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Continue your education with these mini-lessons from the PETS+ Brain Squad.

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I WISH I HAD known.” How many times have you said that in relation to your pet business? Likely a lot. After all, no one enters this industry — or any, for that matter — knowing everything. You rely on mentors and peers to share insight and advice, and then you pass it on to others.

PETS+ exists to facilitate such lessons. The more than 900 readers who make up our Brain Squad serve as both teachers and students, the role depending on the topic.

We recently asked them to share one, two or three things every pet pro should know. The response was overwhelming!

Here are 55, and you’ll find even more at petsplusmag.com. Keep in mind that while some are complete tips, others are simply starting points because execution varies by type of business and/or location.
Let the learning continue!

Intro to
Business

1. You have to like people.

Janet Cesarini of Pupology in Georgetown, TX, puts it simply, “If you don’t like people, you have no business being in retail.”

2. You don’t have to be everything to everyone.

“Figure out your target market, build a brand for that market, and they will come,” Leel Michelle of Bow Wow Dog Bakery in San Diego, CA, advises. She would know. Michelle sold her boutique, which was our 2018 America’s Coolest Store, to focus full-time on her successful grooming apparel line and wholesale treats and cakes.

3. There is no one right answer.

Nicole Cammack of NorthPoint Pets in Cheshire, CT, explains, “We are heavily nutrition focused, and one of the things my team has realized is that we’re all successful in the recommendations we make because they come from personal knowledge and experience versus just trying to sell a product. As a result, we have all been able to give and take from each other’s unique experience and perspective. Interestingly, most of us have some formal nutrition training, and many of us have been taught differently.”

4. You should be the best, not the cheapest.

“Be aware of your competitor’s pricing, but don’t let it rule you. Add value where others can’t,” Paige Elder of Buzz N’ B’s Aquarium & Pet Shop in Erie, PA, recommends.

5. Looking outside helps you grow.

“Watching and learning from companies in other industries can give you ideas on so many different levels,” Jeffrey Jensen of Four Muddy Paws in St. Louis, MO, says. “From how best to handle a crisis to working better with your store teams, and merchandising and marketing. Looking to business innovators gives you a new perspective and helps you problem solve. You also can see cultural trends form that can help you anticipate what’s potentially resonating with your customers and with the members of your team. Looking beyond the competition to the best performers in any industry has helped us set the right benchmarks.”

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6. Looking ahead prepares you for change.

Sheila Spitza of Wet Nose, Geneva, IL, shares, “I’ve known for years that e-commerce was the future, along with curbside pickup and local delivery. Because of this, we’ve been allocating resources to these segments of our business for years, which paid huge dividends when COVID-19 hit. We were all systems go.”

Products &
Services 101

7. Multiple price points are a must.

“You need to find products at many price points that still meet your standards of quality because not everyone has a pocket full of cash,” Jodi Etienne of Razzle Dazzle Doggie Bow-tique in Bradley, IL, says.

8. Distributor and manufacturer reps deserve your respect.

Paula Gorman of Pet Supplies ‘N’ More in Muskego, WI, offers this advice: “They tend to be more helpful if you have been kind verses demanding.”

9. Margins don’t matter with food.

Instead “Look at dollars in, dollars out (and frequency),” Cammack of NorthPoint Pets recommends. “For example, there is less margin on raw food. However, that customer is now more likely to purchase from you, come back and be a repeat customer; therefore the raw products are more profitable.”

10. Dropping a brand will not sink your store.

Shane Somerville of Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, shares this experience: “We dropped our bestselling dry food line — $100,000-plus sales every year — because the manufacturers were dishonest with customers about their ingredients. Sure, we probably lost a few people who didn’t care about that, but for our regular shoppers, it helped cement in their minds, ‘This is why I shop with Paddywack. They put pets over profit.’”

11. Which products are comparable.

Jennifer Marshall of Northwoods Pets in Rhinelander, WI, stresses the importance of “being able to recommend and sell alternatives if you don’t carry a particular brand. You should be able to look at a label and know which brand is comparable or better and convert the customer to a brand you carry.”

12. Always get physical keys.

Kimberly Maevers of Fun Fur U – In Home Pet Care in Lancaster, CA, explains, “Many of our clients use electronic and/or battery-powered locks and/or openers on their homes. In addition to knowing those codes, we also require a manual key or some other way to enter the home in case of a power-outage/failure. That way, even if the power is out, we can get inside.”

13. Cat grooming can be lucrative, too.

Rachel Diller owns two grooming salons in Littleton, CO. “I grew The Poodle Shop to well over 1,000 clients after a few years,” she says. “Urban Sophisticats reached 1,000 clients in its first year. We only operate two days a week. This will, hands down, be the most lucrative business for any trained/certified feline groomer. Anyone can groom a cat or dog, but to do it well takes skill and knowledge that the National Cat Groomers Institute of America provides through personal private instruction. I am the NCGIA-Approved Trainer in Colorado. We get almost 85 percent of our referrals from vet clinics.”

Hiring & Management
Best Practices

14. Hire for attitude, not skills.

Charlsye Lewis of Metro Animals in Fort Worth, TX, shares her hiring process. “We do three rounds of interviews: phone, in-person and working to have the best chance of success with any new hire. Refine and expand your employee interview process to weed out people with a bad attitude. Read “Hiring for Attitude,” by Mark Murphy, and always call references and do background checks.”

15. Trust your gut when hiring.

Nancy Guinn of Dog Krazy stores in Virginia warns, “A warm body can cause more harm than good.” She speaks from experience with more than 80 employees across her six brick-and-mortar locations and an online store.

16. No employee is irreplaceable.

“If an employee is gone for a week and you survived without them, then you can survive without them forever,” Angela Pantalone of Wag Central in Stratford, CT, says.

17.Professional HR support is available.

Jennifer Larsen of Firehouse Pet Shop in Wenatchee, WA, worked in corporate leadership before joining the pet industry. “I had a lot of prior training in human resources. I highly recommend getting Homebase’s scheduling app and utilizing their HR PRO service. It’s a huge help and comes with tons of great tools like handbooks, legal advice and policies. You also can call and talk to an HR professional.”

18. Always pay yourself.

Michelle Nelson of The Pet Authority in Albert Lea, MN, recommends drawing a salary “even if you turn around and loan it back to your business. In the meantime, pay yourself a little bit of interest, and then when you are making decent money, you can pay yourself back with no tax consequences.”

19. It’s OK to cry and scream.

“Just do it alone, crouched in the corner of your office into a balled-up T-shirt to muffle the emotional release,” Pantalone advises. “Don’t crack in front of the dogs or employees. Let them marvel at your constant, even-keeled composure.”

20. A bottom-up approach inspires.

Carly Patryluk of House of Paws Pet Boutique in Regina, SK, explains, “People buy into an idea they are actively part of versus being told how they’re going to do it. I ask my team for input and encourage collaboration. They are energetically involved in finding ways to make our business and our customer service stand out from our competition, and take pride in the work they are doing because they had a hand in developing our systems and processes.”

21. Mental health issues need acknowledgement.

“I came from the corporate world,” Andy Wiltz of Woof’s Play & Stay in Merriam, KS, says. “I didn’t anticipate the amount of mental health issues my team would have — whether depression, social anxiety, eating disorders or something else. They are attracted to working with dogs because the dogs don’t judge them and love them unconditionally. This isn’t a problem to deal with — it’s just something we have to acknowledge. If we learn how to support them through these things, they become more loyal to us and we build a stronger team.”

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Customer
Service 201

22. Selling the wrong product isn’t right.

“I actively discourage people with new puppies from buying our beautiful, expensive Bowser Beds because they’ll only last a lifetime if the pet doesn’t chew them up, and we all know how mouthy puppies can be,” Somerville of Paddywack says. Building trust through what you sell, and what you don’t, can be invaluable in gaining customer loyalty.”

23. Upselling isn’t always appropriate.

And Jess Calton of Chow Hound Pet Supplies in Walker, MI, agrees and adds this advice: “Offering guests honest assistance with their needs, and not being pushy or selling something because it’s the ticket item that month, is going to earn their trust and their return. A returning guest is better than a one-time guest who buys everything you suggest.”

24. Words matter.

“How you talk to people is so important,” Somerville stresses. “The phrases and specific words you choose matter and can make a big difference in how people perceive you. ‘Do you want help with that?’ often can get a different response than, ‘May I carry this out for you?’” The latter shows you are offering a service, and the former doesn’t (and some people just don’t like asking for help).

25. Teaching works better than selling.

“I don’t sell raw food. I teach people about its benefits. Then I help them with next steps,” Marilyn Texter of Pawsitive Karma in Castro Valley, CA, explains.

26. Negative reviews aren’t all bad.

Eco Dog Care L.A. has a 4.5-star rating on Google. Sisters Karen and Jane Bond, who own the day care and dog wash, take something from each review, good and bad. Jane offers this perspective, “Bad reviews are hurtful, but they are a chance to a) learn something and b) say something about yourself/your business and how you handle the inevitable problems that hit everyone.” If the complaint is valid, “we figure out what should change and how. It’s the beginning of what can be a very good or at least useful conversation.”

27. Good customers matter more.

Niki Libarios of Hawaii Doggie Bakery in Honolulu, HI, goes above and beyond for pet parents who shop at her store, but says, “When you have an unhappy or difficult customer, it’s easy to want to go overboard making them happy.

Do your best to help them, of course, but there comes a point when you have to draw the line. The time you spend on a customer who isn’t the right fit for what you do is time taken away from customers who should be getting your full attention and energy.”

28. Writing off damaged merchandise costs less than losing a good customer.

Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation advises, “Accidents will happen, maybe more than you’d like. It’s a cost of doing business. You can write off any merchandise or damage, but you can’t repair the damage to the customer experience if they are required to pay for merchandise or are surprised with how the situation is handled. Always remember the lifetime value of the customer is more important than an individual visit.”

29. Being judgemental doesn’t help anyone.

“Some folks make bad purchasing decisions elsewhere and are looking to fix a mistake,” Liz Harris of Creatures Featured in Madison, FL, says. “Like the guy who bought a less expensive but higher wattage heat lamp at the hardware store and now needs the proper bulb, plus a replacement lizard for his daughter. These situations are selling opportunities. Our job is to anticipate the needs of our customers and stock the things necessary to achieve the success they seek. Nothing more, nothing less.”

30. Transparency works best.

“Keep pet parents informed on how their dog is doing in day care and don’t withhold information if the dog has inappropriate behaviors,” Dana Rice of Dog Wild in Cooperstown, NY, recommends. “Report cards are a good way to communicate. Also keep a written log of what was communicated to the parent and when. If behaviors eventually mean that the dog has to be rejected from participating in day care, you never want the owner to say ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ or ‘I had no idea.’”

31. It’s OK to laugh at yourself.

Lisa Kirschner of Sit, Stay, ‘N Play in Stroudsburg, PA, admits, “We all do silly things at times. Being able to giggle helps our guests relax and not feel that they need to always be perfect. I’ve fallen over equipment in agility and sometimes get my words backward while explaining. A good giggle relaxes everyone, and then we can get back to creating that great bond with the dogs.”

Shop Class

32. You may be able to fix it yourself.

DIY videos abound online. While some maintenance or improvement tasks will be too advanced, require equipment you don’t have or take too much of your time, many are doable. Anna Woodcock of Brown Dog Bakery in Ankeny, IA, shares her recent accomplishments: “I painted the entire store for our remodel. $2,000 saved. Leaking toilet because the wax seal needed to be replaced. $5 wax seal versus a $200 plumber visit. Grooming dryer. The switch went out. I replaced it with a new one. Saved $500.”

33. Invest in and install freezer alarms.

Danny Offenbacher of City of Paws Pet Care in Philadelphia, PA, recommends learning from his experience.

“We purchased our freezers used from a shuttering Pet Valu, and one of them had an aftermarket part that failed — which a freezer repair company didn’t catch! — right after we had a huge Primal freezer fill. The freezer stopped cooling, and the product was ruined.”

Andrea Demmons of The TailGait Market in Asheville, NC, adds, “My freezer vendor suggested a product called Temp Stick. It comes with an app that notifies me if the temperature in the freezer goes above a certain temperature. Even if the WiFi goes out, it records 24 hours of temperatures, so I at least know how long the power was out and if our frozen product can be saved.”

34. Keep items out of the pee-zone (12 inches from the ground and lower).

If you follow this advice from Guinn of Dog Krazy, you will have to write off less merchandise and avoid customer conflict.

Intro to Law
& Insurance

35. Have an attorney on retainer.

Guinn calls her attorney whenever she and husband/business partner Chris sign a lease, need to send a cease-and-desist order to a disgruntled former employee or have a question about how to handle a COVID-19 issue.

36. Another pet business can use your name if you don’t trademark it.

D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation explains, “You’ve built something special. Invest in protecting it by trademarking your name. This is done through the actual trademark process, but also by purchasing your exact domain name and any similar domains. This adds value to your brand, which is an asset of yours.” An attorney can assist, or you can use a trusted online trademark registration service.

37. Understand and update your business insurance annually.

Trace Menchaca of Modern Pet Foods in Houston, TX, stresses the importance of not only having insurance but understanding every element to ensure you are properly covered for your particular business.

Agent David Pearsall of Business Insurers of the Carolinas agrees. “As every pet business is unique, it is important that the business owner discuss their individual risk exposures with a licensed insurance professional, preferably with knowledge of their industry, to determine which coverage plan they are comfortable with,” he says. Create a discussion checklist that includes coverages such as general liability, professional liability, workers compensation, employment practices liability, commercial property with business interruption, commercial auto, cyber liability, data breach, animal bailee and employee dishonesty, plus any special coverages relating to catastrophes.

Johnna Devereaux of Fetch RI in Richmond, RI, adds that it’s a good idea to “discuss this when there isn’t an issue so that it’s one less thing to think about in the unfortunate event that you do have one.”

38. Be sure to have this particular coverage.

“Make sure your insurance covers business interruption so you can continue to pay employees if you are temporarily closed. It will help you, and them, sleep much better at night,” Pamela Campbell of Bonediggity Barkery & Gifts in Gatlinburg, TN, says.

39. Your power company may cover outage-related business losses.

When a tree fell on a power line and left Croton Pet Station in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, without power for six days, ConEdison took responsibility for the delay in repairs. “They paid for all of our damaged frozen food. We had to provide invoices for the products that were in there, and I submitted pictures. Everyone should definitely check with their providers so they know the policies,” owner Ann Fortini recommends.

Study Hall

40. Liking animals is not enough.

Janice Anderson of Anderson Acres Pet Care in Bakersfield, CA, explains, “A willingness to learn — about business, products, care — is essential. Every day, business becomes more of a challenge. A quality workforce becomes more difficult to secure. Mentors are difficult to find. And clients become more savvy. The more you know, the better you are as an owner, a boss or an employee, and the more successful you are.”

41. Research needs to be in-depth.

“Not just looking things up, but knowing how to dig, read between the lines, follow the money, back-track and rabbit hole dive,” Lorin Grow of Furry Face in Redlands, CA, says.

42. It pays to know many breeds.

“Naming breeds and characteristics helps me get a ton of grooming clients! People never anticipate me knowing they have a Lagotto not a Doodle, and now I groom a lot of Lagottos,” Annabell Bivens of The Dog Store and Your Dog’s Best Friends in Alexandria, VA, says.

43. Being able to read a pet’s body language has multiple benefits.

“Understanding the language of dogs has not only helped in keeping peace in my store, but it has been an integral part of my nutrition practice,” Devereaux of Fetch RI in Richmond, RI, shares.

44. No one should know your business better than you.

Grow says, “Your level of involvement is directly related to your business’s success. Be there — learning, listening, participating, working every aspect of every part of it. Not a groomer but offer those services? Learn about it! Learn the tools, the products, the equipment. Learn about everything you can in this industry in general and in your store and area specifically.

45. How to identify medical emergencies.

Amber Van Denzen Suarez has a degree in animal science from the University of Florida and was a veterinary technician for 13 years. She uses those skills in her current business, Atta Boy! Animal Care Pet Sitting + Dog Walking in Mulberry, FL. “All employees take basic first aid training and have certifications in canine and feline health from FetchFind. “Clients love knowing we can do a basic evaluation in case of an emergency. This includes staff being able to see signs of bloat, urinary blockages and seizures, and to look at gum coloration, feces and urine. This has come in handy multiple times when we were able to get a pet critical care.”

Extra Credit

46. Physical health affects fiscal health.

Jessica Cooke of Yuppy Puppy in O’Fallon, MO, explains, “I have owned my business for 18 years, but have been grooming for 25. I hear about all of these young people having trouble with the physical aspect of grooming, but I’m twice their age and can groom circles around them. I make sure my posture is correct when grooming, bend with my knees, make sure my equipment is in tip-top shape, and have the table at the appropriate height for me. I wear good shoes and so on.” Also, “I go to a massage therapist monthly. I work out. I ride my horses. I meditate. I pray. I stretch daily.”

The Computer Lab

47. You need a backup plan for your POS.

Stephanie Rossino of GiggyBites Bakery & Marketplace in Chadds Ford, PA, shares her “Quick & Dirty POS Backup Plan in Case of Hardware or Power Failure: Have a daily data backup for current POS, either cloud/network or removable drive to restore if a new device is required. This can be set up as part of your end-of-day procedures. Have a recent price for most common inventory items that do not have a price tag so if you need to do manual sales, you are covered and can use a calculator. Keep track to adjust inventory when restored. Since most customers pay with credit cards, have a mobile payment option such as a Square card reader. You could also set up Venmo or PayPal.”

48. Google alerts are your friends.

“It’s a must to keep up on news, trends, etc., of all things pet related, not just what you carry,” Matthew O’Leary of Felix & Oscar in Springfield, VA, says. “Part of being an expert is to know a lot about the industry, and keeping up on anything new can be extremely helpful when you get the ‘Did you hear about…’ questions. Set Google alerts for pet products, services, etc., and spend at least 10 minutes a day researching topics.”

Disaster Prep

49. Generators are well worth the investment.

“No matter the cost, get a generator! We have one for each facility, and they save loss of product and most importantly lives. We can’t have the AC not work when it’s 100 degrees out, with animals in our boarding,” says Krista Lofquist of Wagging Tails Pet Resort & Spaw in West Hartford, CT.

50. So is a gas stockpile.

Adrian Pannell of Bill’s Pet Shop in Havelock, NC, learned this lesson from Hurricane Florence. “We were without power for seven days. Thanks to our generator, we were able to keep most of our fish alive, and keep our freezers and refrigerators running. With no power in town, the gas pumps were not able to pump. It took about three days before they were able to, and that’s if they even had any. Distributors that were able to make it to us were nice enough to bring fuel. I had ordered heavy because I was unsure of when the trucks would be able to get through. Four out of eight found a way to get to us, and for that I am so grateful!”

51. Dog beds do in a pinch.

Victoria Park of Park Pet Supply in Atlanta, GA, shares this tip: “If you have a chest freezer and the power goes out for a day or two, pile your dog beds on top of the freezer or bungee dog beds to the front of an upright freezer to keep it insulated. We have done this and saved our frozen inventory.”

52. These supplies are important, too.

Myra Tsung of Camp Kitty in Decatur, GA, offers this reminder: “Always have bottled water on hand if you have live animals in your business. All it takes is a broken water main or a boil water advisory to cause a run on bottled water at every store within 20 miles.”

Kaye Busse-Kleber of Bark On Mulford in Rockford, IL, says, “Buy a snow rake to clear off your roof before damage occurs” if you operate where there are winter storms.

And also for those businesses, Shelly Nicastro of Essex Bird & Pet Supply in Essex, MA, recommends: “Always have a can of ice melt in your car. Nothing worse than arriving to work and you can’t get the key in the lock because of ice! Forget those tiny pocket ones, buy the big can at an automotive store.”

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53. Value your handyperson.

“Have one in your back pocket at all times — good relationship, you always pay them on time, you refer others to them — so they will be at your disposal for whatever is needed,” says Adina Silberstein of Queenie’s Pets in Philadelphia, PA. “We also have pre-cut window boards to fit all of our windows should they be needed.”

54. The importance of planning and practicing.

Grow of Furry Face recommends walking through as many scenarios as possible. “If you have no power, can you operate? Can your staff figure out tax on a calculator? Can they make change? Will you let people in the store, in the dark, or pull their order for them? Do you have battery-powered lights placed throughout for staff to use and not fumble about in the dark (and possibly get hurt)? Are your files up to date with emergency contact info for staff and is there a hard copy in case there’s no power? Does your store alarm system have battery backup? If you don’t have a generator, do you know who carries dry ice in your area?”

55. Plan not to panic.

Cammack of NorthPoint Pets offers this helpful advice. “It is what it is, and you will get through it one way or another. Take a step back, take a breath and triage — and take pictures of — the situation before you start running around without a direction. Think about: What are your priorities? What are the one or two critical things you need to serve your customers and get back in business? Is it calling the insurance company? Physically cleaning up the mess?

Calling a contractor? Landlord? Make a list of the people you have to call, the tasks that need to be completed, and delegate what you can in the order that makes for the best efficiency. Oftentimes when you sit down, analyze the situation and write it down, it’s not as overwhelming as it seems. The stress is always what gets the best of us.”

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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