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Shop talk: Cookes Pet Supplies – The moment you stand still, you go backwards
10th July 2019

By Sandra Pearce



Cookes Pet Supplies is a fifth-generation family business with shops in Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley. Andrew Cooke is proud of his family’s innovative spirit and willingness to try new products and ideas. Sandra Pearce visits to learn more



When it happened once too often, Andrew Cooke decided enough was enough, it was time to do something about it. His was a frustration the vast majority, if not all, pet specialist independents share – the irritation of having invested heavily in a food brand promised to the speciality trade, but which is later released into grocery.


Simon (left) and Andrew say they’ve never had a customer complaint about Seven

So in 2016, Cookes Pet Supplies teamed up with three other independents and worked to develop their own brand – Seven is now Cookes’ best-selling dry dog food in its three stores and is being sold by 40 other independents. The grain-free range uses fresh ingredients, comprising at least 50% freshly-prepared animal content along with fruit and vegetables.


Seven is the result of a collaboration among a group of independents and is top seller for Cookes

The lifestage range has Puppy, Adult, Superfood 80/20, Senior, Large Breed and Small Breed products – and has done so well that Seven has grown with the recent launch into wet food with four varieties of puppy, beef, chicken and lamb and an MSC-certified fish treat. “We think our fish treat is a world first,” said Andrew. “This is brand new – it’s the first time a treat is actually infused with probiotics.
“We keep reinventing,” he said, “and we keep trying new things. It’s about moving with the times; it’s evolution, not revolution. Sometimes we will try something and it does not work – often it’s because we are too early and the market is not ready for it yet, like when we tried freeze-dried dog food a few years ago.”
The important thing is to keep an eye on market trends, he said.


A toy for every occasion

Like when they moved away from pet food manufacturers that were reducing margins and becoming increasingly available online and through other distribution channels. Andrew said: “We cannot go head to head with supermarkets or other competition, but there are other better products out there, so we have to look at those instead.”

Things are always changing on the shop floor – if products don’t sell, out they go, and retailers have to react to trends and best business practice. So whereas in the past James Wellbeloved had seven metres of display, this is now down to two metres, with Royal Canin about the same.


Dog food now carries ranges of specialist independent brands

Specialist independent brands offering natural, high-meat products such as Canagan, Symply and Orijen are instead doing very well, he said. Rotherham is not an affluent area, but each customer is equally important, whether they come in for a £70 bag or a £10 bag of food. “We have to provide the correct product for the person in front of us.”

Cookes in Sheffield has a very high concentration of other pet chain stores within a five-mile radius. “We really have to be on top of our game, and we have to give our customers a reason to visit,” he said.

Would you look at that!

Simon Lewis-Dale is head of business development at Cookes and joined with extensive experience in the pet industry in buying and supply chain management. One of his many tasks is to make brands and ranges stand out, to give them a unique feel, something to make customers stop in their tracks and take a look – ‘something a little bit different’, he said.

Andrew adds: “We’re not like Ikea where we can force customers to walk every aisle, so what we want to do is interrupt their flow, make them want to stop.
“We know natural is growing, but instead of just putting the product out, we think, what can we do to make the product stand out?”
Take the GoodWood coffee wood chews for dogs. He said: “We jumped on GoodWood very early – people were sceptical, saying ‘It’s a wooden stick’, but we tried it and because it looks nice and sells well, we have given it more space.”


Cookes uses this wood-themed vinyl to dress up the display of GoodWood sticks

And with more space came the inspiration of a vinyl background of wood slats, which accentuated the product’s natural properties. “We invested in the brand because we have to display the product better,” he said.


It’s all about presentation! Fire buckets make an eye-catching display for natural products

Much thought and effort has gone into dressing the natural treats and chews section, including using fire buckets for pick-and-mix. And throughout the section are displays that make people stop, look, think – and buy.


New to Cookes – frozen home-baked dog treats from The Dog Bowl Deli

Absolutely brand new that morning was an eye-catching display of frozen home-baked dog treats that would look perfectly at home in a boutique deli or gourmet bakery. “We are the first to sell these – you won’t have seen this anywhere,” said Andrew.


What better way to tempt customers than show the products?

And he was right. Among the goodies on offer from The Dog Bowl Deli were hand-made cheese twirls (think cheese straws), meat & veg pies (no explanation needed), meat pawsties (think Cornish pasty), livercake brownies and stuffed pig hearts. To encourage trial of the new range, samples were laid out on a wooden board to show the quality of ingredients used, while deli bags (like those used in bakeries and bread counters) were on hand, waiting for customers to fill.


Attractive display from The Dog Bowl Deli of its desserts including éclairs, pupcakes and biscuits

Adjacent to this was another striking display from The Dog Bowl Deli this time of its desserts including éclairs, pupcakes and biscuits, beautifully arranged on bespoke wooden shelving with a rustic, country theme including little signs and decorative elements. “We hope this will make people stop in their tracks,” said Simon.


Treats section has its own freezer

Cookes is unusual in that while most retailers put all their frozen products together in one area, it has installed a freezer in the treats section for frozen raw bones and chunks. Simon said: “I wanted to drive home the point that these are frozen treats, so we have signmarked them here. These should be part of your natural treats section, not just in raw food.”


Woolf is new to Cookes and Andrew is convinced its simple message and strong branding will encourage customers to give it a go

Cookes has also recently taken on a new treats manufacturer, Woolf. “This was a huge step for us,” said Andrew, “but Woolf has stunning branding, their service is second to none, and it’s got a simple message – it’s a good quality, natural treat and offers value for money. It’s also not in every store, so there is no real competition in this area for it.”

Keep it simple

The first category that Simon looked closely at developing when he joined was health products and supplements – Cookes was missing an opportunity to display health in a way that was user-friendly and simple for customers to shop and staff to negotiate.


Health section is colour coded to help customers find the products they want

As a first step, products were colour coded on the shelf edge in different categories such as calming, skin & coat, joint care and eyes & ears. At one glance, customers know exactly where to look.
Ranges were also simplified, after all, you don’t need 15 products that do the same thing – it just creates clutter and confusion, said Andrew.


Flea treatment in three simple stages – flea kill, prevention and home treatment

Flea treatments are separated according to three functions – flea kill, prevention and home treatment. Again, easy to navigate and it reinforces to owners that they need to treat the home as well. There’s also a small display on vet diets, drawing customers’ attention to the fact that Cookes can order in any prescription diet that their pets might need.


First aid explained step by step

In another first, Cookes has a first-aid display demonstrating five steps in dressing a wound, and showing the various products such as a disinfectant spray to clean a wound and a dressing to cover the wound. “How many times have you had a cat that comes in or a dog out on a walk and they cut their paw?” asked Andrew. “What do you do? We have a step-by-step description. For us, this shelf is all about knowledge for customers and we did not really expect to sell much from it, but we have! As humans, we can go to a pharmacy – we are that step for our customers before they need a vet. This really is about providing a service for pets, and we want to get the message out so that’s why we call it the Health Centre.”


If you don’t want pick-your-own, there’s plenty of other choice

In the 30 weeks since health was re-organised, sales are up 70% year on year on existing ‘decent sales figures’.
“We can also provide this PoS to other retailers,” said Andrew. “We have done all the legwork – all you need are six bays and we will send you photos and the PoS.”

None of this is achievable without co-operation with suppliers, said Simon. He is now working closely with the Company of Animals to take a fresh look at training and behaviour. “It’s all about how you make a brand come to life, so people come over and see it and say ‘Oh!’”


Whimzees has a large display and is going down well with customers

Andrew’s grandfather has a favourite saying, ‘The moment you stand still, you go backwards’. And that is so true, say Andrew and Simon, which is why they are constantly looking at ways to improve the business. “You have to, you cannot stop and stand still,” said Andrew.

And sometimes it’s little tweaks that drive business – like placing shopping baskets around the store rather than just at the entrance. This encourages customers to pick up baskets while browsing, and basket spend then goes up!


Reptiles are also catered for

Down memory lane…

Cookes can trace its origins back to William John Cooke, who was a carrier at the turn of the twentieth century and later opened a hay and corn merchant in Sheffield. His son, Cyril, joined the business after the First World War, with Cyril’s sons, Donald and Colin, following suit in the 1940s. 

In the late 1950s, the family expanded into producing breadcrumb, around 20-30 tonnes a week, along with pigeon corns, bird seed and other animal feed. In 1967, Donald and Colin split the business and a year later, Donald launched a complete dog food, NEG+, and his son, Bill, came on board. In 1975, a devastating fire gutted the main building and production unit – all staff stayed on to help rebuild the business. NEG+ was then rebranded as Lookydog, with production eventually hitting 40 tonnes a week. In 1987, EMP egg food for caged birds, was launched and quickly became the best-selling bird-rearing foods in the UK.

Andrew joined his father, Bill, in 2002, and the company became a limited company shortly after. The summer floods of 2007 forced a two-day closure of the Rotherham site. “I have never seen a group of people so upset. They all pulled together, and we cleared out and got the shop back open in just two days,” said Andrew.

Two years later, Rotherham saw a fresh chapter when Donald Cookes opened with the new name, Cookes Pet Supplies – previously, it was a small retail shop with a trade counter. “Everyone used to refer to us as ‘Cookie’s’, so we decided to rename the business ‘Cookes’ and drop the ‘Donald’,” he added.
The store was a success and in 2013, a second site opened in Sheffield followed by Barnsley a year later. All three stores are about the same size, about 5,000sq ft each, with 42 staff across all businesses – three to four people are on the shop floor at any point in time.

Success, says Andrew, is about good branding, quality products, relationships (with customers and suppliers) and price point. “It’s about creating that customer experience, offering service and value, so they want to keep returning to your shop.”

Simon adds: “We do not hard sell. We want to engage with people, talk to them about any problems they might be having with their dog and then give them the answer by explaining the different products and brands.”
“We are saying, this is what we have, this is why we are here and this is what we recommend,” said Andrew.

Last Christmas, staff across the three stores wrote literally thousands of Christmas cards. “For three weeks, every morning they would fill in the number of cards they thought they would need each day,” he said. “But this is about building up that little bit of community. That’s what we’re all about. Although we are a decent-sized business, it’s still about people. We are Cookes, we are a family, they are our customers, they mean a lot to us and without them, we are nothing.

“You know, I go through spreadsheets every day, but if customers come in and enjoy themselves, those spreadsheets take care of themselves.”

The many faces of Cookes

Not many people know but Cookes Pet Supplies is the retail arm of Donald Cooke Ltd. Donald Cooke Ltd. is a number of different businesses in its own right – a manufacturer, wholesaler and distributer. It is the manufacturer and wholesaler of EMP eggfood for caged birds and manufactures other animal and pet foods such as rabbit food, pond food and caged and wild bird seeds (peanuts and mealworms are bought in by the container load).


EMP is top seller, and sits with other bird food

It also wholesales dog treats and fishing brands such as Stroft, while owning the Rod Hutchinson fishing tackle brand, which is distributed to 17 countries.
“Apart from accessories, we could stock our whole shop from what we wholesale,” said Andrew. “As it is, we supply ourselves with 40%, value wise, of what we sell, and we are now looking into wholesaling accessories.”

Donald Cooke also offers a contract packing service, packing liquids and solids (such as pet treats).
“We say we are in business, not in the animal food business,” said Andrew, “we are experiencing double-digit growth across the business. We have a target to continue to be profitable, and if an opportunity comes along, we will explore it.
Obviously it helps if there is some synergy with what we already do.”

Simon adds: “We don’t shout about what we do. The thing is to do what you do properly. Once you do it well, people will find you. Our default answer is ‘Yes’, and we have to be constantly looking for those new opportunities. We never think we move fast enough!”

It’s a bit chilly here!

For a long while, the stores used to have a row of single freezers down one side of the store, and to be honest, said Simon, they were dwarfed by units in front of them. “When I joined last year, this was clearly an area that was having good growth, but I knew there was an opportunity to accelerate that growth,” he said. “We had to think this through from a design point of view. There are phenomenal outlets that do frozen better, but there was no reason we could not do better.”


Frozen food section is clearly signposted at the rear of the shop

Long chats with main supplier Natures Menu followed and a plan of action was devised. Out went the chest freezers and in came a bank of double upright freezers, and the frozen section was moved to the far end of the store with large signage signalling its new location.
“Natures Menu is the mainstay of our sales,” he said, “and they have been so helpful and supportive in this move, really fantastic.”

Two-way street

Support between retailer and supplier has to be a two-way street, said both Andrew and Simon – one way retailers can support suppliers is by taking on a larger, if not the whole range, from a supplier.

Cookes now offers Natures Menu, True Instinct, Nutriment, Different Dog and Benyfit Natural frozen food, with a separate freezer in its treats section and another freezer by the entrance with iced yogurts.
“Frozen is now one of the fastest-growing sections in store,” said Simon. “In the six months, we are 20% up across all frozen, and 30% up on Natures Menu year on year, and we have now rolled out the same layout to the other two stores.”


Driving home the message that Cookes can order in special requests