Dickies Pet Centre in the seaport and market town of King’s Lynn in Norfolk celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and owner Richard Ellwood looks back at its history and talks about the changes he’s seen
Richard Ellwood started in the pet trade 25 years ago and today, the family owns two pet shops in East Anglia, but with a slight difference from many family businesses. While Richard runs the shop in King’s Lynn, son Luke runs the other shop in Wisbech – but both shops are run independently, so have autonomy over ordering and business decisions.
Richard said: “Luke was 10 years old when Catherine and I started, and he was working for me for a while. But he wanted his own business and when he was 21, we opened the Wisbech shop. It’s now 13 years old and he has his staff while I have mine. Sometimes we swop over, just to keep on top of each other’s business, and we sometimes share orders, but generally, they’re separate businesses.”
The Wisbech shop carries the same name, Dickies Pet Centre, but is smaller than the shop in King’s Lynn. Customer demand is also different and Luke sells for example some different brands of dog food and horse feed. Richard added: “We can bounce ideas off each other, and he will sometimes say he is selling something new and it’s doing well, and I will give it a try.”
Built up from scratch
Richard used to be a haulier delivering sugar beet in the region, but always wanted his own business and took the plunge by setting up a stall in King’s Lynn old cattle market selling pet products and food. Moving into pets was a natural progression as his family had always kept pets, and his parents also had ducks, geese and some cattle. His wife Catherine helped him out, but has kept her part-time job in the local hospital – though she also looks after the accounts and admin work for both shops.
Unit is housed in a retail park and has loads of space
“We were there for 10 years,” he said. “I started off small and we extended twice and then we bought a plot on the market. Just over two years ago we moved on to a retail park, and then we moved again in October to this unit. It’s about the same size as the other unit, but it’s in a much better position and more pleasant – it’s more prominent and visible as it’s on the main road.”
Luckily both units are owned by the same landlord and Richard had a two-month crossover – the move was done mostly by him and his staff, involving wheelbarrows, trolleys and pallets! And of course all new deliveries were directed to the new shop.
“We built this business up from scratch over the years, and at different times, the whole family has been involved,” he said. “When we first started, both mine and Catherine’s mums would pop in to help for a couple of hours here and there.”
Toys are neatly lined up on display
Growth of natural
The biggest change over the years has been the growing demand for natural pet food, he said. Green Pantry is a strong seller, and although he’s always sold raw – from the time when ‘raw’ meant tripe – he says demand has grown ‘quite a bit’ and he’s had to double his original three freezers to six, including two uprights, stocked with Natures Menu, True Instinct and Cotswold Raw.
Following on with the natural theme, treats like Pet Munchies are in strong demand.
Top seller is, however, Autarky adult chicken, which he says is a ‘good priced dog food’. “We have a lot of working dogs around here, a big gundog and field trial population. We are surrounded by a lot of villages, and people come from all over the area.”
Royal Canin has seen an uplift in sales since the store moved to a more prominent location
Other brands that also sell well include his own label, Skinner’s, Judge’s Choice, with an emphasis on bulk bags. For some reason, since he’s moved to the new location, Royal Canin has also picked up in sales.
“It’s like people have suddenly discovered there’s a pet shop here,” he said.
As with many retailers across the country, wild bird does very well, while cat and small animals ‘ticks along’. “We’re not big into hamsters around here, but do okay with rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets – there are a lot of working ferrets here,” he said.
Beds is another strong seller for Richard
And he does stock a fair amount of supermarket brands because ‘people still come here to buy it’. “It’s probably more convenient for them as we have parking directly outside,” he said.
He’s also willing to branch into other products such as carrots for the many horse owners in the area, dishwasher salt, a bit of fencing…and a fair bit of fish bait as there is lots of fishing in the area, both river and lakes.
Own label has a loyal following
Dickies Pet Centre is located on King’s Lynn’s major retail park, between a large Tesco and Sainsbury’s, with a Screwfix around the corner. Also on the park is a Pets at Home, Jollyes, Dobbies, Range and B&M. Yet despite all this competition, ‘we are okay’, he said. “We are in the right price range.”
He admits to being anxious when Pets at Home first arrived. “However, it made people more aware that we are doing a good job and our trade actually picked up,” he said. “When Jollyes and the others came, trade became a bit harder. But we’re holding our own.”
Many customers keep poultry
Although they do not offer their own loyalty card, they do carry schemes from various manufacturers including Vitalin, Burns Pet Nutrition, Fish4Dogs, Royal Canin and James Wellbeloved.
Doing what works best
Nowadays Richard only visits wholesaler trade shows, like those hosted by Pedigree Wholesale and Happy Pet Products. “The Happy Pet Products show is very well run and is a good jolly,” he said.
Treats occupy a decent amount of shelf space
The PATS shows are just that bit too far to get to comfortably, he said, and such a long drive cannot be justified when the deals on offer at the show are pretty much what can be got through rep visits, who also keep them informed as to what’s new on the product front. “We do sometimes go the BETA show as it’s at the NEC in Birmingham, which is more convenient.”
Any marketing is done via Facebook and advertising is very rare, although the local newspaper wants to do a write-up on their 25th anniversary. Richard finds that the two sign-written vans out-and-about on deliveries do a decent-enough job on the advertising front.
Pick and mix!
He reveals he used to sell birds and small animals, though only for a short while. “It just did not make sense,” he explained. “You more or less have to employ someone to look after them, which triples the cost, and so you end up losing money on the sale of the animal.”
He has also recently started selling snacks and drinks from a fridge that was sold when Toys R Us in Peterborough closed. “We also bought some of their shelving that was going, and I got rid of some of our older black units, which freshened up the look.
This is clearly horse territory
“I’m happy with what we have – I only want to replace some more of my shelving, to make everything look brighter. Just tweaks, really.”
At the moment he employs two staff members, Sarah Waterfield and Daniel Wright, but would like to find some weekend help, someone to work Friday through to Sunday – but no one seems to want to work on Sundays. “It’s hard to find someone to cover the hours you want, and weekends tend to be busiest.”
And then in Summer, when the weather is good, it can all go quiet without warning. He said: “Because we’re coastal, in good weather everyone goes out or to the beach and it’s suddenly, where is everybody?”