Success is in the Mix
Enabling a high level of autonomy at each of its six locations allows Tomlinson’s Feed & Pet to thrive.
By Devon McPhee
Even a down economy offers opportunities for moving up, if you’re prepared to take advantage of them.
That’s what Scott and Renae Click, owners of Tomlinson’s Feed & Pets, a small chain of pet supply stores in and around Austin, Texas, and winner of the Retailer of the Year Runner-up Award for Outstanding General Pet Store, discovered last year. The couple opened two new locations in 2010, not only despite the economy but partially because of it.
“Since our portion of the industry was doing well, we were able to negotiate good deals with landlords,” Scott said, adding that the company had planned to open up one new store last year but decided to open a second because they were made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
|Cedar Park store|
|Variations in layout and product selection are essential to the six stores’ success.|
The two new outlets bring the total number of Tomlinson’s stores in the Austin metro area to six—not bad for a company that started out as a chicken hatchery in 1946. Founded by T.R. Tomlinson, the store evolved from a hatchery to a full-line feed store. It came under the purview of the Click family in 1971, when Scott’s father, Liniel Click, purchased the store. As the Austin area changed, the Clicks adapted to the new business environment. They gradually moved their business more heavily into the pet category, though even today they maintain some feed supplies for their loyal customers.
On the live animal front, Tomlinson’s sells birds and small mammals and hosts adoption days for dogs and cats. While habitats vary from store to store, small mammals, such as guinea pigs and rabbits, are generally kept in open-top “petters” to give adults and older children the opportunity to pet the animals. Smaller children can see the pets through the glass. Many of the stores also display young parakeets in the open-top display cases. The birds seem to enjoy being in the middle of the action, Renae said.
Allowing variation from store to store is one of the keys to the business’s success, the Clicks said. Each store manager has a great deal of independence, adjusting each locale to best suit its clientele.
“We try to maintain a consistency with most food brands, but tweak dry goods and other food items,” Scott said. “For example, our oldest store (on 491⁄2 Street) and the South store do a good bird business, but the other locations carry little to no items in this category.”
With so many eyes on the pet market, this independence has also often unearthed products that do well across the board, Scott said.
“Our Cedar Park location brought in this new cat toy, and now it’s being requested at our other stores,” he said.
Tomlinson’s has awarded customer loyalty to its stores since the late 1980s, when Scott’s mom Nelda developed the Pet Club program. Club members pay a $5 annual fee (the same price originally charged nearly 30 years ago) and receive a 10 percent discount on all food items for the entire year. Currently, the club has about 28,000 members.
|Liniel & Scott Click in front of the original Tomlinson’s.|
These members are also privy to postcard mailings, the store’s most successful marketing campaign to date. Four to six times per year, the company sends Pet Club members postcards that include two to four coupons and often a giveaway. Giveaways have ranged from Tomlinson’s tennis balls to Frisbees to apple pies (given out the first week of December for the last three years).
“Customers especially look forward to the apple pies,” Scott said. “They start asking about them months before the holidays.”
The Clicks estimated that the postcard campaigns increase their revenue by about 10 percent throughout the month following receipt.
Tomlinson’s also has a strong community service component. The stores often partner with vendors on food drives during adoption days. At checkout, employees ask customers if they would like to buy a small bag of food to donate to the rescue group being featured. That donation is then matched by the vendor. During the 2010 Christmas season, the stores held a bed drive and donated more than 100 beds to a local animal sanctuary.
“We attribute the success of these campaigns to the participating vendors, the generosity of our customers, and the tenacity of our managers and employees, particularly at the Westlake store, which has had the most success,” Renae said.
This year, the Clicks look to further flesh out their two newest stores, which already are performing above projections, and focus on their online presence (see sidebar). Parting with a few words of advice for other pet store retailers, Scott said the old axiom “mind the store” holds the recipe for a sound business. The Clicks, for instance, visit each store at least three times a week to keep their operations running smoothly.
“It takes a lot of time, but it is important to walk around each store, talk to the managers and employees and know what is going on,” Scott said.
|A Healthy Online Presence|
One of the most effective ways to compete in the marketplace is having a healthy online presence, reported Scott and Renae Click, owners of Tomlinson’s Feed & Pets, a chain of pet supply stores in and around Austin, Texas.
To that end, the Clicks redesigned their website in 2009 to make it more useful for their customers. They added Google maps to all of their locations, a calendar, photo gallery, resource links, videos, monthly coupons and product information.
At a Glance: Tomlinson’s
Texas Locations: 908 E. 491⁄2 St. (Central, in Austin); 4211 S. Lamar Blvd., A17 (South, in Austin ); 3300 Bee Caves Road, Suite 370 (Westlake, in Austin); 5900 W. Slaughter Lane, Suite 480, (Circle C, in Austin); 2800 E. Whitestone Blvd., Suite 235 (Cedar Park, in Cedar Park); 2303 Ranch Road 620 S., Suite 180 (Lakeway, in Lakeway)
Owners: Liniel, Scott & Renae Click
Size: 3,000 sq. ft., plus 3,000 sq. ft. warehouse (Central); 3,000 sq. ft. (South); 4,000 sq. ft. (Westlake); 3,000 sq. ft. (Cedar Park); 3,000 sq. ft. (Lakeway); 3,000 sq. ft. (Circle C)
Employees: 20 full-time,
Years in Business: 65
Products and Services Offered: All-natural and holistic pet foods for dogs and cats; bird, small mammal, and wild bird food; pet toys, supplies, and accessories; farm and feed; and boutique items. Sells live animals, including birds and small mammals; offers wing and nail trimmings, monthly veterinary services and educational seminars. Holds adoption days for rescue and shelter animals.
They also started a Facebook page, which they use as a forum for all things pet-related. Focused on fun, Renae posts items such as cute pet videos or photos for their 800 friends.
“It’s less about selling and more about engaging our customers,” she said.
Finally, the couple launched an electronic newsletter about a year ago, which gets sent no more than three times per month. The newsletter contains items on upcoming events at Tomlinson’s or in the Austin area and information on monthly specials, coupons or general-interest pieces. Customers can sign up to receive the newsletter when they check out, and the distribution list now stands at more than 9,400.
All of these online efforts pay off in terms of generating a connection with your customers, Renae said.
“Having a healthy online presence is a great way to build and maintain a community with your customers and to keep tabs on what they want,” she said.
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