Posted: July 9, 2013, 1:30 p.m. EDT
By Lizett Bond
"What a great experience! I liked being here, and I will come back!”
That’s music to the ears at Gone to the Dogs Boutique, where it’s all about providing the quintessential shopping experience. The goal for this St. Pete Beach, Fla., establishment, and recipient of Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year for Outstanding Pet Boutique, is to hear every customer exit with those very words on their lips.
With that objective in mind, owners Greg Phillips and Joe Borzoni know how to deliver. Phillips worked his way up the ranks to upper management in the retail end of the fashion industry; Borzoni climbed the customer service ladder in the telecommunications industry. When the two decided to relocate to St. Pete Beach from fast-paced New York City, they understood that offering the superlative was crucial to the success of Gone to the Dogs.
"One thing I learned in the fashion industry is that it’s all about customer service,” Phillips said. "You have to provide a level of service that customers really like and enjoy. That brings them back.”
Beyond service-oriented backgrounds, the pair loves dogs, having adopted a Scottish terrier in New York named Max. For these reasons, opening a pet boutique seemed a natural transition. Furthermore, practical knowledge acquired as a fashion buyer provided Phillips with the necessary skills when it comes stocking product.
"I already had an understanding with regard to getting the merchandise in, setting it up and making it visually exciting,” he said. "We decided it was now or never and jumped in.”
Upon observing smaller grooming salon/boutiques in New York City, the two decided a larger version of such enterprises could prove successful in the beach town. By late 2008, they were ready to launch Gone to the Dogs Boutique.
"We knew we had to find the right products—merchandise that would make it interesting for customers to come in and spend some time walking around and looking,” Phillips said.
Gone to the Dogs' wall mural. Photo credit Gone to the Dogs
Beach Treasures and Treats
The boutique beckons with outdoor flower boxes and inviting window displays. Once inside, patrons are greeted by an array of toys, bright ceramic bowls, treats, apparel, spa items—even home décor products—all attractively presented in colorful, tiered arrangements. To the rear of the store, at the register, the eye is drawn to a large mural depicting dogs strolling on the beach and with the store’s namesake as the focal point.
The product mix includes a beach-inspired t-shirt line with a Gone to the Dogs label. With the water close by, canine life jackets also are popular.
"I learned quickly that customers are looking for specific items for their dogs, and they have to be comfortable,” Phillips said. "At first I went with things that I liked but learned that it’s all about summer here, so I geared toward those products—items like tank tops.”
The pet foods offered are natural, holistic lines, fare not found in big-box stores.
"Nothing with corn, wheat or soy, and no artificial flavors,” Phillips said.
After a day on the sand, beach-going owners want a clean, beautifully coiffed dog, and the grooming services offered are designed to transcend the typical grooming experience. To that end, owners may drop off their charges at an appointed hour, indulge in a little shopping or relax over lunch, and return to a squeaky clean pet in about one hour.
"We didn’t want our own dog waiting in a cage all day, and customers really gravitated toward this,” Phillips said. "Because our store is located in a shopping environment, customers enjoy taking advantage of that.”
Dogs and owners arriving for a spa visit are met first by the groomer for a consultation.
"They might have questions about coat condition or just be interested in a new look for their pet,” Phillips said.
Paw conditioning treatments, teeth cleaning and mouthwash are among the add-ons, along with an extensive selection of products designed to treat conditions such as dry skin or flyaway hair. In addition to spa products, groomers are well versed in nutritional aspects relating to coat and hair condition and can impart that knowledge.
"Customer education is huge,” Phillips said.
The 2,000-square-foot store devotes 500 square feet of space to the grooming salon, with two groomers able to accommodate up to 16 dogs per day.
The Gone to the Dogs experience includes "Pawsitive Zensations.” Offered several times per year in conjunction with adoption events, pets in need of a little relaxation can unwind with reiki therapy and canine massage.
"We were looking for something unusual to provide our customers,” Phillips said. "One of our customers happens to be a massage therapist, and she wanted to participate.”
A canine psychic provides services several times per year; these events continue to gather momentum as owners pursue a deeper understanding of their pets.
Gone to the Dogs store interior. Photo credit Gone to the Dogs
Coastal Community Spirit
Community relationships are a key component to the success of Gone to the Dogs. That support includes reaching out to local rescues with adoption days, donations, educational seminars and special events. To further the cause, adoptive pets seeking forever homes are treated to grooming services on special days held several times per year. After their individual spa ministrations, a colorful bandana completes the look.
"That way they are visually ready for their new home, and we automatically give a free bag of food to adopting pet parents to get them started on the right diet,” Phillips said.
In addition, items not selling well in the store are passed on to these agencies. Customers also are encouraged to contribute toys and collars or purchase a 5-pound bag of food toward the rescue efforts.
"We’ve worked with a few specific rescue groups—one in particular, Pet Pal Animal Shelter—for four years now,” he said. "We also donate food every month.”
A local event that helps spread the word is the well-attended St. Pete Beach Corey Sunday Market, which features vendors selling fresh produce, gourmet foods and flowers. Gone to the Dogs is situated within the market area, and by setting up tables outside the boutique, rescue volunteers are able to discuss their agency, potential adoptions and low-cost spaying and neutering with passersby.
"We work with these agencies because we don’t believe in selling dogs in pet shops,” Phillips said. "We want people to go to the rescues, and so we do whatever we can to help them out.”
This beach community is also a tourist town, and catering to this seasonal influx creates its own unique set of demands.
"We have the snowbirds who come down four to six months out of the year,” he said. "Some might visit for a week or two as well. October through May we are twice as busy as other times of the year.”
Tourists checking in at local pet-friendly resorts are provided with a special package containing spa products, treats and coupons from Gone to the Dogs. The hotel concierge provides grooming referrals and books grooming appointments.
Year-round residents comprise 60 to 65 percent of boutique business, and Phillips realizes the importance of staying aware of these differing demographics. Moreover, senior citizens make up a large portion of that year-round percentage; many of these folks live in condos and own small, elderly dogs, some of which can become very vocal if left alone.
"One of the biggest issues with our customer base is barking,” Phillips said. "We work with a local dog trainer to provide seminars that include training techniques to help keep these dogs calm.”
All that training assistance makes Fido a joy during the store’s Dogs on Deck event, held once a month on a local restaurant patio. Invites are emailed to the extensive customer base, as well as posted on Facebook, so revelers can mark their calendars.
In the fall, holiday festivities kick off with Gone to the Dogs’ annual Halloween event.
"We started our little, bitty Halloween thing as a benefit for a local rescue group, but it went really well, and it has grown from there,” Phillips said.
Last year’s event on the street attracted close to 900 goblins. The party now enjoys the participation of local merchants, a pet parade and a costume contest with top prizes donated by area pet-friendly resorts.
At a Glance
Gone to the Dogs
Location: 310 Corey Ave.,
St. Pete Beach, FL 33706
Size: 2,000 sq. ft.
Owners: Greg Phillips and
Employees: 4 full-time; 5 part-time
Years in Business: 5
Products and Services Offered: Foods, toys, bowls, treats, apparel, spa items, home décor, grooming, adoption days, seminars, Dogs on Deck, massage therapy
"It has turned into a real street event for families,” he added.
A more unusual affair, drawing on Phillip’s past experience in the fashion world, is the boutique’s trunk shows. It’s a festive event with treats for dogs and coffee with goodies for owners. Purveyors display their wares, and customers peruse the selections.
"I always tell the vendors they have to be able to sell the goods they bring,” Phillips said. "I want the customers to be able to buy right from the vendor.”
They’ll Be Back
All the goings-on at Gone to the Dogs call for a unique employee.
"I look for people with the gift of gab,” Phillips said. "If you have someone with that personality, they can be trained on the products.”
That guidance includes shadowing, nutritional training and additional information provided by vendors.
The well-versed staff uses media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the in-house email list to let customers know what’s happening at Gone to the Dogs.
"We also do a lot of marketing through all of our local papers,” Phillips said. "But we get most of our reactions through social media.”
For the future, opening more boutiques is a consideration, as is focusing on drawing residential mainlanders to the beachside shop.
To that end, word of mouth is huge—including that melodious phrase, "I will be back.”
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