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21 pet pros reveal their past careers and how the experience helps them thrive today.

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PET PROFESSIONALS are a diverse bunch. Some enter the industry after formal training within a particular field, such as veterinary or grooming. Others arrive after a beloved animal inspires a career change. This latter group often brings with them experience that assists in running a successful pet business. With that in mind, we asked readers to share what they did for a living before and how it informs what they do today. The answers were varied! NFL player, teacher, radio producer and pastry chef are among the former jobs. Read on to learn more about — and from — your peers within the profession.

ADRIAN ARCHIE

PetNmind, Coconut Creek, FL

What do football and medical devices have in common? They both prepared Archie to open a pet-supply store.

“I played football for a large part of my life, including professionally in the CFL and NFL. I was chosen as captain on many of those teams, and I significantly developed leadership skills during that period of my life. After football, I began a career in medical device sales and later moved into medical device brand management. During that decade, I was able to further develop leadership skills, but most importantly I honed my business acumen.”

He offers this advice to those entering the pet industry after working in others.

“Actively lean on past career and life experiences, even if the experiences don’t necessarily connect with what you have chosen to do now. Our paths in life are unique for a reason, and the skills developed during that time do translate and benefit in the present, even if the career description has changed.”

 

KARA HOLLAND

Pittsboro Pet Supply, Pittsboro, NC

A former high school teacher, Holland understands well the importance of providing information in various ways.

“We don’t all learn from reading a textbook or listening to a teacher, so I find unique ways to teach our customers about products through merchandising. We celebrate pet hydration month in June and July, so we display fountains running and pictures of our own pets drinking from fountains in our home. We let people touch the moving water, see the filters and ask questions. We teach them verbally and let them experience the fountain, which always results in heightened curiosity or a sale.”

And Holland still teaches high school students: They are her favorite hires.

“They are willing to learn, and you could possibly have them for three years! It’s so fun watching them grow into young men and women. If you train them right, they can be your best salespeople, and they love telling everyone about their job since it’s so fun.”

 

TAMMI BUI

Wishbone Pet Care, Missouri City, TX

A former graphic designer , Bui developed the brand and creates all marketing materials for her pet boutique, salon, and daycare and boarding facility.

“When designing for my brand, I want bright and cheerful color. Something that will stand out and catch attention,” she says, adding this advice, “Keep your brand materials consistent across logo, brand colors, fonts, uniforms, store front wall color, etc.”

NICOLE OLESEN

Woofs & Waves, Sioux Falls, SD

Olesen doesn’t have a former career that informs owning a pet business — she has a current one! In addition to running their store with husband Mark, she works full-time as a nurse.

“I love the variety of what I do in a week! It keeps me excited for both jobs.”

The ability to delegate serves her at the hospital and the store.

“In nursing, you need to use your resources! There’s just not enough time to do it all, and you work much more efficiently when you delegate to others. I’m not at our store all the time, but that doesn’t mean the work stops. I delegate our social media to one of our team members. Ordering is done by another. Most of our new team-member training is done by another. When we are planning special events or promotions, everyone plays key parts to make it all come together!”

 

CHRISTA ABEL

BARK ’N’ CAT, NORTH ADAMS, MA

As a  social worker , Abel excelled at communicating with and earning the trust of humans in need. She continues to do so at her pet-supply store.

“I’ve focused solely on forming relationships with customers and finding products and services for their pets.”

Abel also puts her resource linkage experience to use.

“I’m on the board of Humane Society and a resource to the community about programs they provide.”

 

PATRICIA BODEN

Animal Connection, Charlottesville, VA

Before opening her store, Boden owned a full-service marketing agency that served the likes of NASCAR and Krispy Kreme. The same presentation skills she used to land such clients now help her sell holistic pet products.

Boden prefers to pitch benefits before stating price.

“A price-point discussion is a very closed-ended conversation. There is so much more to ‘What does it cost?’ when there are diet and health benefits involved. Presenting the benefits first almost guarantees a sale. And the customer feels like you not only listened, you helped solve a problem and gave them information that made them feel confident they are making the right purchase.”

 

GRAINNE BYRNE

Dogwalking.ie, Dublin, Ireland

After 30 years in public relations, Byrne decided to combine her love of pets and hiking as a professional dog walker. She brought with her many applicable skills, including the ability to market her business through appreciation.

“A couple of times a year, I drop in cakes or ice cream or chocolate to vets and groomers who refer business and who allow me to display my business cards on their premises. Referrals from vets are my best source of business.”

MELANIE HAYNES

Space Coast Pet Services, Rockledge, FL

Haynes has a professional background that immediately inspires trust. After all, if defense contractors relied on her to keep sensitive information secure, traveling pet parents can count on her to care for their animals and homes.

She offers this advice to fellow pet sitters:

“Be aware of your surroundings and treat your clients’ homes as you would your own. Take the extra time to double-check that all windows and doors are locked. Trust your gut and communicate any concerns with your client immediately. As we say in the OPSEC (operations security) community, ‘If you see something, say something!’”

 

DEBBIE BROOKHAM

Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

Brookham’s previous roles in the human medical field — radiologic technologist, urgent care facilities director, supplies and equipment sales manager — now help her recognize disease symptoms in dogs who come into her pet boutique and salon.

When she does, “I suggest they go to their vet, and then we can work on nutrition. It is super rewarding to see these dogs come back in with a better prognosis.”

Brookham adds, “It’s amazing the journey you go on and find yourself in a position you never imagined. However, all the things you learned along the way seem to mesh into exactly what you need.”

 

ANGELA PANTALONE

Wag Central, Stratford, CT

As a kindergarten teacher for 10 years, Pantalone made every student feel special so they could reach their full potential. She does the same at her multipurpose pet facility and encourages others in the industry to follow her lead.

“Find ways to make your staff feel special so they know they are valued and an important part of your team. Show owners that their dogs are special through the services you provide. Making suggestions and recommendations is often welcome since owners treat their pets just like their own children.”

 

MATTHEW MOOREFIELD & MICHAEL MORRIS

Yarn & Bone Pet Supply Co., Camden and Rehoboth Beach, DE

Moorefield worked in customer service at Macy’s for 16 years, and co-owner Morris currently juggles a position in food service management with time at the stores. What have these work experiences taught them?

“The importance of customer interaction, from a simple hello to telling them to have a great day (even if they don’t purchase anything). Stopping all tasks when a customer is present, staying focused on them in case they have a question or need anything,” Morris says.

 

KAREN CONELL

The Bark Market, Delavan, WI

Conell has been working with animals since high school, getting her first job at a pet-supply store. She went on to earn a degree in animal sciences, work at a racehorse breeding and training facility, and later as a veterinary technician. It all prepared her to succeed as a pet business owner.

“Having a love for animals helps, but without the merchandising, management or people skills, struggles — and, perhaps, failure — will result. Even with great skills there are hurdles! A full tool box to draw from makes those hurdles easier to clear.”

LEEL MICHELLE

Bow Wow Beauty Shoppe, San Diego, CA

Among the many hats Michelle has worn are manager of the flagship Ann Taylor in New York City and district manager of face painters, hair wrappers, and caricature and portrait artists for the San Diego Zoo, Legoland and Seaworld. She filled and managed 200 park positions alone each summer!

“Speaking in front of a large audience, recruiting staff, interviewing and hiring have all been helpful for business ownership.”

Michelle and her husband also renovate and flip houses in their spare time. This allows for DIY repairs at her pet boutique and bakery.

“I’m very handy with multiple saws and drills!”

 

JULIA ROHAN

Rover-Time Dog Walking & Pet Sitting, Chicago, IL

In her previous role with Teach for America, Rohan learned the value of professional development.

“I was lead by some of the most brilliant minds. They were inspirational managers who willingly passed on their best practices for designing strategy to overcome most work-related challenges.”

She has carried this desire to improve through to her pet care business and advises:

“Invest in your professional development and seek out a program like FetchFind.com to build your understanding of how to work humanely with all animals. Seek out your mentors’ and peers’ must-read books and devour them, join industry associations, and become followers of animal behaviorists and ethnologists.”

 

ANNABELL BIVENS

The Dog Store by Your Dog’s Best Friend, Alexandria, VA

Pastry chef. Accountant. Dog groomer. All of these roles help Bivens excel as a pet store manager. The baking skills make her popular with both two-legged and four-legged customers.

“Homemade treats for events are the best! But you can’t sell them without a license usually so we just give them away. People love seeing you cared enough to put effort in, instead of just opening a box of ordered treats.”

 

KELLY CATLETT

Waggs 2 Whiskers, Bagdad, KY

During her 19 years with a metals distribution company, Catlett multitasked like a pro, creating and managing procedures, leading a team, and providing excellent customer service. She sees the latter as the most important skill carried over into her current career as a pet care and services provider.

Catlett advises, “Always be nice and create a relationship that will benefit you and the customer in the future, from the very beginning. Be you! Allow your personality to shine through and get to know them and their situation. Creating that bond with pet parents is huge.”

 

MARVIN SCHAFFER

J & M Aquatics & Pet Center, Grand Junction, CO

Schaffer worked at a grocery store while attending college. Not only did he learn how to merchandise, but his responsibility for ordering all canned goods without a point-of-sale system gave him “the skills to keep enough stock, prevent running out of items and make sure there was not a huge back stock.” This helped keep his aquatics store properly stocked in the early days, before it got a POS system.

 

KEITH MILLER

Bubbly Paws and Pampered Pooch Playground, Twin Cities, MN

As a radio producer, Miller got to hang with the likes of Usher and Sarah McLachlan as part of his job. He also learned valuable skills that help him best promote his pet businesses.

“You need to make sure you over-deliver anytime a member of the media reaches out, and make sure to not overly promote your brand. We do monthly segments on the NBC station here, and we never wear our business logo or talk about our business. There is a quick graphic that says ‘Bubbly Paws’ on the bottom of the screen, but the minute you start self-promotion, they will cut it out. Quick, short responses work best, and you need to make the media person be the star of the segment.”

TERRI ELLEN

NATURE’S PET MARKET SUNNY PAWS GROOMING, SALEM, OR

Spending 10 years in Apple sales and marketing has greatly influenced how Ellen runs her pet business.

“‘Changing the world, one computer at a time’ years later has become ‘changing the health of our pets, one dog and cat at a time.’”

She advises, “You have to have a vision. It’s your road map to where you want to go. Then wave your flag everywhere so ‘they’ can follow you — your customers, your employees and your vendors.”

Ellen also manages her staff in Apple style: “Empowered on the front line, included in decision-making, keeping relationships healthy, respected and trusted.”

 

KEEFER DICKERSON

Nashville Pet Products, Nashville, TN

Twenty-plus years in entertainment marketing and promotions taught Dickerson the value of an experience. He applies it at local events as marketing and outreach manager for five stores.

“For a big event last year, we built a doggie ball pit in our 10-by-10 booth. It was a huge hit, and we had people lining up to let their dogs play! People were excited to come to our booth for the experience we offered, and it gave us an opportunity to talk to them about their pets, where they shop, and to tell them about our stores and products. Unlike most of the other vendors at the event, we weren’t trying to sell them something. Instead, we offered a fun experience, and then told them the story of why our stores are awesome!”

Dickerson also kept social media in mind when setting up the booth and ball pit.

“Everyone wanted a photo of their beautiful pup surrounded by shiny, brightly colored balls. I made sure our events banner was positioned at the bottom of the booth’s back wall, so that our name and logo were visible in every photo of the ball pit.”

 

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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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.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

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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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