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12:53 AM   April 18, 2015
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King of the ’Net: The Animal House

A well-thought-out website and social media strategy brings in customers, sales and loyalty to The Animal House.
By Devon McPhee

The Animal House website offers myriad enticements not only to keep visitors on the site for extended periods, but also to encourage them to come back on a regular basis. 

For those who log on to the website for The Animal House, a pet boutique in Damariscotta, Maine, they will find much more than a place to order pet products. The site offers visitors a blog, an advice column, a live feed of the store’s activities and other elements that help build an online community, drive sales and bring traffic to the store.

A simple page just a year ago, development of the website was a no-brainer for Dan Martin, who co-owns the store with his wife Aubrey.

“My background is in web development, and this was a good outlet for me,” he said.

It took Martin about a week to get the main part of the website up, though the site remains a project the shop owner, recipient of Pet Product News International’s 2009-2010 Retailer of the Year Runner-Up award for Outstanding Web Presence, continues to work on almost daily.

“I don’t think the site will ever be done, I’m always tweaking it,” Martin said. “And we still only have about 40 percent of our inventory currently online.”


The Animal House

Location: Damariscotta, Maine

Owners: Dan and Aubrey Martin

Size:  3,000 square feet

Employees: Two part time, two full time

Years in Business: 6

Products and Services Offered: Specializes in natural food and treats for dogs and cats. Also stocks toys, supplements, accessories for dogs and cats, and apparel, books and DVDs for humans. Services include educational seminars, veterinary services, a self-service dog wash and grooming.


Martin often finds inspiration for improvements to or new content for the website in the middle of the night, adding blog posts or developing new web elements whenever the muse strikes. His last late-night inspiration resulted in a veterinary advice column.

“The advice column was a midnight thing,” Martin said. “Our vet’s name is Abby and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a “Dear Abby” pet column.’ We talked the idea over with her, and she was thrilled to be a part of it.”

Questions sent to the column run the gamut from “What in my garden may be harmful to my pet?” to “Why does my dog like eating pooh?” All questions receive prompt and information-packed answers from Abby Strobbe, DVM. Strobbe does not receive remuneration to write the column, Martin said, though she does benefit from the venture.

“Abby is new to the area, and we have a good reputation here, so it gives her exposure,” he said. “It complements our businesses.”

Overall, the site receives approximately 450 unique visitors a day. To keep visitors engaged and to encourage repeat visits, Martin tries to post a new blog entry or news item every other day. To help increase posting frequency, Martin said he is working on extending the ability to post to the site to his entire staff, a team of two full-time and two part-time employees.

A “Dear Abby” veterinarian advice column and regularly updated store blogs ensure repeat visits to the site. Dr. Abby Strobbe (below) is also available “in person.”
Most visitors to The Animal House’s website lie outside the reach of the brick and mortar store. They most often find the site when the link pops up in a search for a specific brand of food, Martin said, since the store specializes in natural foods for dogs and cats. Most online purchases originate from the Northeast region, though, on a couple of occasions, orders have come from surprising distances—and customers.

“One time, we received an order from Texas from a boxer—George Foreman—whose local store ran out of the type of dog food his pets prefer,” Martin said. “He wanted 120 lb. shipped overnight.”

The success of The Animal House’s website echoes the success of the physical store, which the Martins opened a little more than six years ago. The couple said they decided to open a boutique that specializes in natural pet foods after discovering that their pet’s chronic pancreatitis was caused by certain ingredients found in many mainstream dog foods.

Top Five Tips for Standing out on the Internet

1) Don’t Hide What You Sell 

Even if you are not planning to do an e-commerce website, Dan Martin, co-owner of The Animal House, said that having a brief overview of what you offer is beneficial.

“People coming to your site are looking for information about your store,” he said. “This is the opportunity to give them as much as they want or need to know to come in. Think of it as an interactive yellow-page ad.”

2) Make it Look Professional 

Nowadays, having a non-professional-looking website is a strike against you.

“The moment the user comes to the page and sees an animated dancing dog at the top, that will send them away from your site so fast the mouse will burn rubber,” he said. “I have many friends with brick-and-mortar stores thinking of doing their own websites, and I always refer them to legitimate web designers and developers. In the long run, you save time and money by doing things the right way.”

3) Tell Them How to Reach You 

A large amount of people will only use your website to talk directly to you, Martin said. He recommends prominently displaying contact information.

“Not having contact info could potentially lose customers,” he said.

4) Help People Find Their Way Back to Your Website—and Bring Their Friends

Martin recommends participating in as many social media websites as possible.

“Give the user an option to join, share and have a connection back to you and your information,” he said. “Make sure your branding has your full company name so they can find you again.”

5)  Be Patient 

It takes some time for the “word” to get out about your business and the information you have to offer, Martin said.

“In the past, I have had many clients who come to me wanting a website with a stipulation that it has to be a top search engine-ranked website,” he said. “This is possible to achieve by correctly building a website with strong keywords and getting others to link to your website, eventually bringing traffic your way. Avoid costly Search Engine Optimization specialists that seek you out promising the moon...tactics used by short-sided SEO specialists can often do you more harm long term.”  —DM

Aubrey and Dan first ran the shop out of the basement of their home. Six months later, sales were so great that they moved into a 1,000-sq.-ft. location. Nine months after that, they expanded to their current, 3,000-sq.-ft. location.

Martin attributes the quick growth and popularity of their store to its reputation for stocking quality products—a core tenet of the store’s philosophy.

“We won’t sell anything that we wouldn’t give to our own dogs,” Martin said. “If we wouldn’t feed it to our own pet, we don’t want our customer’s pets to have it.”

In addition to the website, The Animal House has a web presence on several social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube,Yelp! and Flick.

Martin said he sees value in social media because it reaches his customers on websites that they already visit regularly. When customers log onto their personal accounts, the information from The Animal House fan page is there waiting for them, he noted, while with the website, a customer must type in or go to that web address.

Martin said he uses social media to spread information quickly and easily. The trick is to post items that grab your followers’ attention and make them want to re-post, such as sales or events.

The multi-faceted website is the perfect complement to the fully equipped brick-and-mortar store—the two venues support and drive traffic to each other.
“If that happens, your news can catch on like wildfire,” he said.

Martin observed this phenomenon first-hand last year, when the store advertised its biggest fundraising event solely through Facebook. It was their best turnout to-date.

For any store wishing to improve its online presence, Martin recommends a good mix of social media and a well-developed website.

“The web is so massive that people are not going to be reached unless you are in as many places as possible, are as available as possible,” he said. <HOME>

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King of the ’Net: The Animal House

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