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America's Coolest

2017 Top 5 Five Cool Things

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EACH ISSUE OF PETS+ brings you a feature on one of America’s Coolest Stores. One of our readers’ favorite aspects of that story is “Five Cool Things,” in which we list really awesome things (five of them, if there’s any question about it) that business does — that your business could copy.

Before we get into 2017’s Top 5 Five Cool Things, we should plug the America’s Coolest Stores Contest. Enter this year’s contest at petsplusmag.com/ACS (the entry site opens Jan. 1, 2018) for your chance to join the illustrious ranks of America’s Coolest Stores. The top three winners will be featured in our July/August 2018 issue, and honorable mentions will appear in each issue thereafter through June 2019. Even if you don’t win, we might spot aspects of your business to feature elsewhere in the magazine. Deadline to enter is March 15.

And without further ado, here are the Top 5 Five Cool Things of 2017:

 

Healthy Pet Products, Pittsburgh, PA (Jan/Feb 2017)

1. THE MERCHANDISE MOVES: “I have a monthly schedule where I change my displays,” owner Toni 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.”

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The Green Spot, Omaha, NE (Mar/Apr 2017)

2. DELIVERY FOR DOGS & CATS: The store allows customers to shop locally online or by phone. Customers can have products brought to their office or home, with many customers opting to provide a key so items can be placed inside — even in their freezer in the case of frozen raw foods. Delivery fees apply outside the metro area and for orders less than $75.

 

Animal Connection, Charlottesville, VA (Jul/Aug 2017)

3. NEIGHBORHOOD ROUTES: A groomer hits the road once a week, going to a specific neighborhood. This allows for service to all regular customers in a particular area on a set schedule. Groomers also can use the trailer, parked out front, for overflow during busy seasons.

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The Hungry Puppy, Farmingdale, NJ (Jul/Aug 2017)

4. CONDOLENCES: Members of The Hungry Puppy community remain so even after they pass, thanks to the store’s practice of sending a potted plant to customers in their honor.

 

Dee-O-Gee, Bozeman, MT, (Sep/Oct 2017)

5. PET PORTRAITS: Dee-O-Gee regularly hosts “Paw-casso,” a two-hour painting class during which participants create a portrait of their dog while sipping on a BYOB of their choice. A portion of proceeds benefits the Run Dog Run of Bozeman, and artists get a 10 percent discount that night.

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Pamela Mitchell is the senior editor at PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Spot the senior Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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America's Coolest

Cute Brute: Pink, Pastel and Dainty on the Surface, Furry Friends Has a Business Model to Aspire to

This store transformed from being a delivery service into a 1,837-square-foot retail space and something else on weekends!

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Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

OWNERS: Debbie & Terry Brookham; URL: furryfriendsinc.com ; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014; ARCHITECT: Julie Hardridge/Architexture; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 4 part-time; AREA: 1,837 square footage; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/furryfriendsinccolorado; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/furry_friends_inc


PASTEL BLUES AND GREENS welcome customers to Furry Friends Inc. in Colorado Springs, CO. A crystal chandelier hangs in the entry. Adorable bakery items sit atop a small pink table, tempting people and pups alike. Tule, ribbon and floral accents abound.

“Whenever someone comes in, we hear the usual gasp and ‘This is the cutest pet store I have ever seen,’” co-owner Debbie Brookham says.

Behind the dainty decor, though, exists a strong business model, one that began in 2002 as a delivery service for private-label dog food Pet’s Healthy Choice. It has since evolved to include the 1,837-square-foot retail space, plus a tech-savvy staff and delivery van that transforms into a treat and ice cream truck on the weekends.

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Private-Label Success

Brookham — who owns and operates Furry Friends Inc. with her husband, Terry — worked with a pet nutritionist and U.S. manufacturer to formulate and produce the private-label food. It has never contained ingredients from China, which proved highly beneficial during the pet food recalls involving that country in 2007.

“One of our customers told a TV station about us, that we had our own line of dog food and it wasn’t affected,” she says. “A news team came out and rode in our delivery van, and every other station in the area picked it up after.”

The service added 222 new customers in just five days, a nearly 30 percent increase. To keep up with demand, the couple added a 600-square-foot retail area to its warehouse.

“And then when Chewy came along, we knew there was a niche that we wanted to fill: our own line of food delivered, but also sold in a cute boutique setting.”

In 2014, the business moved its retail operations to a busy shopping center. Delivery continues to grow, surpassing 1,800 customers and standing out from other services thanks to the white bakery bag of treats included with every food purchase, free of charge. Pet’s Healthy Choice makes up 60 percent of food sales at 22,000 pounds a month.

“Private-label food has been so successful for us.”

Employees Equipped with Ipads

Now a certified pet nutritionist herself, working toward clinical designation, Brookham teaches her team about the various foods and supplements Furry Friends Inc. offers. She also trains them in how to use an iPad as a sales tool.

During a nutrition consultation, an employee can pull up the store’s website and access ingredients and other information about any food on the floor.

“It’s so much easier to read online than to flip over a bag to look at the label,” Brookham explains, adding that DogFoodAdvisor.com also gets frequent use for its reviews and serving size calculator.

“With customers using their own mobile devices, we decided to dive right in with them. It also allows us to show off our really cool website, that offers free home delivery.”

Salespeople use the iPads for other types of content and products, as well, such as videos of pups playing with Planet Dog toys, for example.

Double-Duty Van

Furry Friends Inc. offers delivery Monday through Thursday. In 2017, the couple realized that their Dodge Sprinter van could serve as an ice cream and treat truck at events Friday through Sunday. They built a shelf for the side opening and added a red-and-white striped awning. An updatable whiteboard lists the offerings, with the likes of The Bear & The Rat frozen treats and Nana’s Pupcakes as regular items.

“It’s an easy way to get out into the community to help our business, instead of setting up a booth,” Brookham says. “People can buy something for their dogs, and we give them a $5 gift card. It brings shoppers to the store who have never been before.”

The transformed van sets up at various festivals and farmers markets from late May through September, which lessens the summer sales slump.

“Our sales would always dip in June and July, when people are off on vacation. This makes the register ring during those months.”

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The same TV stations that asked for interviews in 2007 were eager to spotlight the new truck and continue to do so. Add to that Facebook event posts and live videos letting followers know where it will be, and a line often forms at the window.

Event organizers and even apartment complex managers now reach out to Brookham to book a stop.

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Furry Friends Inc.

1. THREE GENERATIONS: The business has evolved from mom and pop to nanny and pappy. Debbie and Terry co-manage, and they hope to one day pass the business to their children, marketing exec Tracy and U.S. Navy Commander JB, who are always ready to offer insight. Grandson Spencer, now 20, impresses customers with his nutritional knowledge when he stops in. Grandson Jacob, 16, often rides along on delivery days.

2. BILLION-DOLLAR ADVICE: In 2010, Shark Tank invited the Brookhams to pitch Furry Friends Inc. for franchising. Their interviews with producers and hosts didn’t air, but Debbie Brookham says “Getting advice from billionaires took us in new directions.” Two years later, they opened the current store, complete with grooming and DIY bathing.

3. HELPING PUPPY MILL SURVIVORS: Since 2007, Furry Friends Inc. has been the official pet food partner for National Mill Dog Rescue in nearby Peyton, CO. To donate food, supporters can buy food at a 15 percent dicount from the the store’s website.

4. NO-BAKE BAKERY: “Even though we’re not a bakery, we appear as one! We’re known for our beautiful cakes and cookies displayed like a quaint bakery. We’ve gotten the word out via Facebook that we are the place to come for your dog’s birthday,” she says. “Bakery makes up about 18 percent of our business now.”

5. DOGGIE SPA DAY: Furry Friends Inc. takes a spa approach to its grooming. Dogs get one-on-one time with Crystal Parrott, and among the many menu offerings is a Posh Package that comes with teeth brushing, pawdicure, mud mask, facial and head massage.

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A

One book:

EMyth

One plane ticket:

Italy

Most significant mentor and why:

Bob Negan from Whizbang Retailers. He has his own past experiences with retail and now mentors thousands of retailers in all different industries. This is a great crossover because we often need to get out of our own box. If something is working at a candle shop, maybe the process could work in a pet store. It reminds me to think differently and more forwardthinking.

Favorite business book:

EMyth

Favorite book:

Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats by Shawn Messonnier, DVM

Best advice ever given:

My Daddon’t sweat the small stuff….and it’s all small stuff.

Advice for a new store owner:

Hire what you don’t know. Do what you enjoy and don’t be afraid to give up responsibilities. You will be much happier and your store will flourish.

If I’d known  …

To hire more employees then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

What superpower would you like to have?

Flying in a wink

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?

I bought a Cadillac in 1995, and they still keep in touch (even though I sold it many years ago). The receptionist greets you at service, they wash your car even if you don’t get anything done. That is exceptional. I think it all stems from being a “giver” and knowing it will be returned. When it was time to purchase another vehicle, I stopped at their lot first (and bought a used Buick) however, knowing their service, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Tell me about your perfect day.

My husband and I went to Italy. Best day ever, riding a gondola, eating in a corner restaurant and renewing our wedding vows of 40 years. We both cried.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

I think sharing the sadness in our profession, over the loss of a pet is truly the hardest thing. We cry with our clients and feel their grief with them.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is …

Their sincerity.

Favorite film:

Gone with the Wind. Who can resist Clark Gable telling Scarlett “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Don’t we all have days like that?

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Best vacation ever

Wind Surf Mediterranean Cruise to Italy, Croatia and Germany. Largest sail ship in the world. Loved it!

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers:

Marketing. It’s fun to go create and watch it become a success

Current career goal

Working on becoming a Clinical Pet Nutritionist. I’m looking forward to helping people and their pets on a deeper level.

Current life goal

Some day passing the business on to our family and living in a warmer beach climate. Not retired, cause I don’t think that would be any fun:)

Favorite store that’s not my own

I really like Happy Dog Barkery. They provide us some of our bakery items. They are on a Main Street with a park for their events right across the street. How cool is that? Their place must smell delicious!

I am most frustrated when …

Vendors drop in unannounced. Running a business doesn’t require one to be at the store all the time. The reps just drop in unannounced, taking up my employees’ time because they missed me. Having been a medical rep, I understand the sales process and you need to get to the person that makes the decisions. So, why not set up an appointment with the person you ultimately need to influence?

I am happiest when …

I have helped solve a clients problem for their pet whether it be food, a supplement or a toy.

Weekend activity

Camping and enjoying the outdoors

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t:

You know, I try not to worry. I would rather think things out and figure out a solution. I hate wasting my energies on worrying which resolves nothing. Either you can do something about the situation or you can’t. And, usually if you think about the solution you can do something! Remove the worry and resolve the issue.

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America's Coolest

Strong, Steady Growth — A California Store Looks to Franchise

A California store rules at raw food.

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Ben’s Barketplace, Roseville, CA

OWNERS: Brad & Sally Romero; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2010;EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time ; AREA: 2,850 square feet; FACEBOOK: /bensbarketplace; INSTAGRAM: /bensbarketplace


A S FORMER LAW ENFORCEMENT PROFESSIONALS, Brad and Sally Romero understand the importance of partnerships. They founded Ben’s Barketplace together in 2005. To determine the best possible diets for pets, the couple work with integrative veterinarians and ask customers to answer detailed questionnaires. Such synergy has helped thousands of dogs and cats, and has grown the Roseville store into the largest independent retailer of raw pet food in California. “We sell an average of 500 pounds a day,” Brad says with pride.

Partners in Pet Nutrition

Brad worked as a K-9 officer and trainer for the California Highway Patrol. Sally also worked for the CHP before serving in the state’s Department of Justice. They point to his first K-9 partner as inspiration for their store. The yellow Labrador Retriever came to them in 1998 on a diet with much room for improvement.

“I knew there had to be higher-quality food available,” Brad recalls.

Thus sparked a passion for pet nutrition that has evolved into a focus on raw. Ben’s Barketplace has one walk-in and 20 stand-up freezers. Brands include Northwest Naturals, Stella and Chewy’s, Small Batch, Bones & Co., Vital Essentials, Instinct, Primal, Raw Bistro, Tucker’s, Bravo and My Perfect Pet.

“Diet is the foundation for good health. We are now huge advocates of species-correct raw diets,” Brad says.

Area integrative vets regularly refer patients for nutrition consultations, which are available for free on-site and for $50 over the phone.

“It’s something we do every day. We go through the questionnaire, which covers everything from medical and diet history to activity level and grooming. We then formulate a plan,” Sally explains.

Brad adds, “Our recommendations are simple dietary solutions that cleanse the animal naturally, utilizing a proper and laser-focused nutritional protocol and supplements to achieve their optimal health.”

Their success in helping pets with cancer — including his second K-9 Nikita, a Belgian Malinois who developed hemangiosarcoma — as well as diabetes and many other conditions has led to the positive word of mouth that serves as the store’s main advertising.

“Our consultations are really our brand,” Brad says. “It’s not what we have. It’s knowing what to do with what we have. We are a nutritional consultation service surrounded by the highest quality food in North America.”

Partners in Store Design

Ben’s Barketplace opened in Lincoln, but moved to its current location in Roseville five years later. It wasn’t until then that the couple were able to create the store of their dreams.

“In my previous career, I was a certified welder, so I designed the store and made nearly everything in it,” Brad says. “Sally was the decorator.”

His welding work can be seen in food racks throughout the 2,850-foot space as well as in the “Ben’s Bone Yard,” a standalone chew bar made from wood and steel. An exposed ceiling and concrete floors, plus painted brickwork and interior signage by artist Kristina Letson, complete the industrial aesthetic.

The owners love their design and recreated it, with help from Letson, in their recently opened second store, back in Lincoln. It also serves as the template for franchises.

Partners in Expansion

Brad and Sally have decided that managing their two corporate stores, along with a third due in 2020, will keep them plenty busy and that all other Ben’s Barketplace locations will been owned and operated by franchisees.

“I want people who will have a vested interest in making the store the best it can be,” Sally says, explaining their decision.

Brad adds, “We’re not looking to grow too fast, though. We don’t want to be the McDonald’s of the pet food world. We want stores that will last and have strong, steady growth.”

The first franchise location, in Citrus Heights, opened in late 2018. To interest and inform potential franchises, they launched ownabens.com.

PHOTO GALLERY (11 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Ben’s Barketplace

1. FROM FAILED HUNTING DOG TO K-9 CHAMP: Born in England, Ben of Barketplace fame came to the U.S. as a hunting dog. He didn’t do so well, mouthing the ducks a bit too much. Ben went on to train as a drug detection dog. He graduated at the top of his class and partnered with Brad. The pair located more than $27 million in illegal narcotics during their time together. They also competed in K-9 trials, with Ben taking home the narcotics detection championship in 1999.

2. TEXT INSTEAD OF TALK: When customers have a question or need to place an order, they can simply send a text. The message converts via Zipwhip and appears on the store’s point-of-sale system screen, alerting employees and allowing them to instantly respond.

3. KNOW THY CUSTOMER: Brad and Sally believe that “Customers are a business’s life blood, but not everyone is your customer.” They understand that not everyone will want to spend more than they are used to for a raw or other high-quality diet. Knowing that allows them to focus their time on those who will.

4. CUSTOMER TESTIMONIALS: To promote their nutrition consultations, Brad and Sally ask pet parents to share their experiences on video for the store’s social media platforms. Viewers can learn how they helped diabetic Tyson, yeasty Rocco and overweight Odin drastically improve their health.

5. NUTRITION SCHOOL: Employees at Ben’s Barketplace take online courses to become certified pet nutritionists — the better to help itchy, fatty and otherwise unhealthy dogs and cats!

ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A for Brad Romero

One gadget

MIG welder

Favorite book

The Bible

Best advice ever given

Not everyone is your customer

Advice for a new storeowner

It’s your child. Keep it healthy through dedication, education and love.

I drive a pickup. If I could choose any car…

It would be a pickup.

What superpower would you like to have?

To save every dog in a shelter or poor living conditions.

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?

A local heating and air company. The owner gave a bid. They arrived and completed a large job in one day for half the price of competitors. And sent a qualitycontrol employee two weeks later to ensure everything was completed correctly. He found a larger error and had it fixed the next day.

Tell me about your perfect day.

A day on the beach with my dogs!

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

Notify a family of the death of a loved one.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?

My dogs

If money were no object…

I’d put another walk in freezer in my store.

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers

Training customers how to handle their dog properly without poor training equipment like gentle leaders.

If I weren’t a pet business owner…

I’d be retired.

Current career goal

None

Current life goal

Longevity

Favorite store that’s not my own

The Raw Connection in Carmel Valley, CA

I am most frustrated when …

Customers believe their veterinarian is a nutritional expert.

I am happiest when…

I am with my dogs.

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t

Losing my dogs

Q&A for Sally Romero

One plane ticket

Anywhere, but definitely roundtrip.

Advice for a new store owner

Know that every customer has a choice in where they shop and treat them accordingly.

Tell me about your perfect day.

Wake up without an alarm, enjoy a cup of tea at my local coffee shop, stop by my stores but not have to stay until closing, enjoy a homecooked dinner.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

Learn to say no to telemarketers. It’s quite easy now.

If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save?

My dogs. They are at work with me most days.

Advertising campaign I wish I’d thought of.

I’m not creative at all, so I’m quite happy to have creative people around me that can think of these things.

If money were no object, I’d do ———— to my store.

Expand it and add products and employees.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is _____.

Their eyes.

If I weren’t a pet business owner, I’d be …

A volunteer at a rescue.

My hero is …

My dad. He’s my hero and my role model.

Favorite store that’s not my own

The Raw Connection in Carmel Valley, CA

I am most frustrated when …

I cannot get everything done due to time constraints.

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America's Coolest

School’s in Session for Dog Food Buyers at Maxwell & Molly’s Closet

There’s no sitting behind the counter at this New Jersey store.

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Maxwell & Molly’s Closet, Newton, NJ

OWNER: Bonnie Bitondo; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2007; AREA: 1,600 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time,3 part-time; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/maxwellmollyscc


PET PARENT. DETECTIVE. Teacher.

Bonnie Bitondo considers herself all of these before business owner. That philosophy informs every aspect of her pet boutique and grooming salon, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet in Newton, NJ.

“If people know you have their best interests at heart, both their pet and their pocketbook,” she says, “then the register takes care of itself.”

And it has. Since opening in 2007, Bitondo has grown her store from 350 to 1,600 square feet. She even added a second location in 2010.

History, Handshakes and Help

Maxwell the Yorkie came into Bitondo’s life in 2005, as an anniversary present from her husband, Rick. Having never before raised such a small puppy, she went in search of advice.

“The first pet store I walked into, with Maxwell in my arms, the owner was sitting behind the counter,” Bitondo recalls. “I said, ‘This is Max. I want to feed him the best food you have.’ He didn’t even look at my dog, just said that food was on Aisle 2 and that they were all the same.”

With no knowledge of pet nutrition and no help from the owner, she settled on kibble with a Yorkie on the bag.

“By the time I got home, I was livid. I didn’t appreciate being ignored. I didn’t appreciate receiving no information. And I was mad at myself for buying food based on packaging.”

Bitondo was also nearing retirement from teaching. She decided then that the next stage of her life would involve opening a store that treats pet parents the way she wished she had been treated that day.

Two years later, Bitondo used her retirement savings to buy the connected buildings that would house Maxwell & Molly’s Closet. She started in the smaller of the two — hence the store’s name, which also includes her second Yorkie — restoring the 1910 structure’s original tin ceiling, installing crystal chandeliers and adding an old-fashioned awning. Antique furnishings became fixtures. The transformation won a Newton Chamber of Commerce Beautification Award.

Bitondo expanded into the larger 1920s building in 2010, opening the door in between, repainting the exteriors to complement each other and adding signage to connect them visually.

“Our physical appearance, inside and out, says ‘We think your pet and you are special.’”

And she and her staff do.

“There’s no sitting behind the counter at my store. We come around and greet every customer with a handshake.”

They then employ what Bitondo calls “kind questioning.”

“We say, ‘Tell us about your pets. Is there something specific you’re looking for? Or are you just browsing? It shows that we’re interested in them. If they’re browsing, we respect that, but check in every five or 10 minutes to see if they need help.”

Product Private Eye

When pet parents do want guidance, they learn first that Bitondo has done extensive research on every product in the store.

“We don’t carry anything that I wouldn’t give to my own dogs or cats,” she says.

Her sleuthing skills developed early, thanks to growing up the daughter of a detective. “I try to use everything he taught me.”

When it comes to the edibles she carries, Bitondo scrutinizes food and treat ingredient lists and sources, and “I look at the companies themselves. How many recalls they’ve had. Where the foods are made. If the factories have had recalls. I follow the facts. It takes time and energy, but I can tell customers that I feel comfortable giving these products to my pets and to theirs.”

The community appreciates such thorough research, and for that and many other reasons, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has been named “Best Pet Store” by New Jersey Herald readers for the past three years.

School is in Session

Bitondo doesn’t simply wait for customers to arrive and ask for advice. The former teacher draws them in with smart signage in her windows: “So you think you can’t afford premium pet food, come in for a conversation and free samples.”

Those who take Bitondo up on the offer get a math lesson. She asks how much their dog or cat weighs, then compares the feeding guidelines of less expensive, lower-protein foods to those of her more expensive, meat-first products.

“They see that the cost difference greatly narrows because they feed less. That helps their pocketbook, and it helps the digestive system of their animal as less food goes through it.”

She also hosts and promotes a variety of fun educational events. “Soup Er Bowl” in February provided information about and free samples of Primal Bone Broth, with staff serving pups while their humans enjoyed their own soup, homemade by Bitondo herself.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Maxwell and Molly’s Closet

1. HOLISTIC GROOMING: Bonnie Bitondo didn’t plan on offering grooming at her store, but when Paulina Riofrio became available three years ago, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The two share a vision for grooming that includes natural products and private appointments. Riofrio uses reiki, aromatherapy and crystal healing to keep pets calm and comfortable.

2. WEIGHT TRACKER: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has its own veterinary scale, on which pets are weighed. Losses and gains get entered into the customer’s profile, as do any health and behavioral issues. Combined with purchase history, staff use this information to suggest rotating proteins or adding supplements.

3. MEMBERSHIP PERKS: Once customers spend $200 at the store, they become members of the Platinum Paw Club and get a 5 percent discount on all products going forward. There are 5,000 members between both locations.

4. GIVING BACK: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet provides pet food to area homeless people through Family Promise. “We realized that these individuals and families were giving up their pets or living in cars or tents so they wouldn’t have to,” Bitondo says. “We had to step in and help these people who had already lost so much.” Manufacturers help with donations, as do customers who put money in a designated “house” next to the register.

5. FREE DELIVERY: Purchases $50 and higher qualify for free delivery if within an hour of the store. Rick Bitondo drives the store van, which features the couple’s dogs running on a colorful wrap. Bonnie’s husband will even place frozen items inside a customer’s freezer upon request. The store also offers curbside pickup of orders.

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