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LAB WORK

20 proven experiments to run in your business that will make your life easier, your employees happier and KEEP your customers coming back

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You indies are all about experimentation. After all, no corporate overlord exists to dictate which products you sell or how you merchandise them. Or which processes you put in place. Or how you manage staff or market your brand. You have the freedom to be bold, to see for yourself what works and what does not. With that in mind, we asked the PETS+ Brain Squad to share experiments that have proven successful for their businesses. Try one, two or even all 20!

EXPERIMENT

Provide free 10-minute training session to daycare dog.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Lisa Cane, Wags Doggie Day Care and Training, Wenham, MA

HOW-TO: Choose team member to customize mini-training session for the dog. Work on sit or come, or address unwanted behavior. Repeat daily with different pups.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Helps new dogs integrate more quickly into pack. Impresses pet parents and encourages future visits. Gives staff opportunity to grow. “Hands-on practice is the best way for them to improve their dog handling and training skills,” Cane says. “We are professionals, and I want us to stand out from the increasingly crowded daycare market by offering added value to our customers.”

EXPERIMENT

Create a Facebook Live series.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Jeff Jensen and Matt Braselton, Four Muddy Paws, St. Louis, MO

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HOW-TO: Decide on topic and repeat weekly or monthly. The co-owners do “In the Kitchen With Four Muddy Paws,” which features interviews with brand partners about their food and general pet nutrition.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: The setting, their home kitchen, personalizes the business. Facebook Live videos have better organic reach than regular. Series promotes higher-quality products. Jensen says, “Our ‘In the Kitchen’ videos have helped to share more about why moving toward a more natural diet is important and various ways [customers] can incorporate products for a nutritional boost, even if they’re not quite ready to change their diet.”

EXPERIMENT

Thank employees and customers for their support.

LEAD SCIENTIST: James Henline, Asheville Pet Supply, Asheville, NC
HOW-TO: Hand out gift cards and praise during staff meeting. Thank customers via video on social media.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Higher employee morale. “I gave each staff member a $10 gift card to a local coffee shop. I emphasized their importance to the success of our business, as they are the ones who handle our customers every day. After the meeting, I actually had employees in tears because I said that I cared about them. I’ve had some volunteer to come in when the store was extra-busy or ask if I needed them to stay late to help out. They were just really happy to know that someone recognized the work that they were putting in and appreciated them.” Increased sales. “I posted [the video] on Thanksgiving day, and we had our biggest Black Friday and Small Business Saturday ever. Since then, our daily sales have increased and the store is noticeably busier. I still have people coming in and telling me how much they appreciated what I said and for us being here for them.”

EXPERIMENT

Group chat with staff.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Missie Mattei, Miss Doolittles Pet Spa & Boutique, Pottsville, PA

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HOW-TO: Send need-to-knows and praise. Encourage the same from employees, as well as messages just for fun.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved communication and employee morale. Mattei says of their Facebook group chats, “At work, we are often too busy, or work different schedules, to share important or uplifting messages. This is an easy way to pass info. We’ve had a couple of people who came from difficult work environments, and this has helped us be inclusive, admit our faults, congratulate our achievements, share ideas, and find humor in each other. Everyone seems to like the easy interchanges, but if they don’t want to take part, that’s OK too.”

EXPERIMENT

Discount daycare rate for grooming clients.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Marcia E. Cram, Just Fur Pets, Springfield, VA
HOW-TO: Offer as add-on or part of package.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Increases revenue and client satisfaction. “Pet parents like that their dogs get to romp with their fur friends,” Cram says.

EXPERIMENT

Create to-do list and script for grooming check-in procedure.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Nanci Sien, Pampered Paws, Owings, MD

HOW-TO: Document every step taken during check-in, from greeting client and getting pet information to providing a pick-up estimate and asking if there are any questions. Write talking points for groomers that cover the steps.

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POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved client satisfaction and retention, and increased add-on sales. “Clients have told us they felt more comfortable leaving their pets with us after getting to know the groomer at check-in and having their concerns addressed,” Sien says. “Talking to the client about their pet in-depth allows our groomers to upsell add-on services by telling the client how these services can solve specific issues. Being specific about everything that will be done during the groom as well as giving projected pick-up times have prevented misunderstandings and increased customer satisfaction.”

EXPERIMENT

Designate a sports jersey day of the week.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Diane Marcin, Benny’s Pet Depot, Mechanicsburg, PA

HOW-TO: Pick day and encourage employees to wear sports jerseys.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Boosts employee morale and creates fun atmosphere for staff and customers alike. Marcin says, “The customers love it! When a customer walks in wearing the same team as you are, the conversations begin about the game last week or the upcoming one. Every now and then you get a high-five.”

EXPERIMENT

Get a liquor license.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Carol Will, Lola & Penelope’s, Clayton, MO

HOW-TO: Contact state alcohol beverage control agency. Licenses vary by whether selling, serving or both, and whether wine and beer or also hard liquor. Will advises, “If you go for it, call and talk to the leadership in your city before you submit your application. Explain your vision, and ask about any concerns. I had to present to the board of aldermen for approval. It went well since they knew the city supported our plan.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Further differentiates your store from other retailers. Supports pet-related breweries and wineries. Among others, Lola & Penelope’s carries local craft beers Urban Chestnut Brewing Company’s Underdog and 2nd Shift Brewing’s Cat Spit Stout.

EXPERIMENT

Promote big events with a radio ad campaign.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Keefer Dickerson, Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

HOW-TO: Poll your staff and customers on which stations they listen to. Tune into top three, noting personalities, music and commercials. If your business would be a good fit, and you would play them in your store, contact each station. Ask about audience to determine if demographics match your customer base. Learn their ad creation process. “The radio station will take care of writing the ad copy, and producing the spot to your satisfaction,” Dickerson says. Negotiate, he adds. “Radio rates can be flexible. Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts or add-ons.” Choose the best offer.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Boosts visibility and sales. Nashville Pet Products ran two radio campaigns in 2018. Ads for Customer Appreciation Day helped increase sales by 52 percent over previous year’s event. Ads for the annual holiday sale brought in 25 percent increase year over year.

EXPERIMENT

Give welcome boxes to new grooming customers.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Kris Minkle, The Whole Pet, Fort Smith, AR

HOW-TO: Ask food, treat and grooming product manufacturers to provide samples and coupons that can be regular items for box. Add to it samples specific to client, such as a sensitive-formula shampoo for pet with skin issues, as well as low-cost items: a roll of poop bags or a small toy. Include nutritional and grooming literature, plus menu of services. Place in box branded with your logo. Minkle says, “If we have time, we also take a photo of their freshly groomed dog and include that as well.” Cost: around $3.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improves customer satisfaction. “We noticed a distinct rise in new customers leaving feedback, once we started the boxes. It seems like people are much more likely to give feedback online or ratings if they’ve gotten something for free.” Increases sales and improves customer retention. “A woman with a Standard Poodle named Timber came in a few days after she had her dog groomed, and she wanted to try the foods included in the box, saying Timber ‘loved them.’ She has turned into a very regular food and grooming customer.”

EXPERIMENT

Get up two hours before leaving for work to practice self-care.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Wendy Megyese, Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

HOW-TO: Set your alarm and don’t hit snooze. Megyese says, “I have been getting up earlier and investing that quiet morning time in myself by reading, meditating and journaling.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Start day with clarity and calm, be less reactive at work. “In the past, if events did not unfold the way I had planned for them to, I would work myself into a mental frenzy and somehow convince myself that all my planning was futile because I would always be at the mercy of circumstances I could not control,” she says, offering this example:

“Our town’s Christmas parade was cancelled because of a severe storm. Our store is located on the parade route. It is historically one of our strongest sales days of the year. The call to cancel was made just two hours before the event, so I already had extra staff on hand as well as increased inventory.

“Rather than getting upset, I chose to see it as something that would become a future conversation starter. While my morning routine did not change the negative economic impact the storm caused, I was able to see that there was nothing I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome. Instead of fretting about what I could not control, I decided a rainy day with more than enough staff would be the perfect time to take an afternoon off and spend it having fun with my granddaughter.”

EXPERIMENT

Move from item-pricing to peg- and shelf-pricing.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Duane Poland, Bones-n-Scones of Palm Springs, Palm Springs, CA

HOW-TO: Instead of placing price tags on each item, create peg and shelf tags for pricing.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Speeds up restocking, as products can go from box to shelf. Provides clarity. Poland says, “Many of our customers simply didn’t look at the back of the package.” Boosts sales. “We have also seen an extra bump in sales of our treats we have priced up front, as there is no longer a ‘mystery’ as to the price!” Saves time. “I believe things can always be better, easier and faster. Any time saved, no matter how small, can really add up and frees staff to better serve our customers and companion animals!

EXPERIMENT

Touch things only once.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Kara Holland, Pittsboro Pet Supply, Pittsboro, NC

HOW-TO: Apply this direction to any task you can. Holland explains, “I teach this to our staff members the first day they start working at our store. Instead of handing pamphlets from sales reps to me, ask where they go and always place them there. It saves them from moving it multiple times.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: “Touching things once saves us so much time and empowers our staff to make decisions on their own. The same issue or same item shouldn’t have to be reviewed over and over again, unless it is an item that deserves to be!”

EXPERIMENT

Let calls go to voicemail when grooming pets.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Rachel Malmfeldt, Pampered Pups Grooming, Joliet, IL

HOW-TO: Record voicemail message that lets customers know you have a dog on the table and will return their call in a set amount of time. Instruct employees to not interrupt their work to take calls.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Reduces stress and increases safety. “ This has created a more relaxed atmosphere for the groomers and pets,” Malmfeldt says.

EXPERIMENT

Have new employees shadow a top salesperson.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Terri Ellen, Nature’s Pet Market, Salem, OR

HOW-TO: Schedule so that new employees can observe during their first two weeks. Pair them with top team members.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: New team members learn best practices on the job, while those they shadow grow as leaders. Increased sales, higher employee retention. “New employees can quickly learn to run a register and check out customers, but the foods and nutrition for pets are quite a bit more difficult or complicated,” Ellen says. For example, she adds, “It’s wonderful when an employee is standing there listening to me help that customer solve an itchy dog’s problems.”

EXPERIMENT

Delegate ordering to a proven manager.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Paul Lewis, Birds Unlimited, Webster, NY

HOW-TO: Choose a manager who knows the store and its customers well, then give him trial-run order. Lewis shares, “Sometimes staff have a different perspective on what our customers like and don’t like. I don’t talk to everyone who comes through the door, and sometimes customers are more comfortable talking with the staff.”

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Saves time, freshens stock and empowers the manager. “It has led to bringing in new products I’d never try myself,” he says, that ended up being a hit with customers.

EXPERIMENT

Reduce stress by watching less TV news.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Julie Husa, D Best Pet Sitting, Dallas, TX

HOW-TO: Subscribe to your local newspaper. Watch only one local news show daily or pick from online highlights. Avoid 24-hour news channels.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Turning off bickering politicians and pundits helps keep cortisol production in check and leads to a healthier self, at home and work.

EXPERIMENT

Find out if there’s an app for that.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Debbie Brookham, Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

HOW-TO: Visit app store of choice to see what tools could improve a specific business process. Or just explore store to see what’s new and could help. Download to evaluate, then ask employees to do the same before purchasing or implementing app.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Saves time and money, improves workflow and communication. Brookham uses Trello for all of the above. “Trello is a great communication tool for us. It is separated in ‘boards’ so you can easily label a column a different name, such as ‘Customer Requests.’ When I order product, I’m able to go to one location. The team member includes the client’s name and contact info, along with their initials and date. I can see to order it, and then when it comes in we go back to Trello, contact the customer and write any additional notes. Once the special order is picked up, we delete the note from the Trello board. With so many shifting gears in a small business, it’s best to stay focused and organized.”

EXPERIMENT

Create employee bonding opportunities outside of work.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Caitlin Jones, Nooga Paws, Chattanooga, TN

HOW-TO: With employee input, plan outing. Encourage non-work talk. Pick up the tab. Jones took her 12 employees to dinner and a haunted house in October.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Improved teamwork. “Getting to know each other on a deeper level helps us work together during our shifts,” she says.

EXPERIMENT

Reduce daycare rates on traditionally slow days.

LEAD SCIENTIST: Angela Pantalone, Wag Central, Stratford, CT

HOW-TO: Determine which day, or days, of week, have significantly lower bookings and how much you can afford to discount and still be profitable.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES: Increased bookings. Pantalone discounts daycare from $38 to $30 on Mondays and Tuesdays, and has doubled her bookings on those days. “What a fun pat on the back that has been!” she says.

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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Cover Stories

The Customer Is Not Always Right

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Bottom line: The customer is not always right. And in addition to being wrong, customers also can be unreasonable, unethical or outright offensive — with some checking multiple boxes. We asked you to share stories of when a customer was wrong at your pet business. In some cases, you offered a refund or return even when not warranted to save your sanity and time. In others, you held fast to protect your profits and team. No matter the outcome, you all made it clear that a blanket “The customer is always right” policy does not apply to indies and certainly not in 2019. Take that, coiner of the phrase, Harry Gordon Selfridge!

LIKE THE PUP. THE PET PARENT? NOT SO MUCH

We had a client with a dog who was fearful and extremely matted for grooming. We used every technique to get out the mats and not hurt the dog or stress her further. Didn’t work. We had to shave her short but fluffy. We did ask Mom first. However, Mom saw the dog on camera playing in the yard and came in pre-angry. In short, I explained it was a case of humanity over vanity, but she was still angry. Said she would never groom with us again. My response: “Please feel free to do whatever you feel is best for you and your pup. My main concern is the happiness of your dog.” She has brought her dog back three times, but I will only let her board or day care. It would be nice if she never came back, but we do like the pup. — Hope Garlick, Little Paws of Hope, Westbury, NY

SMH

A customer returned half a bottle of flea spray, saying it made his dog throw up after he sprayed him in the face. — Ron Keller, Captivating Canines, Westerville, OH

NO SHAME IN THIS CUSTOMER’S GAME

Years ago, we had a customer who bought a small bag of dog food and brought back the bag about two-thirds empty within 10 days or so, saying the dog wouldn’t eat the food. After the fourth or fifth time, we refused to accept the bag. She claimed the manufacturer stated on the bag: “If not satisfied, return bag to store where purchased for a refund or another bag of food.” She said she was going to call the company. And she did.

About a week later, she came into the store with a coupon for a free bag of food from the manufacturer. I honored the coupon and called the manufacturer. I found out the customer told the company I flat out refused to take back the bag of food, but never said anything about the numerous other returned bags. I did have a very nice conversation with the manufacturer to set things straight.

Wouldn’t you know, that customer came back trying to return the bag of food again. I had a talk with her and told her it appeared there was no way we could satisfy her or her dog and it was best if she didn’t shop in the store anymore. As she was leaving, she said she was going to tell all her friends not to shop at the store. I said, “Thank you.” We’ve since changed return policies. — Nancy Okun, Cats N Dogs, Port Charlotte, FL

OR THIS ONE’S

Just recently, a customer received a free bag and argued with my staff because she wanted a bag that was not the one redeemed. She called us names and made a scene, even left and returned to yell at us again. I called the police. I can’t fix crazy! — Jennifer Flanagan, Nature’s Pet Market Sherwood, Sherwood, OR

IT CAME FROM A PET BOUTIQUE

A client recently ordered a dog birthday cake. After the weekend was over, she called complaining that she ordered this cake for her pet and human guests, and the human guests did not appreciate it. It was shaped like a dog bone. After repeatedly trying to reason with her as to why a dog cake is not the same as a human cake, I just refunded her money. Sometimes the refund is worth the valuable time I would have to spend on stupidity. Leel Michelle, Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

TAKE YOUR RACISM ELSEWHERE

It amazes me over the years that people are still racist and very unkind. One pet owner was picking up her Poodle at our grooming salon from one of our fantastic groomers, who was both Hispanic and African American. She said she wasn’t comfortable with that particular staff member working on her dog … even though the fur of the dog was similar to the groomer’s hair (!) so she should be familiar with how to groom it. Needless to say, I was floored. Her Standard Poodle was black. I asked her if she thought it would be fair, reasonable or kind if I told her and all owners of black dogs that they were not allowed in my building or that we weren’t comfortable working on them, just because of their fur color. She threw money at me and walked out. So, I guess I made my point. — Krista Lofquist, Wagging Tails, Wolcott, CT

WHAT DOES DCM STAND FOR AGAIN?

This didn’t happen to me, but a vendor rep told me he was in a store shortly after the FDA’s list of foods [named in reported dilated cardiomyopathy cases] was released. A customer came in to return the dog food she bought. She was angry that the store would sell her a food with DCM in it. (Eyes roll.) — Keefer Dickerson, Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

FLEAS COST EXTRA

We had a client who had two Westies. The first time she came in to get them groomed, we called her within 15 minutes to let her know that her dogs had fleas and would be getting a flea bath. About a month later, she came in again, same thing. This time she did not believe us and wanted proof, to send her photos. She said we must put fleas on dogs to get the extra fee, and she was not paying. We told her that is our policy, and when she came to pick up, she paid and pushed everything off our counter onto the floor and told us we were scamming her, and she would never be back. Bye! — Jessica Cooke, Yuppy Puppy, O’Fallon, MO

CHECK YOUR CALL LOG BEFORE YELPING

I scored a negative Yelp review from a customer who said we don’t answer our phones. She called at noon on a Sunday of a three-day holiday weekend. We were closed the entire weekend. The last time she called, we returned her voicemail eight minutes later. I looked at her other Yelp reviews and saw she had left a similar complaint at another dog day care and at an animal shelter on the same day! So I replied publicly to her Yelp review, pointing this out. She deleted the Yelp reviews on all three businesses and sheepishly apologized to the other dog day-care owner (never to me). Will I see her again? I doubt it! — Katherine Ostiguy, Crossbones, Providence, RI

HE WOULD NEVER!

We had a customer return a Kong, saying it was defective because it had “fallen apart at the seams.” Upon inspection, it was clear that it had been chewed up. When I pointed this out, she was adamant that her 4-month-old puppy was a good boy and would never destroy anything because he knew it would hurt her feelings. Normally, we have a very liberal return policy, but this was one time I could not bring myself to accept the product back. Did it cost me a customer? No doubt. But is she someone I wanted to keep as a customer? Not really because I knew she would be an ongoing issue. Unlike her perfect puppy, I was willing to risk hurting her feelings. — Wendy Megyese, Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

STALKING? REALLY?

We had a customer come in right at closing time. My person in charge and clerk both asked if she needed help with anything as we were closing up, and she said no and kept shopping. She ended up angry that she felt rushed and claimed they were stalking her. The customer ended up yelling at our staff member and threatening a lawsuit. We politely disagreed with how it went down, and it never went anywhere. Just quietly went away. We were shocked it never went to a bad review, or anything, but we were glad. — Jennifer Larsen, Firehouse Pet Shop, Wenatchee, WA

MAYBE DON’T LEAVE THE HARNESS ON?

I had a customer who purchased a 2 Hounds Design Freedom Harness. His son left the harness on the dog, and the dog chewed it. The customer came back to my store with the chewed harness and asked what I could do for him. I told him about their repair warranty. He said he needed it right away, so I agreed to give him a courtesy discount on another harness, with the thought he would send the other one back to 2 Hounds Design for repairs. Or at least take it to the local shoemaker for repairs.

The customer came back a month or so later with another chewed harness. This time, he wanted me to take the harness back and give him a new one for free. When I told him no and offered him another courtesy discount, he flipped out, cussing and fussing as loud as he could. I didn’t have to say anything else because several customers came to my rescue and put the guy in his place. I’m not sorry to lose that guy’s business! — Sue Hepner, Cool Dog Gear, Roslyn, PA

LESSON LEARNED

We had a customer tell us that we told them a toy was guaranteed when it was not. They, of course, came in at the busiest time of day and made a stink, raising their voice and trying to make us look bad. Even when the customer is wrong, you still have to think that maybe, just maybe, something was interpreted incorrectly or misunderstood. I ended up taking the toy and replacing it with a toy by the same maker that wasn’t a big mover, and she walked out satisfied. The lesson learned from this was that my staff and I need to be very clear with our words and to make certain customers understand what we are saying. So we have used this situation to practice how we speak about various products. — Johnna Devereaux, Fetch RI, Richmond, RI

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Cover Stories

Big-Box Busters

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PetSmart. Petco. Target. Sam’s Club. Walmart. Costco. Heck, let’s even throw Bed Bath & Beyond, Marshalls, HomeGoods, TJ Maxx and grocery store chains into the mix of big-box stores that compete for pet parents’ dollars.

But as you prove on a daily basis, bigger does not always mean better. As small-business owners, you offer more personalized customer service, including a deeper knowledge of the pet products and services you sell. You are invested in your communities. And you quickly adapt in an ever-changing industry.

All of this allows you to stay competitive.

But if you are having trouble in this area, or you want to find different ways to beat big-box stores, we invite you to find inspiration from your fellow indies.

EMBRACE BEING SMALL

1 Bark on Mulford in Rockford, IL, measures just under 1,000 square feet, and that suits Kaye Busse-Kleber just fine. The size of the store keeps customers where she can see them — and they can see her.

With that in mind, Busse-Kleber shares the story a pet parent told her about shopping at a big-box store.

“She was at [a big-box pet retailer] looking for a collar, had to track down an employee to ask the price. He had no idea and asked what section it came from. She had to show him, and then he told her the price, but said it looked used. She put it back and came to see us.”

Customers never have to search for Busse-Kleber or a member of her team. Nor do they feel like they are not valued.

“We have a smaller selection of collars, but she came in telling me about the lack of customer service and that her experience with them ‘not caring if they sold something’ would keep her from going back.”

Limiting staff to just herself and two part-timers allows for a personal connection also not found at big-box stores.

“I can guarantee, that employee didn’t ask about her dogs. The customer has only been in my store twice, and I already know she has two dogs: a Rat Terrier named Theodore and a Jack Russell Terrier named Angel.”

Another way Busse-Kleber touts the benefits of shopping small are by bragging about unique items on social media with the hashtag #YouCantFindThisAtTarget.

Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, also uses her store’s small size as a selling point.

“We convey it in as much of our advertising and social media as possible. Small Business Saturday is our second-highest volume day of the year. We ask our vendors for support and offer a basket raffle, and we debut new holiday items and discounts on most of our products. Food and beverages for humans — our customers really enjoy the day!”

Support other small businesses

2Woof Woof Pet Boutique & Biscuit Bar in New Bedford, MA, and Bristol, RI, gives shelf space to several local small businesses. Among them, Dylan Giampaolo says, are “Quincy & Co. We have a seamstress that handmakes all of our bandanas and bowties for different seasons and sports teams. She also makes leashes and collars. Matisse Jeans is a cat toy handmade from recycled jeans that have a custom catnip blend from Cape Cod, and 100 percent of the proceeds ben- efit Bristol Animal Shelter.
“We truly are a small business trying to carve out a place for ourselves, and we believe in supporting other small businesses!”

Tout locally owned & operated

3 Toni Shelaske of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, PA, spends as much time as she possibly can on the sales floor working with customers.
“I want people to know that I am the owner and that I greatly appreciate their business,” she says. “So the funny thing that has happened because of that is that customers come in asking for me and say ‘I know Toni.’ When it was time for me to have my own personal Instagram page, my employees decided @IKnowToni had to be my handle.”

EARn IN (EXCLAMATION) POINTS WITH IN-depth knOWLEDGE

4Shane Somerville of Paddywack in Mill Creek, WA, was more than prepared when a customer emailed her about canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM).“I sent her a fairly long response with some info, attached the document I wrote for our customers (including an FAQ and links to resources from vets) and talked about the different options she could check out. She wrote back very quickly and said, ‘Shane, This is why we love you!!!!! Thank you so much!!!!’”

SURPRISE WITH PERSONAL SHOPPING

5 Annabell Bivens orders for The Dog Store in Alexandria, VA, with specific customers in mind.

“We have an all-black Basset Labrador (Bassador), and he rocks his clothes, but his parents wanted something super visible since they spend a lot of time in the mountains at their cabin. So, in addition to the regular colors of the new line of RC Pets Polaris sweater, we ordered him the red sweater in his size and showed them the photos of the reflective stitching. They were so excited! (His color is red). I mentioned it to them when I ordered it, and it came in about four months later. They even asked when they saw winter stuff coming out because they remembered our conversation.”

Such personal shopping does not happen when big boxes do their ordering.

TAKE PRICE-MATCHING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

6How does Fetch RI compete on price with the big-box stores? Johnna Devereaux does not advertise price-matching, but she does it when possible and sees the practice as an opportunity on multiple fronts. She shares what happens when a regular customer alerts her to lower prices elsewhere:

“First, it allows me to look at the specific item and provide a lower price to this customer, who is clearly showing loyalty by bringing this to our attention. Second, it allows me to reach out to my brand rep and discuss how I can buy better at a discount, which then allows me to reduce the price of those items for all of my customers. I do advertise that to my customers, letting them know that we pass on the savings to them from our purchase bargaining, and so they now have a lower price! Win-win!”

The Store at Paws ’N Effect in Hamden, CT, also price-matches, but Sandy House simply makes the adjustment.

“We price-compare about every six to eight weeks by both physically going into the stores and then checking online, if they sell that way as well. If I find a local brick-and-mortar store is selling something for less than us, I check what our wholesale price is, and then I make the adjustment before a customer asks.”

DIVERSIFY COMMUNITY SUPPORT

7 The national pet stores in Delavan, WI, donate to local animal-welfare organizations, but Karen Conell of The Bark Market in Delvan, WI, sees the importance of investing in her community as a whole.

“We support many local not-for-profits, such as a therapeutic riding program, school for the handicapped, vocational school for adults with disabilities, wildlife rehab center, child advocacy center, playground for children with disabilities, and multiple animal rescues and shelters. We are local, and our customers are involved and reach out to us often.”

While altruistic, these efforts create positive word of mouth, giving her an advantage against big-box competitors.

“We don’t do it for recognition, but it happens and we are grateful!”

PROVIDE FREEBIES

8 When converting customers to frozen raw — still an excellent way to compete with big-box stores — Conell of The Bark Market makes it hard to resist.

“We have manufacturers who encourage us to give away a free small bag to get them started,” she says. “Let’s just say folks are stunned by the free offerings and the gentle shove in a new direction.”

Freebies can also be fun activities to draw in customers. Sue Hepner hosts a variety of events at Cool Dog Gear in Roslyn, PA.

“We just had a Winter Fashion Show: Dogs on the Cat Walk. We used customers’ dogs as our models. These awesome dogs strutted their stuff in front of the crowds, highlighting all of our winter fashions while their people modeled our human line of gifts and clothing. We also offer free pet and family picture-taking opportunities with our fall and winter backdrops. And for the first time we will be having storytime for kids. Our first story will be all about teaching children about dog safety and, of course, we’ll have a special visit from our mascot Cool Dog — always a crowd favorite!”

And Southern Barker in Lexington and Louisville, KY, has begun hosting breed meetups in its stores.

“We do get a sales boost during our meetups,” says Leslie Stewart. “They are socializing, but also shopping because they are right in the middle of the store, so they can’t help but look around! We also offer 10 percent off during the meetup. Our first meetup was for Doodles, and we had over 30 dogs!”

Finally, be sure to take advantage of manufacturer loyalty programs not available to big-box stores.

HUMBLE BRAG ON SOCIAL MEDIA

9 Big-box stores don’t share customer pet pics on social media, at least not on a regular basis or from a local store’s page. Independents do, and Bubbly Paws stores in the Minneapolis, MN, area takes it a step further.

Keith Miller says, “We regram posts from many of our customers on Instagram. Social media is the best way to brag without looking like we are bragging. We just post happy customer pictures or quotes from reviews.”

OPT FOR THIRD-PARTY SAFETY TRAINING

10 Big-box stores have in-house training programs for their groomers. Third-party training and testing can provide a competitive advantage for independent salons. Knotty Dog in Chelsea, AL, staff go through PetTech First Aid and CPR training. BowMeow Regency in Sheffield, MA, is an American Kennel Club S.A.F.E. (Safety, Assurance, Fundamentals, Education) Certified Salon, and grooming staff are AKC S.A.F.E.-certified groomers. Both salons tout their status.

pARTNER WITH VETERINARIANS

11 With more and more big box locations offering veterinary services, it only makes sense to consider doing the same. Mike Murray has created multiple partnerships for Bonnie’s Barkery in Phoenix, AZ.

“We partner with a holistic vet to do a monthly anesthesia-free teeth-cleaning clinic, in conjunction with dental hygienists,” he says, sharing that the store gets a percentage of fees. “We also created an office in our last remodel that our vet partners utilize to see patients.”

And after the Food and Drug Administration released its report on canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and related foods, Murray invited a holistic vet to give a seminar on the topic.

“It went very well!” Murray says. “We had 30-plus customers attend. It was very interactive, with lots of questions asked and answered.

“Most who attended had a much better understanding of the potential risks of their dog getting DCM and learned ways to mitigate that potential risk.”

Some customers did ask about changing foods, Murray says, “but a lot of the discussion was around using toppers that can provide additional nutrients and taurine to the pet’s diet,” resulting in new regular sales of the products.

Mark Vitt has also created such partnerships for his six Mutts & Co. stores in Ohio.

“We have a mobile vaccination clinic, coordinated by a local vet office, at our stores every other Friday to provide low cost vaccination and wellness checks.”

TAKE A RISK ON UNIQUE, HIGH-END PRODUCTS

12 “You find unique products in our store,” says Connie Roller of The Feed Bag Pet Supply in Grafton, WI. “Department stores and big-box pet stores all have the same old, same old.”

Roller says her staff works hard at trade shows, looking for unique, fun or even quirky products.

“We are willing to gamble with slightly more high-end products because although our customers can squeeze a nickel to death, they won’t hesitate on a $195 ortho dog bed that matches their décor perfectly,” she says.

“We also have some handcrafted wood products like pet steps and diners, along with handcrafted cat trees that we drive a few hours to pick up. These are definitely on the higher-end of retail, but they actually look and feel more like furniture than what you can get at [big-box stores].”

The store carries most of these higher-end products year-round, but, Roller says, “we sell more during the holidays because people can justify splurging when they can call it a gift.”

The Hermitage, TN, location of Nashville Pet Products is a former convenience store and doesn’t try to hide it.

DON’T DO COOKIE-CUTTER WHEN DESIGNING YOUR STORE(S)

13 Nashville Pet Products has six stores. While signage provides brand consistency, each location has a different look and layout — partly because of commercial space availability, but also by design. Perhaps the most unusual is the Hermitage, TN, location, which is a former convenience store.

“We keep each store unique to avoid a cookie-cutter, big-box feel,” Keefer Dickerson says.

This advice also applies to stores with one location: Don’t try to look like a mini-big box.

Danielle Wilson of Bath & Biscuits in Granville, OH, explains.

“I had a vision in my head of how I wanted my store and salon to look. I didn’t want to look cookie-cutter. I wanted to decorate with vintage items and displays, to have real hardwood floors and inviting rooms to explore. I had been watching for my building to become available for a while and jumped on it as soon as I saw the ‘for rent’ sign.”

TREAT YOUR CUSTOMERS LIKE EXTENDED FAMILY

14 Customers at The Wagging Tail in Las Vegas, NV, get asked about their pets, but Kimberly Gatto also asks about the people.

“With our loyal repeat customers, we get to know them and their family. When their two-legged kids come in with them, we engage the kids (How was school? What did you learn? How’s the team going? etc.). If customers have brought up issues, we try our best to remember and ask how it is going (How’s your mom doing after her surgery? How’s the job hunt going? How was the Stones concert you saw last week?).

Gatto is not afraid to tell folks that she doesn’t think of them as customers, but as an extension of her family.

“We care about their entire family (human and animal). We mourn when they mourn. We feel joy when they feel joy. It’s all about community. Being a part of a community and being totally vested in it.”

Nancy Okun of Cats n Dogs in Port Charlotte, FL, shares that sentiment.

“One customer shared that she doesn’t have the best home situation, so when she comes into the store, we give her a big hug and let her know how great it is to see her. She talks. We listen. She leaves feeling better. It’s not about selling dog food.”

Nor is it all about selling with Charlsye Lewis of Metro Animals in Fort Worth, TX. Among the many practices at her store are “introducing them and their kids to our shop macaws, Baby and Blueberry; genuinely complimenting something about their dogs; and offering the Southern hospitality of greeting them when they come in, and as they leave.”

And Jack Carey of Food for Pets in Manchester, NH, has gone so far as to loan his car and money, in a sense, to customers.

“A few years ago, a customer locked her keys in her car. She had a second set at home, so I let her borrow my vehicle to go home and get the spare set. We’ve had a few cases of customers forgetting their credit card at work or home, and we tell them to take the product with them and call us with the credit card info. We appreciate our customers’ trust and want to return the favor.”

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Cover Stories

Best Day Ever: Readers Share Their Most Memorable Days in the Business

A few responses even had us reaching for the tissues.

mm

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Best day ever. It’s a phrase used often. But what if you had to pick just one? A day above all others in your pet business. Could you? We asked you to do exactly that in a recent Brain Squad survey. And you didn’t disappoint.

Your answers moved us, as they all revolved around helping the dogs, cats and other pets in your communities. A few responses even had us reaching for the tissues.

Like this one from Charlotte Petrey of You Lucky Dog in Houston, TX: “The day we flooded and saved all the dogs.”

Digging deeper, we learned that during the unexpected Memorial Day Flood of 2015, water rose to 2-1/2 feet inside this family-owned boarding facility. Overnight staff moved all 23 guests to safety in higher areas of the building, continuing in the dark after power went out. Pet parents and the community were so grateful that they contributed more than $25,000 via gofundme to help Petrey rebuild.

Now that most certainly counts as a best day ever. Read on for more.


“In January 2018, my then 9-year-old daughter was sitting with me in a snowstorm here in Connecticut with our chocolate Lab, Harley, and we were discussing sports we would like to participate in with our Lab in the spring. She said she couldn’t throw a Frisbee and wanted to try agility. Then she asked if she could do swimming with Harley.

So we researched sports involving dogs and swimming, and found dock diving! We soon learned that there were no dock-diving pools for dogs in our state. And a pet resort and spaw we own is on 6 acres with plenty of room to add a pool. And what’s a resort without a pool? Right?

From my daughter’s desire to spend time with our loving Lab, an idea was born, and we spent the winter designing, planning and ordering 13,000 square feet of artificial turf, pool, dock, etc. while learning all about the sport.

In June 2018, we opened Connecticut’s only Ultimate Air Dogs dock diving pool, a 45-foot saltwater pool at one of my resorts. I have added a 40-foot dock to it and offer the pool as a Dock Diving facility — with swimming lessons, hydrotherapy, daily swims for guests, private pool rentals and pool pawties. We recently had our first-ever competition weekend. Fox 61 News came to cover it. People couldn’t believe how beautiful the facility and location are, and compliments flowed all day.

It was a dream come true to see my children participate as youth handlers in dock diving events that weekend. Watching my now 9- and 10-year-old daughters participate in a sport with their dog, on my property, while observing so many other competitors enjoying quality time with their families and dogs in such a fun sport, definitely qualified as a Best Day Ever.

Daycare and boarding guests enjoyed their stay, and veteran dock-diving competitors, who traveled to Connecticut from Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island for the event, were blown away by the beautiful facility and pool, welcoming staff, cleanliness of the place, smooth registration process and professional atmosphere. It was over 100 degrees, and the event went on without a bump or complaint. It is always a lot of work putting on events. And we do have many. But this was our first dock diving event. To see it come to fruition July 2019, after a child’s idea was offered in January 2018, is a dream come true and best day ever for me! — Krista Lofquist Wagging Tails, Wolcott, CT

“One Christmas, a little girl came in with $100 to spend on our favorite dog charity. She couldn’t have a dog, so her mom told her she could do this. We loaded her up and gave her all kinds of things. The warmth in this little girl’s heart was so overwhelming. All of us were crying of happiness. That’s a good day!” — Debbie Brookham, Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

“Best day ever was when I looked out onto my doggy day-care floor and realized that all 50-plus pup clients were not any of my family or friend’s dogs. My ‘field of dreams’ really had become a profitable biz without any help from my loved ones. Cool stuff!” — Angela Pantalone, Wag Central, Stratford, CT

“I had a client who brought her two Gordon Setters and one Miniature Poodle in for grooming regularly. The dogs were so tuned into the process and pickup. One night, the parking lot was full and the owner parked her big SUV in another spot. I checked the dogs out and helped her take them to the truck. Both big dogs jumped on the top of the car hood that was parked in their usual spot. I laughed so hard, but the mom was clearly mortified. Nobody saw. Just made the end of the day fantastic for me. I’ll never forget that day or the dogs.” — Rachel Diller, The Poodle Shop, Littleton, CO

“The best day ever was when I came to the conclusion that I had too many customers. For the last year, I have had to stop taking on new customers due to a full schedule. Just a few months ago, I ordered my second van to convert (should be on the road by end of the year) and am working on expanding!” — Amanda Bowman, Fairy Tails Mobile Grooming, Cherry Hill, NJ

“When a family had to move away and told me I was the one who changed their kid’s life — an autistic kid who no matter what they tried, nothing helped. When they came to my store, everything came together when they picked out a bird, realized not all dogs were bad, (we had a store Mastiff at the time) and life seemed better. I had no idea until they thanked me and told me how it has changed “Nick.” — Paul Lewis, Birds Unlimited, Webster, NY

“When I hosted my first Backyard Luau for the dogs. Not only did each and every one of them wear leis, but they were all so calm and happy. I was such a proud ‘earth mother’ that day.” — Vanessa Cruz, Dawgs All Day, Brooklyn, NY

“We shut down our location to pamper over 40 shelter dogs, and the staff morale was so strong.” — Jessica Cooke, Yuppy Puppy, O’Fallon, MO

“We had a customer in tears. His daughter’s dog was failing and suffering from cancer. His daughter was still away at school, and this was the love of her life. He asked if we could recommend something that would help. After much discussion of the circumstances, we recommended Pet Releaf and Allprovide Gently Cooked. He followed our advice and came in with his daughter the following Saturday, and with “Root Beer” the Jack Russell Terrier. He was jumping around and full of life, and his daughter thanked us with a big hug. Root Beer lived for almost 9 more months and was comfortable and pain free. We were so thrilled to be able to offer this as an option.” — Christine McCoy, The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, North Royalton, OH

“Our best day ever was during one of our breed meetups. During Doodle Day, there were approximately 50 dogs and their owners in the store. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day and many of them hung out outside on the porch or in the parking lot. It was not only our best sales day, the general vibe in the store was happy, as people got to meet other owners. I saw many of them exchanging contact information. Connecting people through their pets always brings me joy.” — Wendy Megyese, Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC

“There are many ‘best day evers’ in the independent pet food retailer industry. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by the things that I love and motivate me for 34 years, not to mention the customers who share the same passions and interests. There are now second-generation customers who have parents who have shopped in the store for many years. I always remind myself to focus on those things when the occasional stressful situation arises.” — Jack Carey, Food For Pets, Manchester, NH

“Every Black Friday! We love the excitement of the shoppers. It’s truly the official kick-off to the holiday season.” Tammy Vasquez, Bark Life, Seminole, FL

“We are fortunate to be in Salem, MA, which gets very good tourist traffic most of the year, especially in October. It is so rewarding to hear from customers who visit the city yearly and make it a point to visit us, to both say hello and purchase our hand-made treats and cookies. With all the things to do and see, to know they make our shop a destination makes us feel very proud. Kimberly Barnes, New England Dog Biscuit, Salem, MA

“Probably receiving a pile of magazines with Mumsie and me on the front cover winning first place in PETS+ America’s Coolest Pet Store 2018!” Leel Michelle, Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

“We just had our best sales day ever this July. It topped the previous best day ever by more than 12 percent! We discount our whole store by the same percentage as number of years old we are. This year it was 14 percent off since our store is 14 years old. We have VIP swag bags — customers can pre-order to guarantee their bag — and a prize wheel for when they spend certain amounts, and we host multiple nonprofits/rescues as well as demo reps with freebies. It’s a big festive atmosphere, and our customers love it! Next year we’ll have to come up with something else to make it even more special to celebrate 15 years! — Shane Somerville, Paddywack, Mill Creek, WA

“One of my best days ever was when after months of step-by-step encouragement (and courage building), one of the dogs in our workout program finally went across the balance beam on his own! The pet parents and the dog were both elated! I know that dog was happy because he kept circling around and doing it over and over again with ‘Look Mom, No Hands’ excitement! Everybody in the store came over to watch him run through the course like a kid in a candy store!” — Sue Hepner, Cool Dog Gear, Roslyn, PA

“I have adoptions most Saturdays, and the best day is when the shelter leaves empty-handed.” — Ron Keller, Captivating Canines, Westerville, OH

“The day our Boston store really lifted off/went into the black. We opened during the recession in 2010, and it took way longer to get up on its legs than I expected.” — Kathy Palmer, The Fish & Bone, Boston, MA

“Having multiple customers come in and be so happy they were crying, based on proper nutritional guidance from my team. We had five customers in one day!” — Jennifer Flanagan, Nature’s Pet Market Sherwood, Sherwood, OR

“When my little Chihuahua, Cocomo Joe, went into the Burke & Herbert Bank, located in Old Town, Alexandria, VA, and helped me convince them that a dog bakery and boutique was just what Old Town needed. Cocomo Joe gave a few little looks with his Burberry shirt, and they were sold. Cocomo Joe was asked to sign the loan with me, and he eagerly did for a treat.” — Kristina Robertson, Barkley Square Pets, Falls Church, VA

COCOMO JOE

“The first day my pet facility opened for business and earned the first $5 bill in cash. I still have it taped in my check-in desk. — Tammi Bui, Wishbone Pet Care, Missouri City, TX

“Any day that I get a customer coming back to tell me that their dog or cat has changed drastically for the better simply because we suggested a different food, or suggested trying CBD for whatever ails them, is a fabulous day! Knowing that our experience and knowledge was able to help another pet parent find their way and change their fur baby’s life for an astounding better is always our best day! For us, it’s about community that drives us to do what we do, and of course, for the love of all fur kids out there in the world.” — Kimberly Gatto, The Wagging Tail, Las Vegas, NV

“Any day that I have helped an animal and its person live their best life.” — Honor Blume, BowMeow Regency, Sheffield, MA

“Grand opening day is what stands out to me. The adrenaline, the positive vibes, meeting the community, seeing the team and how excited they were. And how even under extreme stress, we all made it through with smiles. (Nothing would scan, our POS didn’t sync with inventory and was a disaster!) — Jennifer Larsen, Firehouse Pet Shop, Wenatchee, WA

“Our best day ever in business was just before the Fourth of July this year, when people were out and about taking their dog to the dog park, then coming over to our shop next door to give a self-serve bath and buy treats. We were staffed up for it, and everyone was moving and grooving, keeping customers engaged and served all day long. We provided pizza for the staff as a thank you for their hard work that day. We made a few hundred more dollars than we normally make, but more importantly, made new and existing customers happy to do business with us.” — Charlsye Lewis, Metro Animals, Fort Worth, TX

“We’ve done a couple on-site fundraiser meet-and-greets with local rescues. The Greyhound rescue is my favorite group. They come in numbers and they shop, tell stories, encourage meeting the dogs and are generally great people to be around, and the rescued Greyhounds are amazing.” — Brett Foreman, Eupawria Holistic Pet Center, Owego, NY

“The day that we opened up our second location! Greatest thing ever knowing that you are doing well enough and helping enough people out and they are recommending people to you, that you then have the capability of opening up another location to make you reach even farther and help out even more people.” — Dylan Giampaolo, Woof Woof Pet Boutique & Biscuit Bar, New Bedford, MA

“Pretty much any day that I get to spend outdoors at a community event. I do a lot of event marketing, and I love setting up the booth early in the morning, talking to new, potential customers and playing with their dogs.” — Keefer Dickerson, Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

“The Saturday before Christmas. Everyone is in shopping mode, but in a pleasant, not ‘mall-crushing-crowd’ way. And it’s great to know that their pets are being treated just like family. You can almost imagine the puppy stockings hanging on the mantle and wrapped gifts under the trees. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the busiest revenue days of the year, either.” — Mark Vitt, Mutts & Co., Delaware, OH

“Every day is great, but nothing beats the day we opened and realized our dreams had come to fruition. Ten years going strong now with loyal staff and awesome customers.” — Rosi Ladouceur, Barrkhaven Pet Boutique And Spaw, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

“The best days I have are when clients rave about our services or when we get any sort of recognition. For instance, winning the Best of the Best in pet care award for our county, which is a voting-based award.” — Ashley Cook,Viva La Pet, Dover, NJ

“We are fortunate to be in Salem, MA, which gets very good tourist traffic most of the year, especially in October. It is so rewarding to hear from customers who visit the city yearly and make it a point to visit us, to both say hello and purchase our hand-made treats and cookies. With all the things to do and see, to know they make our shop a destination makes us feel very proud. — Kimberly Barnes, New England Dog Biscuit, Salem, MA

“Probably receiving a pile of magazines with Mumsie and me on the front cover winning first place in PETS+ America’s Coolest Pet Store 2018!” — Leel Michelle, Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

“When a client told me that a friend she had referred to me told her that they found someplace that was way cheaper. My client told her that [her dog] Daisy likes likes Corey. I’m not changing.” — Corey Heenan, Corey’s Canine Creations, Altamont, NY

“I feel every day is our best day in business, and every day stands on its own for different reasons!” — Johnna Devereaux, Fetch Ri, Richmond RI

“Every anniversary. Feels awesome to make it another year.” — Lisa Vella, South Bark Dog Wash, San Diego, CA

“My best day ever is when I ring a lot of sales, which is usually around the Christmas holiday season and everyone is generally happy!” — Laura Haupt, Bark & Meow Inc, Tarrytown, NY

“I could say the day Judi walked into the store and told me I needed her. But, the all-time best day ever was when Judi adopted Buddy and brought him to the store with his e-collar on to meet my dog Taylor. The two dogs became besties right away. Why not? Judi and I are! — Nancy Okun, Cats N Dogs, Port Charlotte, FL

“I’d have to say the best for me was the day my husband was able to quit his job and join me full-time.” — Nancy Guinn, Dog Krazy, Fredericksburg, VA

“One day that stands out above others are our customer appreciation days. They are a lot of work, but we serve lunch — deep-fried cheese curds, ice cream — and offer store discounts, a discount dartboard customers can throw at to get a larger discount, free items and more! It is fun watching customers enjoy themselves, and all flock to the store. — Lisa Keppers, Sauk Centre Country Store, Sauk Centre, MN

“Most of the best days ever are when customers come in and treat us like family, and tell us happy and sad things that are happening in their lives. Because they consider us family, they want us to know. — Paula Gorman, Pet Supplies ‘N’ More, Muskego, WI

“Whenever we get to welcome families who rescue dogs is our best day ever.” — Asha Olivia, Hoby Dogy Pet Care, Boca Raton, FL

“The day I won second place in America’s Coolest Pet Stores” contest in 2017.” — Patricia Boden, Animal Connection, Charlottesville, VA

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