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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

Things Are Looking Good in the Pet Business … but Don’t Get Too Comfortable

PETS+'s marketing guru just wants to remind you that eventually, the upswing will become a downturn. When that happens, will you be ready?

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America's Coolest

School’s in Session for Dog Food Buyers at Maxwell & Molly’s Closet

There’s no sitting behind the counter at this New Jersey store.

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Maxwell & Molly’s Closet, Newton, NJ

OWNER: Bonnie Bitondo; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2007; AREA: 1,600 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time,3 part-time; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/maxwellmollyscc


PET PARENT. DETECTIVE. Teacher.

Bonnie Bitondo considers herself all of these before business owner. That philosophy informs every aspect of her pet boutique and grooming salon, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet in Newton, NJ.

“If people know you have their best interests at heart, both their pet and their pocketbook,” she says, “then the register takes care of itself.”

And it has. Since opening in 2007, Bitondo has grown her store from 350 to 1,600 square feet. She even added a second location in 2010.

History, Handshakes and Help

Maxwell the Yorkie came into Bitondo’s life in 2005, as an anniversary present from her husband, Rick. Having never before raised such a small puppy, she went in search of advice.

“The first pet store I walked into, with Maxwell in my arms, the owner was sitting behind the counter,” Bitondo recalls. “I said, ‘This is Max. I want to feed him the best food you have.’ He didn’t even look at my dog, just said that food was on Aisle 2 and that they were all the same.”

With no knowledge of pet nutrition and no help from the owner, she settled on kibble with a Yorkie on the bag.

“By the time I got home, I was livid. I didn’t appreciate being ignored. I didn’t appreciate receiving no information. And I was mad at myself for buying food based on packaging.”

Bitondo was also nearing retirement from teaching. She decided then that the next stage of her life would involve opening a store that treats pet parents the way she wished she had been treated that day.

Two years later, Bitondo used her retirement savings to buy the connected buildings that would house Maxwell & Molly’s Closet. She started in the smaller of the two — hence the store’s name, which also includes her second Yorkie — restoring the 1910 structure’s original tin ceiling, installing crystal chandeliers and adding an old-fashioned awning. Antique furnishings became fixtures. The transformation won a Newton Chamber of Commerce Beautification Award.

Bitondo expanded into the larger 1920s building in 2010, opening the door in between, repainting the exteriors to complement each other and adding signage to connect them visually.

“Our physical appearance, inside and out, says ‘We think your pet and you are special.’”

And she and her staff do.

“There’s no sitting behind the counter at my store. We come around and greet every customer with a handshake.”

They then employ what Bitondo calls “kind questioning.”

“We say, ‘Tell us about your pets. Is there something specific you’re looking for? Or are you just browsing? It shows that we’re interested in them. If they’re browsing, we respect that, but check in every five or 10 minutes to see if they need help.”

Product Private Eye

When pet parents do want guidance, they learn first that Bitondo has done extensive research on every product in the store.

“We don’t carry anything that I wouldn’t give to my own dogs or cats,” she says.

Her sleuthing skills developed early, thanks to growing up the daughter of a detective. “I try to use everything he taught me.”

When it comes to the edibles she carries, Bitondo scrutinizes food and treat ingredient lists and sources, and “I look at the companies themselves. How many recalls they’ve had. Where the foods are made. If the factories have had recalls. I follow the facts. It takes time and energy, but I can tell customers that I feel comfortable giving these products to my pets and to theirs.”

The community appreciates such thorough research, and for that and many other reasons, Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has been named “Best Pet Store” by New Jersey Herald readers for the past three years.

School is in Session

Bitondo doesn’t simply wait for customers to arrive and ask for advice. The former teacher draws them in with smart signage in her windows: “So you think you can’t afford premium pet food, come in for a conversation and free samples.”

Those who take Bitondo up on the offer get a math lesson. She asks how much their dog or cat weighs, then compares the feeding guidelines of less expensive, lower-protein foods to those of her more expensive, meat-first products.

“They see that the cost difference greatly narrows because they feed less. That helps their pocketbook, and it helps the digestive system of their animal as less food goes through it.”

She also hosts and promotes a variety of fun educational events. “Soup Er Bowl” in February provided information about and free samples of Primal Bone Broth, with staff serving pups while their humans enjoyed their own soup, homemade by Bitondo herself.

 

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Five Cool Things About Maxwell and Molly’s Closet

1. HOLISTIC GROOMING: Bonnie Bitondo didn’t plan on offering grooming at her store, but when Paulina Riofrio became available three years ago, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The two share a vision for grooming that includes natural products and private appointments. Riofrio uses reiki, aromatherapy and crystal healing to keep pets calm and comfortable.

2. WEIGHT TRACKER: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet has its own veterinary scale, on which pets are weighed. Losses and gains get entered into the customer’s profile, as do any health and behavioral issues. Combined with purchase history, staff use this information to suggest rotating proteins or adding supplements.

3. MEMBERSHIP PERKS: Once customers spend $200 at the store, they become members of the Platinum Paw Club and get a 5 percent discount on all products going forward. There are 5,000 members between both locations.

4. GIVING BACK: Maxwell & Molly’s Closet provides pet food to area homeless people through Family Promise. “We realized that these individuals and families were giving up their pets or living in cars or tents so they wouldn’t have to,” Bitondo says. “We had to step in and help these people who had already lost so much.” Manufacturers help with donations, as do customers who put money in a designated “house” next to the register.

5. FREE DELIVERY: Purchases $50 and higher qualify for free delivery if within an hour of the store. Rick Bitondo drives the store van, which features the couple’s dogs running on a colorful wrap. Bonnie’s husband will even place frozen items inside a customer’s freezer upon request. The store also offers curbside pickup of orders.

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Make Your Cat Customers Feel at Home with a Dedicated Space to Merchandise

Some stores even have entire rooms dedicated to kitties.

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WHEN CAT PEOPLE VISIT your store, how do you make them feel? Appreciated as pet product consumers? Or neglected, as you only offer them food and a few other items, with minimal merchandising? These businesses strive for the former. Some even have entire rooms dedicated to kitties!

Flying M Feed Co.

HOUSTON, TX

The cat section only takes up 100 of the store’s 4,000 square feet, but a mural and range of products welcome all friends of felines. “We have everything from Purina to Fromm to Lotus, wet and dry. Inaba Ciao treats such as the yogurt sticks and vacuum-sealed filets,” owner Trace Menchaca says. “We try to find really amazing new products from companies like Polydactyl and Dezi & Roo. We also have remedies and supplements, and we sell World’s Best Cat Litter. Meowijuana, of course, too.”
Tip: Consider hosting an annual sale like Flying M’s Catapalooza, which offers a gift with $20 purchase.

Wags to Whiskers

PLAINFIELD, IL

Janelle Pitula shows her affection for felines with the store’s “Kitty Corner,” which features 137 flavors of canned food alone, plus five dry, four raw and four freeze-dried brands. A variety of supplies completes the 150-square-foot section (of 1,000 total). A charming touch: Colorful decals make cats appear to sit on the area’s thermostat and freezer.
TIP: Pitula points out about cat food, “Same margins as dog food, takes up less space.” Consider expanding your offerings.

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Youngblood’s Natural Animal Care Center & Massage

GREENFIELD, IN

The cat room at this store does double duty. Not only will customers find a carefully curated selection of products presented with cozy, country charm, but those looking to adopt can sit and spend time with a foster kitty from the local humane society. Co-owners Samantha and Kim Youngblood added the 255-square-foot room (of 1,200 total) six months ago and are glad they did.
“We’ve seen an increase in sales,” Samantha says. “We also try to educate cat parents that it is just as important to feed fresh, use safe cat toys, supplements, etc. for a cat as it is for a dog. They are really responding.”

Noble Beast Natural Market for Pets

PHOENIX, AZ

In 2017, Marsha Vallee and Alison Chandler saw their sales of frozen raw cat food begin to climb. They built on that momentum by devoting 510 of their 1,560 retail square footage to felines.
“We were able to expand our food lines and bring in more supplies just for the kitties,” Vallee says. “Customers really appreciate the care and variety of fun new things they see in our cat room.”
Among the many offerings in this colorful, whimsically merchandised space are items from Kate Benjamin’s Hauspanther line with Primetime Petz. She curates her section for the store and shops there for her clowder.
While Vallee and Chandler don’t track overall sales by species, they can point to a specific brand as a sign of the room’s success: Fromm cat food sales have increased by 17 percent.

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Moore Equine Feed & Supply

SOUTHERN PINES, NC

5 Cats get their own window display and adjacent 250-square-foot section (of 2,500 total) at this store. Co-owner Kaily Meeks says they began expanding pet offerings, including creation of “Cat Land,” in summer 2017, and “have seen sales grow at an exponential rate.”
Best-selling raw foods include Primal, Answers and Stella & Chewy’s, and Fromm leads kibble and canned food sales. Karma Cat caves add color and whimsy to the section.

Bones2Go!

HOUSTON, TX

Tracey Rentcome specializes in raw food, with the majority of her customers shopping for dogs. That doesn’t mean, though, that those with kitties get slighted.
“People who come in to buy food for their cats want the same experience, actually an even better one, that they get at a big-box store,” she says. “They want to look at different products, see new ones and feel up on the latest trends.”
With that in mind, Rentcome gave her freezer room a feline theme. Toys, scratchers, treats and other products line one wall, and cat shelves wrap around so store pet Devil Kitty can oversee his department from on high.

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Best of the Best

Tiny Bubbles: This Spa Brings In $1,000 a Month Extra with Micro Bubble Treatments

A spa offers therapeutic microbubble treatments.

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BUBBLE BATHS PAMPER and relax. Microbubble baths do, too, but they also deep clean and help to treat a variety of skin problems in pets.

Danielle Wilson of Bath & Biscuits in Granville, OH, has been providing this type of hydrotherapy for more than three years.

THE IDEA

Provide relief, reduce costs & boost sales. Wilson learned of microbubble bathing systems at a pet industry trade show. Originating in Japan, they use bubbles greater than 2 and less than 25 micrometers to penetrate hair follicles and skin pores. These teeny tiny bubbles attract and bond with dirt as well as with bacteria, yeast and allergens, and lift them to the water’s surface. Oxygen from burst microbubbles also boosts skin metabolism and promotes healing.

“I really liked the idea,” she says. “I was a vet tech for many years and had seen never-ending battles with skin problems.”

Using microbubbles during a groom also reduces the amount of water, shampoo and conditioner needed. All this, combined with her ability to offer 15-minute treatments as an add-on, convinced Wilson to buy a system.

THE EXECUTION

Pick, promote & treat. Wilson researched manufacturers from around the world before choosing NatureBless in Singapore. Her first microbubble bathing system cost just $350, but a year later she upgraded to a $1,100 model. Its bubble-generating unit sits on the floor, connected to two nozzled hoses: One draws in water from a filled grooming tub, and the other returns microbubbly water to the tub. The second hose can also be used to apply bubbles to body areas not submerged.

“The microbubbles make the water this milky color, from the churning action. I tell customers that they’re scrubbing bubbles,” Wilson explains, adding that while effective, they are gentle on skin.

In addition to promoting the treatment for skin problems, she also recommends it for senior dogs.

“The bursting bubbles create heat, which helps with sore muscles and arthritis.”

And for those who encounter a skunk: “It has been tremendous for de-skunking dogs. It gets down in hair shafts and pores, helping us get rid of the smell so much quicker.”

THE RESULTS

Healthier dogs & higher revenue. Wilson points to late Sweetpea the Bulldog as one of her microbubble bathing successes. After years of struggling with skin allergies, the pup came in for a treatment and saw immediate relief.

“Sweetpea was such a happier dog, not having to stop every 2 feet to scratch,” she says. “It was devastating to lose her, but really cool to know that for the last year and a half of her life, she wasn’t miserable and itching.”

Wilson charges $10 to $15, depending on size of dog, for a microbubble bath. (She has yet to try it on cats.) Treatments bring in $1,000 in extra revenue a month, plus provide savings on utilities and bathing supplies.

Do It Yourself: Start Your Own Bubble Treatments

  • Choose the right microbubble bathing system for your business. They can range greatly in cost, to upwards of $10,000.
  • Start by offering the treatment for free. Wilson benefited from positive word of mouth when she did.
  • Promote regular and seasonal benefits, from skin problems to allergies to skunkings.
  • Sell local veterinarians benefits on the treatment. Wilson has one in particular who regularly sends her clients.
  • Promote on social media with cute videos. See instagram.com/bathnbiscuits for Sweetpea bubbling in a tub.

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