News Shop Talk Colchester Pet Stores



Shop Talk: Colchester Pet Stores
16th January 2017

By Sandra Pearce

Colchester Pet Stores is a thriving shop in the heart of Colchester. Owner Mark Larner talks candidly about the strategies he uses to stay ahead

Every inch counts, and Mark uses space outside his shop to promote his products

Mark Larner has accounts with 27 manufacturers, suppliers and wholesalers for his pet shop, Colchester Pet Stores, in Essex. It makes good business sense, he said. “When I took over 15 years ago, we were buying everything off one wholesaler. I went up to Glee Petindex and I opened up an account with just about everyone who was there. I remember coming back and thinking that this is way forward, to buy direct and buy as much as you can to get better terms.”

He explained that with wholesalers, you tend to get 10-25% margins on average, but going direct to a supplier or manufacturer will result in higher margins. “You need to break your wholesaler order down and see which ones you can go direct to. Otherwise it’s just bad business.”

Even the road is used to advertise his business – thank goodness it’s pedestrian-only after 10am

His policy of buying in bulk also increases margins. For instance, he orders fat balls at a pallet a time, and three to four years ago bought 1,000 dog toys on offer at £1 each. He’s been selling them for £6 each. “It takes time to clear, but they are still selling,” he says. And he always sells at RRP.

Timing is important, and so he starts buying his Christmas range in August and September, when the deals land. “I buy everything direct, and I pay for everything on the nose to get maximum terms and discounts.”

Obviously you need space for this, and it helps that Mark has ample storage. Although the store is small, at approximately 350sq ft, the two upper floors are his stock rooms, and he has a 40ft container at home which is also always full.

Treats and chews sell well

Colchester Pet Stores is located on a street that is pedestrianised from 10am, and so Mark does not display big food bags. However, one advantage of being in a pedestrian zone is that he can have seasonal displays right outside his store. In winter, you can’t miss his massive double rack of dog coats – and it works as dog coats are one of his biggest sellers. Two years ago, he sold 1,000: “In one day, I sold 25. It was almost non-stop.” (Last year was not as good as the winter was so mild.)

Yes, the odd product outside does go missing, but because he sells so many items to passers-by who buy on impulse, to move them inside would actually result in a drop in revenue as sales far outweigh the losses.

Another tactic he’s adopted is to use a manufacturer’s branding to his advantage for on-shelf impact. For instance, his healthcare range is dominated by products from Johnson’s Veterinary Products, making an impressive display. “Their branding in a solid block like this helps my shop look good,” he said.

Mark makes use of manufacturer’s branding to create impact

Strong sellers for him include healthcare products, flea treatments, wild bird seed, treats and goldfish in summer, hence the varied offering of goldfish starter kits. “I’m on the ball, if something does not sell well, it’s gone,” he said. Although finding space for new products can be a massive headache, new products are important and Mark attends all the wholesaler trade shows and PATS Sandown. Final product selection comes down to gut instinct.

It also helps that he visits other pet stores regularly and can see what they are stocking. “I remember visiting one owner and he pointed out Naturediet and asked, ‘Do you sell this?’ I said no, and he said I needed to get it in. Well, I gave it a try and it is now one of my top sellers, and I get deliveries every week.”

Goldfish sales soar in summer

It turns out Mark has a sideline business distributing dog beds, of which he sells five to six himself on average every day. “They’re good quality, in the mid-price range, and I distribute them to 15 other shops, locally and also to Ipswich, Chelmsford, London and Clacton.”

Retailing runs in Mark’s blood, going all the way back to his great-nan who ran a pet shop in Enfield, London. The family at one point had two pet shops and a market stall in Colchester, and another pet store in Clacton. Colchester Pet Stores was bought by Mark’s dad and uncle 25-or-so years ago, and when Mark’s dad Terry wanted to semi-retire 15 years ago, Mark bought out his uncle’s share and the father-and-son team took over the shop and the market stall, with his uncle taking over the Clacton shop.

Mark is meticulous about shop looking neat, clean and tidy

The market stall ran until Christmas 2015, when the local council moved the market to a new location. “They killed it,” said Mark. “The market was thriving, but in its new location, our takings dropped to 25% of what it was. It was such a bad location, no one went to it. In a way it was a blessing in disguise because my dad wanted to cut down to two days a week, so we shut the stall. It’s better we did this when it was doing badly than if it was thriving, because then someone else would go into it.

“The market used to have 40 stalls, now there are just eight. And when we closed the stall, all our trade from the market came here. It was really good.”

Pre-bagged bird seed is a strong seller

Terry is now 70 but continues with his two days a week and Mark handles the other four days as they employ no staff. “Dad is really fit and healthy,” said Mark. “He’s never smoked, plays squash, goes walking. He enjoys working, now that he can come in and serve people all day and then go home and does not have to think about running the business, tax, VAT, orders or anything like that. He does not want to stop. Around Christmas we are very, very busy. We are out delivering dog beds every day and making deliveries to customers.”

As Mark handles all orders himself, he does not have an EPoS system. “It’s all up here,” he says, tapping his head. “I can look around this shop and tell you exactly what stock I have upstairs.”

Shop is not big, but Mark says turnover is very high

Needless to say, Mark and his dad have seen a lot of change, both in the trade and the high street retail scene. “Years ago, I remember how granddad used to sell two to three litters of pups a week, and kittens. We used to do livestock sales, and used to have a whole bank with budgies, guinea pigs, rabbits, fish, but it was messy and with big pet stores opening, they all sell livestock. We also could not get the good quality birds on a constant basis, so have stopped. However, we do still sell rabbits from a local breeder.”

Colchester used to have three pet shops. Now there are Pets at Home and Jollyes Petfood Superstore, and other retailers including The Range, QD, Wilkos, Poundland and B&M all wanting a bite of the pet market. These discount and bargain stores have helped create the throw-it-away habit. “People just want cheap,” he said. “They can complain about a cheap collar, how it snaps in one week versus a quality collar that lasts two to three years. We’ve just become a throw-away society.

“When we were in Clacton, which I ran for 20 years, before Pets at Home and the internet, every day we would sell bigger items such as rabbit hutches, bird cages, electronic cat doors. We’d sell two to three every day. Now? Hardly ever, and if someone wants an electronic cat door, they buy online. We still sell them, but maybe once every six months. So we have had to move to smaller items.”

Attractive lay-out at counter encourages impulse buys

On the plus side, Colchester’s economy seems to be picking up, he said, with a number of big retailers setting up in the town. Nearby, a pub and restaurant are due to open, which should all help drive footfall.

Colchester Pet Stores has a website but no Facebook page. Mark is not convinced Facebook would be that much of an asset. “How much business does it actually bring? I’ve noticed how in other people’s shops who have it, they can spend a lot of time putting posts up and liking this and liking that. But those who do not have Facebook tend to be doing better business.

“I don’t understand how some people can spend all their time on Facebook but maybe just one hour on orders. Better to spend more time on orders, look at the discounts and deals you can get going direct.”