Posted: Aug. 28, 2012, 8:30 p.m. EDT
All in the Family
Three generations and counting, Tomlinson’s owners continue to seize opportunity, embrace change and move with the times.
By Lizett Bond
“You have to change as the market changes, you have to grow.”
This was the counsel offered in 1971 as Tomlinson’s Feed and Pets founder T.R. Tomlinson handed the reins over to new owner Liniel Click. Established in 1946, even Mr. Tomlinson could not have predicted the course the one-time chick hatchery would travel to arrive at its current destination. The Click family took his advice to heart, traversing a route that included feed store and wholesale bird business to growing local pet store chain with seven locations and Pet Product News International’s 2012-2013 Retailer of the Year.
Tomlinson’s owners Renae and Scott Click
A family affair, the second generation of Clicks continues a tradition of seizing opportunity and embracing change. Having worked part-time in the business since he was 8 years old, son Scott came on board officially in 1986 after college graduation.
Father and son worked side-by-side for 25 years, and as Tomlinson’s began to focus more on the pet retail business, other offerings were gradually phased out. While still called upon for his expertise and wisdom, the elder Click is currently enjoying retirement on his ranch in West Texas.
“We worked very closely and I can say during that time, we never had an argument,” Liniel Click said. “If we disagreed, it was always very logically and we worked it out.”
Continuing the family evolution, Renae left her teaching career in 2008 to join her husband Scott full-time in the family endeavor.
“I left teaching because the pet industry was really beginning to explode at that time and we saw the opportunity to expand,” Renae said. “I was really needed.”
The couple’s differing skill sets and business styles complement and enhance the day-to-day operations of the enterprise, and are also advantageous in discerning future opportunities. Marketing the “customer experience,” including the overall look of the stores, customer and employee education and advertising, fall under Renae’s helm. Scott, with a degree in finance, guides the numbers side of the business.
Four-legged customers can select their own treats.
“It works out well for both of us,” Scott said.
Well indeed, as Tomlinson’s seventh location opened this summer. The couple strives to maintain a uniform appearance within locations, with the exception of the freestanding original store, which maintains its “neighborhood feed store” ambience.
“Our original customers like that, and since it’s part of our history, we don’t plan to change it,” Renae said.
Demographics play a role in product mix considerations, and inventory varies from location to location, tailored to the surrounding locale. For instance, with a legacy in birds, two stores cater to avian customers with a more extensive selection of those products, as well as the birds themselves.
However, in keeping with the credo of evolving with demand, the overall inventory of small animals, birds and fish has diminished—they are offered in five out of the seven locations. Each of the habitats varies by store.
“Birds and bird products only account for 10 to 15 percent of our sales now,” Scott said.
Each location carries a full line of pet products, including collars and leashes, supplements and just about anything “dog and cat.” Renae noted the importance of keeping the mix fresh.
“In some ways, it’s a little bit like fashion, you have to rotate a lot,” she said.
In addition, pet nutrition plays a central role in the philosophy of the company and in the selection of pet food offered.
“We focus on that high-end, high-quality food,” Scott said. “It’s what the market demands, and it is the message we hold true to, it keeps us uniform.”
Sales associate John Guest helps a customer find the perfect dog toy.
Keeping things up-to-date also applies to store locations, as witnessed by the recent relocation of a 23-year-old facility to a larger and more modern site.
“It’s our No. 1 store in sales but it was old,” Scott said. “So we moved it a few doors down in the same center and made it more standardized to the other stores.”
All stores are pet-friendly, and customers are encouraged to bring furry family members in for visits.
“I guess there is a good business reason behind being pet-friendly, but we just like it,” Scott said.
In addition, Tom the Tomcat has been greeting visitors for more than 10 years at the Central store after showing up one day and deciding to put down roots.
Tom’s adoption may have been his own decision, but supporting animals in need is an important component to the overall company ideology. For this reason, pet rescue and adoption is strongly encouraged and supported.
“Austin is a no-kill city, so there is a lot of adoption activity here,” Renae said.
Three generations—Brandon, Scott and Liniel—make it “Click” at Tomlinson’s.
Along these lines, individual managers choose the rescue groups they wish to promote in their own stores and arrange these events at the store level. Because the stores are spread out geographically, a broad mix of 12 to 15 local groups is well-represented.
Involvement in community-wide rescue events through sponsorships and donations is also an important element in offering a helping hand to pets in need.
“Dogtoberfest is a nonprofit organization benefiting several rescue groups, and we partner with them,” Renae said. “It’s one of our biggest events.”
Last year, the annual event, which includes games, a costume contest and pet-related demonstrations, attracted approximately 5,000 attendees and their canine companions.
The Clicks also take great pride in Tomlinson’s assistance efforts for the victims of the devastating 2011 Bastrop fire, which occurred 30 miles east of Austin. The fast-moving blaze left many residents and pets homeless, and Tomlinson’s campaign consisted of gathering donations from manufacturers and individual customers to distribute to victims and rescue groups.
“I estimate that in six weeks’ time, we distributed donated product at close to $100,000 in wholesale dollars,” Scott said. “Natura Pet Products donated an entire truckload of dog food.”
This type of teamwork is a recurring theme, as the company regularly partners with manufacturers and customers in holding donation drives aimed at supporting local rescue groups. For instance, a purchase-matching arrangement over a weekend might see every customer purchase matched and donated by a manufacturer.
At a GlanceLocation: 7 stores in Austin, Texas
Owners: Renae & Scott Click
Size: 2,500 to 4,000 square feet
Employees: 26 full time, 18 part time
Years in Business: 76
Products and Services Offered: Cat and dog foods, treats and products, birds, small animals and products, adoption days, community outreach, vaccination clinics, training
Rescue groups are also a presence at every Tomlinson’s grand opening event. With specials offered at every location citywide, the main event at a new location is a celebration, offering adoption opportunities, presentations by dog trainers, vendor participation and prizes.
But it doesn’t take a grand opening to host a special event. Tomlinson’s arranges in-store, low-cost vaccination clinics several times per year. In addition, partnering with local trainers, both at store sites and at training facilities, encourages learning with the goal of enhancing the quality of owner/pet relationships.
An emphasis on knowledge and training extends to Tomlinson’s employees; new hires begin the educational process by attending an orientation class presented by Renae and subsequently completing five Pet Store Pro online training modules prior to their 45-day review.
“Employee education is extremely important, customers come into our stores expecting answers to their nutritional questions,” she said. “We stress to our managers the importance of entire-team training.”
That training includes company-wide training seminars held away from the store settings.
“We held one once using a private room at a Dave and Buster’s,” Scott said.
To extend that learning experience and promote camaraderie, managers travel to trade shows, such as SuperZoo, taking advantage of the educational seminars provided at these venues.
Acquiring new knowledge also applies to the Clicks, who have traveled to similar retail chains in other areas to observe methods of employee training. These visits also provide insight into maintaining a personal feel as their business expands.
Tomlinson's offers small animals, birds and fish.
“We don’t want to lose that,” Scott said. “We want to be sure that customers are getting the same good service they got 40 years ago, when we just had one store.”
Customer appreciation is expressed in a variety of ways, and one of the more successful is the Christmastime apple pie giveaway held over a weekend in early December. Customers are mailed a holiday greeting postcard to redeem for the fresh pastry (baked by a local grocery store), just for dropping in.
“Last year we handed out 950 pies,” Scott said.
Getting the word out about events or monthly in-store specials is accomplished in several ways, including an e-newsletter sent to existing customers—more than 15,000 people are on the list. Many of the names are gathered as customers join The Pet Club, which allows them to save 10 percent on all food purchases for their $5 membership fee.
“That was actually an idea that my mother came up with in the late ‘80s,” Scott said. “Back then we weren’t computerized, but as we developed sales systems we started collecting email addresses and it’s grown from there.”
Reaching out to new customers and advertising in-store specials is accomplished using Red Plum fliers. Renae finds that this type of promotion reaches a large neighborhood base of potential and existing customers and is most effective with recognized items.
Employees work in the warehouse on distribution days.
“It doesn’t seem to work as well on an item that people are unfamiliar with,” she said. “We really want to bring in new customers and that’s why we use the fliers.”
With six different specials offered every month, Tomlinson’s partners with each represented manufacturer to provide customer discounts and ensure that there will be enough product to meet the additional demand.
Staying in step with the times, social media is instrumental in reaching out to customers, and daughter Kate tackles this responsibility. With 2,500 Facebook fans, social media also serves as an additional avenue to donate to local rescues.
“Kate runs a monthly rescue group fundraiser, and with every new fan on our Facebook or new follower on Twitter, the designated group will receive $2 or a gift card for merchandise,” Renae said. “It also grew our fan base.”
In addition, Kate pens a blog for Tomlinson’s website, which is also linked to the Facebook page.
Owners are encouraged to bring their pets to the store. Photos by Norah Levine/Courtesy of Tomlinson's
“Donating to rescues is part of our brand and part of our reputation,” Scott added. “Everybody wins when we do that.”
For the future, the Clicks will continue to focus on changing with the times, and that family tradition continues as the third generation of Clicks comes on board. Son Brandon, with a business degree from Pepperdine University, brings his own marketing expertise to the family table and currently manages the Central store.
“We ask ourselves if we still want to expand, but as our kids become more involved, and they want to grow, we just kind of keep our eyes open,” Scott said.
“Mr. Tomlinson was a smart man and changed with the market, but even he couldn’t envision where it is now, and I’m sure in 20 years we will be in a different place, too,” he added.
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