Shop Talk Natural World Pets

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Shop Talk: Natural World Pets
13th October 2014

By Sandra Pearce



Embracing change

There is a certain comfort in sticking with the tried and trusted – but that’s not for Scott Hendry, who is ever willing to experiment and push boundaries. Sandra Pearce visits his Syston store to see what’s new

Change is in the air at Leicestershire’s Natural World Pets – but that’s not unusual for owner Scott Hendry, who is always looking for new ways to grow his business and serve his customers better. His latest idea is to reduce the number of products he stocks from 5,000 to around 3,500-4,000.

“The plan is to offer less choice,” he says. Which sounds incredibly risky, when conventional ‘safe’ wisdom is to offer as wide a range as possible. But the man has a plan. With a smaller product range, he rationalises he can better merchandise what he sells because he can put more of those units on-shelf, immediately creating impact through sheer volume. Plus he can then negotiate a better purchase price because of higher sales.



He has started with collars and leads – where he used to stock items from five manufacturers, this has been cut to two: Red Dingo and Ancol. “The display looks so much better, and although it’s only been a week, I am really pleased with sales so far,” he said.

Less is definitely more.

He is also looking at pricing strategies and aims to sell selected products (eg beds, collars and leads, coats) without any pence in the price tag. “How often have you seen products for £12.99, for example?” he asks. This cheapens the product, he says, as the 99p strategy is to make a product appear cheaper and to keep it in a lower price band. Selling products at a whole number adds value, he says, and to go with this notion of value, he has printed his own price tags with an upmarket look.



Natural World first saw light of day in 1992 in Loughborough. The store soon outgrew its premises and moved to a larger 1,200 sq ft unit down the road. By 2004, Scott opened a second store, the 8,000 sq ft unit in Syston. “We took an enormous risk on this (Syston) shop,” he says. “But sometimes in business you have to take a calculated risk.”

The two have distinct identities. Loughborough, for instance, no longer sells livestock, as being in the pedestrianised heart of the town centre, is not really where people go to buy animals – or big bags of dog food. “If people go to Loughborough looking for pet or bulk foods, we direct them here. Loughborough is more a convenience store.”

He has also recently taken over the management of a rural pet shop in Hinckley, which sells the full range of pets, reptiles and poultry. While the shop remains independently owned, Scott runs it on a day-to-day basis, taking a commission on sales, of which poultry is very popular, at the rate of about 50 birds a week compared to about six every two weeks in Syston. Again, it’s about assessing customer demand and reacting to it.



Natural World is also in the process of opening another pet shop in the premises of a former Blockbuster store. It comes as no surprise to learn that Scott will try something totally different there. “We won’t sell livestock and want to have a boutique area... a nicer way of presenting dog beds, clothing, collars. We also want to have a VIP area with seating to make our customers feel special. If it takes off, we’ll roll it out here as well.” It’s all about experimenting and trialling new ideas.

Perhaps a deli might work at some point, he muses.

First-class service
Not surprisingly, staff training is high on the agenda, and there is a year-round schedule of in-store training, both on a group and individual basis. Good training goes hand in hand with motivation, and staff are on a tiered bonus scheme in which they can earn a commission, with targets set every three months.



Scott has 32 staff – 20 in Syston, four in Loughborough and eight in Hinckley. Twenty in Syston? Well, Syston is open seven days a week, with one late night, and there are always eight members on duty, with four more in the office. He says: “The reason we have so many is that we want to have enough staff so that if a customer needs to spend 20 to 30 minutes with us, we can allocate that time. We are probably overstaffed, but we do not think we can deliver that same service with fewer staff members.”



They see about 2,000 customers a week – and there is no loyalty scheme in place. Customers keep returning because of the service his staff provide, says Scott. “We ask questions – that is the key to engaging with customers. The chains try to do this, but when you have a lot of shops it is not easy to achieve.

“You make eye contact with people, even if it’s just to say ‘Good morning’. Normally customers will then open up and you can start a dialogue. Then you can get in one or two questions and find out what they want.”



One way of engaging with customers – and boosting sales – is how with every purchase of livefood for reptiles, his staff ask if they have tried Komodo's Jelly Pots, and explain what it does. At £1, it becomes an easy add-on sale. “But all these £1s, they add up.”

Another popular question is whether their customers’ dogs have had ‘a bit of toast’ that morning. “It’s a great way of relating to customers why that can make their dog a fussy eater: grain does not digest, it sits in the stomach and the dog feels full. It’s surprising how many owners do feed their dogs a bit of toast!”

Once customers understand this, they ‘want to hear what we have to say’. “These types of questions are fundamental to engaging with customers and getting them to believe in you,” he explains.



Good nutrition can help with so many issues, he says. “If people come in and say their dog is scratching or chewing their paws, and it’s not fleas, 99% of the time you can cure the problem with good diet. Even ear problems, runny eyes, it’s all food related,” he said. Customers appreciate this advice, he says, especially when problems are cleared up without visits to the vet – and this fosters loyalty.

The horse-meat scandal is a case in point. When that story broke, many people began asking what was in their dog food, and Natural World saw an almost immediate spike in premium and super premium food sales.

Although some of the ‘big’ brands have gone, there is still a small presence. "We carry these due to demand through advertising and if a customer is happy, then that’s fine,” he says, but adds after a pause. “However, this does give us a great opportunity to talk to our customers and possibly convert to something we would recommend.”



He then reveals that Symply is the top-selling dog food in-store, and the Syston store is the top-selling store for the brand. Symply Pet Food’s Eddie Milbourne confirms this and says: “He is in a class of his own when it comes to selling Symply. His store sells more than any other single UK store, and by a mile! Scott and his staff are very good at what they do.”

Find your specialisation
You may be good at what you do, but sometimes external factors have an impact – and there is nothing you can do. Such as a mild winter impacting wild bird food sales.



Small animal sales are in decline, he says, partially because reptiles are increasingly becoming the pet of choice, but also because campaigns like A Hutch is Not Enough and the Easter Amnesty Make Mine Chocolate put people off keeping small animals, especially rabbits. “They all carry negative messages and do not accentuate the positive,” he explains. “We need to promote the keeping of small animals.” In five years, if livestock sales do not pick up, he predicts this will become an issue for food manufacturers.



Caged birds continue to do so well that supply for small, hand-reared parrots cannot keep up with demand. But the biggest growth is in premium dog food and natural dog treats. “We sell a phenomenal amount of Pet Munchies, then Whimzees, Hungry Hector and natural, unbranded chews.”

His Internet sales are ‘hopeless’, he admits candidly. “But that’s not why we have a web presence.



Our business is face-to-face interaction. For us, having great staff and just talking to customers is more important.”

An online presence is useful to show you exist, upload advice, publicise events and the such. It’s a marketing tool, plain and simple. “Lots of people still want to be served… the Internet has its place and its opportunities. But it’s the interaction with the customer that counts.”

He does feel that it’s important that retailers support manufacturers who do not sell online, as support is a two-way effort.



Above all, don’t ignore networking, which Scott says is fundamental to success. “You have got to do it – if you do not do it, you are missing a trick. Talk to other retailers about whether they are doing well or not, and share information. Networking is very important.”

Scott makes regular visits to other retailers to see what they are doing, and whether he can pick up some ideas. “Sometimes you get a lift when you realise you are doing something better,” he says. Chain stores are here to stay, and they’re becoming stronger, if anything just by sheer numbers. Independents have to find their area of specialisation and come up with a strategy as to how to work alongside them. “Look at your business and what you can do differently,” he urges. “There is lots of business out there, but what is going to make you different?



“You have to be on your toes and visit other pet stores. You have to know what is going on. When you walk into another store and then when you come back into your own store, you can look at it in
another way.”

When Scott opened in Syston 12 years ago, there was one Pets at Home in Leicestershire. Now there are six. “Yet our business is still growing,” he says. “It’s about finding your specialisation in the market to survive alongside them. Our specialisation is definitely our customer focus. We are very good at that.”