Pet retailers find that community involvement is good for the neighborhood, the bottom line—and the heart.
By Lori Luechtefeld
Sloppy Kisses and Out of the Pits Inc., celebrated National Pit Bull Awareness Day (10/23) by hosting a Pit Bull Kissing Booth in Downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The public was invited to learn more about the true nature of the American Pit Bull Terrier in an effort to restore the breed to its former position of esteem in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.
Photo courtesy of Sloppy Kisses of Saratoga
Many pet stores play vital roles in uniting and defining the pet communities within their neighborhoods. In return for customer loyalty and patronage, many look to give back to their local areas, as well as the broader pet-related community. Such involvement, many retailers reported, can pay dividends in both personal satisfaction and continued business success.
Veronique Michalik, owner of Lofty Dog in Austin, Texas, said her store’s involvement with community fundraisers for local shelters has grown over time. And the community has taken notice, she reported.
“It does create a sense of trust and goodwill for our clients,” she said. “They understand that we care for our animals, and that we would extend to caring for theirs as well.
“We’ve cut most of our print advertising, so this is also a good way to create a presence without paying the expensive monthly advertising fees,” Michalik added. “It helps to get our name out there and helps our rescues at the same time.”
One of Michalik’s biggest annual events is Barkitecture, a fundraiser in which local architects and designers create custom dog houses and then donate them for silent auction. The money raised during the auction goes to support four local pet rescues.
“This year’s event is the biggest ever,” she said. “We’ll be closing three city blocks for the event to place 27 doghouses.”
In addition to the auction, the event includes a designer dog park, a pet fashion show, a photo booth, dog adoptions and exhibiting animal welfare groups.
Aquila Brown, owner of The Yuppy Puppy in Spokane, Wash., also has big hopes for an upcoming store-sponsored auction, in which old fire hydrants painted by local artists will be auctioned off. She hopes the event, which will be hosted at a local brewery and include participation from many community members, will raise between $15,000 and $20,000 for local animal shelters.
A retailer's involvement in its community can go beyond recognizing typical holidays and national calendar days to include locally themed events and self-created ones, such as Austin’s Barkitecture—a dog-house design competition that benefits local rescue groups and shelters. The event also boasts a Fashound Show, replete with both decked-out dogs and owners.
Photo courtesy of Lofty Dog
Helping to coordinate the auction is just one way that Brown and her store give back to local shelters. Around the holidays, her store offers pet photos with Santa, the proceeds from which are donated to the Spokane Humane Society. The program raised almost $1,000 last year, she said.
On a more day-to-day basis, her store also provides free baths and grooming for any shelter dogs that need them.
“We’re in a farm community, so sometimes stray pets get too gross to adopt,” she said. “We groom them free of charge so they have a fresh face to put forward.”
Scott Click, owner and general manager of Tomlinson’s Feed & Pets in the Austin, Texas, area, said his stores also typically focus their goodwill efforts on local rescues, often in partnership with product manufacturers. For example, this past July, Tomlinson’s partnered with Nature’s Variety for a day-long event in which Nature’s Variety matched every purchase of its food, bag for bag. The matched food was donated to local rescue groups. Across the five Tomlinson’s stores, nearly 8,000 pounds of food were raised in a single day, Click said.
Melanie Dallas, owner of Sloppy Kisses in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., also said it makes sense for pet stores to focus their charitable efforts on local rescues. However, she added, it should go beyond that as well.
“Too many people are shortsighted,” she said. “You need to look at the community at large.”
For example, Sloppy Kisses gives back to the community through various children’s organizations, including a local softball team that it sponsors. Dallas herself serves on various boards around town, including that of the local hospital.
Sloppy Kisses also gives back to the local pet community by hosting fundraisers around events such as National Pit Bull Awareness Day, as well as more “frivolous” events, such as dog parades. In addition, Dallas and Sloppy Kisses are the driving force behind a grassroots initiative called Dog-Friendly Downtown, which encourages local businesses to open their doors to dogs. Thus far, Dallas said 35 businesses—from restaurants to banks—have signed on to the program.
“Dog-Friendly Downtown has given mom-and-pop businesses a way to compete with the big-box stores,” she said. “It’s given people a reason to come downtown rather than just going to the nearby mall.”
Bill Kaiser, owner of Pampered Pup’z in Libertyville, Ill., also noted that pet businesses stand to make a much bigger splash with their community activities when they broaden them to other businesses. His store, for example, sponsors and organizes the Dog Days of Summer event in downtown Libertyville. During the three-day event, local merchants of all types host various dog-friendly activities, from owner-pet look-alike contests to paw-nail painting. Even the local Starbucks offers beef-flavored snowcones during the event.
Last year’s event drew more than 10,000 people over the course of three days, bringing significant media coverage, Kaiser said. More importantly, it benefited all involved parties, including pet owners, businesses, and local rescues and pet services.
“When the project first started, people thought it would be impossible because we were trying to unite so many competitive businesses around one thing,” he said. “But the more involvement everyone had, the better it made it for everybody. So the competitive aspect fell away.”
Donna Walker, co-owner of South Bark Dog Wash in San Diego, noted that the health of a community heavily influences the health of the businesses within it.
“When we opened our business 10 years ago, ours was a neighborhood in transition,” she said.
Thus, she and her partner poured great effort into building up a sense of community among the neighborhood’s pet owners by, among other things, garnering support for a new local dog park. This sense of community spread quickly, and local businesses united.
“Our neighborhood, South Park, is an entirely different place than it was 10 years ago,” Walker said. “Back then, it was the old Wild West. Now, it’s fun and funky.”
As such, the neighborhood now attracts dog lovers who have the money to spend with a business like South Bark, she added.
Community interaction is a year-round focus for retailer Sloppy Kisses. Case in point: A crowd gathers outside the Downtown Saratoga Springs store for its Annual Howl-O-Ween Costume Parade.
Photo courtesy of Sloppy Kisses of Saratoga
When it comes to getting involved with the surrounding community, Patrick Donston, owner of Absolutely Fish in Clifton, N.J., said local schools represent a significant opportunity. For example, Donston’s store invites local schools to take their students on educational field trips in his store. And many classes take him up on it; his store hosted 15 field trips last year alone.
“With aquatic animals, you want to schedule field trips ahead of time so you have the appropriate animals in stock,” he said. “Sea urchins, starfish—ones that the kids can hold and touch. It really adds to the presentation, and they remember you.”
In fact, Donston noted, it’s not uncommon for kids from field trips to reappear in the store with their parents that very evening. However, he added, field trips are not about the hard sell.
“It should be an educational tour, not a sales presentation,” he said. “You just want to let the community know you’re there.”
Absolutely Fish also works with local schools through its Freshwater Fishes of the World campaign. Through this program, store employees set up aquariums in classrooms that are decorated and stocked to mimic a specific aquatic region of the world—from Australian waters to the Amazon. Then a store employee gives an educational presentation on the region and related conservation efforts.
In addition to school field trips and in-class aquariums, Absolutely Fish also donates and sets up aquariums at local libraries and businesses—community education and beautification all rolled into one.
“The only thing we ask in return is that we have business cards or pamphlets near the tank so that people who enjoy the beautiful aquarium know where they can go if they want one of their own,” Donston said.
In addition to year-round community efforts, many pet stores are inspired to action by current events. For example, in the wake of this year’s BP oil spill, the Pet Supplies “Plus” store in Pinellas Park, Fla., began collecting donated items needed for clean-up efforts—everything from dishwashing liquid to pantyhose. During the donation drive, the store filled about 25 large boxes for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a nonprofit wild bird hospital that aided in the cleanup. As a way of saying thanks, the store gave donating customers $1 off that day’s purchase, or a $1 off coupon toward a future purchase.
Indeed, the number of worthy causes out there can seem overwhelming at times. In the end, contributing to local efforts can be most rewarding. That’s what Jim Walker, president of Global Pet Foods Stores Inc., a Canadian-based retail chain, discovered when his company launched its annual Show Us Your Heart campaign, a week-long fundraising event that runs around Valentine’s Day. Through the campaign, which is going into its fifth year, Global Pet Foods has raised nearly $200,000 for animal shelters.
“When we started the campaign, we were initially raising money for provincial organizations,” Walker said. “But our franchisees said they would buy into the program more if they could be raising money for local organizations.”
The switch was made, and the campaign saw a three-fold increase in donations—along with in-store sales increases of nearly 30 percent, Walker said.
However, Walker noted, sales boosts are not the driving cause behind charitable initiatives—they’re simply a nice benefit. Michalik at Lofty Dog agreed. First and foremost, she and her colleagues gain gratification from their community involvement, she said.
“My vision all along was to create a business that was both good for us and our community,” she added.
Sales wise, Michalik said she hopes she can attribute part of her sales success to the store’s goodwill efforts.
“Some events are easier to quantify than others,” she said. “If it is an in-store event, the effect is evident. But something like our Movies in the Park event, which is off-site, is a little harder to know. We give out coupons and marketing materials at off-site events, and we usually see a big return on those.”
Likewise, pet retailers need to promote their community activities just as they would a sale. For example, Michalik said she promotes her store’s events through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. She sends out e-mail blasts before events and prominently features them on the store website and in monthly newsletters. She said she also asks the rescue groups that the events support to market to their lists as well.
“It really becomes a viral marketing effort,” she said.
South Bark’s Walker said her business looks to publish its events in small local newspapers—the kind likely to be read in coffeehouses. South Bark is always active in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, though it also still makes effective use of more-traditional promotional vehicles, such as postcards and store signage, according to Walker.
In the end, a successful community initiative can yield many benefits.
“Businesses like ours don’t make a lot of money, especially in the beginning,” Walker said. “You need to have things other than money to drive you. The knowledge that you’re contributing will keep you going and give you a better outlook.”
Manufacturers Giving Back
In addition to retailers, many pet product manufacturers strive to give back to the pet community through myriad fundraising efforts. Each manufacturer’s unique approach to its charitable initiatives is shaped both by the type of products it offers, as well as its ties to the local community.
For example, collar manufacturer Up Country in East Providence, R.I., recently rolled out a new collar and lead style that proudly announces that its wearer was adopted. The company, which regularly donates to shelters and rescues throughout the country, is also a neighbor to the Rhode Island SPCA. As a means of giving back to the local community, whenever a dog is adopted from the shelter, the company invites its new family to come over and shop for a new collar and lead.
Also on the pet apparel side, in September, Joy Pet Products of Rowley, Mass., rolled out its Joy – Spread It Around campaign, in which 100 percent of the profits from the company’s embroidered Perfect Fit Hoodie are being donated to charity. Joy Pet Products’ founder Patti Wilson noted that while the campaign immediately benefits shelter animals via the donated proceeds, it also drives indefinite awareness for the campaign, as the pet hoodies themselves generate curiosity when worn.
Other manufacturers also actively support charities via proceeds from special products. For example, Multipet International of Moonachie, N.J., donates a portion of the proceeds from its Support Our Troops Loofa and Pink Ribbon Loofa dog toys to America’s VetDogs and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, respectively.
Similarly, in May, Pet Flys Inc. in Burbank, Calif., rolled out its Perfect World Pets, three new dog toys named Hope, Faith and Peace. A portion of the sales from each toy, whether online or in a specialty boutique, is being donated to Pets of the Homeless, a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides pet food and veterinary care to the homeless and less fortunate in local communities.
“There are so many animals being turned into shelters because their owners can no longer afford to keep them,” said Pet Flys owner Tammy Ann Arnett. “We would like these owners to have other options.”
While special products work for some manufacturers, others bypass them altogether and opt for direct donations of existing items. Case in point: This past summer , World’s Best Cat Litter launched the GiveLitter campaign on Facebook and on a dedicated website (www.givelitter.com). Visitors to either site can vote to donate pounds of World’s Best litter to shelters and organizations within the campaign’s area that are dedicated to helping cats. LItter is also donated for every Facebook “like” the company garners. After donating 5,255 pounds of litter to its first city, Washington, D.C., World’s Best Cat Litter turned its focus to Los Angeles area shelters with a 60-day campaign, which began on September 8. World’s Best will be adding more cities in 2011.
Meanwhile, in May, Bissell Homecare Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich., announced the winners of its third annual Most Valuable Pet (MVP) contest. The grand prize winner received $10,000 for the pet cause of its choice, and runners-up were awarded an additional $8,000 to benefit their pets’ favorite causes. Bissell spokesperson Beth Jester noted that watching the donations be distributed—from a dog park, to an assistance dog, to a special sanctuary for aging cats—was particularly meaningful for Bissell employees, 72 percent of whom are pet owners.
Many pet food and treat companies also look to give back to the pet community through both monetary and product donations. Pet treat company Salmon Paws of Encinitas, Calif., donates 10 percent of its Internet proceeds to a no-kill shelter in Los Angeles called the Lange Foundation. Meanwhile, pet food company Merrick Pet Care of Amarillo, Texas, has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds of dry and canned food to no-kill shelters throughout the United States over the past two years.
Other companies focus their charitable activities on timely causes and events. Following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Automated Pet Care Products Inc. of Pontiac, Mich., decided to donate a portion of its proceeds from the July sales of the company’s Litter-Robot to the cleanup effort. In total, the company donated $5,000 to the National Wildlife Federation to assist in the cleanup of oil-coated animals and their habitats.
Likewise, in August, Nurtured Pets of New Philadelphia, Ohio, was on hand as an exhibitor at the L’Oreal Paris “Because Your Dog is Worth It Too” fundraiser in Cranbury, N.J., where pet owners and their animals gathered to raise funds for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s Race for the Cure. The company promoted the cause with special contests to create additional awareness and pledged to donate a dollar for every new Facebook “like” Nurtured Pets’ page received the week before the event. In total, the company raised $557 to donate in conjunction with the event.
That same month, Flexcin International of Fort Myers, Fla., launched the FlexPet Shelter Program, in which shelters provide joint-weakened pets with the FlexPet with CM8 joint supplement to improve mobility and increase the pet’s chances of adoption. In addition, the program provides a resale opportunity to shelters in which 50 percent of their FlexPet sales goes toward fundraising for the shelter.
Also this summer, San Francisco-based Earthbath, a manufacturer of natural pet grooming products, participated in a fundraiser benefiting Squaw Valley’s Ski Patrol rescue dogs. During the event, Earthbath provided product for the dogs as well as samples for the crowd. In addition, Paul Armstrong, founder and CEO of Earthbath, said the company’s philosophy of putting “principles on par with profits” has influenced the company’s acquisition strategy as well. For example, Earthbath now owns SheaPet, a charitable brand in its own right.
“SheaPet’s focus on organic fair trade shea butter, which supports Ugandan women and their families, fit perfectly with this philosophy,” Armstrong said. “This is why we jumped at the opportunity to acquire the company.” <HOME>
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