Shop Talk Martins Pet Supplies

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Shop Talk: Martins Pet Supplies
17th September 2018

By Sandra Pearce



Brian (left) and Martin both breed birds

Martins Pet Supplies is a firm favourite among children as they pop in on their way home from school to look at the animals and say hello to shop cat Benji. The store has  been trading for more than 50 years, Brian and Chris Martin look back at how things have changed and explain why they love doing what they do

When it comes to birds, Brian and Chris Martin have probably heard it all – and been asked it all. The father and son team have been firm fixtures in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, for decades as Martins Pet Supplies is now in its 56th year. Brian remembers the case of a parakeet owner who wondered why her parakeets were not breeding: “I said change the nest box, and she did…and they did.”


Weigh up bird seed

It’s a lifetime of experience that has given them this vast knowledge which their customers can tap into – and tap in to they do, both in the shop and on the shop’s Facebook page. Brian says it was his love for birds that spurred him into opening a pet shop in Chapel End, where it quickly gained a reputation for the quality of the birds he both imported and exported all over the world. He even organised coach trips to a large national bird show when it was held at Alexandra Palace in London in the Seventies.


Shop parrot Lola is two years old

Chris, who joined the family business more than 30 years ago, said they try and help wherever they can. He has vivid memories as a child going with his dad to places like Twycross Zoo and Drayton Manor after hours to make deliveries of parrots, and walking around when there were no customers. They are bird people through and through, he says. “I go to all the bird shows, not to dog shows.”


For those in a rush, Martins bags up bird food as well

Brian, who is now mostly retired (he still likes to comes into the shop), kept the shop in Chapel End for 20 years before buying the present location in Nuneaton. It’s located at the tail end of the town’s popular street market and a large shopping complex. However, Nuneaton has its own problems and the bigger retailers are feeling the pinch – a large Co-op opposite has stood empty for two years after trading in the location for more than 130 years. A large Marks & Spencer closed earlier, and there is talk that the town’s Debenhams could also face closure.


Cages sell well - no surprise really, considering the livestock sales

The council’s decision to raise parking charges has not helped, said Chris. “Car park charges are sky high. People used to spend the day in town, have a meal, browse, now  it’s two hours and they’re gone. Our local councilor asked for free parking on Saturday, well, that fell on deaf years. People prefer to drive 20 minutes away to Fosse Park, which has a large out-of-town retail park and free parking. And Coventry and Rugby are also close by.”


Specialist bird supplements on sale

They used to have three shops in total in Nuneaton, Coventy and Rugby, but a doubling of rents and rising costs led to the closure of the shops in the latter two – an opportunistic move by the council that fell flat as the unit in Coventry remained vacant for two years until the rent was lowered and a charity shop moved in.


Shop is not big

Long relationships
The Martins have a large base of loyal customers – many are now third generation. “I get people come in when they were kids with their parents, and now they have their own kids. I watched them grow up.
“Then we’ve had some who have moved away for 20 years or so, come back, and they are so surprised to see we’re still here,” said Chris.


Cat ticks along nicely, they say

For many of their customers, popping into Martins to fill up a bag of wild bird seed or some other regular item is part and parcel of their weekly routine. “People come in at the same time every week,” said Chris. “We have one bloke on Saturday who comes in for his mixed nuts, and we know what time it is when he comes in; it’s always 2pm.”


Axolotls were bred instore

Then there’s the ‘kid tide’ as he refers to it, which is when school ends for the day and the schoolchildren on their way home stop in to see their zoo, for Martins sells a large variety of animals, from rabbits and hamsters to canaries and bearded dragons, tarantulas to axolotls, English budgierars to ferrets and coldwater fish. “You never know what you’re going to see here, it’s always changing,” he said. The children also like seeing Benji the shop cat, who is three parts’ Bengal.


Small animal section covers every need

Hamsters are bought from Essex Breeding Centre as they know ‘there are not going to be any problems with them’. “Their hamsters can be handled and they don’t bite,” he explained. But for most of the other livestock on offer comes from local breeders or their own efforts. For example, they bred from spawn 27 axolotls, and the last batch of stick insects laid eggs which staff member Emma Biddle watched over carefully from hatching until they were big enough to offer for sale. Emma looks after the animals in store and has her own zoo at home with four dogs, a wide assortment of reptiles and mice and rats, some of which she breeds for the shop as well. Chris and Martin also breed birds – they are waiting for a clutch of parakeet eggs to hatch, and they also breed cockatiels which Emma then hand rears. Then there is a long list of local breeders for everything else.


Complete set-ups make it easy for new owners

“Our livestock sales are doing very well,” says Chris, and adds that sales are, if anything, going up somewhat. Being the only retailer for miles selling birds means people will also travel miles to buy from them. Not surprisingly, items like bird cages also do well. “We will always sell livestock. I think if you are a pet shop, you have to have livestock. That’s why you’re a pet shop.”


‘Pick your own’ extends to chews and treats

Sales of fish have also gone up due to a nearby local aquatics shop closing following the retirement of its owner. And many customers who have been to Pets at Home comment on how much pricier Pets at Home is compared to Martins.


Weigh up is very, very popular…

Pick ‘n’ mix
Martins Pet Supplies has a large selection of weigh-up bins for pet and bird food. “Our customers like to help themselves, especially with the bird food they like to pick and mix,” he said. “We sell a lot of wild bird.”


Fish sales are mostly coldwater

They also offer free delivery and will place special orders for customers for stock not kept instore. They offer a boarding service for small animals, reptiles and birds, and demand for this is very popular, remarks Chris. Especially if the animal or bird was bought from them as their owners want to make sure their pet is being cared for properly when they’re away.


There were a number of spiders for sale in reptile section

A large number of new houses are being built in Nuneaton, and so the Martins have been advertising in the local magazines to drive awareness of their shop – apart from them, there is only a Pets at Home and a Just For Pets. Facebook has also become an important advertising tool – Emma handles this aspect. “We have to be on top of the game because of the keyboard warriors – but if you do get a negative comment, other customers then come on board and support you,” said Chris.


Livefood sells out almost as fast as it arrives

Social media has its other uses, as they found when a bird table was nicked from outside their store.
“Someone just picked it up and walked off with it. We put it on Facebook and it spread, then Emma went out walking with her dog and found it. It had been abandoned as was too hot to handle,” he said.


Livestock section of the store is overseen by two parrots!

Yes, the pet industry has changed incredibly over the years, not least because of the arrival of the internet. But Chris has also noticed many ‘little reptile businesses popping up’, usually by hobbyists who see an opportunity. “They spring up and then disappear again,” he notes.


Emma shows a tarantula for sale

Times, however, are definitely challenging, and footfall has dropped due to changing shopping habits.
If they did not own the building, they would not have a business today, he said. “We are an old-fashioned pet shop, and I’m not ashamed of this, but people like old-fashioned things and it’s coming back.”


Emma’s four dogs – Bagheera (at the back) was dumped at about eight weeks and Emma rescued him. In the front at the far left is Saphire, mum to Koda (front left) and Bambi