Where Success
Comes Naturally

Pittsburgh retailer emphasizes
pet wellness with organic foods

 STORY BY KENNETH BURNS

Natural foods aren’t just for people. Toni Shelaske believes in natural pet food, and her business, Healthy Pet Products, serves the Pittsburgh area with natural, organic food for dogs, cats, small animals and caged birds. Products sold at Shelaske’s two locations are mainly free of wheat, corn and soy, and there’s a focus on raw foods. “All of our foods and treats have no byproducts, no chemical preservatives, no food coloring, no sugars,” Shelaske says. She sells only foods that are manufactured in the U.S. and Canada and made almost entirely with U.S. and Canadian ingredients.

Quick Facts

Toni Shelaske and Meg Healthy Pet Products
North Hills and South Hills, PA

Owner: Toni Shelaske
Website: healthypetproducts.net
Opened: 2002 (North Hills), 2011 (South Hills)
Area: 4,400 square feet (North Hills), 4,800 square feet (South Hills)
Employees: 35
Top brands: Fromm, Nature’s Variety, Primal, Stella & Chewy’s, Nutrisource, Orijen/Acana
Facebook: facebook.com/HealthyPetProducts
Twitter: @healthypetpgh
instagram: @healthypetproducts

“We are what we eat,” Shelaske says. “We are, all of us, up against a lot more chemicals that are in the environment, in our households. They are unavoidable. So I believe we need to feed ourselves healthy foods so that our immune systems are at the best they can possibly be.” Natural foods also help cats and dogs with allergies, she says. In addition to food, Shelaske’s stores carry leashes, collars, harnesses, cleaning products and toys.

When Shelaske got into the pet store business eight years ago, there were far fewer brands of natural pet foods. There are more now, and “a lot of larger companies are creating better foods,” Shelaske says. She prefers to carry brands that are family-owned, and that support her business with perks like promotions and in-store demonstrations. She also appreciates minimum advertised pricing policies, and companies that give “frequent flyer” benefits to independent retailers over big chains. “In other words, if one of my customers buys 12 bags in my store, they get the 13th bag free,” Shelaske says.

In 2008, Shelaske bought Healthy Pet Products from its original owners, who had started it in 2002. She moved that operation twice, in 2009 and 2014. In 2011 she opened a second store in the South Hills area, on the other side of Pittsburgh from the original North Hills location. Before she got into pet retail, she ran a pet-sitting business for eight years, and before that she worked for large retail chains.

“I majored in fashion merchandising with a minor in business,” she says. “I have an extensive visual background, and it’s something I love to do. So I designed all my stores. I’m not the type of person that just hires a graphic designer and says do my poster, make my logo, do this, do that. I’m very hands-on in all of that.” Shelaske’s decor touches include wood floors, contemporary light fixtures and walls painted in warm earth tones. There’s an uncluttered look, with cute cartoon signs that indicate store departments like Cat Land, the Boneyard and Critter Corner. Shelaske’s focus on design paid off with a 2016 Store Design Excellence award at Global Pet Expo.

Shelaske markets her business with “a little bit of everything” — except television ads, she notes, because of the expense. She places ads on radio and in magazines, and sometimes writes informative articles. She does social media. “I attend rescue events,” she says. “I have myself or my employees out there spreading the word about who we are and what we do.”

Customers have increasing options online, but small operations like Shelaske’s will endure, she says. “The service is unmatched,” she says. “The pet business is a heartfelt, personal, emotional business, so I don’t think that online retailers will put the brick-and-mortar pet stores out of business.” Healthy Pet Products offers specialized knowledge that is tailored to its customers’ needs. “Our education base is very high, as far as helping pets with allergies, irritable bowel, ear infections, immune disorders, many things, with a comprehensive look at their diet and what’s happening in their households.”

Shelaske says she has seen natural pet foods save lives. “I’ve seen it give a much better quality of life for our pets,” she says. “I think people deserve, and have the right, to know what’s really in our pets’ food.”


PHOTO GALLERY

 

 

5 Cool Things About Healthy Pet Products

1. EMPLOYEES ARE CUSTOMERS: Shelaske says 95 percent of her staffers were customers of the store at one time. “So they either had dogs or cats with issues, or at least had the vision to seek out better foods, just to have a healthier pet.”

2. THE MERCHANDISE MOVES: “I have a monthly schedule where I change my displays,” Shelaske says. “It really drives sales.” The technique breaks up customers’ routines and makes them notice merchandise they might have missed. If she moves toys from one side of the store to the other, customers say, “Oh, you got new toys in!” “I didn’t,” Shelaske says, laughing. “I just moved them around.” 

3. HEALTHY PET DAY COMES EVERY YEAR: Healthy Pet Day started as a grand opening celebration in 2009, when Shelaske moved to a new location. “I had such great feedback from the community and such support from my vendors that I decided to do it every year,” she says. Once a year, the Healthy Pet Products parking lot is the site of a fiesta featuring product samples, rescue pets, prizes, games, demonstrations and seminars. “We have a photo booth,” Shelaske says. “We have a local policeman with a K9 come and do a demonstration with his dog.” 

4. IT’S ALSO A GROOMING BUSINESS: In 2015, Shelaske bought a pet grooming operation from a local business owner and rebranded it Healthy Pet Grooming. “It was a turnkey situation,” Shelaske says. “I got everything including employees.” A part-time employee at Healthy Pet Products left a corporate day job to manage the grooming business. 

5. THE LEARNING NEVER STOPS: Shelaske holds regular staff meetings for training on timely topics, from gastrointestinal issues to yeast. Some topics Shelaske teaches herself, and others are taught by manufacturing representatives. “It’s part of their job,” Shelaske says of the ongoing training. “I don’t hire cashiers and clerks.”


This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2017 edition of PETS+.