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Retailer of the Year Winner 2012-2013: Outstanding Adoption and Rescue Support

Posted: April 5, 2013, 9:30 p.m. EDT


Wylie Wagg Focuses on the Big 3
At Virginia-based Wylie Wagg pet store, the overriding goals are healthy pets, happy shopping experiences and helpful staff.
By Lizett Bond

"At Wylie Wagg, our goal is to make sure everything in our store is healthy, that our customers have a happy experience and our employees always are helpful,” said Laura Clark, co-owner with husband Larry of Wylie Wagg pet store, which has four Virginia locations and is the winner of Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year Award for Outstanding Adoption and Rescue Support. "It’s simplistic intentionally. If you get too complex, it’s hard to meet those goals.”

When the Clarks, both former executives in New York City’s corporate world, made the decision to relocate to the small community of Middleburg, Va., in 2001, opening a retail pet store seemed a natural transition. As advocates of healthy eating, Laura being a vegetarian since age 11, both were disappointed in the food selections available for their pets.

Retailer of the Year
"We felt like we were living one standard for ourselves and another for our pets,” she said.

With the opening of the first Wylie Wagg location in 2002, the duo was able to combine their business expertise with a growing interest in pet nutrition.

"It was a combination of timing in our careers and being ready for a little bit quieter way of life,” she said.

In addition, the venture provided a platform to find loving families for homeless pets. As an animal shelter volunteer in New York City, Laura experienced first-hand the horrors of no-kill facilities.

"It stuck with me and just made sense to do something to change the equation for homeless animals in our new community,” Clark said. "What we hadn’t anticipated was that this particular region of the country is unbelievably motivated to help rescue needy animals.”

Wylie Wagg
Wylie Wagg aims to help keep pets happy and healthy.Photos by ClintonBPhotography/Courtesy of Wylie Wagg
In the beginning, the couple knew that being accepted as part of the community, supporting local adoption and rescue efforts and providing healthy choices in pet food were essential components to the success of their enterprise. Additionally, a passion for each effort proved a crucial contributor to Wylie Wagg’s success.

"Our hearts were in the right place; it can’t just be about money,” Clark said. "Anytime you start a business, it has to be something you are passionate about.”

As a result of these combined attributes, Middleburg residents embraced Wylie Wagg and the couple.

Entering the healthy pet food game very early on, Wylie Wagg offered a food product mix that saw an increase in demand over the next decade.

"It’s been really interesting because initially people thought we were selling ‘gourmet’ pet food, and we had to educate our customers to understand that it wasn’t gourmet, it was just healthy,” Clark said.

The nationwide food recalls of 2007 placed sourcing and ingredients at the forefront of pet owner awareness, and Clark noted that today’s consumers are more educated and concerned with pet nutrition than ever before.

"It’s been fast and across a wide demographic,” she added. "It was a quick education and the turning point in the health of domestic animals in this country.”

Wylie Wagg grew with the pet food industry, and the original store in Middleburg, at 1,700 square feet, has doubled its size to take over the shop next door. During the first eight years of business, a new location opened every two years to the current four sites. Three stores measure from 3,000 to 3,400 square feet, with the smallest, the Arlington store, at 1,200 square feet.

Wylie Wagg owners
Wylie Wagg owners Laura and Larry Clark are passionate about pet nutrition and giving back.
Staffing each store are three full-time employees along with two to three part-timers. By offering competitive benefits and salaries, Wylie Wagg reports a very low turnover rate, with many staff members considering their work at the pet store a career.

"Many of our employees have been with us for years,” Clark said.

In striving to create a "miniature department store” ambience, shopability and consistency are important components, with stores laid out by department and aisles featuring similar products. Along with a selection of high quality foods, supplements and treats, collars, leashes, treats, toys, apparel, beds, training aids and gift items are also in the mix.

"We basically offer everything a full-line pet store would carry, including items for small animals and birds,” Clark said.

All products must meet exacting standards and pass a quality test and a toxicity test. Latex or rubber products must be made of natural rubber and sourced in the United States, and items that simply are popular or cute might not make the grade. This conviction extends to pet foods.

"Our foods must be wheat-, corn-, soy-free, but we also exclude ingredients such as BHA, BHT, propylene glycol or synthetic vitamin K,” Clark said. "We do not sell food sourced in China, and if a certain brand of dog food doesn’t meet our standards, we won’t carry it.”

Healthful treats are a way of life at Wylie Wagg, and visiting pets are encouraged and welcomed with a goodie.

"The dogs certainly get used to it and often come behind the counter to ask for it,” Clark said. "We want them to have a happy experience—it’s the fun part of what we do.”

At a Glance
Wylie Wagg

Location:4 stores - Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Middleburg, Va.

Owners:Larry and Laura Clark

Size:3,000 square feet, average

Employees:12 full-time; 8-12 part-time

Products and Services Offered: Cat, dog and small animal foods and products, gift items, adoption days, Spa Days, "Give Program,” Vet Days, training and parties.

Website: www.wyliewagg.com

The desire for a happy experience extends to pets in need. Support for homeless pets includes adoption days, fundraising and community events. An important component to this philosophy, the Wylie Wagg GIVE program, raises funds and donations for local rescues and adoption agencies.

To promote program awareness and encourage contributions, a large bin is placed inside the front door of each store. Customers deposit pet-related items they no longer need, such as collars, toys or clothing, into the receptacle to be gifted to local rescues. In addition, shoppers may purchase store merchandise at a discount for donation.

Cash donations also are accepted and dispersed to local rescues chosen by each of the four store locations. The generosity of the local communities has made this program such a success that bins fill quickly and area rescues arrive weekly for a first-come, first-served chance to obtain needed items.

Beyond these contributions, Give-Ables, a trademarked term, is a line of private-label treats exclusive to Wylie Wagg. One dollar of each Give-Able purchase is designated to support local rescues. Clark noted that a line of Give-Ables toys is in the works.

"The idea is instead of just selling treats, these purchases also are benefiting charitable programs,” she said.

With animal welfare near and dear to the company’s heart, adoption days are held regularly at each location. Additionally, gift certificates, gift baskets, cash donations and raffle and auction items often are provided in support of various rescue fundraising efforts.

In-store events target even more funds to benefit local rescues, and that involvement extends to reaching out to neighboring retailers and restaurants to join in the fun.

"A really good example of that would be our ThanksGIVE event, which took place in our Falls Church location,” Clark said.

For this event, local businesses donated gift certificates or items, which then were raffled off in-store with the proceeds benefitting local rescues.

"Area businesses also were able to raise their own profiles,” she added. "We are trying to create a community around neighbors.”

While many consumers headed to the mall on Black Friday, Virginia pet lovers launched their holiday shopping at Wylie Wagg for the thrill of "Bark Friday” bargains. Customers tossed their names into the hat for randomly drawn discounts, ranging from 5 to 20 percent taken off at the register upon check out.

"The customers had a great time and we did too!” Clark said.

The good times are not limited to bargain shopping. National Dress Your Dog Day, held Jan. 14, found animal lovers dressing pets in their finest duds and posing for the camera. Participant photos were posted in each store and judged by customers, with a special prize going to the best dressed. Each prize was matched with a rescue donation from Wylie Wagg.

Wylie Wagg pet store
The shop features a miniature department store ambience, and products must meet exacting standards of quality.
"Any time there is an opportunity to emphasize donation, we do it,” she said.

That emphasis extends to such events as Vet Days, with a local vet on-site that day to minister to pets. Dogs in need of a beauty day enjoy Spa Days featuring local groomers, and book signings find local authors scribbling their name in pet-related works. Local artists also take advantage of Wylie Wagg wall space to display their pet-oriented pieces. The stipulation for each of these events is that a portion of any proceeds be donated to an animal rescue.

Patrons wishing to celebrate a pet’s birthday, breed groups planning a meet up or any other group in need of a venue to host a pet-related fete may do so at Wylie Wagg. Revelers also enjoy a shopping discount while there.

"We’ve had birthday parties, an emotional goodbye gathering for a dog suffering from cancer, even a new puppy shower, with the pet parents registered at the store,” Clark said.

Pet owners and four-legged family members alike benefit from dog training classes, and Wylie Wagg partners with a talented local trainer to offer this tutelage at the Falls Church store.

"She has full classes every single session,” Clark added.

With all the goings-on at Wylie Wagg, Clark noted that a sense of humor, intelligence and outstanding social skills are essential attributes for staff members. Once hired, new employees shadow an experienced staff member and, in turn, are shadowed before striking out on their own. Educational material that is required reading is emailed with the tag "Wagg.edu.”

"We don’t just put somebody on the floor and say, ‘here you go,’ she said.

In addition, manufacturers are brought in to impart knowledge.

As a result of all this training, these educated, talented individuals can assist customers with their shopping needs. For customers wishing to read further, the Wylie Wagg website offers additional nutritional information and education.

Speaking of reading, Wylie Wagg Chairman of the Board and scruffy terrier, Albert, shares important information and occasional humor in his monthly column, Albert’s Corner, which appears in the Middleburg Eccentric newspaper. The column also can be found on the Wylie Wagg website as Albert’s blog.

Wylie Wagg dog treats
Furry customers are welcomed with a nutritious treat.
"He has been writing for a very long time now,” Clark said. "Albert’s Corner is really good in the Middleburg community because everybody reads this paper.”

Beyond Albert, getting the word out is accomplished via a Facebook page, Twitter and Constant Contact newsletter featuring a discount coupon.

"The coupon is a big motivator,” Clark said. "We put it out there and people show up with their coupons the day it comes out.”

While print advertising occasionally is used, Clark said she would rather put that money toward employee salaries and providing discounts to existing customers.

Creating a feeling of community within Wylie Wagg is important to the Clarks. It includes a product mix that is unique to their stores, employees as trusted advisers, an emphasis on communication and branding, community events and attractive discounts to promote the benefits of shopping in a smaller business.

"We stamp our logo by hand on all of our bags for a more localized, community feel that our customers truly appreciate,” she said.

Another goal is to help people in the community understand the benefits of supporting local rescues and to promote pet health and nutrition, Clark added.

"I’m absolutely floored by the responses within our community,” she said. "We were very eager to put forth the platform and create the Give Program, but it wouldn’t have been successful without our extraordinary, generous communities.” 

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