News Shop Talk Paws With A Cause And The Pet Shed Brighton



Shop Talk: Paws with a Cause and The Pet Shed, Brighton
14th January 2016

By Sandra Pearce

A mere three miles separate Paws with a Cause and The Pet Shed in Brighton, yet the owners of the two pet shops have a good relationship and are more than happy to send customers to each other. Sandra Pearce visits to learn more

When Luigi and Fiona Paiano opened Paws with a Cause in Woodingdean in June 2014, Fiona popped round to The Pet Shed in Preston Drove to say hello to its owner, Hannah James. They discovered they spoke the same language on nutrition and the use of natural products, and were passionate about running an ethical business.

Hannah, a vegetarian and self-confessed chocolate addict, had opened The Pet Shed a little earlier, in November 2013, and said: “Their philosophy is the same as mine with regards to the nutrition approach. More and more people are prepared to feed their pet a healthier diet, and moving away from supermarkets.”

A relationship blossomed, and in those crucial early days, the retailers would help each other if one of them ran out of something and could not get a delivery in time. Said Fiona: “We’d give a call and swap a product for another. But now that we are both more established, this happens far less frequently.”

They still bounce ideas off each other, using each other as a sounding board. She added: “If you are having a bad day, and Hannah says it’s the same here, you feel better because you know it’s the market and not you! Especially in the first year, when we did not know what were normal patterns.”

With both emphasising the natural message, there is obvious cross-over in the products they stock, but each shop also carries brands that the other does not: for example, you’ll find the Nutriment and Gentle brands at Paws with a Cause, while The Pet Shed stocks the grain-free Canagan and Canidae ranges. It’s not possible to have a huge product offering as both shops have a small footprint – Paws with a Cause comes in at just under 30 sq m (322 sq ft) while The Pet Shed is 34 sq m (366 sq ft). So both focus on specialist products one would not find easily elsewhere, and if a customer asks for a brand they know the other stocks, the customer is pointed in that direction. “I have a stack of Luigi’s business cards here,” says Hannah, holding up a handful. “I had a customer who wanted a delivery but was closer to Luigi, so I suggested him instead.” Both stores, incidentally, offer a free delivery service within a certain radius.

Both actively support charities. Paws with a Cause supports the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare and Dr Hadwen Trust, a charity which funds research that replaces animal testing, as well as sponsoring the kit of their son’s football team. The Pet Shed supports local schools and the local fete, as well as local rescue centres including its RSPCA branch.

The two also have good relationships with their vets – Paws with a Cause is neighbour to its vet, and The Pet Shed has a vet a few doors away. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, says Fiona. Their vet has stopped selling toys, while Paws with a Cause doesn’t sell wormers or flea treatments. “The vet has been really supportive of us,” she said. “We get people who come in and say their vet has advised them to talk to us about feeding a more natural food or offer bones for teeth. Someone came in just last week and said their vet had sent them to us to ask what food would work for anal glands.”

They, in turn, will not suggest a food or product if a pet’s condition is acute or chronic, and which has not first been seen by a vet. “We get lots of people coming in who want to bypass the vet, but we always tell them you need to see the vet,” she added.

Community spirit
Brighton, a city known for its annual Brighton Pride festival in August, has a strong community spirit. Residents support local independents, say the Paianos and Hannah. Hannah conducted a survey to see where her customers come from, and discovered that 74% either walked or drove past her shop. Most, she says, live within a mile radius of her store. “It’s a dense population around here, with a lot of families as it’s a sought-after area for schools. It’s a middle-class area, affluent, and very supportive of local business.”

When a chain store opened near her, her initial fears evaporated as her sales did not really take a hit.
“People would rather come to me because I am local and independent,” she said.

This support for the high street coupled with the swing to natural is all good news for the independent pet retailer, says Luigi. “We are a community store, where people can come for a chat. This really is a labour of love,” he said. “It’s all about relationships.”

These close-knit relationships might explain how, within 10 miles, there are seven independent pet shops and three chain-store branches, yet there does not seem to be that friction of competition. “People tend to shop local,” he reiterates (though they do have a few customers who come from further afield for their specialist ranges, such as the customer who travels 30 miles from Tunbridge Wells to buy Gentle’s cold-pressed food.

This is staunch dog territory. Luigi and Fiona jokingly refer to Woodingdean as Woofingdean, while another of Hannah’s surveys revealed that 71% of her sales are dog related; cat came in second at 19%. Dog owners, Hannah says, are very brand loyal whereas new dog owners tend to be more willing to try other brands or new ranges such as grain free. “Dogs are members of your family, interacting with you all the time. Cats are out and about, doing their own thing,” she said.

Frozen does well for both. Paws for a Cause has five freezers, The Pet Shed has two, and between them, they sell close to 200kg of raw food each week. “People come to independents for raw, especially when they’re just starting out,” said Fiona. “They want to be guided through the process.”

Fiona and Luigi have strict ethical guidelines in place, and they work hard to ensure that their products reflect their ethics and will delist products if necessary. For instance, they won’t sell any product listing ‘meat or meat derivatives’. Well, apart from Chewdles chicken cat treat, which works wonders for fur balls, said Fiona. “We read every label.”

Fiona and Luigi are pursuing qualifications, and Fiona wants to eventually be able to offer reiki healing for animals. She said: “We are not trainers or nutritionists, but we can tell people why we do not sell some products. We do not want to make people feel judged, and so we always explain why.” 

They have to know the manufacturer is as concerned about ethics as they are.

Hannah describes herself as an ‘enthusiastic amateur’ and says she learns on the job. “Many companies give you information or have training courses online, eg Natures Menu and Canidae.”

North America’s grain-free Canidae is a new listing for Hannah and is selling well. “I like its simple recipe list. Those with a long list of ingredients, you almost need a degree to understand them. With Canidae, I know exactly what’s in it.”

The Pet Shed
Hannah had been in the finance and accounting sector for over 20 years, and when the opportunity arose for her to open a pet shop, she jumped. A life-long animal lover, she currently has three cats, two snakes, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs and Bourbon, a mini Dachshund who comes into the shop with her.

She favours natural, high-meat and grain-free options. “It’s the obvious choice, it’s the best thing to feed your pet. Why would you want to feed your dog what is essentially bread? Dogs are carnivores and evolved from wolves.

“Diet today seems to be the cause of so many allergies and skin conditions. I’ve had dogs come in with skin and coat conditions, which were all changed by switching to a natural, good quality diet. I’ve seen temperament changes too. The market has changed so much these last couple of years, especially with its shift to grain free, which I think is great!

“In the wild, a dog would not eat rice… I do not think it would go into a paddy field to eat rice! I concentrate on high quality, natural pet products, with my best sellers being Canagan, James Wellbeloved, Arden Grange and Natural Instinct.”

She gets on very well with the people at Canagan, ‘who are really nice’, she says, and Arden Grange is popular with her customers as it’s based locally, and therefore in people’s consciousness. “It’s a very well established brand here, and people trust them,” she said.

She does not believe in ‘pushing a food’. “If a dog is healthy, I am not going to push them on to something else. I’d rather let the food do the talking.” So customers who want advice are given samples to try, which works really well, she says.

Apart from the strong emphasis on food, Hannah also has a selection of animal-themed cards and gifts. “I wanted to be a little bit different, quirky perhaps, and have a boutique feel to my shop. I wanted to create a reputation, and have something different, stuff which I love and which I would buy myself. I am never going to be another Pets at Home, so I introduced these cards, gifts and hand-made collars. And people remember me for that and they come back.”

Paws with a Cause
Fiona and Luigi had reached a point in their lives when they wanted change. Fiona had been in social work for over 20 years, and Luigi had worked in corporate environments and even taught adults for a while. Ironically, it was their two rescues who nudged them into the pet trade.

Worzel and Bimbla came with severe issues. Bimbla had already been rehomed by the RSPCA and returned before the couple took her on, and Worzel, well, let’s just say Worzel did not like other dogs. At all. Walks were a nightmare, and Fiona was reduced to tears a number of times. But the couple were determined to help these dogs, and set off on a voyage of learning in which over two years, Fiona read up on diet and nutrition and their impact on a dog’s health and behaviour. The day they were able to walk the two dogs outside on a leash like ‘an
ordinary family’ was emotional.

The seed was planted and in April last year, they took on the keys for the brand new shop unit – so brand new all it had was one light, one plug and concrete floor. Luckily, Luigi is handy with a hammer and saw and fitted out the shop himself using reclaimed timber. Eight weeks later and Paws with a Cause opened.

Customer service is king. For example, a customer called saying she needed to take her rabbit to the vet, did they have a rabbit harness for sale as it did not tolerate carriers. Luigi and Fiona have a loaner cat harness, so he popped out that afternoon to help fit the harness. Another customer had a Staffie-Lurcher cross with a pulling problem. Again, Luigi spent 1½ hours until the right harness was found and the dog stopped pulling.

“When we first got Worzel,” says Luigi, “no-one talked to us in the sense that when we went into a shop, we were just given products. You need to have conversations with your customers.”

Added Fiona: “For example, if someone comes in and asks for a large marrow bone, you can ask ‘who’s it for’? We have had people come in saying it’s for their pup, and we could then suggest chicken necks might be a better option.”

Luigi reveals they will be opening a second store on the other side of the vet. Not part of their original plans, but the opportunity arose and will solve their storage issues. The plan is for the second store to have an ‘outside’ theme, so chicken feed, hutches, wild bird, that type of thing.

Another advantage is how the shops are south-facing, and when the sun hits a certain height, the awning has to be extended to protect the food in the freezers. But this awning hides the shop front from passing traffic. The second shop won’t need this protective awning, so its signage will be seen all the time.

In the meantime, customer numbers continue to grow, mostly due to word of mouth. “We have people coming in because they like the community feel, or they’ve heard about our ethics, or even that we are cheaper than the chain stores,” said Luigi.

It is this one-on-one contact that is so important, and what their customers value. “It’s why we’re here,” said Fiona, “and we do not want to change our approach.”