Shop Talk Pet Fayre

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Shop Talk: Pet Fayre
11th February 2016

By Sandra Pearce

When pbwnews first visited Pet Fayre, owner Janet Whiting was preparing to move to another unit in the neighbourhood shopping precinct to make way for a supermarket. Almost three years later, we return to see what’s happened, and discover she now doubles as postmistress!



What on earth do you do when (a) the new anchor tenant in your shopping precinct, a supermarket, installs its entrance directly on to the car park, so its customers do not have to walk past any other shop, and (b) your neighbouring post office closes? For many, this has all the classic ingredients for a disaster tale – but not for Janet Whiting, who owns Pet Fayre in the Maiden Lane Centre of Lower Earley, Reading. After about a year of hoping that business would pick up, Janet took the proverbial bull by the horns and opened a Post Office Local counter in her shop.

She explained:  “Many people were talking about who would take the post office on, but that never materialised. So one day I went into a Post Office Local and saw what they did, and I started thinking about what I could do and how I could manage it.”



In March this year, it became a reality and she now wears two hats – postmistress and pet shop retailer. As part of her application process, she had to present a business plan and prove that her business was sound, as well as go for an interview. “I had to prove that the pet shop was sustainable and the numbers made sense,” she said.

To make space, she literally cut one end off her shop counter to install the post office counter. She’s also had to install a safe, which is in a locked, secure room. This locked room just happens to house the shop’s tiny kitchenette, which must make it the safest kitchen in the entire country. No way is that milk getting nicked!



As a Post Office Local, she handles post, Parcel Force (not international), Click and Collect, stamps, foreign exchange with euro on demand, and some financial payments. The whole point of local branches is that they handle straightforward, quickly processed transactions. She and her two staff members had to go for three days’ offsite training, and a trainer then came in for 10 days after that to give on-the-job training and guidance. She gets paid per transaction (hopefully her fees will one day cover her shop rent) and crucially, she’s not had to take on any new staff to man the counter.

“I have absolutely no regrets about setting up the post office,” she said. “I’ll never give it up. It has not only helped create a community feel, it has also helped the other local businesses.”



As Pet Fayre is located right at the end of the complex, customers have to walk through the centre. “Everyone was up in arms when the post office left, and they are happy it’s returned. The post office is busier than the pet shop, but makes a lot less margin. My hope is that some of those customers then shop here for their pet products, which is happening.

“There is an incredible community spirit. We have a number of pensioners who live locally who come in, and very often people just come in to have a chat. Two of our ladies are visually impaired, and they know we will always help them. And there’s a gentleman on a mobility scooter – they all know we are friendly. The post office has certainly drawn people in, and yes, it has improved our pet sales.”



Times have changed, she said, and with main post offices closing all over the country, local is clearly the way it is going. “You cannot have a post office on its own, and you cannot have a pet shop on its own.”

MORE THAN JUST A PET SHOP

Pet Fayre has been around for over 20 years now – Janet bought it a while ago when she was made redundant. However, the shop was initially in a different part of the centre, but had to move in April 2013 when its lease came up and the owners let six adjoining units to Sainsbury’s for its local store.

The new unit was immaculate as it had been a ladies gym, but one of the first things that had to go were the carpets. She managed to move shop over an Easter bank holiday weekend, thanks to roping in 15 friends, family, and friends of friends. Wholesaler Best Pets kindly loaned her a pallet truck, so large boxes of stock and items could be moved around the corner.



Reading-based BB Shopfittings took two weeks to fit the shop, which although slightly larger than the previous unit, suffers from a lack of storage space. So Janet hit on a solution and got the shopfitters to build 24 kickboard drawers under the shelving. “It’s brilliant,” she said. “We can store a lot of stock in them; it was expensive, but definitely worth it.”

Every square inch is packed with products: “People like to have a rummage around, especially with toys.”

A big change was that she stopped selling livestock when she moved as she felt she could use the space better to sell products. And she has become a convert to EPoS, using the move as a good excuse to get wired up, thanks to Premier EPOS. “Having an EPoS system has made life so much easier,” she said. “We now know how much stock we have, we know what customers have been buying, and we now send out a newsletter. It also helps when a customer comes in and says they want the same food that they bought the last time, what was it? We can just look it up.



“We have also introduced a customer loyalty card, offering 1% discount off every purchase, and we have 1,500 names on it. I try and do a newsletter every quarter and send it out by post as I figure people are going to open a letter rather than hit the delete key.”

The move also meant Pet Fayre was able to install a freezer and introduce customers to frozen raw. This has gone down well, to the tune of about 60kg a week.

Pet shops have to be specialist and offer that bit extra, she says. What’s the point of selling supermarket brands, especially if you are on the doorstep of one? In response to customer queries, she’s introduced grain free, which took off immediately. She added: “I always look for something unusual, that you cannot find elsewhere.”



This includes the specialist brand Natures Way, of which she is exclusive distributor in her area. This Devon-based company offers a complete, natural working dry dog food range with up to 60% meat, and says it will only sell to independent pet retailers. Janet said: “Our local agility trainer feeds his dogs on it, and then recommends it. I also have exclusivity over its sales here, so they  (Natures Way) protect their retailers.”

Catering to humans, she offers her own quail eggs at 12 for £2 as she has six quails at home: “I made my partner and myself a 34-egg omelette the other night!” Not forgetting the barn eggs from a farm in Guildford.



Janet carries a large range from The Hay Experts for small animals over two shelves. The range of hay, grasses, herbs and treats is ‘lovely stuff’ which ‘looks good’, she said. With a keen eye on what’s new, she is trialling the Alpha Spirit range of natural dog food and treats.

“I use many different suppliers to get a larger range of products,” she said. This is partly because she runs an Amazon store. Online is still the place for ridiculous discounts, but is countered by its being an effective marketing tool for the more unusual products. As it is, she sells a lot of Canny products to France and Germany, and has started seeing sales grow in Italy and Spain.



Her gift sales have slowed, but she suspects this will improve now that the post office counter is in place, and has plans to display these items behind the counter just in time for the Christmas season. Calendars are also on the cards.

In terms of services, Pet Fayre offers boarding for small animals, and counts a stick insect as one of its more unusual guests. There’s claw clipping, and staff member Hannah Chandler handles microchipping. Hannah has done a first-aid for animals course, and can remove ticks or change the bandage of an animal. “It’s actually given me a better understanding of the benefits of some of the products and food we sell,” she said. “But if someone comes in with a poorly pet, we always tell them to see a vet.”



Hannah and colleague Adam Baker work with the local animal warden, and helped run a microchipping awareness event. “I’ve also scanned wandering animals. One dog that was brought in turned out to belong to another customer,” she remembered.

Despite the post office being responsible for increased footfall, Janet is convinced the tide has turned for the local independent retailer.  When a chain store opened in the nearby Asda complex, there was strong support online for Pet Fayre. And when the Sainsbury’s opened, Pet Fayre had ‘an amazing week’ – Janet had sent out a newsletter to coincide with its opening, and offered double loyalty points. She said: “I find more and more people are wanting to support their independent. You just have to give them a reason to come.”



For more information on opening a Post Office Local in a retail premises, visit http://corporate.postoffice.co.uk/business-opportunities