News Shop Talk Fin Fur



Shop Talk: Fin & Fur
20th April 2015

By Sandra Pearce

Fin & Fur stocks only specialist pet foods and has just celebrated its 25th birthday. Sandra Pearce visits to learn the secret of its success

Family-run Fin & Fur is located in the bustling Thorley Neighbourhood Centre in Bishop’s Stortford; its neighbours are many and varied, including a newsagent, charity shop, hair and beauty salon, fish & chip shop, and pharmacy. Just opposite is a Sainsbury’s store, but the supermarket’s presence has contributed to Fin & Fur’s success, says owner Karen Cooper, as it brings footfall to the thriving centre – the two have co-existed for 25 years.

Right from the beginning, Karen decided she wanted a ‘better pet store’, offering something different to her customers. Needless to say, there is not a single grocery brand in her store. “What’s the point?” she asks, nodding towards Sainsbury’s. “We cannot compete on price. And if you know your products, you can explain the difference in quality.”

The majority of her customers want to do the best they can for their animals. They once had a man walk in asking for a budget supermarket brand, and when he learned they did not stock it, walked right out again. But that’s ok, she said, as he is not their target customer. “I cannot sell something that I am not passionate about.”

Barking Heads is her top seller (she sells a pallet a week), and among the other brands stocked are an own-label range, Arden Grange, AATU, Forthglade, Healthy Paws, Lily’s Kitchen, Naturediet, Natures Menu and Royal Canin. The marketplace is absolutely flooded with brands – many of them copies of market leaders – so you’ve got to choose a few and stick with them, she says, adding that she tries to steer clear of ‘The Big Four’. Raw has taken off, she says, and Fin & Fur now has two freezers and receives two deliveries every week.

With its third generation firmly installed (son Dan Fuller has taken over the ‘tech’ side of the business), Fin & Fur can actually trace its roots back to June 1972, when it was set up by Karen’s parents, selling pet and aquatics alongside fishing and tackle equipment. Karen took over in 1986 and later moved the pet and aquatics side to this 1,000sq ft unit in Thorley Park, which offered free parking (car park charges were being implemented on the street at the original store’s location). Her mum, now in her seventies, still pops by regularly for a cuppa, and helps out every Saturday.

Winning the game
Fin & Fur has undergone a number of transformations over the years – Karen, Dan and their team of three are always moving things around to see what works best. Split over two floors (aquatics and bedding is upstairs), the downstairs stamps its mark as the bulk of products are displayed from hooks on slat walls, leaving the centre of the shop nice and open. It’s like being in Aladdin’s cave, surrounded by products that stretch to the ceiling.

Their latest change has been to move dog collars and leads to a far wall; these were previously behind the counter, by the staircase. In its new location, there is ample space for owners to try the collars on their pets. “We are always seeing what works and what doesn’t,” she said – and that includes ‘tweaking’ her store logo several times over the years to give it a fresher look.

Originally Fin & Fur did rely on the traditional Tegometall shelving units, but this did not work downstairs and the shop felt cramped. So out they went, and up went stock, scaling the walls. “Most of the stock higher up are spares,” said Karen. Space is definitely an issue (Karen’s garage at home functions as a mini warehouse), so they’ve had to be creative in finding solutions.

Bigger premises at the centre would be ideal, she says, and they have thought about opening a second store elsewhere, but staffing is an issue. “If I could clone myself and Dan, fine! Otherwise it would be a lot of headache for not much more.”

Their success, she says, is about changing with the times and responding to what people want. For instance, when she first started out, dog food was pretty much in its infancy and it was all about small animals and birds, which Fin & Fur sold, its small animals all sourced from local breeders. Then for a while, aquatics ruled the roost. Today, the shop only sells tropical and coldwater fish, and dog food is king.

Karen thinks the recession hit livestock sales of small animals, and not only were people not buying them any more, some of her local breeders decided to call it a day. Many owners also decided to opt for a cat or a dog instead. It’s all about lifestyle changes, she suspects.

“We stopped selling small animals about two years ago, it just did not make sense to keep stocking them as people were not asking for them any more,” she said. “We moved with the times. Kids used to have a hamster for Christmas, and we used to have 20 cages going out. But now it’s computer games.”

Likewise with fish tanks, she thinks garden centres and online sites have captured the big tank sales, but she says she still gets interest in smaller set-ups such as the biOrbs.

Pole position
Ultimately, you could stock the best product range, but what keeps people coming back is the service they receive. Karen and her team are on a first-name basis with 90% of her customers, a number of whom have been frequenting the store from its very beginning.

“We treat every dog as unique,” she says. “I have helped a lot of dogs with diet and skin conditions; it’s about selling them what they need. We are always getting asked about bad poo, itchy paws or some other condition, and usually it’s a nutritional issue.”

Karen sometimes goes on dog walks with their customers, bringing along her Miniature Schnauzer Skye: “It’s a bit of a club here, it’s very friendly.”

Each year, Karen and Dan plan their year’s marketing activities, which include charity events and late night shopping for special events such as Christmas, for which they put on mince pies and bubbly.

When Pets at Home opened in Bishop’s Stortford two years ago, business slowed for a while due to the novelty factor. Business soon picked up again as customers began to realise that Pets at Home is not cheaper and does not necessarily have a wider range of products – there’s just more of it on display.

Though Fin & Fur has invested in various advertising methods, what works best is word of mouth and recommendations, and it has good links with several local breeders, dog walkers, trainers and the local vet. With one trainer, Fin & Fur provides goody bags with a food sample for new puppy classes. “They recommend us and we recommend them.”

The shop also has a very active social media presence. It has a monthly Facebook photo competition for customers, has a Twitter feed and also offers giveaways. This online presence is thanks to Dan, who is also in charge of their EPoS system, installed by Premier EPOS. “It’s good that Dan came in and took over the technology side,” said Karen, “otherwise we would have been left behind.”

Their EPOS system has ‘changed the way we run this business’, she said.

“It’s opened a whole new world,” explained Dan. “We work a lot smarter now. We know at a glance what stock we hold, what is selling well and what isn’t.” Dan has also introduced a loyalty scheme (already 4,000 are registered), and runs their website.

Yes, Fin & Fur also sells online, which is a useful service for regulars who might be too busy to pop by. It offers free local delivery or a click-and-collect option, and has the option for customers to check stock availability online before coming into store. If a product is out of stock, the system can send an email notification when it is back instore.

Though the online business has grown with customers stretching across the UK, from Scotland to Cornwall, Karen refuses to be drawn into the heavy discounting that some might expect. “We don’t worry about that,” she said. “If you have a quality product, why would you want to discount it?” Online sales, she says, are definitely growing and they are focussing more on this.

They are also big fans of Vital Pet Products’ It’s a Pet Thing, the online pet-shop directory. “That has worked for us; it’s a good alternative as we cannot stock everything, but can offer so much more to our customers.”

You cannot stand still, repeats Karen. You’ve got to constantly be on your toes, seeing what works and responding to the changing times. Their aim, she says, is to always offer ‘something different’.

“We are always trying to win,” adds Dan.