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Shop talk: HugglePets – Putting smiles on faces
9th October 2019

By Sandra Pearce

Wolverhampton-based HugglePets has made history by being the first pet retailer to set up a community interest company to build an aquarium and classroom to help children and adults with special needs and disabilities. Sandra Pearce visits to learn more about the first such community project for the city


Mike (left) and dad Ian at their eBay pop-up shop

It all started rather simply with organising a few visits to local care homes, bringing some animals, and hosting open days instore, said HugglePets co-owner Mike Dixon. “The animals perked the residents up,” he said. “When we started, we got thank-you letters from families and we wondered if we could do something on a bigger scale, and then someone from the council also said we could do so much more.”

Mike and his dad Ian put their heads together and a plan emerged – what if they could open a public aquarium and host sensory classes for children and adults with special needs such as those who are deaf or blind, or have mental conditions or other issues and disabilities including autism and depression?  The city of Wolverhampton does not officially have any youth centres as they are all privately owned and run, he said. “Also, a lot of our customers have children with special needs, such as autism. I know the city back to front – it’s not an affluent city; it needs help, and we knew this will be a project that we can do some good.


An artist’s impression of what the aquarium and classrooms could look like

“To cut a long story short, we started to develop the idea more and more and then last year, we set up a community interest company. The aim is to use animal therapy to improve mental health and well-being. It’s about bringing together the pet world and our family business, and bringing it all together to do something positive for the community.”

The Dixons had relocated their pet shop HugglePets to an industrial estate about two years ago – and as the shop only occupied half the space, there was more than enough room for their vision of an aquarium and classrooms. Getting approval for the project was one thing, but they also needed to raise just under £100,000 to fund the construction and fitting out of the premises and so they launched a crowdfunding bid on SpaceHive. Mike and Ian began garnering support from other businesses and sourcing grants – Ian even ran a couple of marathons to raise funds.


Shop only occupies about half the premises

The idea quickly gained supporters. As one wrote on the crowdfunding site: “As a mom to an autistic child I think what you are trying to achieve is amazing and needed for all with additional needs. Good luck x.”
Just less than a year later the target was met and in July, the Dixons announced that the project would go ahead, with an expected completion date of October.

HugglePets is already running its Tea with a Twist programme in which residents from care homes and other facilities can visit the shop for a free cup of tea and an animal encounter. It also has its own grooming salon, Huggles Pamper Lounge, which in January became part of the community interest company and all its profits are re-invested into the project to help keep it sustainable. For example, all livestock in the aquarium will be for sale. “It’s all been done with pragmatic approach to be self-sustaining,” said Mike.


Small animals are housed towards the front of the store

AN OASIS
HugglePets in Community will offer a free-entry aquarium with 100 tanks and a couple of Koi vats, up to two sensory play classrooms and a community space. Functioning as a quiet zone, the aquarium ‘will be a centre of tranquillity’, with low lighting and colours that can calm anxiety and benefit those who suffer from autism. There will be several methods of communication, for example, sign-language videos, to communicate information on the different animals and their environments to as many people as possible.

Workshops and daily classes will include talks about animal welfare, the environment and caring for the planet, along with ‘getting up close with our animals, feeding them, handling them and loving them’. Mike said: “I believe through animal-related therapy and educational animal workshops we can help tackle some of the significant issues in society today, including loneliness and improving mental health issues.


Wide range of aquatic accessories and ornaments

“But it’s not just helping with mental health; we will be creating a generation of children who will look after nature and animals because some of the classes will be about looking after animals and wildlife.”
All classes will be specifically tailored to the needs of the group. For example, with blind participants, there will be an aquascaping table and hands-on exhibits so they can use their senses of touch and smell to create a riverbed or seabed.

HugglePets has 17 staff (they will need to hire three or four more when the aquarium is ready), and the majority are completing a mental health awareness course. “They are so keen to support the project,” said Mike, “they want to be part of it and are doing this in their spare time.”


HugglePets also has reptiles for sale

FAMILY VALUES
Mike and his dad started HugglePets seven years ago. Ian has a background in the banking and property sector and Mike was a fully trained ventilation and gas engineer. “I wanted to do something different,” said Mike – and so started wholesaling rabbit hutches and other pet cages. They created their own brand HugglePets and still run a busy wholesale business. The HugglePets range is, however, expanding and now, apart from crates, includes cat scratchers, leads, collars, harnesses and other carriers. However, they wanted to be ‘part of the pet trade proper’. Mike explained: “We were in the pet trade, but essentially we were moving pallets and boxes around.”

So they took the plunge and opened a pet shop in a small unit in Wolverhampton. Within 18 months they had to move to a bigger unit, and then four years later moved again before relocating to their present 8,000sq ft unit in April 2017.


Staff can give advice on healthcare issues

The business, he says, has grown pretty much every month. They knew they had to provide a point of difference as there is much competition in Wolverhampton in the shape of a Jollyes, large Pets at Home, Just for Pets, a couple of independents, and high-street chains B+M and Home Bargains. When the latter opened, it was Home Bargains’ largest European store.

He attributes their success to a mix of traditional family values; hard work; having a head for business; a love for animals; building strong relationships with suppliers and being ‘careful about what we do and how we do it’. Above all, “We rely on helping our customers and building a bond with our customers, dealing with them how we would want to be dealt with.”


Nice selection of shampoos and grooming products

All staff are animal-welfare trained and many come from the two local colleges, having completed animal care courses. There is never a shortage of applicants – one advertisement saw 250 applicants, and when they recently advertised for maternity cover of 10 months, 170 people applied. The job eventually went to someone who was then working for another large pet retailer but was a customer at HugglePets. “She wants to go to university for an animal behaviour course and is now working for us until she goes,” he said.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
It’s tough competing on pet food sales, he said, especially as the big pet chains carry large ranges on their shelf – but HugglePets has found that raw food and natural treats sell particularly well.



At HugglePets there is a lot of seasonality in sales, from cooling products in summer to beds and wild bird food in winter. It offers a number of services, including boarding for small animals, reptiles and birds, and free delivery on purchases above £30. It has a close network with local vets and supports selected animal charities and rescues.

It also offers fish, small animals, budgies and reptiles – its aquatics section has 86 tanks, stocking coldwater and tropical fish. Livestock comes from two or three reputable suppliers to ensure quality. “We could buy from Joe Public, but then there’s no guarantee on quality or protection, and we do not want to push on problems onto our customers,” he said.


Aquatics section in shop will remain even when aquarium is open

Staff have had to refuse sales. For example, they will ask about set-up and husbandry and will ask for a picture if they are not sure that the potential owner has the right set-up. “We have turned people away, which can be awkward, but we then have a clear conscience that the animal is going to the right place,” he said.

THE EBAY FACTOR
In September 2018, eBay launched a one-year Retail Revival scheme in Wolverhampton to help small retailers gain an online presence, including a website and social media channels, to help boost sales.
Mike said: “eBay had done this project on a city in the US down on its luck. It was a success and then eBay brought it to the UK. We were the first city in Europe.”


Dog food is placed towards the back of shop

The 64 retailers on the scheme – including HugglePets – were given one-on-one support to create personalised eBay shops, comprehensive training to cover selling basics, promotional support and Search Engine Optimisation advice. There were also other events including pop-up shops in the town centre to raise awareness of the local businesses and eBay’s role. “We brought some of our products and some of our animals for the public to meet. It was good,” said Mike.

“We were already online, but this partnership has taught us how to do it more efficiently. We have a great product, but it was making sure the public can find us as a business. We certainly saw a boost around Black Friday and Christmas; we’d never really got involved with those big sale days, but we now have more insight into seasonality and are more aware of what it’s about.”


Bulk bags sell well

HugglePets has a strict policy of keeping one price across its ecommerce sites and instore. “We have to be sensible,” he said. “There will be those who want to buy on price, but that’s not our customer. We sell on customer service, the fact we are a family business and our community projects. We want to build loyalty and we hope that when people buy from us online, they have a good experience and remember us for that.

“There are people who will sell an item for £50 when it should be selling for £70, but they make pennies on the sale and those people will not be around in the long term.


Toys and beds occupy one whole aisle

“I have noticed that some big brands are getting more protective – if something is sold below RRP, that particular range or product is being devalued.”

The Dixons certainly have their plates full, what with HugglePets in the Community, their online and eBay sites, a shop and their wholesale business. “When we started, we wanted a family business that we could be proud of, one that would give something back to the community,” said Mike. “The hard work that we have done in 2019, we know that 2020 will not be easy, but it will be enjoyable as we get the project going. And we are looking forward to getting feedback from people as they start using the facility and visiting the aquarium.


Frozen is a strong seller for the Dixons

“We sent an initial email to 70 local primary schools, saying this is the facility, would you be interested in visiting or using it? Within a week, 40 were saying ‘When can we come?’. We know we will be over-subscribed from the minute we open. It’s about putting smiles on faces for children.”


Customers can help themselves to bird food from brightly-coloured bins

THUMBS UP
HugglePets has been inspected under the new Animal Activities Licensing Regulations and was graded as ‘Excellent’ and given a two-year licence. However, said Mike, they did not get the top five-star rating because its local council said the shop had to be in the premises for three years before it could be awarded five stars.

Reflecting on the success of the last few years, Mike said: “It has been a huge journey for us as a team and a family, and I think when you are running so fast you very rarely get the time to take a step back and look at how far you have actually come. We’ve had our ups and downs and definitely faced our challenges. I am proud of this team and where HugglePets is as a business, and I am looking forward to how we can grow the retail side, but also leave a lasting legacy with our community project.”