News Shop Talk Jp S Pet Supplies Looking At Hamsters Won T Pay The Bills



Shop talk: JP’s Pet Supplies – ‘Looking at hamsters won’t pay the bills…’
2nd June 2021

By Justine Thompson

This was just one of the lessons John Paul (JP) Stephenson had to learn the hard way as he built up his business over the past 18 years. Here he tells pbwnews how he struggled and ultimately succeeded in shaping his much-loved family pet shop into the success it is today

JP loves what he does and is looking to expand to another shop if he gets the chance

“I set up JP’s Pet Supplies in Sunderland way back in 2003. I’d been to university and had a couple of call centre jobs, before getting itchy feet and wanting to set up my own business. My inspiration came from my time as a student when I worked at a local garden centre. I spent five years there, and loved every minute of it. I especially loved working in the pet centre and, after a short while, I found myself ‘unofficially’ running the place when the manager went on maternity leave. I was only a teenager at the time but I thought even then it was something I could do for myself in future. I learned a lot that I took forward with me.

Before setting up shop, I completed a business course that came with some small grant funding. The old mantra of beg, steal or borrow was true. I used savings, grants, loans, credit cards and borrowing from my parents to get started. I set up a tiny shop in Fulwell, Sunderland, on September 27 and I remember it as if it was yesterday. Things were very tough at first and I soon found myself out of my depth. I figured that if I opened up shop, people would come automatically. This didn’t necessarily happen and, at one stage, things were so bad that I had to take on a part-time job in the evenings to earn a bit of money to survive. I could have given up; I probably should have given up! But, I didn’t.

I was so bloody-minded and stubborn that there was no way that I was going to fail. Even if it meant struggling on, hoping for better times. After three years of struggle, I gambled and moved to a bigger shop 200 yards up the road. This led to an improvement, but not dramatically. In fact I had many years of struggle still ahead of me.

Customers are prepared to pay for the best products, says JP

Over time, I grew smarter and started to realise what customers wanted. When I’d started out, I filled the shop with products that you would find in the supermarket. Brands like Pedigree and Bakers dominated the shelves. No wonder I couldn’t attract enough customers and, even when I did, the margins were so meagre that it made it very difficult to be financially viable. I realised that I needed to stand out; I couldn’t compete with supermarkets on price, so why bother? I had to find my niche and become a destination. If I could sell products that were top quality and that the supermarkets and discounters would not sell, then surely I would be onto a winner? So, out went most of the big brands and in came independent high-end foods and accessories. Now we have a shop filled with top brands such as Canagan, Eden, Millies Wolfheart, Nutriment, Benyfit, Ruffwear, Julius K9 and much more. People are not put off by the higher price tag, in fact the opposite is true as people are prepared to pay for quality. This makes sense to me as pets are very much seen as part of the family and people want the best for their fur babies.  


I had started out with live animals and fish in the shop, but reluctantly decided that it was no longer viable to sell livestock. Initially, the theory was that selling animals would attract many visitors, who would buy a new pet and then return on a regular basis to buy their supplies. A winning business model, surely? Not quite! It’s true that many people did come in to the shop to look at the hamsters or the fish and we sold a fair few over the years, but it didn’t necessarily translate into money in the till. Looking at hamsters won’t pay the bills, unfortunately.  

The store was a proud winner of this Best Pet Shop award in 2017

Once the decision was made to stop selling livestock we soon filled the space with more stock, offering more choice. Judging by what was selling, we cut back on supplies for birds, small animals and fish and massively increased our dog offering. This was a game changer – by selling more diverse and natural dog products than anybody else around, we quickly noticed an increase in customer numbers and, crucially, in spend per head too.

Raw feeding has also grown massively in popularity in recent years. Although we sold a small amount way back in 2003, it was virtually unheard of to the masses. Now, we have five large commercial freezers in the shop and three out the back too. We sell 2,000kg of raw food every single week.  

The store sells a wide range of stock chosen from JP’s years of experience in the trad

In 2018 we found out that the neighbouring business was moving out, so we quickly secured the lease and set about expanding. The building needed a total overhaul, but we managed to get a great team of builders in who worked wonders. The end results were fantastic, more space to allow us to offer more products and display them in a more user-friendly way. Business took a dramatic upturn and has now never been better.

The business is all pretty much family-run. My older sister has worked with me since the start. My younger brother has been on board for the last 10 years or so. I have two children who have been born since I started, Lucy 12 and Harry, seven, and they both help out on occasion. We’ve had work experience students, apprenticeships and other part-time staff along the way. At the moment we are looking to add a couple more team members to help with the busy workload and we’ve applied for the government's kick-start scheme.


One of the best things we ever did was to purchase an electronic point of sale (EPOS) till. The benefits were many – from time-saving ordering to stock control and sales figures at the touch of a button, the till does everything, bar making tea and sweeping up! We can, much more easily, track sales trends and quickly identify whether a product is hot or not. Another feature we implemented was a loyalty card scheme. This allows us to reward our customers and identify who spends what. We also participate in many manufacturers’ loyalty schemes, such as Burns, Burgess, MeatLove and Iams.

We run customer events too. We have had late night Christmas shopping events, guest speakers, sample days etc. Having such events guarantees that we are packed out and, once life begins to return to normal after covid, we will definitely do more of them. 

The last year has been an interesting and unprecedented one with the challenges caused by covid.  When the country first began to enter lockdown, there were issues with people panic buying and difficulties in getting supplies through. This made life very difficult at first, but then it soon settled down. Most of our suppliers coped fairly well with the increased demand and, because we buy from several wholesalers and suppliers, we managed to get stock. Business did take an initial upturn as people couldn’t get what they wanted from supermarkets and other big chain stores. So, we had lots of new customers through the door and I’m pleased to say that many of them liked what we offer and have remained with us. Challenges like social distancing, hand sanitising and other safety measures were quickly adapted to.

I made the decision to set up a selling website at the start of the lockdown – this took many, many hours, but the results were very satisfying. The site features more than 2,000 of our best-selling products and so far the results have been very good.

It’s important not to be complacent though, as many challenges lie ahead. This year there have been difficulties getting stock in from overseas, post Brexit. Increased competition is also a factor – not just from online stores and big chain discounters, but there has been a rise in what I call ‘bedroom sellers’, ie people buying dog treats from wholesalers and manufacturers and then selling them on social media at very low prices. Of course, they don’t have the same overheads to deal with.


Plans for the future include a second shop. I would love to recreate what we have done here in another part of the city. Customers travel from far and wide to visit us and I feel there would be demand for a second site. Over three million new pets were taken on during lockdown, so there is no shortage of potential customers and I love what I do so it wouldn’t be a hardship. Waking up on a morning to go into work is a real pleasure and privilege and I wouldn’t wish to do anything else. Without doubt the future is bright – here’s to another18 years!