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Shop Talk: Animaltastic
10th July 2015

By Sandra Pearce



Just over two years ago, Sandra Pearce visited Animaltastic in Hemel Hempstead, and when she learned the partners had recently opened a second store in Welwyn Garden City, she popped along to see how things are going

Four and a half years after setting up Animaltastic in Hemel Hempstead, partners Steve Patrick and Nathan Coles opened a second store just before Christmas 2014 in the nearby town of Welwyn Garden City. “We’d been looking for a while,” said Nathan. “It’s just so hard to find anything like this.”

‘This’ meaning a location in a busy shopping district, with a good variety of shops and services, and the crucial free parking. ‘This’ type of location works, he said, as it is pretty much a carbon copy of the environment of their first store. This second Animaltastic has about the same square footage as their first, but more of it here is devoted to shop space rather than storage. Which has its pros and cons, such as the ability to display more products, but having to order in more often as there is no storage.



The unit had been a greengrocer’s, but was a bare shell when they took over, which meant they had to refit it completely, from ceiling to floor. “We planned the refit to take a month; we did it in eight days,” said Nathan. “Hertford Shelving were terrific, and we knew them as they refitted our other store as well.”

Although they’d wanted a second store for some time, taking the plunge still caused a few sleepless nights, admits Steven. “I was very nervous,” he said, but acknowledges that opening the second was less stressful than the first. At Hemel Hempstead, they had taken on a long-running pet shop that did not have a brilliant reputation. At Welwyn Garden City, it was a clean slate.



Steve now mans the second store while Nathan is mostly at Hemel Hempstead, as he still works two days a week as zookeeper at London Zoo. They employ four staff members as two people are on duty in each shop at all times, and the Hemel Hempstead shop is also open on Sundays.

They have not done as much advertising for the second store compared to their first, concentrating on the weekly local paper as well as leaflets in the local vet. “We wasted a lot of money in the past learning what works and what doesn’t,” said Nathan.



Now it’s about branding, and promoting the Animaltastic brand. But first, it’s about getting to know the locality better.

They’re not the same apples!
Roughly 14 miles separates the two, with St Albans in the middle and Hatfield and Luton within easy driving distance. So when it came time to stock the shelves, they doubled their usual order.

There was a little surprise waiting. Not all products worked in Welwyn Garden City, and they found strong demand for some products that they had been unable to sell in Hemel Hempstead. Explained Nathan: “It did surprise us, the difference between the two. Here we do a lot of cat, in Hemel it’s more dog.”



Premium brands such as James Wellbeloved cat and Meowing Heads sell well, and customers have asked for Pro Plan. Which is totally different from Hemel, which has a reputation for its birds. Hemel sees more families but in Welwyn, there is a wider cross-section with some customers seeking out super premium foods and others interested in grocery brands. “We can’t sell Whiskas at all in Hemel, but there’s demand for it here,” Steve said.

Whiskas was on special offer at the time of our visit, as they had just joined Bestpets’ Local Retail Club in which each month retailers receive up to 14 promotions. The Whiskas offer was cheaper than in local grocery outlets, including the Co-op down the road. All promotional items are placed in prime location on a gondola end at the front of the store.



This strong interest in cats has prompted them to get a store cat. Well, a store kitten, to be precise, who was still with mum but due to arrive in a few weeks. Apart from being incredibly cute, the new addition will help create a bond with the cat-loving population of Welwyn.

Other products have taken off in a big way, such as frozen raw food. Initially they had a small domestic freezer out back, but this was being emptied every day. So they moved things around and installed a double freezer stocking Natures Menu on the shop floor, which still gets cleared almost before you can blink. “People keep asking for it,” said Nathan. And speaking of reshuffles, initially Welwyn did not stock fish, but again, people kept asking for them so space had to be made for a bank of tanks.

The big challenge, they say, is getting the word out about the products – and livestock – that they sell. Already they are seeing growing numbers of weekly customers, which is good.



About a year ago, they brought in their own label range of premium pet food, which is selling well across both stores, in the region of 10-20kg each day, in each shop. “People want to feed a premium brand, but do not want to spend a huge amount,” observed Nathan.

Their livestock sales continue to do well. They breed a number of their animals themselves, including small birds, Hermann’s tortoises, guinea pigs, dwarf hamsters and mice. They also sell reptiles, and update their livestock availability on their website every week.

Not surprisingly, livefoods are a fast mover, and following on from Hemel Hempstead’s example, so does hay and straw. They now buy in 50 bales of hay and straw from a local farmer every week and bag this up themselves. It is as fresh as you can get, and has a lovely colour. “People come in and say they’ll try a bag, and once they do, they always come back,” said Nathan.

Part three?
Is there a trilogy in the making? A definite small smile is detected, and it’s all to do with Steve’s clear passion for breeding. They would, they admit, like to be able to breed all their livestock themselves, so they can be sure of their stock, and know exactly what’s coming in and going out. Where they can be sure that every bird, reptile and small furry has been tested and screened.  It would be nice to find a ‘good acre or two’, they say, to establish an animal centre.



He’d like to breed more parrots, says Steve, though they are very strict about who buys them. “I am very blunt about the hazard and destructiveness, noise and attention that they need. And that they live a minimum of 40 years. I give people a really, really long list about why you should not have one!”
The plan is, however, not to get too big, says Nathan. “Because then we lose out on our reputation as being a small, independent pet shop. But we want to be successful as well. If you have too many stores, you cannot control them; it’s all about finding the right staff.”

It’s been a whirlwind five years, reflects Steve, but when things settle down, ‘that’s when we do something outrageous’ – like opening a new store.



Online sales, they have decided, is not for them. Their niche is a small, independent, local pet shop. “People are now choosing to shop local, preferring the local over super stores,” says Nathan.

Today’s customer has evolved, and is more ‘supermarket-minded’ in their shopping behaviour, they note. People want immediate stock availability, neat stores, tidy displays, and there is an increasing trend towards bulk buys. They are also far more price savvy, but there is a strong element of illogic thrown into the mix, says Steve. “People will compare prices and say they can get, say, a cage for £2 cheaper on the Internet, but it costs £6.99 for delivery! But they do not see the delivery charge. Or they’ll say they can get something else for 35p cheaper – but you have to drive three miles to get it!”



The fact is, says Nathan, you will never have a 100% loyal customer base because people shop around. The challenge is to maintain loyal customers. Apart from exceptional customer service, you need to give customers a reason to come, adds Steve. Livestock is one good way: “You cannot buy a bird in Tesco!”

Animaltastic also offers a delivery service, as well as claw clipping, beak coping and spot-on treatments for birds and small animals. They also offer animal boarding for parrots and reptiles, usually those they’ve bred themselves. This might expand if they get their animal centre going.



But nothing feels nicer, says Steve, then when they get a phone call or card, thanking them and their staff for their good service and advice. “It’s lovely.”