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Retailer of the Year 2012-2013: Outstanding Consumer Education

Posted: Oct. 23, 2012, 2:20 p.m. EDT


The Name Says It All
Petagogy’s owners focus on educating customers on the best products for the life of their pets.
By Lizett Bond

Pedagogy is defined as the art, science or profession of teaching with the goal of helping “students” become their best. With this philosophy in mind, long-time friends, married partners and pet owners Heather Blum and Cole Wolfson, and Elsie Lample and Ben Huber explored the possibility of opening a pet store together.

Pet product News Retailer of the Year
“It basically started as a conversation with friends over drinks,” Blum said. “We wanted an environment where people felt comfortable asking questions.”

The two couples, with four dogs between them, discussed their own desire to learn more about natural foods and available options, and the long distances they were driving to purchase high-quality pet food. Huber, a former teacher, created the name Petagogy and the group felt it appropriate. It fit their vision.

“We liked the concept,” Blum noted. “There were older pet stores but nothing that really focused on the more natural or small batch independently owned companies.”

Petagogy owners
Ben Huber, Elsie Lample, Heather Blum and Cole Wolfson with their four dogs—Bumblebee, Jack, Deeka and Daisy.
The partners acquired a 600-square-foot location situated in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh on Ellsworth Avenue; home to many small, independent, locally owned businesses. As the plan became reality, getting the word out was the first order of business.

“The four of us actually door-hangered about 3,000 doors in Shadyside with an announcement of our grand opening and a coupon,” Blum said. “It was a crazy weekend.”

In addition, passersby on the heavily foot traveled avenue observed a sign in the window of the new store announcing the June 2011 grand opening.

Offering a selection of healthy, natural foods and treats as well as toys, bedding and accessories for dogs and cats, the store’s focus is on unique and innovative products. Many of these products are unavailable elsewhere in Pittsburgh and support family-owned and eco-friendly businesses as much as possible. In working closely with suppliers and distributors and attending pet expos and trade shows, the store is able to offer a wide variety of goods that meet the needs of individual pets.

“There are so many options out there that people may not have known even existed,” Blum said.

Petagogy dog food
Although small, Petagogy’s layout is open and inviting, and offers a wide range of heathful items for dogs and cats.
It’s not just two-legged customers stopping in to browse and enjoy the Petagogy atmosphere. A big sign in the front window announces “Pet Friendly for Friendly Pets” and four-legged customers immediately encounter a bowl filled with fresh, cold water and are offered a treat. Canine visitors looking for a little extra refreshment often partake of rotating flavors of doggie soft serve such as turkey or chicken sprinkles. Birthdays are not forgotten; furry celebrants receive a card on their special day along with a $5-off coupon. Pets in the market for a new harness or collar can be fitted and taken for a test stroll along the sidewalk.

Discovering the best food fit includes sampling, which allows customers to compare food palatability or kibble size. Questions are encouraged and information is provided regarding different types of available foods.

“Everyone knows kibble and everyone knows cans, but there are so many other options out there,” Blum noted. “We want to be the place where people can come in and ask questions about these things.”

Besides samples, the “Food Flyer” discusses ingredients and provides comparisons with regards to feeding costs between popular big box brands and foods carried at Petagogy. It also offers $5 off a replacement bag of food in exchange for a bag of inferior quality food purchased from a grocery or big box store.

To further customer education and product awareness, Petagogy’s Food of the Month highlights a different brand of food each month. A display is fashioned and placed in front of the store and, in cooperation with the featured food manufacturer, promotional packages are created that include such items as trial boxes, brochures, handouts and posters.

petagogy customer service
Petagogy strives to be an educational resource to its customers.
“Customers are becoming savvier,” Blum said. “We are really trying to position ourselves to sell from companies that are family owned or might have their own plant, these companies are doing amazing things.”

Further discussion of pet food choices occurs in the Petagogy blog, which features monthly food reviews written in the voice of Jack, a Labradoodle and the pickiest of the four dogs belonging to the two couples. But Jack isn’t the only four-legged journalist; because of his love of toys, Bumblebee, an American bulldog, pens the “buzz” on toys, Deeka, a Chihuahua/corgi mix, opines about her favorite treats; and beagle-mix Daisy, a recent adoptee, covers shelter news.

Additionally, customers are apprised of food recalls and any other news via the blog, which is emailed to The Paws Club members, the store’s loyalty club. Along with receiving the Petagogy newsletter, members receive a $10-off coupon for every $200 spent in the store. Members are also invited to Paws Club Member Sales, held several times per year, and other member specials.

“We like to let them know there are some special perks for being members and loyal to us,” Blum said.

Membership aside, any customer wishing to conduct their own research may take advantage of the store’s “Lending Library,” choosing from a selection of books and magazines covering nutrition, puppies, training and other pet issues. For those who prefer to surf the Internet, the Petagogy website features extensive resource links.

At a Glance
Petagogy

Location: 5880 Ellsworth Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Owners: Heather Blum, Ben Huber, Elsie Lample and Cole Wolfson

Size: 600 square feet

Employees: 2 full time, 3 part time

Years in Business: 1

Products and Services Offered: Foods, treats, grooming products, supplements, toys, accessories and boutique items for dogs and cats; delivery, educational seminars and adoption days.

Website: www.petagogypgh.com

“These resources are just another way for us to connect with our customers,” Blum said.

Beyond research, new puppy starter kits are offered at various times throughout the year. The kits contain items such as training treats, puppy food samples and an informational flier as well as business cards and coupons from local dogs walkers and trainers.

“We want to be a resource for our community,” Blum said. “We are always learning every day, and we strive to be a place where people can come and talk about pet issues and what their pets are doing.”

Training is often one of those issues, and the store hosts regular “Ask The Trainer” events, which feature a certified trainer. Held on a weekend afternoon, the event provides a free Q&A session with a local trainer to assist customers with their dog and puppy training questions.

As these well-trained pets promenade Ellsworth Avenue, Petagogy is working in conjunction with the Shadyside Chamber of Commerce to identify pet- friendly businesses and promote a “Dog Friendly Shadyside.”

“There are so many businesses that allow pets,” Blum said. “Some of these places even have treats ready for the dogs, we want to let people know where they can go with their pets.”

Letting people know what’s going on at Petagogy also includes a Facebook page and Twitter as well as advertisements in a local magazine during the holidays and summer. And there’s plenty to post.

For the store’s one-year anniversary celebration it hosted a Pet Vendor Fair. With approximately 500 revelers in attendance, the festivities included tie-dying of Petagogy bandanas, a photographer snapping photos of pets in their finest or silliest threads and a pottery expert to help create clay paw prints.

Pet Vendor Fair
Petagogy celebrated its one-year anniversary by hosting a pet vendor fair. Photos Courtesy of Petagogy
“It was awesome, we held it in the parking lot across from our store,” Blum said. “We had 10 different tents of activities.”

Following the educational theme, vendors were present to provide information regarding health and nutrition. Blum attributed the success of the event not only to collaborative marketing, including fliers, emails and posts on Facebook and Twitter, but more important to the acknowledgement by customers that Petagogy offers experiences for both pet and owner.

However, not all Petagogy parties are held in a parking lot with hundreds of guests. Several times per year the store hosts a Yappy Hour, which takes place inside the store. Four-legged partiers are treated to Beer Bones by Cohiba while their humans sample Flying Dog beer. An upcoming Yappy Hour will feature a dog-themed whiskey cocktail from Wiggle Whiskey, a local distillery.

“It should be fun and will promote another local business that started just like ours did, over a conversation,” Blum said.

The store was also featured on “Pittsburgh Live,” a local TV show, as part of a report on Shadyside and Ellsworth Avenue retailers and was also voted “Best Pet Store” in Pittsburgh Magazine, a city lifestyle magazine.

“It’s a readers’ poll, so it was a really big honor for us,” Blum said.

With Huber and Blum working in the store full-time and Wolfson and Lample helping out in addition to their own outside careers, Petagogy employs one part-time employee. Training consists of a manual outlining policies and procedures and working alongside the owners. A formal introduction in the Petagogy blog provided familiarity to customers.

“We really want to empower her as an ambassador for this store,” Blum said. “We want our customers to feel as if they are entering our home.”

For the future, the owners will endeavor to keep things creative and fresh and continue to promote smaller brands and new companies.

“We think that is the key to staying dynamic and keeping things interesting,” Blum said. “We want to be a resource for our community.” 

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