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Greetings and Handshakes 

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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PETS+ Live with Candace D'Agnolo

This North Carolina Pet Business Thrives by Creating Unforgettable Customer Experiences

Catch the replay of this PETS+ Live! webinar hosted by Candace D’Agnolo of Pet Boss Nation. This episode featured Wendy Megyese of Muttigans in Emerald Isle, NC. Learn about ways to combat the big boxes and online — the key is to give your customers an experience they can’t get anywhere else — and learn why the business was honored in the 2018 PETS+ America’s Coolest Stores contest.

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America's Coolest

Dog Krazy Marches Across Virginia, with a Fifth Location that Includes a “Barkery”

It started with a Bulldog…

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Dog Krazy, Leesburg, VA

OWNERS: Nancy and Chris Guinn; URL:dogkrazy.com ; FOUNDED: 2006; OPENED FEATURED STORE: 2018; EMPLOYEES: 8 full-time, 4 part-time ; AREA: 2,800 square feet; FACEBOOK: dogkrazy; INSTAGRAM: dogkrazy; TWITTER: dogkrazyva


IT STARTED WITH a Bulldog.”

Nancy Guinn says this whenever sharing the story of how she founded Dog Krazy.

“In 2006, I met my soulmate Piglet. I wanted to spend every day with her, and that’s what I did. The first store opened in 2006 and the second in 2015, the year she left this earth. From the time she was 6 months old to her passing, we spent every day working together.”

The English Bulldog continues to be a guiding force for Nancy.

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“I want to spread my love for her by helping customers provide only the best products for their pets.”

Nancy now meets that goal in partnership with her husband, Chris, who joined the Virginia business full-time in 2015. They have since opened three more Dog Krazys, with the Leesburg location opening in 2018.

Dog Krazy + Lola’s Barkery

Like the other Dog Krazy stores, Leesburg features brand colors red, black, yellow and blue. They combine with exposed brick and ductwork, wooden floors, and pendant and twinkle lights to create a warm industrial vibe. The layout caters to all customers.

“The aisles are set up so that dogs who are selective, timid, overly excitable or fear-aggressive can come in, and the dog and owner can comfortably shop without worrying about another dog approaching too quickly,” Nancy explains. “We purposely added corners and aisles all over the store, so that owners whose dogs need more space can tuck them away from another dog (or owner) who doesn’t have the best manners.”

Leesburg boasts the company’s first on-site bakery, Lola’s Barkery. She chose the name for two reasons: Lola was Piglet’s puppy name, and Lola means “grandma” in Tagalog, a nod to Nancy and her mother’s Filipina heritage.

The couple chose the location, in the open-air center Village at Leesburg, because Nancy’s parents live nearby, and she wanted her mom, Maria Powell, to be involved in the business.

“She runs the barkery, and I do the decorating, so we get to spend more time together.”

Among the menu items are traditional bone-shaped treats and ready-made celebration cakes, but the mother-daughter team surprises and delights with creations such as Doggie Nachos, Ice Cream Sandwich and Hamburger with a Side of Fries. Their custom cakes also impress, with a recent one topped with “fettuccine” for birthday boy Alfredo. Nancy completed a 500-hour program to become a clinical pet nutritionist, so customers know they can trust the ingredients.

The Dog Krazy Way

Nancy handles product purchasing, human resources, bakery operations and marketing. Chris tackles finances, expansion and “everything and anything else the stores need,” she says.

Leesburg carries on the high standards the couple has set for all aspects of their company.

“No matter how much we grow, our values and why I started this business will always come first,” Nancy says.

“It’s not always about the bottom line,” Chris adds. “It has to do with what makes Dog Krazy so special and not losing that as we grow.”

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The couple tests all products with their personal pets before adding them to inventory. Once approved, products are available in a variety of ways to suit all customer preferences: shopping in-store and online, the latter with pickup in-store, curbside, local delivery and free two-day shipping on orders $99 or more.

Marketing efforts also involve the Guinn family pets.

“All photos I use are of our pets, and I invite customers into our lives,” Nancy says. “I’ve been told multiple times that my marketing techniques show the heart and soul of our business, our pets.”

To announce the Leesburg opening, dogs Stirfry Fatguy, Pork Wonton, Sushi and Tala each wore a chalkboard sign around their neck with an existing Dog Krazy location name, with pig Jimmy Dean wearing a sign that said “Dog Krazy 5 Coming Soon!”

Grooming appointments at all five Dog Krazy stores are by two-hour appointment only.

“We groom our customers’ pets from start to finish so that they are not sitting in a kennel all day and so that they can get back to their owners as quickly as possible.”

All employees go through Whizbang Retail Sales Academy, and the couple recently created a training manager position and promoted from within.

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“Her job will be to teach all new employees the Dog Krazy way, to make every customer feel like they are a part of our family,” Nancy says. “Because they are.”

Building on the Success of Leesburg

Lola’s Barkery and a recently added on-site bakery at the Stafford location provide treats and cakes to all Dog Krazys. When considering their next expansion, Chris looks to the newest store.

“It’s been successful, and our customers love it. When we open our next location, we’ll make sure that there’s enough space for a bakery in there as well.”

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Five Cool Things About Dog Krazy

1. VIPP FB: Dog Krazy has one Facebook page for all of its locations, but it also invites customers to join the Very Important Pet Parents private group for their home store. Nancy says, “It helps us offer different specials at each location, to help with items that may sell well at one but not another, along with featuring items that we may have at one store but not another.”

2. 49 PERCENT: Nancy made her business relationship with Chris as official as their personal one earlier this year. “Dog Krazy had always been 100 percent owned by me. For his 40th birthday, I had a cake made that said ‘Happy 49.’ When he asked why, I told him I was signing over 49 percent of the company to him — my accountant said one of us had to keep 1 percent more.”

3. AWARDS GALORE: Dog Krazy won 2019 Best Multi-Unit Retailer at the Retailer Excellence Awards at Global Pet Expo and 2018-19 Retailer of the Year in the Marketing category at SuperZoo. The stores have also won multiple local “Best of” awards.

4. HAPPY STAFF: Nancy says, “I recently had an email from another business owner who said my store is one of the few places he frequents where every employee is genuinely happy to be there. It is the best compliment I have ever gotten.”

5. EXPANSION BEYOND DOG KRAZY: Look for Lola’s Barkery treats and cakes to be available wholesale in 2020.

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Partnering and Pop-Ups: A Downtown Store Extends Its Customer Base Through Creative Outreach

Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

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The Modern Paws, Tampa, FL

OPENED FEATURED STORE: Dec. 26, 2018; FOUNDED: 2014, ran an e-commerce store from home; 2015, expanded to sublease 200 square feet of a neighborhood grocery store; 2018, opened brick-and-mortar storefront; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 2 part-time ; AREA: 1,628 square feet ; FACEBOOK: themodern4paws; INSTAGRAM: themodernpaws


Midwesterners Lisa and Ben Prakobkit brought their heartland ethos to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

TO UNDERSTAND WHY TWO Midwesterners thrive at The Modern Dog in Tampa, FL, you’ve first got to get a feel for the Channel District, where you’ll catch an occasional celebrity sighting in the midst of wild dolphin cruises, maritime oddities and the Amalie Arena. It’s a small community inside a busy district of young renters, out-of-towners and business professionals.

Tucked in the highrises of Florida’s Gulf Coast, The Modern Paws is a warm and friendly surprise, with bright lights and soft pastel accents. Owners Ben and Lisa Prakobkit balance their slick store with warm smiles and genuine sit-down friendliness.

“People come visit us very often,” Ben says. Customers come through every other day to pick up a quick treat or say hi. “It gives us a chance to ask, ‘How is his foot doing?’ and ‘How long did the treat last?’ I think it makes a big difference. When you can have a great conversation, just hearing about their day, it shows more of a family and friend community versus just a store.”

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To beat the big-box stores and online competition, they offer free weekday delivery and get out into the community every chance they get. “In this day and age, it’s about who you work with,” says Ben, who is originally from Chicago. “It’s not work, it’s connections. The community, at the end of the day, will support.”

The Modern Paws grew from an e-commerce site that delivered pet food throughout the Tampa Bay area to a grocery-store partnership.

“The owner of the grocery knew what we were doing with the e-commerce side of things and said, ‘What if I sublease some square footage to you from our store and you could sell your product out of the store?’” he says. “And we were like ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful.’”

The day after Christmas 2018 they opened their first storefront — 1,628 square feet — and it’s become a popular pet store and grooming spot for Tampa Bay’s young and mostly childless crowd.

Friends and Neighbors

The couple is from “up North,” and Lisa’s Michigan friendliness is warm even in Hillsborough County, a neighborly area often voted one of the best places to live in the bay. “Even here people are like, ‘Wow, you’re so nice,’” she says. “We’re Midwest people, and we are definitely different, even though we’ve been down here eight years now.”

Their dedication to community outreach has helped them develop good relationships in the neighborhood, where they both live and work. Even though it’s a young crowd that loves to shop online, they get repeat customers because people want to support a local business.

Their store is in a downtown location, so they take their show on the road, working with rescues and showing up at apartment complex popups and dog park grand openings to share food and treat samples, chat with friends and let people know The

Modern Paws is out there, offering free delivery to anyone in the county.

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“That’s how we let them know we’re located here, and that we do grooming, have self-dog wash and do delivery,” he says. “It’s just getting to talk to the residents.”

In December, a miniature of The Modern Paws opens in a PODS moving container at a holiday festival.

POD People

Every year in December, around the anniversary of their store opening, the Prakobkits pack up a best-selling selection and set up a tiny pop-up at Tampa Bay’s popular Winter Village festival.

As the temperature hangs around 70 degrees, the city gives this palm tree paradise a snowfall feel with an outdoor ice skating rink, holiday concerts and Christmas-themed movies. Handpicked by festival planners to represent boutique shopping in downtown Tampa, The Modern Paws is one of the select vendors to get an 8-by-8-foot moving container to build out as a satellite store. From Day One of the festival, they drew a line around the block.

“The moving company that supplies these moving containers ended up doing an article about us and the success we’ve had using the PODS. Out of majority of the PODS pop-ups, we’re probably one of the busiest,” Prakobkit said. The tiny space can fit about two dozen shelves and a few standing displays, but not much else. It’s 1/25 the size of their brick-and-mortar store. “It’s 64 square feet. We’ve mastered the small space.”

Owning the Phone Tech

People who live in the area are younger professionals who more often have pets instead of kids. “They’re tech-savvy. They shop online,” Ben says. “We’re that type of customer, too, and when we price things out we keep that in mind.”

They counter the one-click ease of Amazon with their own perks, like same-day delivery Monday through Friday. “It’s hard to beat. However we do actually beat it — we have a lot of our customers take advantage of that,” he says. They also offer frequent-buyer programs, rotating discounts and buy-one-get-one sales.

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“Our big thing is nutrition. When we’re able to help pet owners get their dogs healthy or keep them healthy, it’s a rewarding feeling,” he says. “When people say, ‘The new food really took care of all the skin allergies’ and things like that, it’s definitely a good feeling.”

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Five Cool Things About The Modern Paws

1. Stories as a Secret Weapon: A silly skit or a quick talk on nutrition in an Instagram Story brings in a ripple of business. “We try to spice it up and do a few different things,” Lisa Prakobkit says. “We don’t want to bombard them with dog pictures.”

2. Four-Legged Foot Traffic: Located in the bottom of a residential building, The Modern Paws draws in almost every dog in the building. “We have dogs that will literally pull their owners to the store,” Ben Prakobkit says.

3. Phone-Friendly Tech: In a nod to clientele who rarely put their phones aside, customers can instantly book grooming appointments with a swipe up on the store’s Instagram Stories. Because their customers prefer to text, they’ve developed communication streams through text rather than calls.

4. A Tiny Staff: The small but mighty staff includes just two part-timers outside the groomer and two owners. Everybody has a specialty, like training or creating great social media content, and the size gives shoppers consistency in staff. “Customers get accustomed to seeing familiar faces when they walk in,” Ben says. “You can refer back to something you talked about in a previous visit, and it makes them feel like, ‘Wow, they remember me.’”

5. Huge Online: The store’s website is clean, fast and easy to navigate. Customers also check out products online before shopping in-store, or opt for same-day delivery in the area. For those farther away, The Modern Paws offers free nationwide shipping.

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America's Coolest

Splitting the Ps: How One Couple Shares the Load to Create a Cool Store

How Deborah and Mark Vitt use their corporate experiences to rock their micro economy.

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Mutts and Co., Dublin, OH

OWNERS: Mark and Deborah Vitt; URL:muttsandco.com ; FOUNDED: 2007; OPENED FEATURE STORE: 2007; EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time, 7 part-time ; AREA: 5,000 square feet; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/muttsandco; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/muttsandco


Mark and Deborah Vitt have hit upon the magic sauce of management by splitting duties based on their skills and interests.

DEBORAH AND MARK VITT OPENED Mutts & Co. in Dublin, OH, as an 1,800-square-foot-store, half services, half retail. Right away, they realized the footprint was off.

“We were cramped in there with just enough room for a few products, some cookies and a few treats,” says Mark. “It was like going to the dentist’s office, where you can buy a couple of toothbrushes.”

They didn’t want to be like the dentist’s office, so they took over the space next door, expanded to nearly 5,000 square feet and doubled the grooming area. Many remodels later, they’ve got a ratio that works. “There are only so many dogs you can groom or bathe in a day,” Mark says, “but every dog has to eat.”

The Science of Shopping

The Vitts brought complementary marketing and retail skills to their first pet store, and as a team they’ve learned how to draw in traffic, stock the right products and staff a good team — all by splitting up the Ps. Deborah fields purchasing, product assortment, procurement and pricing, and Mark handles personnel, new store placement and promotion.

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Deborah’s executive training and keen insight about what makes people buy is what sets this store apart. “She’s parlayed that into owning a business that takes advantage of her retail knowledge and keen sense of merchandising,” Mark says. The store’s floor plan keeps customers crossing paths with bones, treats and toys on the trek for the items they came in for. It’s not a forced journey, but a thoughtful layout.

“We’re trying to make it so people see the full breadth of the products that are available,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about them, cross-sell and up-sell. ”

A Design to Match the Mission

Head to tail, this store has an old barn feel. Antique barn wood covers the walls and cash wraps, and wooden bins hold the bulk items. Chalkboard headers, held in handmade wooden frames, identify each product section. Out front, original artwork promotes the day’s sales.

“It’s become something of a badge of honor to be one of our elite chalkboard graphic artists,” Mark says. All these human touches give the store a natural appearance, which aligns with natural products and a homemade line of specialty items by

The Pet Foundry: candles and clothing that support the area’s foster and adoption community.

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This store is known as the go-to place for natural pet nutrition, and they take their product selection seriously. Mutts & Co. recently stepped away from a few larger pet food brands that went into big-box stores, mostly through mergers and acquisitions.

“We knew the quality of the product was going to degrade so we went out and found alternatives, knowing that we’ll have to convince customers to trust this lesser-known brand,” he says. “When you can start to find it in Kroger or Target or other big-box stores — not even pet retail stores — that’s not special anymore.”

Standout Staff

The Vitts ask a lot of commitment from their staff, a mix of full- and part-time workers. They train almost exclusively in-store, and in addition to manufacturer training, they do bimonthly training sessions to focus on particular products, general industry trends, categories, and best practices when talking about nutrition.

That’s why they focus on getting the right people, getting them the right training and offering the right products to address all of these potential concerns.

“People come to us because they know we’re there for their pets’ well-being and not just the sale,” Mark says. “We have to give folks a reason to come to us and that’s why we focus on health and wellness for the pets, and that starts with having good products and good people.”

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Ultimately, you’re talking to a pet parent whose dog or cat is part of their family and you’re making a health recommendation for the wellbeing of one of their family members, he says. “We take that very seriously.”

Their staff members are prepared to point customers in the right direction on whatever health concerns come in. “That can be the toughest but most rewarding part, customers who come back and say, ‘My dog had a terrible condition and your recommendations have really helped turn it around.’ But that takes a lot of time and training.”

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Five Cool Things About Mutts and Co.

1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Mutts & Co. just sponsored its fourth adoption event called Fetch A Friend, where hundreds of animals are befriended at the Columbus Fairgrounds Expo Center in a one-day adoption extravaganza. Deborah Vitt coordinates the event through a local advocacy group.

2. Efficient Grooming: Baths and trims are modeled after hair salons for people, with a centralized booker who keeps the door rotating. Dogs are in and out quickly, no kennels necessary. “We felt it would be a better approach to reduce the stress if we keep them there for the minimum amount of time,” Mark Vitt says.

3. It’s Always Social Hour: Instead of hiring a trainer in-house, they bring in professional trainers for in-store pet training, and invite cats and dogs to come into the store to hang out.

4. Cats and Dogs Exclusively: Two years ago, they eliminated fish, small animal and birds because the market just wasn’t there. “There’s just a smaller pool of customers, and it was harder for us to stay on top of those trends when it was such a small portion of our business,” Mark says. “We felt like it was almost doing a disservice by letting small animals just kind of exist, so we cut it out.”

5. Generous Delivery Options: Customers can order curbside pickup or home delivery. “Online sales are going to be the most critical part of business going forward, because it is becoming just a staple in the pet shoppers’ mentality,” Mark says. “We knew we had to have it, so we created that channel for customers to shop with us in that convenient way.”

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