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The Ideal

Instead of trying to offer everything to everyone, Cynthia McKinney works to retain and attract customers and clients who are the best fit for her business.

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SO MUCH PULLS at the attention of today’s pet business owners. A seemingly endless supply of new products, fresh variations on services, and ever-evolving marketing tools top this long list. While Cynthia McKinney stays up-to-date on all aspects of the industry, she remains focused on the brand and ideal customer base she has built for Loyl’s Pet Grocery & Groomery in Houston, TX.

For example, McKinney points to many of the events and promotions her fellow pet retailers find success with as ideas she does not let divert her. “They’re fun and look great on social media, but if at the end of the day they don’t bring me new customers, regular customers, they’re not worth my effort. I’m more focused on building loyalty within the customers who do shop with me and attracting more like them.”

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This approach to business has helped Loyl’s maintain healthy growth year after year, despite long stretches of surrounding road construction and a pandemic that made doing so a challenge.

Spokesdog Beau poses on the store’s annual holiday photo set. Proceeds benefit local rescues.

Spokesdog Beau poses on the store’s annual holiday photo set. Proceeds benefit local rescues.

The LOYL’S Brand

McKinney founded Loyl’s with husband Joe Champlin in 2016, after she transitioned from a career as a certified public accountant. Her previous work experience not only influenced the store and salon’s business plan, but also the creation of its brand.

“I came from Big 4 public accounting, where it was important to develop your personal brand, especially as you climbed the ladder,” McKinney explains. “I knew I wanted to have a brand image, something unique and custom, before we opened to help guide us through the process. We hired a local design office that brought our brand to life and influenced the design of our store.”

She describes that design, anchored by purple, teal and white, as “midcentury modern with a touch of pop.” A local furniture and fixture maker helped carry the brand through to even the smallest of details. “If you look closely at our fixtures, you’ll see brand colors on the edges of shelving and on the wheels of dollies.” An area architect consulted on the layout that continues to serve Loyl’s well seven years later. “Our customers compliment the flow of our store as well as our organized, curated selection.”

McKinney adds, “Our level of service, use of space, and a color palette that provides a sense of cleanliness, simplicity and calm with a hint of luxury makes our clients feel welcomed, relaxed and comfortable shopping with us.”

The Ideal Retail Customer

McKinney and Champlin, who helps out at the store when not working full-time in the medical device industry, created Loyl’s with dogs like their Yorkie-mix in mind. The couple became interested in pet nutrition when Beau refused to eat prescription food recommended for weight loss.

“He didn’t even want to taste it. After looking at the ingredients, we started researching and found a whole other world,” McKinney says. “Beau and his sister, Lucy, now eat raw food, and raw food is a focus of our store. We wanted others to have access to better nutrition for their pets.”

Currently, frozen raw makes up 22% of food sales, with freeze-dried raw at 17%. The combined 39% competes with kibble at 40%. Lightly cooked comes in at 14%, with canned at 7%.

The selection of high-quality foods and other supplies suits the store’s carefully chosen location, she says. “The neighborhood has an average household income of above $200,000, and they’re busy professionals. They’re busy with work. They’re busy with children. They have outside interests.”

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That busyness informs how McKinney spends her marketing dollars and time. For example, two years ago she changed the frequent-feeder program. “A lot of customers forgot they were even participating, some manufacturers were changing their requirements, and some customers switched brands so often it would take forever to even reach a reward, if at all. We went old school and now have a loyalty punch card that they present at checkout. They buy eight foods and get 30% off their ninth.” Customers can mix and match brands, sizes and food types — raw, freeze-dried raw, lightly cooked and dry, with meal mixers also qualifying.

McKinney says, “They love it, and participation has increased as the card keeps loyalty top of mind as customers see their progress.”

She also has adapted how promotions at Loyl’s work to best suit her ideal customers. “In the earlier years, I spent hours every month working on promotions, creating signage and sending out a newsletter, just to have nothing happen.” Now those who complete their first loyalty punch card get a 5th Saturday Sale tote that gives them 15% off everything they can fit inside on those days. “These programs work because they get to choose whatever they want, as opposed to a promotion of one product. They also don’t have time for deal seeking.”

The changes McKinney has made help her build community, as well, in a way that works for her business. “Our customers are looking more for staples than extras. But they like to talk when they come in. It’s like grocery shopping but with social time.”

Cynthia McKinney

Cynthia McKinney embodies the indie spirit in the pet industry.

The Ideal Grooming Client

Grooming at Loyl’s hovers at around 50% of total revenue each year, with McKinney using the same approach to building a client base that best suits her business and two part-time groomers.

She stopped offering services on Saturdays when the groomer who worked that day went on maternity leave, and all but one regular client switched to a weekday without fuss.

The by-appointment, one-on-one model works well for the dogs and their busy pet parents, but McKinney says, “For us to be the most efficient and profitable within our grooming hours, we had to rethink the dogs we accept.” The salon now only takes on new dogs 70 pounds or less.

She explains her reasoning, “One of the big questions in grooming is, ‘Do you really make money off of big dogs?’ We also no longer accept new dogs of certain breeds, the ones I call ‘the big hairies.’ When you’re doing one of those in a smaller groom room like ours, it’s very disruptive to the other groomer with all of the hair flying around. They have to stop what they’re doing, and it puts them behind. Who should eat that cost?”

Meet-and-greets also became a requirement in 2021 for any new client whose initial paperwork raises certain red flags. For example, if they have a 2-year-old Doodle who has never been professionally groomed or a dog who has severe anxiety during grooming, those clients come to the salon at the end of the day for an introductory visit. “The dog will be taken back to the groom room. The groomer will see if the dog can be led in and out of the tub and onto the table by themself, she will try to clip or file a couple of nails, and run the clippers to see how they react to vibration. We have the parent wait outside so the dog can’t hear, smell or see them, to simulate actual grooming.”

McKinney says that potential clients who agree to a meet-and-greet often don’t show up. “Ultimately, that means they were not the right fit for us.”

Salons are reluctant to turn away clients, but she wants to create that ideal client base while also helping to retain talented groomers.

What’s Next?

Like many one-store pet businesses, McKinney does not plan to open additional locations. Part of the reasoning involves Houston itself.

“It’s so micromarket. Whatever approach I’m taking in my current shop, the approach would need to be totally different in another neighborhood. It would double the workload, and instead of having efficiencies and economies of scale, it would be like having two totally different stores.

“So I’m going to focus on one store, one really good store,” she says.

And on those ideal customers and clients.

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Five Cool Things About Loyl’s Natural Pet Grocery & Groomery

1. SO, THERE’S NO LOYL?: Nope. McKinney says, “Our business name is a play on the word ‘loyal,’ as dogs are loyal companions. It’s also an acronym for ‘Love Of Your Life.’”

2. no PARKING: To keep customers for the neighboring paint store from taking all of her spots, McKinney installed a “Pet Parent Parking” sign letting them know that “Violators will be shaved and sent on their way.”

3. WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Holiday scheduling contributes to Loyl’s ability to retain talent long-term. The business closes on days around Christmas, New Year, Easter, Memorial Day and July 4, plus no grooming services are offered over Thanksgiving weekend.

4. FOR THE COMMUNITY: Loyl’s partners with a variety of local pet organizations, from serving as a drop-off location for Animeals on Wheels to hosting fundraising photo shoots for Miniature Schnauzer Rescue of Houston to simply dropping off customer donations at Friends for Life, a no-kill shelter that the couple can swing by on their day off.

5. MENTORS MATTER: McKinney points to two business coaches who have had an important impact on her store’s success. She’s a member of Candace D’Agnolo’s Pet Boss Club. “I get a lot of good ideas from her group, then tweak or modify it to better fit my business.” She also finds great value in one-on-one sessions with D’Agnolo, particularly on inventory management. For grooming, McKinney turns to River Lee of The Savvy Groomer. “I am on the higher end of pricing in the area with our business model. She has taught me how to find our soulmate clients, those people willing to pay those prices.”

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JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Peter Scott, American Pet Products Association: “I really enjoyed the story, making the move from Big 4 accounting into indie retail. The brand story and presentation are professional, approachable and consistent. Great job!
  • Lyn Falk, Retailworks, Inc: Very clean, nice looking, well merchandised store, with fun purple ceiling and coordinated fixtures. For a small indie store with very few employees, they do a great job overall.
  • Nancy Guinn, Dog Krazy: I love that Loyl is an acronym for what dogs truly are, Love Of Your Life. Their social media is lovely. Very clean photos, and I love that their dogs are featured.”
  • Kat Carbonaro, Astro Loyalty: Their merchandising is on point! Love how they have stuffies hanging throughout the store, and their freezer presence is WOW! I also appreciate how the tables at the front nest within one another so they can create special merchandising displays when needed, then tuck away when not. You can tell they care about their employees, their customers, and the pets in their community. There’s a lot of love and care that goes into Loyl’s … excuse me, LOYL’s.
  • Missy Limbeck, Pet Palette Distribution: Love that the branding colors follow through the entire store, including the ceiling fixtures and walls. Overall, a very clean space and layout with good flow for foot traffic, and the frequent feeder program would be a huge perk for me as I often like to try different brands.

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