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Think Big, Act Small

Posted: March 27, 2014, 12:15 p.m. EDT


The sky’s the limit at Northwest Pets, but not at the expense of its special mix of place, people and products.

By Lizett Bond

"If you don’t differentiate yourself as a business, if you don’t do something to stand out, you are not going to survive in the long term,” said Del Peterson, president of Northwest Pets Inc., which has two locations in Eagle and Meridian, Idaho, and is the winner of Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year Award for Outstanding Business Management for 2013-2014.

Three fundamental attributes serve to distinguish Northwest Pets from its competition—people, product and environment—Peterson said. 

"Those are the three pillars that we really thought about before we opened,” he said. "We’ve also incorporated a tag line into our philosophy: ‘Think big, act small.’”

Del and Angie Peterson understand that axiom. The couple met while working in the biotech industry in California, Angie as a tax accountant and Del as a finance executive. As the pharmaceutical company expanded, the exciting appeal of a tight-knit, business "family” disappeared within that growth. The couple was ready for a change and began to look toward Angie’s home state of Idaho. As pet lovers and dog owners, opening a pet supply store seemed a natural transition.

Northwest Pets
Northwest Pets

Drawing on their business backgrounds, the Petersons were mindful of the contrasts between a large, impersonal corporation versus a small business. For these reasons, the concept of thinking big and acting small was a fit for the new venture.

An Inviting Environment
After deciding to build a freestanding location in Eagle, the couple engaged the services of Chris Miller of Pacific Store Designs Inc. in Garden Grove, Calif., to create a distinctive and inviting retail environment. In keeping with the outdoorsy locale, the store, which opened in September 2005, features exposed beams in a craftsman-style interior.

"When people walk in they see a colorful, clean, organized store that is visually appealing,” said Peterson. "It smells good and looks like we care. We really stress to our employees the importance of cleanliness and orderliness.”

The second store opened in Meridian in November 2012, allowing Northwest Pets to reach a broader customer base.

"We are adding approximately 40 new customers per week at our new location,” Peterson said. "Expanding our geographic footprint in the local market allows us to increase our buying power and thereby strengthen our vendor relationships at both the distributor and manufacturer levels.”

In addition to two brick-and-mortar locations, product also is available online, as the Northwest Pets Internet store continues to gather momentum.

"Thinking big for me is not just selling within the four walls of our stores,” said Peterson. "We sell to all 50 states.”

At the pet-friendly store, four-legged visitors are greeted by name and offered a tasty treat, giving pets reason to love visiting Northwest Pets and customers maximum exposure to key brands.

Let’s Talk Product
Northwest Pets presents a broad range of foods and supplies for dogs and cats. Calling itself "The Ultimate Outfitter for Furry Four-Legged Friends,” Northwest Pets features a wide selection of outdoor gear for the active pup, such as Ruffwear packs, float coats and cooling vests.

"Here in Idaho, we have world-class paddling, whitewater rafting, skiing, hiking and mountain biking. We have a great outdoor community,” said Peterson. "I wanted to convey that we are more than just a place to buy dog food.”

Beyond outdoor gear, shoppers find an array of foods for dogs and cats containing no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, and no meat byproducts or unnamed ingredients. These offerings include freeze-dried and raw foods. Supplements, toys, treats, beds, grooming supplies, collars and leashes also feature in the mix.

"With regard to product quality, U.S. based is really the key,” he added.

Additionally, a gift section displays stickers, plaques, pet memorials, magnets and seasonal gift items.

The Eagle store also features a three-station self-serve dog wash. Dogs that come in for bathing with their owners receive a special treat in a "doggie bag.”

At A Glance
Northwest Pets
Locations: 3060 E. State St., Eagle, ID 83616; 3036 N. Eagle Road, Meridian, ID 83646

Co-Owners: Del Peterson, president; Angie Peterson, vice president

Size: 3,000 square feet average

Employees: 4 full-time, 7 part-time

Years in Business: 9

Products and Services Offered: Cat, dog and small mammal foods and supplies; gift items; webstore; adoption days; vaccination clinics; pet food pantry bins; educational seminars; self-service dog wash; Teddy Club Loyalty Program; Points for Paws.

Website: www.northwestpets.com

Peterson stressed the significance of stocking a high-quality, unique assortment of products not found in big chain stores. For this reason, attending trade shows is central to securing an inventory selection that will set Northwest Pets apart from the competition.

"We set a pretty high bar,” he said. "I want customers to walk in and feel that if they are buying here, it’s high quality, it’s safe and they don’t have to worry about doing their homework because we’ve done it for them,” he said.

It’s the People
As the keystone to Northwest Pets’ success, staff must possess an engaging, outgoing personality, a willingness to learn and a strong desire to teach and educate. Having worked in a fish store during his college days, Peterson realized that outstanding customer service and knowledgeable employees would be pivotal to the continuing success of the operation.

"In the fish industry, it’s important to know your stuff and represent things accurately, fairly and clearly, or that customer is going to boomerang right back to you,” he said. "The fish business taught me about the pet business.”

Employee training at Northwest Pets is extensive and ongoing. New hires are provided a training manual detailing everything from sales to product to pet food education to operations. Peterson covers the content of this manual with each new employee. Staff members also participate in computer-based training and are paired with an experienced employee during the initial training period.

In addition, staff meetings and bulletins cover topics ranging from store financial performance to operational issues and new products. Pet nutrition training sessions conducted by food manufacturer sales representatives provide further staff instruction.

"These are the things that the big chains or the Internet-based stores will never, ever be able to do,” he added. "That’s becoming more and more important over time.”

Because of this commitment to superior customer service, Peterson said Northwest Pets does not hire seasonal employees.

"It probably takes a couple of years to really understand the nuances of pet products; it takes time to learn with continuity,” he added. "You have to realize that competitors can build a store to look like your store and they can put in the same product, so one way to really stand out is through your people.”

Think Big
With the opening of the Meridian store, Peterson realized that investing in a robust point-of-sale system with multistore capabilities would enable Northwest Pets to integrate its physical stores’ and webstore inventories, sales histories, an email marketing software program and a loyalty program into one easily managed system.

"We basically took our informational, standalone website and merged it with the webstore, and brought it all into one platform that integrates with the POS system,” he said.

The POS system also is beneficial when it comes to Northwest Pets’ monthly product category promotions.

"We do the monthly promotions beginning in February, which is [National Pet] Dental Health Month, and continue through September,” he said. "October is our Halloween event; then we hold a Thanksgiving sale in November.”

Heralding the December holiday season, the "Twelve Days of Christmas” promotion features a different product each day. The daily sale item is published to Northwest Pets’ Facebook page, and customers belonging to the Teddy Club Loyalty Program receive sale information and Holiday Shopping Passes via email.

The Teddy Club Loyalty Program, integrated into the POS system, is based on a point-space system; points are awarded as cash back toward purchases. Customers who use the dog wash receive double points.

Tied in with the Teddy Club Loyalty Program is the Points for Paws plan, which enables customers to donate their loyalty credits to the charity of their choice.

"It has, number one, a ‘give back’ element for the community,” he said.

Act Small
Giving back to the community also includes holding regular adoption days at both stores as well as donations to, and participation in, events that support local shelters and rescues.

"We do a big sponsorship every year at the Idaho Humane Society’s ‘See Spot Walk,’” he said. "We donate to the event and set up an information table; they probably have 2,000 dogs and people walking by.”

In store, each location features food pantry bins representing several local rescues, allowing customers to donate by depositing foods in a selected receptacle.

Vaccination clinics are held monthly at the Eagle store, with oftentimes hundreds of pet owners showing up for affordable vaccinations.

"It has become far more popular as word-of-mouth has grown. It’s a great event,” Peterson said.

The Northwest Pets annual Truckload Sale continues to flourish as customers enjoy substantial savings on pet food and treats. Held in May, it’s a busy weekend for both stores, featuring an adoption and vendor fair on Saturday in the parking lot of the Eagle store. Pet food representatives are on hand at the two locations on Friday and Saturday with samples and educational materials.

"Our stores are only seven miles apart, but because of the geography of the area, they service quite different markets, so it’s a lot of work getting ready. It’s a circus, but it’s fun,” he said. "Each year the event seems to grow by 40 to 50 percent.”

Peterson predicted more growth potential for Northwest Pets.

"It makes me happy when people come in and ask if we are part of a chain or a franchise, because that means they think we are professionally managed—and we hear that often,” he added.

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