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Shop Talk: Digby’s Pets & Aquatics
10th September 2014

By Sandra Pearce

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside!

There’s hot competition for pets in the coastal town of Skegness. Sandra Pearce visits Digby’s Pets & Aquatics to see how the Wests are holding their own

It’s literally anything goes, from Best Sausage Catcher to Veterans Over Seven years and Big Small Furries. But that’s part and parcel of the fun of the Skegness Carnival, for which Digby’s Pets & Aquatics organises and sponsors the animal competition with 19 classes for all manner and size of pet.

“It’s all about fun and is not serious at all,” says Digby’s owner Sharon West. “Everything is left to us – we judge and give out prizes.” It’s a good way to interact with the community and to spread the word about the family-run pet shop, which sits in an industrial estate in the Lincolnshire seaside town. Although Digby’s remains open for the day, Sharon and her husband Kevin have made the concession that they do not accept grooming bookings that day. “Otherwise it’s business as usual,” she says.

Digby’s is all about offering something different and unique. You have to, she says philosophically, when there are three other pet shops, a Wilkinson and a Home Bargains store in town. And being on the coast means your catchment area is geographically restricted as well.

So apart from pet food and products, their store offers grooming; small animal and bird boarding; a claw clipping service; weekly free delivery and a weight clinic. Grooming is proving especially popular, and they are generally booked solid three months in advance, with Sharon and shop staff  helping out with bathing the dogs.

It’s not just about offering additional services, it’s about going beyond what’s expected, the couple says. For instance, one elderly customer has a weekly delivery of wild bird food, and Kevin always fills up his bird feeders at the same time. Ironically, while wild bird food is a strong seller for many retailers, at Digby’s these sales are sluggish: “Everyone around here is selling wild bird now,” explains Sharon.

Many of these other outlets also carry vast budget pet ranges, and the Wests do not want to go down the ‘cheap and nasty’ route. “We are not going to be cheap, but we are also not extortionate. We sell good quality at RRP,” she added.

Sharon initially owned a pet shop in Bedfordshire, but eventually she and her husband sold that to a staff member and moved north to Skegness. In 2006 they purchased an old Co-op store and Skegness Pet Centre was born – the Digby’s name came about in 2009 when a new store opened in town with ‘Pet Centre’ in its name.

In 2007 a lease came up for a unit on the industrial estate, which they took and were running two shops simultaneously  before deciding to focus their energy and efforts on the out-of-town store. Their regular static caravan owner customers have, however, followed them to their new location, and keep returning year in, year out.

Two years later, the adjoining unit came up and the Wests had just a couple of days to decide if they wanted to take it over. Which they did, giving them now a whopping 5,000sq ft. All this space means there is no real need for storage facilities as deliveries can generally go straight onto shelves. But having acquired an adjacent unit and ‘knocking through’ does mean the layout is slightly fiddly with odd corners and a fish room that is tucked away around the side. But the lease comes up for renewal in three years, and there is the possibility that they might be able to buy their units outright. That would be good, says Sharon, because then they could tear down some walls and create one large room, refurbishing as they want.

For the moment, customers walk through the entrance into the dog section, which then leads off to the left to cat, bird and poultry sections, leading off to the aquatic department, with approximately 30 community tanks. On the mezzanine is the holiday boarding, small animal and livestock department. “We breed our own hamsters and rabbits here,” says Sharon, but this is on a very small scale as demand is not huge. Birds and Guinea pigs are sourced from local breeders.

Creating a brand
Digby’s has a reputation as being a nutrition specialist, says Sharon. The couple attend as many nutritional courses as possible, talk to reps and spend a lot of time reading the ingredients listing on packaging.

A bugbear for Kevin are so-called prescription diets which do not contain medicines although many of their customers believe they do. When you analyse their ingredients, many super premium diets will do just as well, he says, and chances are for much cheaper, too.

“We have so much knowledge in nutrition, which we focus on,” says Sharon, “that’s why we do not sell reptiles as we do not know enough information about them. We believe you should stick to what you know.

“What frustrates me most is when we have dogs that come in here that have bad skin conditions or itchy skin, and the vet has put them on steroids without looking at their diet. But very often the situation is caused by, and can be fixed by, diet.”

Natural wet food flies off their shelves, she says, and frozen is picking up nicely. Yes, they stock a small amount of supermarket brands, but only because this gives them a chance to talk to these customers and suggest they try a more premium brand. It’s all about giving them the information, advice and choice. “If somebody comes in with a new pup, we can suss out what they are prepared to spend and advise accordingly,” she says.

Royal Canin tends to do very well, and other strong sellers include Canagan, James Wellbeloved, Burns and Arden Grange.

Top seller is, however, their huge own-label range, Harvey Troy’s. The brand is actually named after their 13-year-old son, and started off with the Silver and Gold range, by Gold Line. Over the years the range has grown to include own-brand recipes from Pero and GA Pet Food Partners, and there is now a super premium range, an a la carte selection and most recently, a grain-free offering. Digby’s also has a naturals range, but this is not branded as Harvey Troy’s to differentiate it from their super premium range.

“Harvey Troy’s is all about being a brand,” explains Sharon. “It is all about the nutrition.” The range is supported with strong branding in store and there are also leaflets explaining the products. Growing their own-label range was the only way to combat Internet sales. “You have to do this now to gain customer loyalty,” she says. “People do not realise that half these Internet companies will not be here next year, but we will.”

As with so many retailers, Digby’s suffers from customers buying their big-ticket items like fish tanks and rabbit hutches off the Internet, but coming to the store for advice. “Sometimes we feel we are a showroom,” she confesses. eBay vendors are particularly damaging to the trade with prices well below RRP, say the Wests. Selling sub-RRP cheapens the brand, which then loses brand value.  “People on eBay do not seem to take into account their charges. It makes us look expensive when we are not, when we are selling at retail price.”

Kevin added: “It also annoys me when people ask me to match a web price – they have their smart phones with them, and then walk out of the store when I say we can’t. Look around you, how do you think we pay for all this?”

Supermarket tactics
For quite a few years, Sharon used to work for Tesco across a whole range of departments including shelf stacking, bakery, frozen, tills and the meat counter. The experience has helped her run Digby’s more efficiently as she has seen what works in a retail environment. “They are very strict on merchandising,” she said.

As such, their pet shop has a clear structure and stock is neatly arranged on shelves. Sharon also keeps an eye on how people move in the shop, and has recently re-arranged shelving units to improve flow and so that customers can see more of the shop. It’s all about making the point that Digby’s sells everything – for all pets.

She also admits she likes moving things around and experimenting with new locations, to which full-time staff member Julie Hawkesford chirps out while pushing a trolley loaded with hay: “Oh yes.”

Being on an industrial estate, how do they increase their footfall? One tactic that has worked well has been the placing of an A-board pavement sign outside DIY retailer B&Q, located at the entrance to the estate.

“That is far better advertising than in newspapers,” said Sharon.

She also tries to do as much as possible on Facebook and Twitter, and has built up a firm following, many of whom look to see what antics ‘shop mascot’ Boxer pup Halo is up to now! “I’ve put pictures up on Facebook of her since she was eight weeks old. People are always asking how she is.”

One thing both Sharon and Kevin admit to is not using their EPoS system as fully as they perhaps should… Kevin, who used to be a painter and decorator but decided to hang up the brushes to enter the retail world, handles the paperwork once they get home. Although they use EPoS for the Harvey Troy’s and Crown Pet Food orders, their wholesaler orders are taken by Sharon who walks round the shop. “I actually find it quicker this way, with pen and paper, as I know by looking at the shelves what is missing and what we’re down on. We do need to get our head round it,” she admits, “but it’s finding the time to sit down and really sort it for once and for all.”

In the meantime, there’s still loads to do, and of course, there is the big question as to what will happen when they come to the end of their lease. “Well, one thing is certain,” states Sharon. “Digby’s will definitely still be around… whether here or at another location is the question.”