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Small Mammal Marketplace: Critter Cabana Puts Pets in Arms and Plans Into Action

Posted: March 20, 2012, 1:20 p.m. EST


Contact, both of the animal and human variety, is key at an Oregon exotics retailer with lofty goals and community outreach.
By Jaime McLendon

Critter Cabana, a full-line pet supply store specializing in exotics, rang in the new year with an unchanged resolution and an eye on the future. Its two Oregon stores—an earthy, vintage shop in Newberg and a more modern one in Wilsonville—celebrated eight years of company success in February.

Now, the stores’ owners—an enterprising group of four who are big fans of animals, nature and the human-animal relationship—are poised to chase their short- and long-term goals.

Annual Resolution
As kids, brothers Matt and Scott Johnson talked about owning a pet store.

Criiter Cabana
Critter Cabana strives to offer pricing “just as good, if not better” than local pet warehouses, co-owner Matt Johnson says. Courtesy of Critter Cabana.

“I bought two iguanas at a mall store with little knowledge of the care they required,” Matt, 30, recalled of his youth. “After discovering what intense pets they were, I wanted to provide customers with a different experience that focused on education and heavy [animal-customer-retailer] interaction.”

With money borrowed from family members, business graduate Matt, his now-wife, Brittani, 29, and Scott, 29, founded Critter Cabana in historic downtown Newberg in February 2004. Amanda Johnson, 28, joined the business when she married Scott.

The Johnsons’ resolution—to help people and pets enrich each other’s lives via education, services and retail inventory—revives itself annually. The store owners understand that sometimes all a person needs for a sense of companionship is to be needed by another living being and that not all pets are companions per se.

“We appreciate some animals in their ability to provide us companionship,” Matt said. “Others, for providing an element of nature in our homes.”

Year-to-Year Growth
After operating the Newberg store for a couple of years, Critter Cabana’s owners bought their second, a 6,000-square-foot building 20 minutes away in Wilsonville. Ten percent of its space is dedicated to small animals, compared with 20 percent at the 3,600-square-foot Newberg store.

Meet the Owners

Matt Johnson of Critter Cabana
Matt Johnson, 30, handles most of the back-end aspects of the business, such as accounting, technology, finance and marketing. He also works the store floor, specializing in fish, reptiles and exotics. Matt started Critter Cabana with his wife, Brittani, and his brother, Scott, right after earning a business degree. He teaches part time at a local university.

Brittani Johnson of Critter Cabana
Brittani Johnson, 29, manages the Newberg store. She is what Matt calls “the ever-smiling face of Critter Cabana.” She knows most customers and their dogs by name, and along with her husband, does all the graphic design for the stores. Brittani was studying art when Critter Cabana was founded.

Scott Johnson, 29, is the operations guy. As Matt explained, he handles most of the nitty gritty, making sure things get done, stores stay clean, inventory gets reordered, etc. He oversees employee management and policy and is the authority on fish and reptiles.

Amanda Johnson, 28, married into the business when she married Scott. Critter Cabana’s service guru, she left the wine industry to join the company. She’s still learning the ropes but by and large manages the Wilsonville store.

This year, the Johnsons plan to build out the 1,000 square feet of unused space in Wilsonville and fill it with larger items such as fish tanks or small-animal cages, Matt said.

Long term, the Johnsons would like to open a store in Vancouver, Wash., a state with more-flexible animal laws. Washington’s invasive species program, Matt noted, would allow Critter Cabana to sell a lot of great pets it currently can’t.

In addition to selling traditional small pets, including rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, Critter Cabana breeds reptiles, fancy rats and feeder rodents, and offers degus, sugar gliders, short-tailed opossums and other oddballs. Animals are discounted 50 percent when the customer purchases a setup.

Kristin Llewelyn, expert sales associate in Newberg, recently racked up a record sale for a single teddy bear hamster setup.

“When we sell a teddy bear hamster, the average consumer will spend $75 on accessories for it, but Kristin holds the record at a little under $200,” Matt reported.

Despite the popularity of the teddy bear hamster, the African pygmy hedgehog is the store’s highest-grossing animal, he said.

Laid-Back Business Practices
The Oregonian newspaper called Critter Cabana “a charming place full of interesting products and loveable pets…proof that Oregon has gems in unusual places.”

The stores’ open-door policy allows customers to play with most small animals at any time, regardless of any intention to purchase. This, Brittani said, creates emotional appeal, helps socialize the animals, highlights surrounding products and fosters a sense of community. It also incites customers to stay longer, which increases foot traffic.

“When people stay longer, our store gets busier,” Brittani said. “People like being around other people.”
Both stores integrate nature into their designs. Features include custom-built pine enclosures, live bamboo trees, vine-wrapped track lighting, a bamboo front counter that doubles as an animal enclosure, maple slat walls instead of standard pegboard and carryout bags with jungle designs. Animals freely roam the store, as a Superpages.com reviewer confirmed: “Watch the floor, there are turtles walking around at your feet.”

Matt noted that when it comes to merchandising small animal products, the store owners invest more in socializing the animals than in habitat creativity and product displays.

Bestselling and Favorite Products
Family-owned Critter Cabana isn’t afraid to try new things, and that includes new products. The store owners pride themselves on offering items that stand out. Nonetheless, its brand loyalty is strong and contagious.

“We’ve been supporting the Oxbow brand for a long time,” Matt Johnson said, “and it flies off our shelves. We stock the full line and really believe in it.”

In turn, Murdock, Neb.-based Oxbow Animal Health supports Critter Cabana with free-hay coupons for new owners as well as loyalty punch cards and in-store feeding vouchers.

Evo ferret food, manufactured by Fremont, Neb.-based Natura Pet Products, is another Critter Cabana favorite.

“We heavily promote Oxbow and Evo because we support their devotion to quality small animal foods,” Matt said. “Because we feed our store animals these, it makes it really easy to recommend that the customer buy a bag.”

About 95 percent of the store’s bunnies and guinea pigs go to their new homes with an Oxbow food purchase, Matt reported.

Other store staples include CareFresh bedding, manufactured by Ferndale, Wash.-based Absorption Corp., and basic wire cages produced by Super Pet, located in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

“We’ve also been enjoying some of the more innovative products from Hagen,” Matt said. “The entire Habitrail line rocks. We just set up one cage and they sell themselves. Their chew line is inexpensive and fun. The bestselling one is the three-pack of wicker balls. We recommend that people stuff them with yogurt drops for a great treat-and-toy combo.”

Matt also praised Rolf C. Hagen’s ergonomic Living World dishes.

“They are nontip, easy to clean and perfectly sized,” he said. “We use them in all of our store cages.”

For Critter Cabana, products such as shavings, bulk foods and leashes/harnesses (for rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and even hamsters) sell themselves. Litterboxes, premium foods and chews, quality hay and vitamins require more of a sales push.

“We promote things that have a good track record with customers and that we are confident people will feel good about after purchase,” Matt said. “Things like litterboxes will increase the number of happy customers by reducing their maintenance requirements and odor.

“Health items we push because we never want a customer to have a sick animal,” he continued. “It results in dissatisfaction and frustration, and it’s sad for us and employees when a preventable disease isn’t prevented.”

“We don’t innovate too much in the small animal department,” Matt said. “With these animals, it’s much more about the experience of handling them versus a cool-looking setup.”

Fun Outreach Programs
Brittani reported that Critter Cabana employees interact with customers frequently—and more effectively—while handling animals.

“Customers naturally start to ask questions about care, food and habitats if they actually get to hold a critter,” she said, adding that the store’s laid-back, animal-friendly policy helps form customer-retailer relationships and raise consumer confidence in the staff’s expertise.

“We often have dog food conversations simply because we let someone hold a hamster,” she said.

Critter Cabana regularly hosts educational field trips featuring different animals. This, Matt said, is great for word-of-mouth promotion. Employees also have visited nursing homes and day cares, fostered small animals and donated to animal shelters. The stores regularly throw kid birthday parties, complete with “party animals” and “free betta fish” coupon favors. With a refundable $100 deposit, animal-for-a-day programs are offered for school classrooms.

“Many teachers use these programs for general animal education; others, for entertainment,” Brittani said.

A Shift to Services
Between the two stores, Critter Cabana yields about $1.5 million in annual sales with a gross profit margin of about 45 percent, Matt revealed.

“Small animal sales are a significant source of profit,” Matt said. “They also offer us a key differentiator between the big-box stores.”

Critter Cabana plans this year to start focusing on services instead of products—delivery, poop pickup, cage cleaning, litter box changing, fish tank maintenance, consultation and grooming.

Decreased product margins and competition from local retailer Fred Meyer, as well as from Amazon.com, prompted the need to refocus on conveniences beyond in-store nail trims and complimentary sexing and veterinary exams, Matt said. To Critter Cabana, the Internet’s dominance of the retail marketplace is a clear sign of reduced revenue potential for in-store pet specialty products.

Facebook and Twitter could help change that. Critter Cabana, which has a blog, is ramping up its social media marketing efforts.

Long-term business goals, beyond adding a third store, include plans to domesticate species, offer animal-focused vacations and adventures, and create home features that better promote animal cohabitation.

“We have talked about doing things like working with housing contractors to make various options available on their custom homes, like integrated aviaries, a chameleon canopy over the entryway, a dart frog vivarium in the windowsill,” Matt said.

But first things first: more “tweets,” more “likes,” more store space and new products—as well as the soon-to-be-standard question: “Would you like to see a list of our services?”

 

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