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The Listener

She can feel her listener sense tingling!

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True Identity: Debbie Brookham | Owner
Base of Operations: Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

Debbie Brookham didn’t get bit by a radioactive spider, and she wasn’t exposed to a cosmic storm. Instead, she developed her superpower of listening in past professional roles.

“It is not a natural ability. Most people want to gather their thoughts while listening to others. Well, you can’t listen well and formulate words in your head at the same time. As a health care professional, and later a medical salesperson, it was imperative to really listen to my clients to learn what the best solution was going to be for them.”
Brookham now tunes into her store’s customers, then offers solutions to a variety of issues. She shares a tip for improving this important ability:
“I’ve found that if you repeat what you heard back to your clients, there will be no misinterpretations and you can come to a ‘super solution’ together.”

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

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.

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Best of the Best

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

Provide relief, reduce costs and boost sales.

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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 and 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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America's Coolest

Cute Brute: Pink, Pastel and Dainty on the Surface, Furry Friends Has a Business Model to Aspire to

This store transformed from being a delivery service into a 1,837-square-foot retail space and something else on weekends!

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Furry Friends Inc., Colorado Springs, CO

OWNERS: Debbie & Terry Brookham; URL: furryfriendsinc.com ; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014; ARCHITECT: Julie Hardridge/Architexture; EMPLOYEES: 1 full-time, 4 part-time; AREA: 1,837 square footage; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/furryfriendsinccolorado; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/furry_friends_inc


PASTEL BLUES AND GREENS welcome customers to Furry Friends Inc. in Colorado Springs, CO. A crystal chandelier hangs in the entry. Adorable bakery items sit atop a small pink table, tempting people and pups alike. Tule, ribbon and floral accents abound.

“Whenever someone comes in, we hear the usual gasp and ‘This is the cutest pet store I have ever seen,’” co-owner Debbie Brookham says.

Behind the dainty decor, though, exists a strong business model, one that began in 2002 as a delivery service for private-label dog food Pet’s Healthy Choice. It has since evolved to include the 1,837-square-foot retail space, plus a tech-savvy staff and delivery van that transforms into a treat and ice cream truck on the weekends.

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Private-Label Success

Brookham — who owns and operates Furry Friends Inc. with her husband, Terry — worked with a pet nutritionist and U.S. manufacturer to formulate and produce the private-label food. It has never contained ingredients from China, which proved highly beneficial during the pet food recalls involving that country in 2007.

“One of our customers told a TV station about us, that we had our own line of dog food and it wasn’t affected,” she says. “A news team came out and rode in our delivery van, and every other station in the area picked it up after.”

The service added 222 new customers in just five days, a nearly 30 percent increase. To keep up with demand, the couple added a 600-square-foot retail area to its warehouse.

“And then when Chewy came along, we knew there was a niche that we wanted to fill: our own line of food delivered, but also sold in a cute boutique setting.”

In 2014, the business moved its retail operations to a busy shopping center. Delivery continues to grow, surpassing 1,800 customers and standing out from other services thanks to the white bakery bag of treats included with every food purchase, free of charge. Pet’s Healthy Choice makes up 60 percent of food sales at 22,000 pounds a month.

“Private-label food has been so successful for us.”

Employees Equipped with Ipads

Now a certified pet nutritionist herself, working toward clinical designation, Brookham teaches her team about the various foods and supplements Furry Friends Inc. offers. She also trains them in how to use an iPad as a sales tool.

During a nutrition consultation, an employee can pull up the store’s website and access ingredients and other information about any food on the floor.

“It’s so much easier to read online than to flip over a bag to look at the label,” Brookham explains, adding that DogFoodAdvisor.com also gets frequent use for its reviews and serving size calculator.

“With customers using their own mobile devices, we decided to dive right in with them. It also allows us to show off our really cool website, that offers free home delivery.”

Salespeople use the iPads for other types of content and products, as well, such as videos of pups playing with Planet Dog toys, for example.

Double-Duty Van

Furry Friends Inc. offers delivery Monday through Thursday. In 2017, the couple realized that their Dodge Sprinter van could serve as an ice cream and treat truck at events Friday through Sunday. They built a shelf for the side opening and added a red-and-white striped awning. An updatable whiteboard lists the offerings, with the likes of The Bear & The Rat frozen treats and Nana’s Pupcakes as regular items.

“It’s an easy way to get out into the community to help our business, instead of setting up a booth,” Brookham says. “People can buy something for their dogs, and we give them a $5 gift card. It brings shoppers to the store who have never been before.”

The transformed van sets up at various festivals and farmers markets from late May through September, which lessens the summer sales slump.

“Our sales would always dip in June and July, when people are off on vacation. This makes the register ring during those months.”

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The same TV stations that asked for interviews in 2007 were eager to spotlight the new truck and continue to do so. Add to that Facebook event posts and live videos letting followers know where it will be, and a line often forms at the window.

Event organizers and even apartment complex managers now reach out to Brookham to book a stop.

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Furry Friends Inc.

1. THREE GENERATIONS: The business has evolved from mom and pop to nanny and pappy. Debbie and Terry co-manage, and they hope to one day pass the business to their children, marketing exec Tracy and U.S. Navy Commander JB, who are always ready to offer insight. Grandson Spencer, now 20, impresses customers with his nutritional knowledge when he stops in. Grandson Jacob, 16, often rides along on delivery days.

2. BILLION-DOLLAR ADVICE: In 2010, Shark Tank invited the Brookhams to pitch Furry Friends Inc. for franchising. Their interviews with producers and hosts didn’t air, but Debbie Brookham says “Getting advice from billionaires took us in new directions.” Two years later, they opened the current store, complete with grooming and DIY bathing.

3. HELPING PUPPY MILL SURVIVORS: Since 2007, Furry Friends Inc. has been the official pet food partner for National Mill Dog Rescue in nearby Peyton, CO. To donate food, supporters can buy food at a 15 percent dicount from the the store’s website.

4. NO-BAKE BAKERY: “Even though we’re not a bakery, we appear as one! We’re known for our beautiful cakes and cookies displayed like a quaint bakery. We’ve gotten the word out via Facebook that we are the place to come for your dog’s birthday,” she says. “Bakery makes up about 18 percent of our business now.”

5. DOGGIE SPA DAY: Furry Friends Inc. takes a spa approach to its grooming. Dogs get one-on-one time with Crystal Parrott, and among the many menu offerings is a Posh Package that comes with teeth brushing, pawdicure, mud mask, facial and head massage.

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A

One book:

EMyth

One plane ticket:

Italy

Most significant mentor and why:

Bob Negan from Whizbang Retailers. He has his own past experiences with retail and now mentors thousands of retailers in all different industries. This is a great crossover because we often need to get out of our own box. If something is working at a candle shop, maybe the process could work in a pet store. It reminds me to think differently and more forwardthinking.

Favorite business book:

EMyth

Favorite book:

Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats by Shawn Messonnier, DVM

Best advice ever given:

My Daddon’t sweat the small stuff….and it’s all small stuff.

Advice for a new store owner:

Hire what you don’t know. Do what you enjoy and don’t be afraid to give up responsibilities. You will be much happier and your store will flourish.

If I’d known  …

To hire more employees then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

What superpower would you like to have?

Flying in a wink

What’s the best customer service you’ve ever experienced?

I bought a Cadillac in 1995, and they still keep in touch (even though I sold it many years ago). The receptionist greets you at service, they wash your car even if you don’t get anything done. That is exceptional. I think it all stems from being a “giver” and knowing it will be returned. When it was time to purchase another vehicle, I stopped at their lot first (and bought a used Buick) however, knowing their service, I knew I would not be disappointed.

Tell me about your perfect day.

My husband and I went to Italy. Best day ever, riding a gondola, eating in a corner restaurant and renewing our wedding vows of 40 years. We both cried.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do professionally?

I think sharing the sadness in our profession, over the loss of a pet is truly the hardest thing. We cry with our clients and feel their grief with them.

When I meet people, the first thing I notice about them is …

Their sincerity.

Favorite film:

Gone with the Wind. Who can resist Clark Gable telling Scarlett “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Don’t we all have days like that?

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Best vacation ever

Wind Surf Mediterranean Cruise to Italy, Croatia and Germany. Largest sail ship in the world. Loved it!

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers:

Marketing. It’s fun to go create and watch it become a success

Current career goal

Working on becoming a Clinical Pet Nutritionist. I’m looking forward to helping people and their pets on a deeper level.

Current life goal

Some day passing the business on to our family and living in a warmer beach climate. Not retired, cause I don’t think that would be any fun:)

Favorite store that’s not my own

I really like Happy Dog Barkery. They provide us some of our bakery items. They are on a Main Street with a park for their events right across the street. How cool is that? Their place must smell delicious!

I am most frustrated when …

Vendors drop in unannounced. Running a business doesn’t require one to be at the store all the time. The reps just drop in unannounced, taking up my employees’ time because they missed me. Having been a medical rep, I understand the sales process and you need to get to the person that makes the decisions. So, why not set up an appointment with the person you ultimately need to influence?

I am happiest when …

I have helped solve a clients problem for their pet whether it be food, a supplement or a toy.

Weekend activity

Camping and enjoying the outdoors

The thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t:

You know, I try not to worry. I would rather think things out and figure out a solution. I hate wasting my energies on worrying which resolves nothing. Either you can do something about the situation or you can’t. And, usually if you think about the solution you can do something! Remove the worry and resolve the issue.

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