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These heroic pet pros’ alter egos are anything but underdogs.

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At a store in New York, a man stares at shelf after shelf of bags and cans, stressed about choosing the right food for his dog. A cat cowers in her carrier at a grooming salon in Ohio, fearful of what awaits outside the open door. At a home in Maryland, a woman frets over a beloved pet’s health, worried something may be seriously wrong. Who can these mere mortals turn to? Who will help their furry family members? The Super Pet Professionals! These heroes excel at education. They have a calming way with animals. Their instinct and knowledge tell them when it’s time to involve a vet. Some also have a knack for merchandising, an eidetic memory or the ability to be extraordinarily efficient. With these powers, they keep people and pets happy and healthy. Let’s meet eight such champions!

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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JIM ACKERMAN

Digital Marketing Is Great, but It Can’t Solve All Your Problems

You’ve probably been hearing experts talk about digital marketing as if it would be a panacea for pet-business owners, says marketing specialist Jim Ackerman. But for most owners, it hasn’t worked out that way. In this video, Ackerman explains why digital advertising should be just one arrow in your marketing quiver.

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Best of the Best

Support Group Helps Those Who Have Lost a Pet, Builds Goodwill Among Customers

Pet owner wanted to empathize with others when she grieved the loss of her own pet.

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ON THE THIRD THURSDAY night of each month, customers gather at The Natural Pet Enrichment Center to find and offer support for the loss of a beloved dog or cat. Upwards of 20 people attend the Pet Bereavement Meeting, hosted by owner Christine McCoy and facilitator Margaret Coats.

THE IDEA

Help and connect customers. When McCoy lost her heart dog to cancer in 2015, the grief was overwhelming. “When Bing passed, I was devastated.”

She knew not everyone could provide the support needed. “It’s hard for some people to understand. When you lose a human family member, they get that you have to go through the grieving process. But pets are family members, too. To many of us, they are children.”

McCoy turned to longtime customer Coats, a bereavement facilitator who works for a grief center and who previously facilitated a pet loss group at an animal hospital. Their talks led to the idea of hosting a free monthly meeting at the store for those in the same situation.

THE EXECUTION

Appoint a facilitator and promote wide. Coats stresses the importance of a facilitator, whether a professional like her or a layperson. “Without structure and someone to guide discussion, pet parents tend to rehash and not move through the pain to heal.”

Each meeting takes place at 7 p.m., closing time, in the store’s education area. Coats gives new participants a folder of educational materials and invites them to share their stories. Regulars can as well and do, especially around the anniversary of their pet’s passing.

She then introduces a topic for discussion, such as the individuality of grief. “Many people have expectations of what grief should look like and how they should cope, but that’s not how it works. Everyone has their own way of grieving, and it’s important not to compare. I tell them to move at their own pace and let the relationship with their pet define how they grieve.”

The meeting ends at 8:30 p.m., but McCoy says she often finds Coats talking outside with someone having a particularly tough time. Participants include not only customers but also newcomers who saw the event listing on Facebook or picked up a flyer at the nearby animal hospital.

THE RESULTS

Value the positive word of mouth. The Natural Pet Enrichment Center carries a variety of memorial products. McCoy doesn’t promote them during the meetings, nor does she track their sales on those nights. “I see this as another service we offer our customers. We want them to know we support them all the way through, from puppyhood to passing. That spreads a lot of goodwill and contributes to our strong word of mouth.”

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a Pet Bereavement Group

  • CONSIDER HIRING A PRO. Reach out to area grief centers to find a facilitator trained in pet bereavement. Coats charges $75 per meeting.
  • REACH OUT TO OTHER PET BUSINESSES. Ask vet practices and pet sitters to help promote the meetings. Make it worth their while through referrals or other means.
  • CREATE A COMFORTABLE SPACE. If you don’t have the square footage, consider hosting the meetings off-site.
  • MEMORIALIZE YOUR PETS. Include in the meeting area photos of store pets who have passed. Invite participants to bring pics of their own.
  • CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION ON FACEBOOK. In addition to posting the meetings on your store’s page, create a group where participants can support each other throughout the month.

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Benchmarks

Done Right, DIY Baths Produce Bonus Revenue

Done right, do-it-yourself bathing produces a bonus revenue stream.

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DOGS MAKE A MESS during bath time. These pet businesses welcome it, provide direction and supplies, and even clean up after. Check out their DIY bathing setups, all of which are profitable and produce the cutest photo opportunities.

Firehouse Pet Shop

WENATCHEE, WA

Allen and Jennifer Larsen assign an employee to their firehouse-themed, three-tub DIY bathing area. This staffer walks newbies through the process, gets them started and checks back mid-bath, as well as cleans up after and does laundry. An instructional video also plays on a loop, and a chalkboard sign displays the menu and tips.

Self-baths cost $12 to $20 per pet, depending on weight, with nail trims an additional $7. Income ranges from $4,500 to $6,800 monthly. K9 officers bathe for free.

TOTAL COST: $7,200 | TUB SOURCE: New Breed Dog Baths

TIP: “Offer a frequent bathing card, free baths to first-timers or new adoptions,” Jennifer says. “It gets them in, and then they are hooked. Giving away a bath here and there reaps huge rewards — almost everyone says they will never wash at home again.”

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Just Fur Pets

SPRINGFIELD, VA

Marcia Cram inherited a three-tub bathing area when she opened her store 15 years ago, and has since upgraded decor and equipment. Groomers and customers alike use it, with the latter paying $22. Income totals $1,230 monthly.

REPLACEMENT TUB COST: $1,800 | TUB SOURCE: Groomer’s Best

TIP: “Don’t go cheap on the gauge of the tub. No one wants the tub bottom to flex and make noise under a dog’s feet.”

Animal Connection

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

Pattie Boden designed and had her DIY bathing suite custom built. It matches her store’s country vibe and caters to large-breed and senior dogs.

“We included a wide stair step in between the tubs to make it easier for them to enter.”

Self-wash costs $15 to $25, depending on weight, and brings in $2,500 monthly. Her favorite bathing story involves the girls who planned a birthday party around washing their Great Pyrenees.

“That was so cute! Those girls had a great time.”

TOTAL COST: $10,000 | TUB SOURCE: Custom build

TIP: “You’ll need more towels than you ever expected. When you tell people to leave the mess, they take that as gospel truth!”

Bath & Biscuits

GRANVILLE, OH

DIY bathing was part of Danielle Wilson’s original concept for her business. It has proven a success, pulling in $6,000 monthly. She kept costs low with a rustic theme and by building the tubs themselves.

“I designed the tubs, and my husband built them. They are horse troughs with Trex decking for where the dog stands, so they’re never standing in water.”

Dog owners mainly use the tubs, but 4-H Club students have brought in goats, pigs and even a miniature horse during fair season. Wilson lets them self-wash for free and charges regular clients $20. Nail trims are included.

TOTAL COST: $500 | TUB SOURCE: Local feed and hardware store

TIP: “Think outside the box. Who says you have to use those expensive pet tubs?”

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Belly Rubs N Suds

ASHBURN, VA

Teresa Hogge created a spa-like atmosphere for her DIY bathing clients, who get a first-time tutorial that covers proper care of their dog’s coat type. She charges $15 for bath only and $25 with nail trim, adding up to $2,500 in income monthly.

“Plus, I find my self-wash clients are very inclined to make purchases from our bulk cookie bar, chewy bar or decorated cookie case.”

Hogge also recently introduced a monthly Suds Club Unlimited Self-Wash Membership for $29.99. Service and working dogs bathe for free.

TOTAL COST: $6,000 | TUB SOURCE: New Breed Dog Baths

TIP: “Treating self-wash as its own income stream, and planning, advertising and caring for it as such is the key to success. You can’t just add a self-wash and hope it makes you money.”

Bubbly Paws

TWIN CITIES, MN

Self-service baths make up 50 percent of income at these stylish dog wash stores. Keith Miller offers this advice to those adding a DIY station: “It’s more than just putting in plumbing and tubs. Ventilation is a huge issue. You need to make sure the air is always fresh. It can get stinky fast. Plan for water. Anything in the store will get wet. Seriously, nothing is safe. Make sure you have anti-slip flooring. I highly suggest a hair trap to keep all that hair out of the plumbing system. This small box, which is super gross to clean, can save thousands in plumbing expenses down the line.”

Self-wash runs $14 to $27, depending on weight.

“Every time a Newfie comes in, I cringe. They are sooooo hairy, and we are pretty sure not to make any money on them. Ha!”

PER-TUB COST: $4,000 | TUB SOURCE: New Breed Dog Baths

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America's Coolest

Former Day Car Owners’ Foray Into Boutique Nets Steadily Increasing Sales

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.

PHOTO GALLERY (9 IMAGES)

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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.

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