Lofty Dog Keeps on Rockin’
Located in an historical music setting, the hip retailer is at the forefront of “keeping it weird in Austin.”
Austin, Texas, “Live Music Capital of the World,” was once the home of Liberty Lunch. The lively musical venue played host to such greats as Dolly Parton, The Count Basie Orchestra and Smashing Pumpkins while a sea of bobbing heads jived on its wavy floor. The building, once slated for destruction, boogies today with renewed energy. Pickles the pug and Ruggles the Boston terrier may have replaced the Ramones, but the joint still rocks.
Just ask Veronique Michalik, owner of Lofty Dog, Pet Product News International’s 2010-2011 Retailer of the Year, if the place is in tune with its historical vibe.
“Absolutely,” she said.
Lofty Dog’s exterior and ever-changing window displays help entice customers in.
Four years ago, Michalik and husband Ed found themselves empty nesters and made a decision to leave their quiet life in the suburbs for downtown Austin. At the time, Veronique was working in land development.
“I’d always wanted a business of my own, our kids were grown, we moved downtown, and I noticed there wasn’t a pet store in the immediate area,” she said.
Always an animal lover and with a marketing background, a pet boutique seemed a natural fit. When Michalik announced the plans to her family, they were skeptical.
Lofty Dog is a family affair: owner Veronique Michalik, her two sons, Ian and, Ian’s girlfriend Tami Carter and Veronique’s husband Ed.
“But I did it,” she said.
Stepping into the downtown spotlight in September 2007, Lofty Dog opened its doors at the venerable address. Bringing family on board was a natural transition, and sons Colin, 22, and Ian, 26, along with Ian’s girlfriend, Tami Carter, are all instrumental in the day-to-day orchestration of the 2,100 square-foot venture. In addition, canine greeters Ruggles and Pickles take center stage in the family-oriented ensemble.
Upon entering the boutique via a ramp, patrons are treated to an overview of the entire below-street-level sales floor with its bold, primary-color scheme.
Lofty Dog Offersfree delivery service within the downtown area.
“People walk in and say ‘whoa,’” Michalik said. “I’ve been told my store has good karma.”
In the beginning, Michalik got the word out through what she calls “guerrilla marketing.”
“We would go to downtown condos, hotels and apartments, find out how many residents had dogs and cats in the building and bring gift bags with a treat, a ball and coupons,” she said.
Those efforts, combined with print advertising and a website, helped create visibility, but Michalik’s passion is Austin, and it is the outstanding customer service and community involvement that allowed Lofty Dog to achieve downtown stardom.
“Austin is very important to me and it is very community oriented,” she said. “We are really about keeping it local and we support local business.”
One of Lofty Dog’s regular customers knows exactly where to go in the store.
Beneficiaries of that support include local animal rescues, and Michalik works closely with numerous entities in a variety of ways. Pets available for adoption are often posted on the Lofty Dog website and rescue adoption days are generally held on weekends.
In addition, Michalik is also a key player in the Austin Humane Society’s annual Rags to Wags fashion show, a holiday fundraiser. She sees to canine couture as well as assuring that celebrity attire corresponds with those fashions.
“We make sure that the celebrity and dog are coordinated fashion-wise,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, and it raises quite a bit of money each year.”
Lofty Dog’s interior motif emphasizes its “keeping it weird in Austin” philosophy.
Lofty Dog also raises money through Barkitecture, a popular event that started in 2005. Barkitecture is held every November and features unique doghouses designed by some of Austin’s brightest architects, designers and builders. This year’s event takes place on November 6. Attendees can bid on these creations with proceeds benefiting selected local animal rescues, which will be in attendance. The event will include “pup-stop”—a pet play area—and a Fashound Show.
The city of Austin designated the date Barkitecture Day, and the event inspired Michalik to create and co-direct the nonprofit Animal Lovers of Austin, which oversees the fete along with the 2nd Street District.
“It really elevates the event, it’s kind of like a United Way and funds raised are distributed to the various rescues,” she said.
Lofty Dog loves in-store happenings and Poochinis and Peticures, held monthly, provide an opportunity for pampered pups to get their nails done by a local veterinarian. Featuring “Poochini martinis” for humans and snacks for both two-legged and four-legged partiers, there is no charge; however, donations are requested to assist local rescues.
“We usually partner with a restaurant or buy cookies and brownies for humans,” Michalik said. “It’s a fun event where the animals can play and get their nails trimmed.”
Everyone loves a bargain, and Woof Wednesdays, held weekly, features an entire day for customers to receive a 5 percent discount on pet food and 10 percent off any other merchandise.
“It’s a twofold advantage: a way to give our clients a thank you and a way to bring people in on a slow day,” she said.
Always on the lookout for fun, innovative promotions, and in keeping with the establishment’s ambience, Michalik once asked customers to dance for their discounts. Performers tripping the light fantastic were rewarded with a 5 percent discount on merchandise.
Product displays encourage browsing and hands-on inspection.
A recent holiday event offered pets a chance to dress in their flag-waving best for a Patriotic Pooch photo contest in celebration of the Fourth of July. The winner’s photo appeared on the store’s website.
Offering free delivery service within the downtown area provides not only superior customer service but unique marketing as well. A three-wheeled bicycle, with a basket to carry merchandise, accomplishes both tasks as it is adorned with Lofty Dog signage, acting as a traveling billboard. A “blinged -out” car, is available for additional deliveries if necessary.
“We will call customers the day before a scheduled delivery date to ask if they are ready for their product,” she said. “That way they don’t have to think about it, we just deliver it,”
Additional advertising is accomplished via a monthly newsletter and e-mail blasts. Michalik limits the e-mails to the newsletter, special events and a monthly Poochini’s flyer.
“I hate being inundated by e-mail, so I’m really conscientious about what I send out each month,” she said.
A big believer in customer input and turning requests into reality, Michalik uses SurveyMonkey to help in understanding demographics, needs and desires. A $5 coupon is awarded upon completion of the survey.
“It’s my way of saying, ‘Remember, we are here for you, so let us know what you’d like to see in the store’,” she said.
Even the shelf-talkers get into the “keeping it weird” action with clever quotes from satisfied customers.
Working closely with local hotels provides the opportunity to help tourists with out of town needs. Austin is a dog-friendly town and many local hotels allow pets. Guests checking into one area hotel with their pet are treated to a special dog gift bag containing such items as toys, treats, logoed poop bags, and a map to local dog parks and coupons from Lofty Dog. Bags also include sample-sized shampoos and spritzers.
“I’m doing one right now with little toothbrushes with chicken toothpaste already on them; they are really cute,” she said.
Proximity to the new Austin City Limits, a 3,000-seat venue, will likely increase tourist traffic (it’s scheduled to open December 2010). Lofty Dog, with its Second Street address, soon to be renamed Willie Nelson Boulevard, is right where the action is—the W Austin Hotel and Residences is also adjacent.
A broad mix of product awaits shoppers, including premium dog and cat food, treats, apparel, bedding and toys. Locally made collars and leashes are carried, as are no-frills items.
“Amazingly, we have a lot of big dogs downtown and their owners want the practical stuff,” Michalik said. “I think we are a good mix of boutique and utilitarian.
“We change our inventory really frequently because a lot of our clients live downtown and I try to keep it fresh for them,” she added.
As a family business, Michalik feels fortunate to have her sons working alongside her and husband Ed working on the websites behind the scenes. She extends that family feeling to include customers.
“Sometimes people will come in during their lunch break to hang out with the dogs, it’s a good stress reliever,” she said.
AT A GLANCE
Location: Austin, Texas
Owner: Veronique Michalik
Size: 2,100 sq. ft.
Employees:3 full time, 2 part time
Years in Business: 3
Products and Services Offered: A full line of products for dogs and cats, including food, treats, apparel, toys, bedding, and accessories. Holds adoption days, Poochinis and Peticures, free delivery service within the downtown area.
In December 2009, Lofty Dog embarked upon a new enterprise by launching a satellite boutique in a nearby downtown veterinary office. Along with providing pet healthcare and boutique items, the clinic also features boarding and daycare services and a full grooming station.
For the future, Michalik sees more opportunity for satellite stores of this nature.
“There are a lot of boarding facilities and vet clinics that have the space for a boutique, but they don’t have the desire to take care of that end of the business,” she said. “We make it really easy because we take care of everything for them.”
In the meantime, Ruggles, Pickles and the rest of the family are content to occupy and operate in a space that once rocked to scores of musical performances. As a nod to that culture, the store displays posters from Liberty Lunch’s glory days and figurines of groups like the Ramones and Devo. The rock-n-roll vibe still permeates.
“I have people come in and say, ‘This used to be Liberty Lunch, I saw so and so perform here,’’” she said.
In the “Live Music Capital of the World”, Lofty Dog is truly a uniquely Austin experience.
Posted: Aug. 20, 2010
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