Shop Talk Alisons Animals

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Shop Talk: Alisons Animals
11th July 2017

By Sandra Pearce

Alisons Animals is situated in the village of Kidlington, within the commuter belt of Oxford. We visit to find out more about the business run by the Cotterell family 



If you’re going to move or change things about big time, you might as well get it all over and done with in one go. So for the Cotterells this meant giving up one of the two units of their pet shop and moving house (well, one of them did) as well.

Alisons Animals is located in the not-so-tiny village of Kidlington near Oxford (its parish council has said it’s the second-largest village in the country, with around 14,000 residents) and used to occupy two units owned by two different landlords on The Parade. When one owner decided to increase the rent on his unit by 38%, the Cotterells decided to give that unit up, reduce stock lines and move everything else into the remaining unit.

They discontinued lines that were not selling well – about 30 lines that included some health products and toys – and over the course of six months, moved everything over before their existing landlord came in to re-install a wall between the two units.


Lisa, her pet rabbit Rocket and mum Tina

Tina Cotterell said: “It was a very traumatic time. We started in July and had to be out by December 30. But we did everything ourselves, including the decorating – my husband did the floors – and we did not close the shop once. So we were working evenings and weekend, whenever it was convenient for the shop.”

Their landlord then decided to rent out the flat above the shop, and daughter Lisa took the opportunity to move in there. The mum-and-daughter team says the re-decorated ‘new’ shop is far more pleasant than the previous bigger unit, and that because they have been very careful in how they display their products, they’ve not had to reduce their stock list by that much.

Lisa apparently has a magic touch when it comes to squeezing things in, making everything fit in tidy rows and lines, like one huge patchwork quilt. Tina said: “I will say ‘We have no space for such-and-such’, but Lisa can always find the space.

“She is always moving things around. The new layout is also so much easier to keep clean and tidy, which is what we wanted.”

To which Lisa added: “We just enjoy it so much more.”


Small animals and birds are kept in a separate animal room

Lisa had been working for the previous owner for about five years when he decided he wanted to sell the shop as a going concern. Tina said: “In the beginning, we just mentioned that it might be a good idea if we bought it, because Lisa was worried about her job. The next thing we knew, we bought it.”

Tina had been working as a manager of a dental practice, but was keen to own her own business: “We were counting on Lisa and her experience in the shop.”

Alisons Animals opened in 1991 and Tina and her husband, Paul, bought it 11 years ago and kept the name. Lisa is full-time at the shop, which is open seven days a week, and Tina is there pretty much all the time, and they have another full-time member of staff.

The shop, along with its neighbours along The Parade, had for a long time been struggling with parking issues. The car-park spaces out front were often nabbed by Oxford commuters, who would use those bays and then jump on to the bus just across the road – Kidlington is five miles north of Oxford. New parking restrictions mean drivers can only park for a maximum of three hours between 10am and 2pm, which although deterring commuters does not stop the shoppers. “If you park here at 1pm, you can still spend the whole day in Oxford,” said Tina.


Every inch is used, right up to the ceiling

There’s a large Sainsbury’s around the corner, but online sales are the biggest challenge. She said: “There isn’t anything you cannot get cheaper now online.”

Some people are very blatant about their price comparing, and the Cotterells have seen people come in and take pictures of products and prices, usually of premium dog food and larger items like hutches. “What can you do,” said Lisa. “You have to be very careful nowadays.”

As with many independents, the only way to counter the threat of online retailers is by offering the best service and advice as possible. The women draw on their own experience as pet owners as both keep rabbits and Lisa has a cat as well.

Perfect pets
Alisons Animals sells small animals and birds, and Lisa is always uploading videos and pictures of livestock on to the shop’s Facebook page and Instagram. She said: “People do like to see the pictures, especially of the hamsters. We’ve had people call to see if the hamster we’ve shown is still available.”
She also posts special offers and news of new products on social media.


Customers like to pick and choose treats

The Cotterells get most of their ideas for new products from reading trade magazines and visiting  trade shows ‘perhaps every two years’. They have to be very careful about what new products they trial as their customers tend to stick with brands and products they’re comfortable with, explained Tina.

Many times their customers just want to come in and have a chat, so much so that they have now placed a table and two chairs outside the shop. “We thought it would be nice for the summer, so people can sit and chat,” said Tina.


Dog food is a top seller, especially Burns

They also offer additional services such as claw clipping and home delivery. If parking bays out front are full, it does not matter as they always carry big bags to their customers’ cars.

Customers tend to be local or travel in from the nearby smaller villages – there is no other independent pet shop close by, with only Pets at Home and Pets Corner a few miles away. The local Pets Corner does not sell animals, and Pets at Home does not sell birds – Alisons Animals sold more than 150 budgies last year. Their budgie customers range from those who keep just a couple to those with aviaries. Bird sales are doing well, says Tina, who gets their birds from Sky Birds Sales.

All their small animals comes from Essex Breeding Centre, run by owners Phil and Gail Gibbs, and the Cotterells are full of praise of the condition and quality of the animals.

“They’re just in such good condition and tame, they’ve clearly been handled and looked after well,” said Lisa. They used to use one supplier whose hamsters were absolutely petrified of humans. “We’ve never had any issues with Essex,” she said.


Everything in shop is methodically displayed

When new arrivals land, birds are kept for a week before going on sale, hamsters and guinea pigs for 24 hours, and rabbits about a week – and more if they need it to settle properly. “We get to know the personality of the animals,” said Lisa.

It is unusual to find large hutches on display in small independents, but at Alisons Animals there are a few examples on sale, and they can of course order anything in. Tina said they still get customers who want to buy everything they need for a small animal from the same place, and get the advice as well. “You can’t get advice from online,” she said.

Yes, big hutch sales are down, probably due to online sales, but as Lisa says, if you’re going to sell the animals, you’ve got to sell the hutches. She said: “We won’t sell anyone a rabbit who wants a small cage.”


Freezer takes focal position

Frozen raw dog food has taken off really well, and they also sell frozen and live food for reptiles. A number of customers also like picking up mealworms for birds. And speaking of birds, wild-bird food sales are strong, with customers coming in and getting enough for the week to those who walk off with big bags. “We get all sorts,” said Tina.

Dog food is, however, the clear top seller, and the Burns loyalty card has a number of loyal customers who can claim their seventh bag free. They’ve also recently introduced Carnilove because it is grain-free and potato-free – so many grain-free products use potato instead, said Tina, which some customers do not want.

More and more of their customers are asking for natural food and treat products, they said. When they were going through their stock list at the time of giving up the unit next door, they made the decision to increase their natural offerings and expanded the natural range of treats. “People like the look of them, especially the liver jerky,” said Tina.

They tend to use wholesalers rather than go direct to companies. “It’s easier to go to a wholesaler, and if you go direct, there is usually a minimum order and we do not have the space to stock so much. It also helps with the cash flow,” said Tina. The business also had a bit of a boost when they received a letter confirming they were now on 0% business rates. “That’s really helped,” she said.

Most dogs who come in know they get a treat when they come in, and where the treats are kept. Tina says they get a huge amount of satisfaction when they are able to help people, give advice (typically dietary related such as with skin conditions or digestive issues) and then get feedback as to how it’s all worked.

Lisa cannot imagine working anywhere else and sums it up: “I like the people, I like the relationships we build, and I like working with animals every day.”



A clever way of selling poo bags and treats from the counter