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Intensely Alaskan

By focusing on wants and needs specific to pets in his state, Mark Robokoff has created a store the community loves to shop.

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AK Bark, Anchorage, AK

OWNER: Mark Robokoff | LOCATIONS: 1 | AREA: 3,600 square feet | EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 3 part-time | WEBSITE: akbarkgifts.com | FACEBOOK & INSTAGRAM: akbarkgifts | TOP BRANDS: 2 Hounds Design, Bubba Rose, Canada Pooch, Chilly Dog, Coyote Vest, Cycle Dog, Fuzzyard, Gold Paw Series, Hurtta, Huxley & Kent, Julius K9, Katziela, Mirage, Mountain Straps, Nite Ize, Muttluks, Natural Pet Co., Non-Stop Dogwear, Noxgear, Outward Hound, PetSafe, Rex Specs, Ruffwear, Shed Defender, Snoozer, Tuesday’s Natural Dog Co.


Mark Roboko and Dutch

Mark Robokoffand Dutch

ALASKANS HAVE A saying: “We don’t give a damn how they do it ‘Outside,’” referring to anything outside of the 49th state. Adopting that independent mindset and embracing the local community has helped AK Bark in Anchorage evolve into the successful pet business it is today. “What started out primarily as a pet-themed gift store quickly morphed into a specialty pet-gear store as we found this subsegment that was underserved in this market,” owner Mark Robokoff says. “Our slogan is ‘Intensely Alaskan,’ and we are intensely community focused.”

By truly listening to his customers and following consumer demand, Robokoff has benefited by letting those factors shape much of his business. He has created a store specifically for Alaskans and their surroundings.

Robokoff opened AK Bark in 2016 with a focus on Alaska products, moving it in 2022 from a strip center to its current building on Fireweed Lane.

“The cinderblock building offered double the space but had the curb appeal of a penitentiary,” he says. “The building was a blank canvas begging for color.” From his acting work in Alaska theater productions over the past 25 years, Robokoff knew a talented scene designer and muralist and hired her for the job.

LOOKING THE PART

“Cleo Pettit flew to Anchorage and spent the month of May 2022 painting our mural for her old friend,” he says. Because billboards are banned in Alaska — “so motorists can enjoy the scenery” — and strict ordinances limit how much mural space could show dogs, the pair got creative. “We filled a false third window with the faces of actual AK Bark canine customers.”

The rest of the two-story, 100-foot mural decorates the neighborhood with fireweed, a ubiquitous local plant with beautiful bright pink flowers.

“Alaskans see it as a symbol of renewal, as it gets its name from being the first plant to grow after a forest fire, and it’s a welcome sight signaling the start of Alaska’s summer,” Robokoff explains, adding that the store also sits on Fireweed Drive. “It was the perfect symbol upon which to base our branding and décor.”

Fireweed pink appears throughout the store’s interior color scheme, including in ribbons in the slatwall, and he created a classic vibe by adding two vintage rolling ladders for two-story displays. The floor features a herringbone pattern with display units aligned on its 45-degree angles to break up the space and guide customers through the store. “All display units are hand-made by me or second-hand and repainted.”

The “8 Paws of Gold” design, owned by the store, adorns flags, T-shirts and other products for people and pets, all exclusive to AK Bark.

AK Bark sells a variety of locally made and sourced treats.

LOCAL SOURCING

AK Bark has a two-pronged buying strategy: Alaska-Made and Alaska-Necessary. As customers asked for special pet gear they weren’t finding elsewhere, Robokoff saw an opportunity and adjusted his gift store business model to what his community wanted and needed. “We stock Alaska-Made items when possible, and a local high-school girl fills our ‘AK Barkery’ case with adorable cookies and cakes,” he says, adding that they typically sell a cake every day. “Our biggest revenue source is treats,” and “nearly all our brands are made locally, including freeze-dried salmon and locally sourced, naturally shed moose and caribou antlers, raw or smoked with salmon oil.”

Treats make up 18% of sales, followed by health and wellness (17%), toys (11%), dog apparel (8%), harnesses (7%), collars and leashes (7%), dog gear (6%) and booties (6%). The remaining 20%: human apparel, bedding, grooming products and gifts. Noticeably absent from this list is pet food.

“As everyone knows, pet food has a low margin and high demand for space. You’re dealing with expired product and all the usual trappings,” Robokoff says, leaving the category to nearby chain and feed stores. “Using the space differently allows for a much wider variety of other products. Making a go of it without dog food was a risky experiment, but it’s working for us so far!”

Instead of trips to the pet store being a chore, Robokoff says customers visit AK Bark “to see what’s new and to buy things that enrich their dog’s life or keep them safe in the Alaskan outdoors. “Customers shop while thinking about their dog and their next hike or play session. It’s an entirely different mindset and the result is a completely different, upbeat vibe.”

A local high school student keeps AK Barkery well stocked with cookies and cakes.

STAFFING STRATEGY

While many Anchorage businesses have struggled to find and keep quality employees, AK Bark has not. Most of Robokoff’s hires are from marginalized communities, and his turnover is very slow. He attributes some of this hiring success to higher wages and enjoyable perks. “AK Bark’s team members make significantly more per hour than their counterparts and receive a bonus whenever the store has a better-than-average month,” he says, adding that individual bonuses often surpass $1,000 in busy months.

“Team members also bring their dogs to work, get a hefty store discount and free lattes and mochas from the neighboring coffee shop, on me,” he says. “Our store simply puts customers in a good mood, which makes the retail working experience much more enjoyable than most.”

When hiring, Robokoff looks for ease with personal interactions. “We are competing with giant corporations that don’t prioritize keeping their best people as much as we do,” he says. “Friendly, intelligent and informed interactions are their weakness, so we make it our strength.”

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SAVVY MARKETING

The company’s effective use of social media to inform and interact with the community pays off. Part of its strategy is to post on Facebook and Instagram three to five times a day. These interactive posts include dogs trying booties for the first time or going crazy for a new toy, pictures of visiting puppies to lift spirits and a weekly caption contest with a prize: a $20 gift card.

One post, in particular, shot the store to viral fame. “A few years ago, I penned some thoughts on a neighbor who was pulling their senior dog on a sled through the snow,” Robokoff recalls. “The post went viral and was shared nearly 100,000 times, boosting our following.” The store’s current reach is over 14,000 followers on Facebook and over 3,300 on Instagram.

In addition, Robokoff also writes a column for a local publication, where he offers advice specific to Alaska dog issues. Topics include choosing the best booties, what the warmest coats are, and how to survive Alaska’s Breakup season, which he says is the state’s version of Spring.

AK Bark carries products Alaskans need and want for their pets.

PLANNING A BRIGHT FUTURE

AK Bark currently is rolling out a state-of-the-art loyalty program that integrates into its POS so transactions are attached to the customer’s name, resulting in a more streamlined and effective process. As part of the program, frequent customers earn points toward store-branded swag, from treat pouches and poop bags to AK Bark shirts and hoodies. Lapsed customers are re-invited to visit with a discount,” and “online purchases earn the same reward points as in-store ones, combined into a single tally,” Robokoff says.

All future plans for the store involve the successful Alaskan influence. “More than most cities in the U.S., an independent pet supply store in Alaska MUST define itself by the place in which it resides,” he says. “Without intense community focus, it has no chance of competing with the more efficient business models and huge price-reducing contracts of national chains.

“The goal is for the community to see our store as ‘their’ store, where profits are put back into the community instead of being sent elsewhere,” he continues. “It is a make-or-break effort businesswise, but it’s also just the kind of folks we are.”

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Five More Cool Things About AK Bark

1. First in CBD: “AK Bark was the first store in Alaska to offer CBD to pets, back when it was severely controlled and misunderstood,” Robokoff says. “We did the research and only stock the highest-quality products on the market. CBD continues to be a significant percentage of our sales, including AK Bark-branded treats that are dosed individually after baking. Putting in some extra effort in a new and controversial product has paid off with customer loyalty and trust.”

2. Good Fences: AK Bark uses geo-fencing in its digital marketing. “When a customer has cellular location services turned on and they enter the ‘geo-fence’ around a competitor, we can then serve AK Bark ads to those phones, encouraging customers to shop locally and get hard-to-find pet supplies that better suit our climate,” he explains.

3. Selfie Station: Many customers get a shot of their pet in front of the AK Bark mural. “Facebook and Instagram get flooded with customer posts tagging the store,” Robokoff says. “Nobody takes their dog’s picture in front of a warehouse store and tags petco.com.”

4. Worthy Cause: AK Bark hosts adoption events for The August Foundation, a rescue group that finds forever homes for retired sled dogs. In response to several tragic collisions between mushing teams and snowmobiles last winter, the store and rescue partnered to outfit as many sled dogs in the state as possible with LED gear at no cost. Thanks to discounted pricing from Noxgear, they raised $10,000 for more than 400 LED dog vests.

5. Iron On: Local suppliers provide the store with Alaska-themed bandanas such as northern lights, moose, bears, salmon and sled dogs. Customers can get their dog’s name put on a bandana via heat-transfer vinyl at the store’s Customization Station.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Molly Lewis, Dog River Pet Supplies: Mark clearly puts a lot of time and love into everything he does. His store is like nothing I have ever seen. It reminds me of an REI for dogs, with all the cool gear that you need and don’t need — I bet there are a lot of impulse buys and upsells here! Mark has a good business sense and reads his market perfectly.
  • Shelly Armstrong, World Pet Association and SUPERZOO: This store meets the needs of pets living in this part of the world. A true specialty store. Well done!
  • Georganne Bender, KIZER & BENDER Speaking!: The mural, pink ribbon trim in-store, opening next to a popular veterinarian to build foot traffic are all moves by a smart marketer who really thinks things through. The fundraiser for sled dog teams isn’t a marketing move, it’s the sign of a person who loves dogs and loves his community. Very attractive website that’s so easy to use. Adding geofencing is a stealthy move. Your tagging on Instagram is high. Adding your expert column, and thus setting your team and yourself up as THE experts, is so smart.
  • Todd Dittman, IndiePet: Strength in loyalty program and use of technology to communicate with customers. Great long-term strategy.
  • Mike Bioni, Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals and NexPet: Aside from the fact that both stores are merchandised beautifully — even products for pet parents! — Wise to use Alaska unity to build customer engagement. The exterior is very eye-catching and surely does the job to get you noticed. Very unique bonus program to give your staff skin in the game. Very smart idea.
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