.
By Devon McPhee
When Melissa and Mark Robokoff opened Paw Prince two years ago, it was the first pet boutique in Anchorage, Alaska.
“We just felt that Anchorage was ready for a store like ours,” Melissa said. “A lot of people in Anchorage have a dog or more than one dog, and [until we opened] there were only big box stores to serve them.”
Several things lead up to the Robokoffs’ decision to open shop. First, they gained experience in retail as a mobile vendor of pet products at the local farmer’s market, a popular destination for both locals and tourists.
“It was a great way to test products,” Melissa said. “And when the word started spreading about our booth and we started to get repeat customers, we felt it could be possible to open a successful boutique.”
They also did a lot of market research, looking into the town’s demographics to help determine whether a store such as Paw Prince could survive and thrive in the area. What they found was very encouraging.
AT A GLANCE
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Owners: Melissa and Mark Robokoff
Size: 1,400 square-feet
Employees: One full and three part-time
Years in Business: 2
Products and Services Offered: Provides a full line of products for dogs, including food, treats, apparel, toys, supplements and accessories as well as toys for cats and pet-related gift items for people; holds adoption days and educational seminars.
“We’re a town of 290,000 with a lot of dogs and a lot of dog sports, plus shipping is very expensive in Alaska and there were a lot of products locals could only order online,” Melissa said. “So we decided to take the risk, take the plunge.”
At first, both Melissa and Mark kept their full-time gigs and ran the store in the evenings. After six months, Paw Prince, recipient of the Pet Products News International Retailer of the Year Runner-Up Outstanding Boutique Award, became so popular that Melissa quit her job to focus on the shop full time.
The couple leaned toward an outdoorsy feel for the shop, with refurbished furniture used as display cases, lots of baskets and artificial turf serving as an accent piece. The Robokoffs stock the store with products made locally and those made in the United States, and focus on green-based and environmentally friendly items. Most new toys and treats brought into the store are first tested by the couple’s four dogs or stocked on the recommendation of a customer. This helps ensure quality, Melissa noted.
“We want to feel good about what we’re selling and we don’t sell anything we haven’t had personal experience with, or that was personally recommended to us,” she said.
The pair takes pride in being the first to bring several product lines to Alaska, and they remain the only local store that carries some product lines, which definitely has its benefits.
|To help offset the high cost of shipping products into Alaska, the Robokoff’s stock their store with many locally made products, allowing them to not only pass the savings on to their customers, but also support the state’s economy.|
“If a customer’s dog likes the product, they need to come to Paw Prince to get it,” Melissa said.
The couple also wants Paw Prince to remain solidly affordable and not creep into the high-end boutique range.
“I always wanted a place that I’d feel comfortable in,” Melissa said. “We’re really price conscious and try to keep prices affordable.”
Melissa and Mark have two sure-fire ways to move products. First, they are a big proponent of free samples and try to include one with every purchase made.
“Customers love free things and it allows them to try something that they might not have normally considered,” Melissa said.
Second, their six-year-old retired racing greyhound Jack roams the store in fancy collars and accessories. He’s an excellent salesman and has sold his fair share of products, Melissa said.
While the Robokoffs said word of mouth is the best kind of advertising, they have also taken proactive steps to ensure their store’s name reaches potential customers. Mark, who works in advertising, designed a logo, shot a commercial and bought radio ad space to promote the store. Both he and Melissa are also very active in the local community, helping to raise awareness and funds for several animal-related organizations, such as the Alaska SPCA and Kitty & K-9 Connection.
Melissa Robokoff, who co-owns Paw Prince in Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband Mark, has a special place in her heart for greyhounds.
“I really don’t know how I got into greyhounds, they’re just a great dog, very tall and impressive,” she said.
The Robokoffs adopted a retired racing greyhound named Jack two years ago. Jack roams the store while the couple works and even has his own fan base.
“I have customers who come in just to see Jack,” Melissa said. “They don’t always buy something, they just stop by to see him, which I think is awesome.”
Melissa has created a group for local greyhound owners. The group has an online message board and gets together monthly for greyhound playtime. This effort has helped raise the visibility of the breed in the area, which is one of Melissa’s major goals.
“There are not a lot of greyhounds in Alaska and I take every chance I can to talk about greyhound adoption and to share the word about this great breed,” she said. —DM
This year, the Robokoffs are considering a move to a bigger location.
“I feel like we’re bursting at the seams,” Melissa said.
As part of the expansion, the pair would like to add a dog wash and a small space for an indoor dog park to the store’s list of services, as well as expand their retail space. The park would provide a safe place for dogs to play in an area with inhospitable weather for up to 10 months out of the year, Melissa said. The park could also serve as a place to hold parties and events.
As the pair keeps on the lookout for the right expansion opportunity, they will continue to keep their focus on quality products and customer service and hope to maintain the steady pace of success their store has experienced since opening.
“Incrementally, we’ve just kind of been on an up slope, and we hope we continue to get a little bit better month to month,” Melissa said. <HOME>
This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Pet Product News International
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