Shop Talk Marks Tey Discount Pet Foods

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Shop Talk: Marks Tey Discount Pet Foods
19th June 2017

By Sandra Pearce

Marks Tey Discount Pet Foods celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, but so far it’s been a bit of a quiet affair – everyone has been too busy dealing with customers and the day-to-day running of the business…



Thirty years ago, brothers Brian and Mike Cooke decided to try something totally different – they bought a general store/farm shop just outside Colchester as a going concern but decided to turn it into a pet food supermarket and called it Marks Tey Discount Pet Foods. The brothers’ one simple premise was to sell pet food in bulk at a discount, a concept unheard of at the time.

Shop manager Keith Atkins, who is Brian’s son-in-law, said: “They had a retail background and had run a small newsstand and then a food supermarket. They sold these and wanted to try something different and found this. So they came in and sold off everything that was not to do with pet foods.”


Being a discounter means selling in bulk

It was hard enough convincing manufacturers and wholesalers of the rationale of the concept, let alone the fact that this was a brand new company. Keith said: “Manufacturers did not want to discount; it was Seller’s Recommended Price, and that was it. If you tried discounting, they would close ranks and not supply.”

Customers also had to be convinced of the concept. Initially the brothers tried selling a recommended 10 bags of dog food, but this quantity was too much for the average pet owner, and through trial and error they discovered that five bags was the golden number.

“Five big bags of dog food can work with even one dog as bags have an 18-month shelf-life,” he said. “So they slowly built up customers, but it took about four to five years before the concept took hold and business started to pick up.”


Big bags sell incredibly well

Another turning point was the expansion of the car park to three times the original size. Keith said: “The impact was massive; people suddenly recognised that we were not a small pet shop and saw us as one of the big boys. It led to a massive increase in turnover.”

Keith joined the family business 23 years ago – he was a foreman in a garage, and Brian had asked if he would consider joining the business. So he did, and recalls the first week as being a shock as it was so different from his mechanics background. When Brian took a step back to care for his wife, Keith became more involved. “It still took some time before manufacturers thought the concept would work, that discounting and making offers are not bad for the pet trade,” he said. Margins are very tight, he said, and discounting works because of the volumes sold. “Now of course there are lots of discounters and the internet has taken off dramatically.”

Naturally this all means buying in bulk too, and at one point they had eight containers in the car park filled with stock. They still have those containers, but also a large warehouse on site and another warehouse with space for 120 pallets up the road. The offices were also moved outside into another container to make space for stock.


Dan has come on board and is helping dad Keith with the digital age!

Eventually Brian passed his half of the business to his daughters Jackie and Linda, who are both involved with the overseeing of the accounts and everyday price changing. Brian’s brother Mike has now stepped back slightly from the everyday running of the business, but still likes to see how things are doing.

The family business employs seven full-timers and five part-timers, and most have been round for years. “Richard our manager came straight from school and has been with us now for 15 years,” said Keith, whose son, Dan, has come on board and is ‘in charge of modernising us’. So Dan looks after the EPoS system, website, e-commerce and social media. Plus 101 other things. But that’s part and parcel of a retailer’s lot. “I still order everything manually,” admits Keith. “I have to join the 21st century, but Dan is helping me!”


Customers also look for healthcare products

Apart from the digital side of things, Dan was curious as to how customers shopped in-store and so stood with a map and tracked the routes taken. Discovering that customers tended to make a beeline for certain products, by-passing a large section of the shop, they installed a half-wall at the entrance, encouraging customers to turn right and walk a route pretty much through the entire store and passing a focal point of new products and toys.

“Sales have shot right up,” said Dan. “Especially of our toys and accessories, which have rocketed. All impulse purchases. It just worked.”

Think big
Ninety percent of all sales are pet food, and the shop lists 3,000 lines in-store and 800 lines online. For example, they sell 300 20kg bags of wild-bird food, peanuts and sunflower hearts every week. Yes, 300. “It’s a huge market,” said Keith.


Wild-bird food is a strong seller

They also sell six tonnes of poultry food every week, and apart from the usual pet range, they have customers who keep llama, wallabies, kangaroos, pigs, rhea and ostriches.

“We can order almost anything in,” he said. “We have an extensive range of food which people know about, from budget to premium ranges, but not the ultra-expensive super-premium ranges.”


Royal Canin and James Wellbeloved have a strong presence in-store

These include Royal Canin, James Wellbeloved and Purina ProPlan. They also carry traditional supermarket brands including Whiskas.
“We will always try to beat the supermarket prices,” he said. “If customers ask for a recommendation, we will advise them, but we do not try to convert people to different brands for the simple reason that if a cat or dog is doing well and there are no health problems over the years, why try and change that? If they want to upgrade, we will give them the choice and talk about different options and ingredients. It’s up to the customer.”

As with so many retailers, they have been getting more requests for grain-free foods, so launched their own grain-free brand, Cooke’s. “This is the original surname of the brothers, so it gets a bit of history going, a tie with the past,” said Keith. “We have been asked for grain-free, but it’s not necessary for every dog. If a customer comes in and says their dog has diarrhea or a skin condition, we will suggest it might be the food and advise on different products.”

Frozen raw food has taken off – they now have four freezers in-store offering up to 30 lines, and a huge walk-in freezer for excess stock. “Frozen is doing very, very well,” he said.


Frozen is flying

About five years ago, the family decided to set up an e-commerce site. “We might have jumped five years too late,” says Keith. The site has this year started to make a profit and represents about 8% of their total turnover. Prices are the same both online and in-store, and in some cases they are able to match and even beat online retail giant ZooPlus.

He added: “Things have changed dramatically and one can sell anything at any price now, which is fine as it’s competition, but it’s the big consortiums who sell at a loss – and are happy to do this. They want to squeeze out the independents, then have the monopoly and can then raise prices.”

Online sales are a challenge – you can lose a sale over 20p, he said, as the online shopper is hunting for the lowest price and comparing prices all the time. He however does think e-commerce will continue to grow, and will force some smaller pet retailers out of business. But hopefully service will win the day for most.  “There is no logic at all with online sales, but if you get the delivery right, they will come back to you. Online is about price, and the store is about service, professionalism and price,” he said.


New toys and accessories shelf is now a prime location for impulse buys

“We are a family business, we provide a good service and have very knowledgeable staff, and that’s the success we have over the Internet companies. Our customers who walk through the door are loyal. They do not check our prices much these days because they know we give them the best price.”

The family business has a huge customer base, with customers coming in literally from across the country and hundreds walking through the door every day. One regular moved to Scotland, but each time he visits relatives in the area, he stops and buys 10 big bags of dog food. “The savings have paid for his petrol,” said Keith.

They’ve considered opening a second store, and ignoring the issue of location and car park space, there is another negative point.


Warehouse on-site is always full

“You then lose the family touch because you are split between the two,” he said. Their strategy is ‘service, service, service’.

“We’ve got to continue to do what we have always done, which is offer the best possible service at the best possible price.”