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Pet Boutique Gets a ‘Scathing’ Yelp Review … and Does Something Beautiful With It

Owner turned a negative into a positive.

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IN DECEMBER 2015, a customer left a one-star review of The Fish & The Bone on Yelp. Her dog had destroyed a plush toy in mere minutes, and the offer of 20 percent off a different toy wasn’t sufficient — she wanted store credit for the full amount.

Owner Kathy Palmer saw in the situation an opportunity not only to examine her toy sales and return policies, but also to learn more about her customers and help homeless dogs.

A customer’s dog destroying a new toy within minutes prompted a negative Yelp review, which led the store to poll all its customers.

THE IDEA

Turn a Negative Into a Positive

The Fish & The Bone has never guaranteed the toys it sells, with the exception of those backed by a manufacturer. Staff members help to match products to chewing power, but they are trained to explain that dogs will be dogs.

“It’s fun for them to take apart toys, especially soft squeaky ones. They’re driven to,” Palmer says. No soft toy can stand up to all of that energy and muscle and teeth and instinct.”

She felt the 20-percent discount was a reasonable compromise and was surprised to see the review, which knocked the store’s customer service and said that a big-box chain would have given full credit to ensure future business.

Palmer decided to create a survey on toys, one with a charitable element. She emailed it to her 10,000-plus customers with the subject line: “Read our Scathing Yelp Review, Take our Poll, and We’ll Donate 100 Dog Toys to Local Homeless Pups.”

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“We have to be bold sometimes. It was about more than this one customer. I felt like we were entering into unlimited returns territory, which doesn’t work for a little independent. I had more to say and more to learn.”

THE EXECUTION

Poll the People

Palmer came up with questions to help her understand customer expectations when it came to squeaky toys. She used Survey Monkey to ask their dog’s breed, sex and age, as well as which brands they find most durable, how long they expect squeaky toys to last, how long the toys actually last, and whether toys should be guaranteed.

THE RESULTS

Learn and Adapt Accordingly

A total of 245 customers took the survey, and her stores got a boost in positive Yelp reviews, by shoppers who wanted to counteract the negative one.

Results confirmed that customers like the brands she carries and consider them durable. They also supported her curent policy.

“When I asked if squeaky toys should have a guarantee, 90 percent said, ‘No.’”

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Palmer shared results with her staff and stressed the importance of providing accurate information when selling these products. She also empowered them to make exceptions to the policy.

“We drilled into everyone how to respond when asked if a toy is indestructible. The answer is, ‘No, but we do have some that stand up better than others. Let me show you those.’ If we fail to do that, we will take responsibility and make a one-time exchange.”

Perhaps the biggest positive to come from the negative Yelp review was the donation made. The Fish & The Bone split the 100 toys between Animal Rescue League of Boston and Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, ME. Per the customer’s request, she also donated $50 to Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA.

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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CANDACE D'AGNOLO

How to Keep New and Potential Hires From 'Ghosting' You

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! Lunch & Learn webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Candace expanding on her June PETS+ column on preventing new hires and job candidates from “ghosting” you. Hint: Much of her advice will help you make better hires and keep happier employees.

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5 Steps to Create Your Own Locally Made Products Section

A section devoted to locally made products gives an edge over big-box stores.

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WHEN STOCKING THEIR shelves, many independent pet business owners give preference to products made in the U.S.A. Danielle Cunningham also looks closer to home for her store, Lewis & Bark’s Outpost in Red Lodge, MT. She seeks out manufacturers in the city and state for its “Made in Montana” section.

THE IDEA

Sell local. “There are no corporate stores in Red Lodge, only small businesses,” Cunningham says of brick-and-mortar retail options for the population of around 2,100. “We know everyone who owns a small business and their families.” Because of that, “We understand the importance of supporting locals.”

She added the “Made in Montana” section in 2018, a year after opening. It appeals to residents and tourists alike, the latter who stop in on their way to and from Yellowstone National Park. “They want to buy local, too, to have something to bring home.”

THE EXECUTION

Source big and small. Some manufacturers are an easy find, such as West Paw in Bozeman. “They’re our best-selling toys.”

Lewis Barks Outpost bowls

Others she discovers through the Montana Department of Commerce’s Made in Montana program, which certifies products made or grown in the state. Participating companies feature the appropriate logo on their packaging, and stores can hang signs in their windows.

“The stickers and signs go a long way. People today really like seeing where things are made, and they are paying more attention to sourcing.”

Cunningham also finds items through contacts in area agility groups and at veterinary clinics.

The “Made in Montana” section features a handpainted sign by local artist Lee Walker.

Edible products include freshly butchered beef bones from the Emmett family’s Stillwater Packing Company in Columbus, and Arlene Paul’s Just Meats Dog Treats in Reed Point. Paw butter and dry dog shampoo come from Jenny Travis’s

Ginger Red Naturals in Red Lodge. Fleece snuffle mats get made by Cristy Carpenter’s K9 Kreations in Fromberg. Bandanas come from Marcia Sullivan at So Sew Sullivans and Headwaters Studio Design and Screen Printing, both in Red Lodge.

THE RESULTS

Feel the love. Cunningham says that “Made in Montana” products make up about 5 percent of her overall sales. The goodwill she creates by selling them, though, has a much higher value, as residents of Red Lodge and neighboring communities frequent and recommend her store because of it.

“It all comes around, all of that love.”

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a ‘Made In’ Section

  • FIND LOCALLY MADE PRODUCTS. Look to area departments of commerce programs for leads and also manufacturer vetting. Cunningham says, “I’ve found a few on my own I thought were really cool, but they didn’t have a business license or quality control. I don’t want to ever make someone’s dog sick.”
  • BUY, DON’T CONSIGN. Consignment requires additional work. “I just buy everything and sell it.” Plus, “I have more freedom that way.”
  • START SMALL. Create a table display with a few products to see how they sell, with “Made in” signage. Scale accordingly, merchandising to suit as you grow the selection.
  • PERSONALIZE THE PRODUCTS. The “Made in Montana” section at Lewis & Bark’s also features a “Meet Your Makers” display with photos and bios.
  • PROMOTE IN-STORE AND ONLINE. Display any print and electronic “Made in” signs and stickers. Don’t have such a program in your area? Create your own logo to use.

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Best of the Best

This Store Gladly Accepts Wooden Nickels

Bucking the idiom, this store gladly takes wooden nickels.

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WOODEN NICKELS DATE back to at least the 1930s. Local banks used them during shortages of national currency. The Chicago World’s Fair introduced wooden nickels as souvenirs. And merchants have given them as tokens redeemable for specific products or cash value for merchandise. Lindsay and John Webb do the latter at Just for Paws, their grooming salon and boutique in St. Charles, IL.

THE IDEA

Create a better “coupon.” Lindsay says, “We wanted to give our customers a value, but we didn’t want to give it as a coupon that would be underused.”

They hit upon the idea of a wooden nickel with a $5 cash value for merchandise, no minimum purchase required. It appealed to the business owners on multiple levels.

“There’s the nostalgia factor, which goes along with our vibe,” she says of the boutique and salon’s rustic design and old-fashioned approach to customer service. “We felt that tapping into that nostalgia, creating an emotional connection, would get the customer excited to use the nickel.”

Lindsay and John thought the tokens would resonate with their customer base, those in their 40s and 50s who may remember when their use was more common, but also interest millennials who have never seen them before.

And they counted on eco-conscious shoppers of all ages to appreciate their reusability, which also provides savings to Just for Paws.

THE EXECUTION

Order online, mail to customers. The owners used NationalPen.com to print their logo on the front and “Same as Cash $5 Coin” on back. They ordered 500 wooden nickels in January at 20 cents each and began sending them to first-time grooming clients with a handwritten note. Lindsay also keeps a few on her.

“For when I’m out and about and meet a potential client,” she explains, adding that the token’s weight and shape makes much more of an impact than a business card with coupon.

Just for Paws has given out 125 wooden nickels in the grooming salon, and another 25 through various promotions. The cash value approach allows them to be used for anything, from pushing sales of a particular food to meeting a sales quota.

“Super-simple, creative and effective,” Lindsay says of the tokens, which employees track redemption of through 123Pet Software.

THE RESULTS

40 percent redemption rate. John reports that 60 wooden nickels were redeemed in the first three months.

“We don’t track them by specific promotion, but we can see when they are being used per transaction. So far, every sale has exceeded the $5 token amount. We have not had anyone use the $5 token without spending additional money in our boutique,” he says. “The sales in our boutique continue to climb month after month.”

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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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