Retailer Profile: Ruffins Pet Centres
This small, successful Canadian-based chain has sizeable dreams for the future.
By Michael Ventre
The small town, independent, mom-and-pop pet store has faced sometimes-withering challenges from the big-boy chains. The brawny box stores that boast the pet equivalent of soup-to-nuts shopping often set up shop and magnetically draw customers to them with the power of their low prices.
However, that force has been successfully resisted by at least one bold, feisty, renegade chain—Ruffins Pet Centres of Ontario, Canada—that has thrived by shrewdly turning small into a big advantage.
“You can beat that competition with service,” said Mark Reynolds, president of Ruffins Pet Centres. “Our business is very much service and knowledge-based. You do need knowledge to sell in our business.”
Reynolds got much of the wisdom he needed from his dad, who retired from a career in the grocery business in 1981 and was looking around for something to do. He decided to open a pet store in Dunnville because the southern Ontario town of 12,000 residents didn’t have one.
The Dunnville location became so busy that Reynold’s dad openend a second location in Grimsby. In 1986, Mark Reynolds came in to run the first store, and a year later Ruffins began franchising. Now, the Ruffins name is emblazoned on 13 locations in Ontario and Nova Scotia.
“We were a little different,” Reynolds said. “Small markets were undeveloped and untouched. Our stores combined a pet store with a full-line pet food store. People don’t visit a pet store on a weekly or monthly basis, but they do visit a pet food store on a weekly or monthly basis. So combining the two brought us extra traffic.”
Nevertheless, Ruffins takes the approach that, once the customers come through the door, then it’s time to turn on the know-how. Ruffins places a strong emphasis on making sure all of its employees are up to speed on the very latest trends and information.
“About two years ago we started to focus more on the training aspect,” Reynolds said. “We have nine different courses that our franchisees and our employees take. They encompass everything from reptiles and tarantulas to puppies and kittens, and fish.
“That’s something the pet superstores can’t do in quite the same wa,” he added. “They might be able to train their staff, but we spend more money, a higher percentage, on training staff.”
Being small has other advantages. For instance, when it comes to bringing in new products, Ruffins is the hare and the large competitors are definitely tortoises.
“Our stores run between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet,” he said. “Being smaller allows us a lot more flexibility as to where we can go. And because we’re small, we can get in new products very quickly. If somebody introduces us to a product in our office, we can get it into the stores in two weeks. The big chains don’t have that speed of turnaround.
“We’ve also done a lot of private label,” Reynolds continued. “Our private labels, even with the slowdown in the economy, have done fantastic. There’s been a huge increase in private label sales because it’s a better product at a lower price. I’m working on a new dog food now. From inception to in-store will take 90 days. Big stores just don’t move that quickly.”
The economy has hit every sector of the pet supply business, but Reynolds said Ruffins has fared better than most.
“The market is generally good, even with the slowdown we’ve had,” he said. “The big difference in our industry compared to others is that customers won’t stop shopping in the store, they’ll just change what they buy. And if you come in and, say, you want to buy your child a hamster and kit, it’s about $35, so it’s not a break-the-family-bank kind of thing. Our average sale is what we call pocket money. The average sale is less than $20.”
Although Ruffins is a petite chain, it still has sizeable dreams. Reynolds said the company is charting a course that will help it extend its brand.
“We’re going to work on our core, to build our base a little more,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of this economic slowdown to step back and see what’s best for us in the long term. We’re going to develop a strategic marketing plan that will work in positive and negative economies. We’re also going to increase our training in all our stores.”
Reynolds expects the Ruffins name to be spotted on more signs in more small towns in the near future and beyond.
”We’re going to continue to expand,” he said. “We’d like to have more stores.
“Sometimes a franchisee doesn’t want a livestock aspect to their business, or maybe the market doesn’t warrant that,” Reynolds added. “We will continue to do both, depending on what the market will require. And we’ll concentrate on small markets. There are a lot of underdeveloped markets, small markets that are underserviced.”
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