Knowing what dog owners want and how to reach them helps Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery draw in new customers and keep regulars coming back.
By Devon McPhee
Owning a small business is a lot like working in the film industry, according to Alan Ronay, owner of Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery in St. Pete Beach, Fla. Ronay studied fine art and film production and worked for several years making movies in Los Angeles before opening up shop in his hometown.
“When producing a film, you have to get a budget together, you have to itemize everything; it’s like a business plan for a store,” he said. “The script for a store would be its products and the layout. Hiring employees is like doing a casting call. And you have to make sure when you’re putting it together that everything makes sense and that you’re making budget.”
|From its attractive storefront to enticing treat tables and cases, Best Buddies draws customers in with a variety of eye-pleasing displays.|
As with any good film, a good business should also receive accolades from its peers and industry experts. In Ronay’s case, his Best Buddies store garnered Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Merchandising and Marketing.
Making the Sale
With merchandising and marketing in mind, Ronay developed several strategies to reach out to his customers. As with most businesses, he advertises in local newspapers, and uses direct mail and email marketing, as well as good old-fashioned word-of-mouth to keep in touch with existing and potential clients.
Ronay also entices customers in through his store’s whimsical window displays. In the summer, the boutique featured a beach display. He filled the shop’s windows with sand and built scenes with sunglass-wearing dogs, beach gear and the store’s new summertime products.
During the winter holidays, the store adopted a recession-themed Santa’s workshop display. Since this particular Santa couldn’t afford to hire elves, his pet dog and some of his four-legged friends took over making the toys. The display included a high-tech looking toy-making machine, complete with a working conveyor belt on which holiday products were showcased. This display won a local design award.
To encourage return customers, the store offers a creative loyalty program. Called the “treat card,” it entitles members to 10 percent off their purchases. Regulars also benefit from weekly deals, which Ronay secures by working with distributors. In addition, a recent buy-one, get-one-free dog food promotion offered by the store also brought in a number of new shoppers.
Located in a vacation destination, Best Buddies has very successful relationships with local beach hotels that cater to travelers with pets. The store gives the hotels pet travel kits, which are little suitcases filled with items such as a bowl, food and treats, and a coupon to drive individuals to the store to make a purchase—or two.
|Even a reluctant shopper would have a hard time resisting the shop’s colorful product presentations.|
One of its most innovative marketing strategies is its treat token program. Ronay gives local business owners, such as personal trainers and dog walkers, stacks of tokens to hand out to their clients. The tokens, which have individual barcodes, are good for one free treat at Best Buddies.
The program creates a win-win for everyone involved, Ronay said.
“Business owners give them to their clients as a thank you, which makes them look good,” he said. “The clients get a free treat, and we get to track the info and potentially gain new customers.”
Ronay recently relocated his business, moving into a space nearly double the size of the original store and in a better location within downtown St. Pete’s. He said he’d like to open up another shop, most likely in nearby Tampa. And, in five years or less, he also hopes to franchise Best Buddies. He said he’d like to start the franchise in Florida, and then expand nationally.
AT A GLANCE
Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery
Location: 6498 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete Beach, Fla.
Owner: Alan Ronay
Size: 1,200 square feet
Employees: Three full time
Years in Business: 3
Products and Services Offered:Treats, collars, toys, beds, houses, and other items for dogs, as well as some gift items for humans; offers delivery service to locals and nearby hotels; fixes broken toys.
“We’ve worked really hard to make everything standardized, and we believe that the brand appeals to a mass market,” Ronay said. “I think we’ll do really well as a franchise if we go nationally; a lot of our customers here on vacation or for business ask us about franchising.”
With these big plans under way, Ronay still keeps a focus on perfecting his current shop. He’s always on the lookout for cool new products that would appeal to his customers.
“We travel all over looking for new and awesome products,” he said. “I try everything we sell out on my dogs first. Every item in the store I have one of at home.”
For instance, the store introduced Halloween costumes for the first time this year. Ronay hadn’t stocked them before because he didn’t feel like they were humane. Then he found a product line that sold Halloween-themed hoodies and clothing and ordered a supply for his shelves.
When Ronay gets a new item, he makes sure that his employees know everything about it.
“Every product is important, so they have to know about each one,” he said. “When we get a new item, I basically give them homework. I tell them that they have to learn everything about the product, and that they need to try it out at home.”
He also makes sure to listen to his customers’ recommendations. Not too long ago, several customers expressed interest in a specific food brand. Even though he was reluctant to bring the item in, he did for those customers. Now it’s one of the store’s best-selling brands.
Ronay said that successes like these reinforce the importance of listening to your customer.
“We want to hear our customers’ opinions, we want their feedback,” he said.
|Best Buddies owner Alan Ronay.|
Visit the website of St. Pete Beach, Fla.-based Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery and in addition to store and product information, you’ll find a blog written by Ronay.
On the blog, Ronay discusses new products, food trends, and health tips and tricks; he also gets the chance to interact with his customers. Most of his web visitors come from within a 30-mile radius of the store; however, there are pockets of activity from Los Angeles and New York, as well as a handful of hits from overseas.
The store maintains an online presence on several social media sites, including Facebook, GoWalla, FourSquare, Yahoo and Yelp, but Ronay said it’s the blog that’s the best tool for him and his customers.
“The blog is much more creative and you have a lot of freedom,” he said. “You can write about anything—one day it’ll be a product, the next day it’ll be an animal activist.
“As you change from topic to topic, people will tell you if they’re happy with what you’ve written—you get instant feedback,” he added. “It’s a really great way to interact with our customers. As a business owner, it’s useful to hear from your customers.”
Posted: Dec. 19, 2011, 3:30 p.m. EST <HOME>
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