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Shop Talk: Birstall Pet Suppliers – Part of the community
25th March 2020

By Sandra Pearce




Lucy says there’s a lovely village feel to Birstall

Birstall Pet Suppliers is a small pet shop in the village of Birstall, about three miles north of the centre of Leicester. Co-owner Lucy Percy sheds light on what it’s like running a village shop and the challenges they face

About 10 years ago, Grant Haines was made redundant and he decided he wanted to use his redundancy pay-out to invest in a business. He’d always kept dogs, as well as breeding and showing them, and so one of the options was to do something related to pets.

One included taking over a former pet shop that was up for sale, but the price was out of his budget. Then one day as he was driving past, he saw that the ‘For sale’ sign had been replaced with a ‘For lease’ sign. This was the open door he was looking for; contracts were signed and he became the new owner of Birstall Pet Suppliers.


Shop is small, but they are planning to move things around to accommodate more products

The shop was just an empty shell, but Grant had been a customer of the previous pet shop – a pet shop had been there for at least 30 years – and so he knew it was a good, viable business.

Grant and a friend fitted out the shop themselves, including the shelving and tiling the floor, and when it opened, his partner, Lucy Percy, recalled: “There were just a few bags of bird food and some dog food. One of his neighbours came around with a kettle and a few tea bags. It’s come a long way since.”


Lucy and Grant – and their boys! – bag up a lot of pet and bird food

In the early days, although in full-time employment elsewhere, Lucy used to help Grant out with ‘little things’ like pricing or making up posters, but she slowly got more and more involved. They have three children together – two boys aged eight and five years, and a little girl aged three months – and when she was on maternity leave with her oldest boy, she kept up with doing ‘bits and bobs’ for the shop.

“Grant said I was an asset for the shop and how good it was for me to be here and help the shop to grow. And because I had a retail background, it helped. I agreed,” she said.


Natural treats are a big draw for customers

“Grant had done such a great job for the first years and I came in with a fresh pair of eyes.
I went a lot more down the natural path, so things like rabbit ears, chicken and duck necks, chicken wings and loads of natural treats.
I also introduced more premium dog food – there was a great range already, but I went for foods like grain-free and those with higher percentage meat like Eden Pet Foods. We have both done a lot of research into dog nutrition and know the health benefits of a good quality food.”

She and Grant have a ‘beautiful partnership’, she said – they complement each other perfectly. “Grant is guarded and level-headed when it comes to cash flow, I get excited by ideas: I would probably spend it all and end up not paying the rent. So what we have works. But he does say I am the face of the shop. I do all the orders, our Facebook page, and I push products and work on publicity.”

It’s a true family business and the two older boys are happy to help out if they can, such as with bagging up wild bird seed at home. “Everything gets brought home,” laughs Lucy. “If we can’t finish something in the shop, we take it home, yes, like bagging up of food. And quite often I am sending out messages about deliveries the next day at night.


Selection of toys along a back wall

“The boys also go out with Grant on deliveries sometimes and it’s good because they understand where money comes from and that you have to work for it. You know, if daddy does not do deliveries, we won’t get money.”
Theirs is a busy, full-on life, and it can get tricky trying to juggle the work-home balance. “Yet we manage,” she said.


A FAMILY SHOP

“We are known as the pet shop family,” she said. “Everybody knows us, and most of our customers know the kids’ names. This Christmas it really hit home for me; you should have seen the chocolates, cakes, wine, Prosecco and even Christmas presents that the kids got.”

And when little Sophia was rushed to hospital, the village rallied round with offers of help and sending good wishes. “Everybody really cares for us and supports us,” she said.


The shop has a reputation for natural food and those with higher-meat content

It’s a two-way street. For their part, Lucy and Grant do their utmost to remember every customer’s name and the name of their pets. And Grant does daily free deliveries, which is usually bulk bags of dog food and raw pet food. She said: “He will take the food into the house and, for some of our customers who are elderly or frail, he will even decant the food into their containers.

“Anything to provide that little bit extra service and to help. We always try and go the extra mile, and we know that what we do really does have an impact.”
For example, Lucy will take a bag of wild bird food with her on her way home to stop by another elderly customer who can’t get out and about anymore. It’s all about providing a personal service. Over the years, they’ve found themselves becoming an unofficial social hub: “People will come in just for a chit chat!”


Perfect for those impulse buys!

They have a very loyal customer base and the whole drive of ‘shop local’ and ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’, is having an effect. She said: “We know shops are having it hard, retail is now so tough, we never take our customers or what we have for granted.
We’ve seen so many shops around here that have gone away. We’re lucky. I have people who come in to buy a bag of wild bird food just because they want to support local businesses.”

PILLARS OF SUCCESS

For Lucy and Grant, their business is built on three pillars: providing good quality products, setting a good price and offering a friendly service. “In the current climate, people are a lot more savvy with their money and they do shop around more, trying to get the best that they can,” she said.

As far as possible, they sell under RRP. “We sell big bags of dog food about £10 under RRP,” she said. “Yes, our margins are smaller, but it works for us. On some products we do not make much profit but on others we do. For us, it’s important that we offer the best possible service and good quality products at a cheaper price, and our shop does have the family feel.”

It’s a small shop, about 400sq ft, and there is no storage. “What you see is what we have,” she said. “We need to make sure we have the right products, and in the right quantities. If, as a customer, I know Pets at Home is only a little way away and my local pet shop does not have the product I want, I might be tempted to go online and order it to collect or get it delivered the next day. So we have to get it right.”


You can always count on collars and leads to add that splash of colour

Top sellers are raw and dry dog food, including bulk bags. Though she is annoyed that how with some products, people can buy the products online for cheaper than the trade price. “Even in grocery, you see brands there that promised they would only be for the independent but then a few years later, they’ve broken that promise,” she said.

Raw has, however, been a pleasant surprise. “It’s just taken off,” she said. They now have six freezers and are constantly re-filling them during the week with Natures Menu, Natural Instinct, Nutriment and Bulmer Pet Food.


You can just see the freezers in the back room

Wild bird seed sells especially well in winter, and of course natural treats sell well all year round. They have also started selling vegetarian treats by Miro & Makauri, which are absolutely ‘flying’, she said. “We also get asked once or twice a week about vegan dog food. I do try to stay ahead of trends and I get ideas from trade magazines, and we go to PATS and Crufts.”

The biggest challenge about having such a small shop is trialling new products, which can be very costly if it does not sell and just sits on the shelf. To get it right, they also talk to friends who are in the veterinary sector and some other friends who also own pet shops. It’s bouncing ideas off people who are in the same shoes, she said.



She’d really like a bigger shop, but as Grant says, this will mean more outlay and higher over-heads. So it’s going to have to be a case of working smarter and re-thinking what they’re doing.
“We’re going to move some shelves around and change the location of the shop counter,” she said. “We’re always working on new ideas to grow the business.
“For example, simple things like moving products around to keep things fresh and so that people don’t just walk in, grab what they want and walk out again.”

She’s working on spreading the word about their shop even further – so far, they’ve not paid a single penny on advertising or marketing. “It’s all been word of mouth and our Facebook page,” said Lucy. “But I want to maximise this as much as possible.”


A customer made this for Lucy and Grant for Christmas

Children from the local nursery pop in once a month or so to look at their birds and take home a small bag of bird seed, and they are already involved in the village gala; Grant will be a judge for the dog show, and they sponsor some prizes. “But we want to do more in the community,” she said. “It’s a lovely village, and we want to be a vital part of it.”