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Fresh Venture, Fresh Appeal

Former day care owners’ foray into boutique nets steadily increasing sales.

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Notorious D.O.G., Clarence, NY

OWNERS: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua; URL:notorious.dog; FOUNDED: 2015; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2016; EMPLOYEES: 2 part-time ; AREA: 3,200 square feet; FACEBOOK: NOTORIOUSpetproducts; INSTAGRAM: notorious.dog


LAURA LACONGO AND JESSICA Mbgua are all about freshness now. The business partners had owned a doggie overnight and day care, complete with grooming salon, for 17 years when they decided it was time for a new venture.

“We had another niche and vision in mind,” LaCongo says, “so we sold the business and opened Notorious D.O.G. in 2016.”

The Clarence, NY, store offers high-quality products for pets and their people. Thanks to an emphasis on fresh, from marketing and merchandising to food and toys, sales have increased 30-plus percent year over year.

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New Branding & Marketing

LaCongo and Mbgua wanted their new store’s name to represent their commitment to pets and grab people’s attention. The play on one of rapper Christopher Wallace’s stage names, The Notorious B.I.G., does both.

“Biggie was strong and powerful,” LaCongo explains, adding that the memorable name and its logo featuring a spiked collar makes a fresh appeal to the pet parent customer base.

“We don’t limit ourselves to the usual range of 20- to 65-year-old females. They still make up the majority of our buyers, but men also come in and enjoy shopping. They really love our logo. Its branding power expands our sales into another area.”

The owners also update the store’s exterior monthly — four 4-by-5-foot posters introduce new products — to draw in passersby. Monthly mailers convey the information and coupons to members of The Notorious V.I.P. rewards program.

Fresh Displays & Products

The store’s design veers toward modern, with gray hardwood floors and metal fixtures with clean lines. Walls are white with products and displays providing the pops of color.

“I’m constantly changing the appearance, making it a fun and exciting shopping experience,” LaCongo says.

Many of the fixtures have wheels to move easily based on strength of sales or lack thereof. A recent setup used venison as its uniting theme and featured a metal deer’s head with food and treats from Ziwi, Primal, Stella & Chewy’s, Orijen and others. Camo collars and harnesses, plus stuffed woodland creatures from the likes of Fluff & Tuff completed the look. The store’s back office stays crammed with props year-round.

“I add the wow factor, what will make a customer pick up a bag of food or a toy.”

LaCongo says Fluff & Tuff and West Paw are the only toy companies always carried in the store. For other toy inventory, she looks to new products.

“Regulars are never going to see the same old toy in the same old section.”

All products must meet certain criteria: “When we buy, we research who, where and why, what problem a product solves. Every product has to have a reason for it. We like companies like Wondercide. Their products have a purpose and make a difference.”

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Frozen & Fresh as the Future

Notorious D.O.G. currently has four freezers, with plans to add several more in the near future. Primal, Northwest Naturals, Answers and Stella & Chewy’s are the frozen brands carried, in addition to freeze-dried offerings.

“Frozen is the one protection brick-and-mortar stores have against online, the one product we have that customers can’t get anywhere else,” LaCongo says.

Fresh products from local companies Fetch Gourmet Dog Treats and Nuggets Healthy Eats also are found in this area. Food makes up 50 percent of overall sales, with fresh and frozen bringing in 15 percent of that.

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Five Cool Things About Notorious D.O.G.

1. EXPERT ADVICE: Laura LaCongo and Jessica Mbgua retain their certification as veterinary technicians. It helps them advise on issues ranging from diet to skincare.

2. INSTA-FUNNY: Notorious D.O.G.’s Instagram account shows off happy canine customers and new and featured products with a sense of humor. Staffers climb into crates to show their roominess. Visiting pups crunch down on identifiable body parts. Special effects on videos add to the fun.

3. BEFORE AND AFTER: The store looks nothing like the insurance agency it once was, thankfully. A renovation’s result: a striking exterior with cool lighted Notorious D.O.G. sign and a sleek modern interior.

4. BETTER BIZ CARDS: The business cards LaCongo, Mbgua and their employees carry are not only friendly but offer savings. The front says “Nice to meet you,” and the back has a coupon redeemable for $5 off anything in the store.

5. ROCK-STAR STATUS: Members of the rewards program earn $10 for every $250 spent, and get a $5 store coupon for their pet’s birthday and access to special sales. The top 25 customers also become Notorious D.O.G. Rock Stars, which rewards them with a $25 gift card, plus a $5 gift card for a friend.

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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Pet Sustainability Coalition

Pet Sustainability Coalition Presents: Critical Sustainability Strategies for Retailers

This webinar, held on November 7, 2019, is the second in a series from PSC discussing how retailers can establish sustainable practices in their business. Moderated by PSC’s Andrea Czobor, the webinar unveils data behind the increasing consumer demand for sustainable products, what retailers have to gain from connecting with these purpose driven consumers, and a new PSC program that makes finding these products easier for retailers.

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Dog Krazy Marches Across Virginia, with a Fifth Location that Includes a “Barkery”

It started with a Bulldog…

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Dog Krazy, Leesburg, VA

OWNERS: Nancy and Chris Guinn; URL:dogkrazy.com ; FOUNDED: 2006; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2018; EMPLOYEES: 8 full-time, 4 part-time ; AREA: 2,800 square feet; FACEBOOK: dogkrazy; INSTAGRAM: dogkrazy; TWITTER: dogkrazyva


IT STARTED WITH a Bulldog.”

Nancy Guinn says this whenever sharing the story of how she founded Dog Krazy.

“In 2006, I met my soulmate Piglet. I wanted to spend every day with her, and that’s what I did. The first store opened in 2006 and the second in 2015, the year she left this earth. From the time she was 6 months old to her passing, we spent every day working together.”

The English Bulldog continues to be a guiding force for Nancy.

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“I want to spread my love for her by helping customers provide only the best products for their pets.”

Nancy now meets that goal in partnership with her husband, Chris, who joined the Virginia business full-time in 2015. They have since opened three more Dog Krazys, with the Leesburg location opening in 2018.

Dog Krazy + Lola’s Barkery

Like the other Dog Krazy stores, Leesburg features brand colors red, black, yellow and blue. They combine with exposed brick and ductwork, wooden floors, and pendant and twinkle lights to create a warm industrial vibe. The layout caters to all customers.

“The aisles are set up so that dogs who are selective, timid, overly excitable or fear-aggressive can come in, and the dog and owner can comfortably shop without worrying about another dog approaching too quickly,” Nancy explains. “We purposely added corners and aisles all over the store, so that owners whose dogs need more space can tuck them away from another dog (or owner) who doesn’t have the best manners.”

Leesburg boasts the company’s first on-site bakery, Lola’s Barkery. She chose the name for two reasons: Lola was Piglet’s puppy name, and Lola means “grandma” in Tagalog, a nod to Nancy and her mother’s Filipina heritage.

The couple chose the location, in the open-air center Village at Leesburg, because Nancy’s parents live nearby, and she wanted her mom, Maria Powell, to be involved in the business.

“She runs the barkery, and I do the decorating, so we get to spend more time together.”

Among the menu items are traditional bone-shaped treats and ready-made celebration cakes, but the mother-daughter team surprises and delights with creations such as Doggie Nachos, Ice Cream Sandwich and Hamburger with a Side of Fries. Their custom cakes also impress, with a recent one topped with “fettuccine” for birthday boy Alfredo. Nancy completed a 500-hour program to become a clinical pet nutritionist, so customers know they can trust the ingredients.

The Dog Krazy Way

Nancy handles product purchasing, human resources, bakery operations and marketing. Chris tackles finances, expansion and “everything and anything else the stores need,” she says.

Leesburg carries on the high standards the couple has set for all aspects of their company.

“No matter how much we grow, our values and why I started this business will always come first,” Nancy says.

“It’s not always about the bottom line,” Chris adds. “It has to do with what makes Dog Krazy so special and not losing that as we grow.”

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The couple tests all products with their personal pets before adding them to inventory. Once approved, products are available in a variety of ways to suit all customer preferences: shopping in-store and online, the latter with pickup in-store, curbside, local delivery and free two-day shipping on orders $99 or more.

Marketing efforts also involve the Guinn family pets.

“All photos I use are of our pets, and I invite customers into our lives,” Nancy says. “I’ve been told multiple times that my marketing techniques show the heart and soul of our business, our pets.”

To announce the Leesburg opening, dogs Stirfry Fatguy, Pork Wonton, Sushi and Tala each wore a chalkboard sign around their neck with an existing Dog Krazy location name, with pig Jimmy Dean wearing a sign that said “Dog Krazy 5 Coming Soon!”

Grooming appointments at all five Dog Krazy stores are by two-hour appointment only.

“We groom our customers’ pets from start to finish so that they are not sitting in a kennel all day and so that they can get back to their owners as quickly as possible.”

All employees go through Whizbang Retail Sales Academy, and the couple recently created a training manager position and promoted from within.

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“Her job will be to teach all new employees the Dog Krazy way, to make every customer feel like they are a part of our family,” Nancy says. “Because they are.”

Building on the Success of Leesburg

Lola’s Barkery and a recently added on-site bakery at the Stafford location provide treats and cakes to all Dog Krazys. When considering their next expansion, Chris looks to the newest store.

“It’s been successful, and our customers love it. When we open our next location, we’ll make sure that there’s enough space for a bakery in there as well.”

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Five Cool Things About Dog Krazy

1. VIPP FB: Dog Krazy has one Facebook page for all of its locations, but it also invites customers to join the Very Important Pet Parents private group for their home store. Nancy says, “It helps us offer different specials at each location, to help with items that may sell well at one but not another, along with featuring items that we may have at one store but not another.”

2. 49 PERCENT: Nancy made her business relationship with Chris as official as their personal one earlier this year. “Dog Krazy had always been 100 percent owned by me. For his 40th birthday, I had a cake made that said ‘Happy 49.’ When he asked why, I told him I was signing over 49 percent of the company to him — my accountant said one of us had to keep 1 percent more.”

3. AWARDS GALORE: Dog Krazy won 2019 Best Multi-Unit Retailer at the Retailer Excellence Awards at Global Pet Expo and 2018-19 Retailer of the Year in the Marketing category at SuperZoo. The stores have also won multiple local “Best of” awards.

4. HAPPY STAFF: Nancy says, “I recently had an email from another business owner who said my store is one of the few places he frequents where every employee is genuinely happy to be there. It is the best compliment I have ever gotten.”

5. EXPANSION BEYOND DOG KRAZY: Look for Lola’s Barkery treats and cakes to be available wholesale in 2020.

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Partnering and Pop-Ups: A Downtown Store Extends Its Customer Base Through Creative Outreach

Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

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The Modern Paws, Tampa, FL

OPENED FEATURED STORE: Dec. 26, 2018; FOUNDED: 2014, ran an e-commerce store from home; 2015, expanded to sublease 200 square feet of a neighborhood grocery store; 2018, opened brick-and-mortar storefront; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 2 part-time ; AREA: 1,628 square feet ; FACEBOOK: themodern4paws; INSTAGRAM: themodernpaws


Midwesterners Lisa and Ben Prakobkit brought their heartland ethos to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY TWO Midwesterners thrive at The Modern Dog in Tampa, FL, you’ve first got to get a feel for the Channel District, where you’ll catch an occasional celebrity sighting in the midst of wild dolphin cruises, maritime oddities and the Amalie Arena. It’s a small community inside a busy district of young renters, out-of-towners and business professionals.

Tucked in the highrises of Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Modern Paws is a warm and friendly surprise, with bright lights and soft pastel accents. Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

“People come visit us very often,” Ben says. Customers come through every other day to pick up a quick treat or say hi. “It gives us a chance to ask, ‘How is his foot doing?’ and ‘How long did the treat last?’ I think it makes a big difference. When you can have a great conversation, just hearing about their day, it shows more of a family and friend community versus just a store.”

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To beat the big-box stores and online competition, they offer free weekday delivery and get out into the community every chance they get. “In this day and age, it’s about who you work with,” says Ben, who is originally from Chicago. “It’s not work, it’s connections. The community, at the end of the day, will support.”

The Modern Paws grew from an e-commerce site that delivered pet food throughout the Tampa Bay area to a grocery-store partnership.

“The owner of the grocery knew what we were doing with the e-commerce side of things and said, ‘What if I sublease some square footage to you from our store and you could sell your product out of the store?’” he says. “And we were like ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful.’”

The day after Christmas 2018 they opened their first storefront — 1,628 square feet — and it’s become a popular pet store and grooming spot for Tampa Bay’s young and mostly childless crowd.

Friends and Neighbors

The couple is from “up North,” and Lisa’s Michigan friendliness is warm even in Hillsborough County, a neighborly area often voted one of the best places to live in the bay. “Even here people are like, ‘Wow, you’re so nice,’” she says. “We’re Midwest people, and we are definitely different, even though we’ve been down here eight years now.”

Their dedication to community outreach has helped them develop good relationships in the neighborhood, where they both live and work. Even though it’s a young crowd that loves to shop online, they get repeat customers because people want to support a local business.

Their store is in a downtown location, so they take their show on the road, working with rescues and showing up at apartment complex popups and dog park grand openings to share food and treat samples, chat with friends and let people know The

Modern Paws is out there, offering free delivery to anyone in the county.

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“That’s how we let them know we’re located here, and that we do grooming, have self-dog wash and do delivery,” he says. “It’s just getting to talk to the residents.”

In December, a miniature of The Modern Paws opens in a PODS moving container at a holiday festival.

POD People

Every year in December, around the anniversary of their store opening, the Prakobkits pack up a best-selling selection and set up a tiny pop-up at Tampa Bay’s popular Winter Village festival.

As the temperature hangs around 70 degrees, the city gives this palm tree paradise a snowfall feel with an outdoor ice skating rink, holiday concerts and Christmas-themed movies. Handpicked by festival planners to represent boutique shopping in downtown Tampa, The Modern Paws is one of the select vendors to get an 8-by-8-foot moving container to build out as a satellite store. From Day One of the festival, they drew a line around the block.

“The moving company that supplies these moving containers ended up doing an article about us and the success we’ve had using the PODS. Out of majority of the PODS pop-ups, we’re probably one of the busiest,” Prakobkit said. The tiny space can fit about two dozen shelves and a few standing displays, but not much else. It’s 1/25 the size of their brick-and-mortar store. “It’s 64 square feet. We’ve mastered the small space.”

Owning the Phone Tech

People who live in the area are younger professionals who more often have pets instead of kids. “They’re tech-savvy. They shop online,” Ben says. “We’re that type of customer, too, and when we price things out we keep that in mind.”

They counter the one-click ease of Amazon with their own perks, like same-day delivery Monday through Friday. “It’s hard to beat. However we do actually beat it — we have a lot of our customers take advantage of that,” he says. They also offer frequent-buyer programs, rotating discounts and buy-one-get-one sales.

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“Our big thing is nutrition. When we’re able to help pet owners get their dogs healthy or keep them healthy, it’s a rewarding feeling,” he says. “When people say, ‘The new food really took care of all the skin allergies’ and things like that, it’s definitely a good feeling.”

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Five Cool Things About The Modern Paws

1. Stories as a Secret Weapon: A silly skit or a quick talk on nutrition in an Instagram Story brings in a ripple of business. “We try to spice it up and do a few different things,” Lisa Prakobkit says. “We don’t want to bombard them with dog pictures.”

2. Four-Legged Foot Traffic: Located in the bottom of a residential building, The Modern Paws draws in almost every dog in the building. “We have dogs that will literally pull their owners to the store,” Ben Prakobkit says.

3. Phone-Friendly Tech: In a nod to clientele who rarely put their phones aside, customers can instantly book grooming appointments with a swipe up on the store’s Instagram Stories. Because their customers prefer to text, they’ve developed communication streams through text rather than calls.

4. A Tiny Staff: The small but mighty staff includes just two part-timers outside the groomer and two owners. Everybody has a specialty, like training or creating great social media content, and the size gives shoppers consistency in staff. “Customers get accustomed to seeing familiar faces when they walk in,” Ben says. “You can refer back to something you talked about in a previous visit, and it makes them feel like, ‘Wow, they remember me.’”

5. Huge Online: The store’s website is clean, fast and easy to navigate. Customers also check out products online before shopping in-store, or opt for same-day delivery in the area. For those farther away, The Modern Paws offers free nationwide shipping.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.

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Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; URL:muttsandco.com ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/muttsandco; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/muttsandco


Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.

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Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.

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This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”

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Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”

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Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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