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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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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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Create Connections: A Dog Festival Attracts Crowds of Thousands

Make use of a dog fest to get to know your local pet store and service providers.

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PATTIE BODEN HELD the first DogFest in 2013. The owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, VA, set up shop along with 12 rescue groups, veterinarians and trainers at a local dog park. More than 500 attendees played games with their pups and got to know their local pet store and service providers. By 2018, 45 vendors and more than 3,500 pet parents took part in the fun.

(Left) Pattie Boden

THE IDEA

Help Pet Parents Find Resources in Charlottesville

Boden says, “The community grew so quickly. We needed an event to introduce our business to new people moving in and to those who had been here for years but hadn’t gotten to know us.”

She sees DogFest as an extension of her customer service.

“I’ve always wanted my store to be the place where people could find out about dog trainers or holistic vets or animal communicators or other resources. That’s why I called it Animal Connection in the first place.”

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THE EXECUTION

Make a List, Then Mix It Up

In 2013, Boden began the planning process by inviting businesses and groups that complemented her store. In 2018, she even asked two friendly competitors to participate.

“We’re all a part of the holistic pet community,”she says. “We all compete with big-box and online stores. It’s good for us to join forces, to encourage people to shop local.”

Once vendors are set, Boden creates the festival layout. She starts with a Welcome Center at the entrance, where attendees can pick up a map and register for the popular costume contest. Next-door sit four Animal Connection booths, complete with an 18-foot sample bar that offers food, treats and more. Last year, reps from The Honest Kitchen, Primal, Whitebridge Pet Brands and Pet Food Experts also were on hand to answer questions.

She then alternates business and rescue group booths, creating a varied flow and helping to keep the adoptable dogs as calm as possible. Vendors pay a fee to help cover expenses, even the rescues at a reduced rate to ensure they show. Further incentive: A videographer interviews groups and produces a 60-second spot they can use for promotional purposes.

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Humans can dine at food trucks on-site and swing by Three Notch’d Brewery, located adjacent to the park, for a Big Dawg Blonde Ale brewed especially for the fest. In 2018, she also added a live band.

These pups and their tiki bar won top prize in the DogFest costume contest: a $500 gift card for Animal Connection.

THE RESULTS

Boost Awareness, Raise Funds

Boden says DogFest brings Animal Connection increased attention and sales.

“A lot of people who attended didn’t know about our store or were new to the area. Or they knew us as a store, but didn’t know about our services,” she says. “I don’t have exact numbers, but I have noticed far more new customers coming into our store.”

The fundraising aspect also helps Charlottesville’s pet community as a whole. Rescue groups held individual raffles at their booths, and for every pint of Big Dawg Ale served, the brewery donates $1 to Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA — it raised $2,000 in 2018.

Do It Yourself: 5 Steps to a Dog Fest

  • START SMALL. Throw a mini-fest in your parking lot or a nearby dog park as a test run to gauge interest. Have a rain plan!
  • PARTNER WITH MANUFACTURERS. Dozens of product companies provide samples for DogFest, and some plan to have their own booths in 2019.
  • PAY FOR SOCIAL MEDIA. Boden hires an agency to boost visibility for the fest and increase attendance.
  • HAVE MORE THAN ENOUGH HELP. Not only are Animal Connection employees scheduled to work, but friends and family get in on the fun. Outfit everyone in store shirts.
  • DRIVE POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS TO YOUR WEBSITE. Boden hires an event photo booth company. Attendees must go to animalconnectionva.com to see and download their pics.

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