News Shop Talk Fur Feathers



Shop Talk: Fur & Feathers
19th January 2015

By Sandra Pearce

Lyn Neal and her daughter Wendy Connor between them own three pet and aquatic stores in Hastings, each within a stone’s throw of the other, each doing well. How is this possible? Sandra Pearce visits to find out

All too often we hear of pet shops closing down because of competition, whether from online retailers, supermarkets or another pet shop opening up. Competition has a bad name.

However, in the historic seaside town of Hastings, Lyn Neal owns two pet shops across the road from each other. The first, Fur & Feathers, is the oldest established pet shop in the town, and saw light of day 27 years ago in the town’s crowded, bustling market. Her second, Pet Express, is slap bang on the busy high street and opened four years ago, while daughter Wendy owns Hastings Reptile and Aquatic Centre just around the corner.

“It has been hard work, but I have enjoyed every minute of it,” says Lyn, who has not ruled out the
possibility of opening a fourth. The three shops have evolved naturally, each providing the building blocks for the next. Each store is also operating successfully: “They pay the bills,” she says. But if you want to be rich, well, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket!

Fur & Feathers started as a tiny unit in the market as ‘a real family concern’, says Lyn, with her mum, dad and herself behind the tills. Wendy, who was just six at the time, was a frequent visitor, who enjoyed trying to help when she could.

Over the years as the business grew, Fur & Feathers first moved to a bigger unit within the market before expanding into neighbouring units. In the meantime, Wendy’s fascination with fish and reptiles grew, and by the time she was 21, the family took on yet another neighbouring unit so she could start her own reptile and aquatics business. “It was a real small unit,” recalls Lyn. “She had the interest in reptiles and fish, and I liked my small furries.”

There Wendy stayed until about five or six years ago, when she expanded and moved to a much bigger location to open Hastings Reptile and Aquatic Centre.

Then about four years ago, Lyn opened her second shop, PetExpress, a two-minute walk away across the road. This unit is approximately twice the size of her market unit. It had been vacant for some time, and was a bare shell – it did not even have electricity. However, it was in a prime position, smack bang on the high street, rubbing shoulders with the usual assortment of high street shops including department stores, coffee shop chains, charity shops and other independents.

“I’d always wanted a shop on the high street,” she says, “and I thought to myself, if I don’t do this now, I never will. I always wanted a better-looking shop, and I could not do a lot more with my market store. And besides, as I am only renting the market unit, if they came and said ‘You have a week to go’, what would I do? I needed more security.”

Crucially, each pet shop has its own speciality, so although there are some overlaps product wise, each has a distinct identity. Which is also why the two pet shops have different names.

Distinct identities
In terms of livestock, Fur & Feathers used to sell small animals, birds, fish and reptiles – the latter before Wendy set up on her own. However, the strategy when PetExpress opened was for Fur & Feathers to focus on captive birds only, and for PetExpress to sell the small animals.

But even with this tactic in mind, Lyn was still surprised to see just how different her customer profile would be at the two shops.

The market store tends to see more elderly customers, many of whom keep captive birds and are keen feeders of wild birds. Perhaps these customers are more familiar with the market environment and prefer its familiarity to the crowded, fast-paced high street? Lyn also notes she sells very little cat food from the market store, which is maybe not that surprising considering the strong bird influence there.

On the high street, customers come in every age group, and there are certainly more cat customers. Cat food sells well in PetExpress, and popular brands include Lily’s Kitchen, Almo Nature, Royal Canin, James Wellbeloved, Simpsons Premium, Hill’s and her own-label. “It’s a nice mix of brands,” she says.

Its focus on small animals attracts families, and holidays are always busy with children coming in to see what’s on offer.

However, unlike at the market in which captive and wild bird food and bulk bags stand out as strong sellers, on the high street, the shop tends to sell ‘a lot of everything’. “Nothing in particular stands out as a top seller,” she said.

In both, frozen sells well. Lyn began selling frozen food back when it was all about green tripe, and introduced the Natures Menu range into the high street unit about two years ago. “Frozen is doing very well,” she said. “Sales in PetExpress have now overtaken our sales in the market. It’s very popular.”

It was important to give each shop its own identity and range, she says. “You cannot do the same thing in both shops, and there is no point having a little bit of everything in each store. So I try and do different things in each.”

Such segregation means each store is truly specialist. “If someone came in here and asked about fish, well, we do not have the same knowledge like Wendy and her team, so we would send them there,” she says. “If you work with animals day in and day out, you end up learning a lot about them.”

Lyn has had animals all her life – largely horses and dogs – but has recently taken on two rescue cats. “They’re lovely; it’s my first time having cats, but they’re brilliant; so independent.”

No advertising needed
Having been around for so long, and with a shop that fronts the very busy high street (if you want to get anywhere in Hastings, you have to drive down this road), Lyn has no need to advertise. “The high street store is all the advertising I need,” she says. “Besides, I’ve been here for so long, people know us.”

She offers a claw clipping service for small animals only as there is a dog groomer next to her market store. Lyn also offers a weekly delivery service, within a radius of about 10 miles.

Training is important to Lyn and her staff – she employs six staff while Wendy has five (“They are absolutely brilliant and a great team,” she says) – and will take on anything that offers an exam or certificate at the end. As a result, she has done a number of nutritional courses with companies including Natures Menu, Royal Canin and James Wellbeloved, as well as Beaphar worming courses. “It’s important to stay on top of what’s new,” she says.

She did start a course to become a Suitably Qualified Person (SQP), but with the latest-generation flea and worming products that can be sold over the counter, she stopped.  “It was a no brainer. I thought, I can spend my time doing so many other things. And of course, with SQPs you need on-going training to keep the qualification.”

On the whole, she feels that the pet trade has a bright future. Yes, supermarkets have had an impact and are responsible for killing the high streets in many towns across the country, and obviously Pets at Home is a challenge. But she does believe that there is a place for everyone. 

“Many people still use the independent, and want to use the independent,” she said. “Supermarkets are our main competitor. But you cannot sell at their price, so sell something else.”

Lyn makes sure both her shops offer products that you will not find in supermarkets or Pets at Home. “When talking to wholesalers about a new product, I always ask if it is just for independents or will it be sold into Pets at Home. If it’s just for the independent, I support it.” It comes as no surprise then to learn that she is taking on the Symply and Canagan food ranges for the new year, two brands that are strictly for the independent only. 

She adds: “I also try to do something completely different, so have my own brand.”

She does stock a very small selection of supermarket brands, simply because ‘people come in and ask for it’. And if her customers are willing to pay the prices she charges, then she will continue to stock them. She does, however, concede she has delisted some products.

“Customers are now asking more for natural products and grain free. That Channel Five documentary [The Truth about Your Dog Food] did an awful lot of good for the trade. So I am always looking for better quality ingredients, and a lot of independents are doing the same, looking for better nutrition for animals.

“People are still interested in their animals and are still keeping them, so I think the pet trade has a great future! One can complain about supermarkets and Pets at Home, but there is room for us all. We all offer something different.”