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Shop talk: Pet Shed, Brighton – Working twice as hard…but twice as happy
17th September 2020

By Justine Thompson

Would you give up a secure, well-paid career to run a pet shop? Justine Thompson speaks to Hannah James, owner of the Pet Shed in Brighton, to find out why she did just that...

When Hannah James quit her secure career in finance to pursue a long-held dream to open a pet shop, she used articles from pbwnews and cuttings from PATS catalogues to fuel the fire.


Hannah uses space effectively stocking items from smaller firms as well as more mainstream products and has refined her stock to suit her market, offering quality dog food brands

From her school days working as a Saturday girl in the local pet shop, Hannah always knew what her ideal career would be: to run a pet shop serving the local community and its animals.
But Hannah had many talents, including a knack with numbers, and she ended up pursuing a more ‘sensible’ career working in finance for the NHS.

“The dream was always at the back of my mind though, niggling away at me,” she confessed.
Then one day, 23 years into her financial role, Hannah asked herself if she still wanted to be sat behind that same desk at 70 and the answer was a resounding ‘no’.

The ‘mid-life crisis’ – as Hannah’s husband Dean refers to it – happily coincided with a friend offering Hannah the start-up fund she needed as part of a business arrangement that suited them both.
“I didn’t really think too hard about it, if I’m honest,” said Hannah. “I’m very much an optimistic person – the glass is always half full for me and that’s the way I like to approach things. So I just grabbed at the opportunity!”

But years of structure and working within a huge organisation like the NHS had taught Hannah that she needed more than mere optimism to make the venture work, and she began to draw up her business plan with precision.



She started off with a huge mind-map of all the things she wanted to bring to life in the shop – which is where the cuttings from pbwnews and the PATS catalogue came in.

“I knew I wanted to focus on natural foods and quality items. Not everything worked out of course – there were always going to be things that didn’t sell and had to go back – but I had a vision and it turned out to be about 80% right!”

Hannah’s shop, The Pet Shed in Brighton, opened in 2013 with much help from family and friends who stocked shelves and delivered leaflets around the locality. She had left her secure, term-time, four-day-a-week job to earn half the money working twice as hard…but she freely admits she has loved every moment and never looked back. Her enthusiasm shines through, and has led to her winning or being nominated for a number of awards, including the f:Entrepreneur #ialso Top 100 list, the Small Business 100 in 2016 and she even won The Best Pet Shop in the UK in the DogFriendly Awards in 2018.

The Pet Shed, with its eye-catching window display and friendly advice on offer, is sited in a professional area of Brighton where the customers are ‘just lovely’ and many have become friends over the years. They are generally willing to pay a little bit more for the right quality, says Hannah, but they’re not silly with their cash.



“Like everyone else they want value for money and you have to respect that,” she said. “When I first opened I had a visit from an old gentleman I now think of as my Fairy Godfather. He used to own a greengrocer’s nearby and he warned me not to inflate my prices…he said the area might appear well-heeled, but people weren’t silly.

“I haven’t seen him again since then but I took his advice to heart. I sell almost everything at RRP with occasionally a couple of items just below. It’s worked and I wish I could meet him again now to thank him.”

Since then Hannah has refined her stock to suit her market, offering quality dog food brands such as Lily’s Kitchen, Barking Heads, Forthglade, Canagan and Symply, as well as raw food brands like Natures Menu. She also stocks a local favourite, Arden Grange, which has an HQ nearby, and Burns.  
Burns founder John Burns sometimes visits the area and Hannah confesses to being a bit ‘star struck’ when he came into her shop one day.

“He is the original father of more natural feeding,” she said. “He’s done a huge favour to the dog food industry and more importantly to all the pets here in the UK.”

EVERYONE’S WELCOME

Everyone is welcome at the shop and that includes the young adults from Team Domenica, a local project supporting young adults with learning difficulties to find employment. Hannah has been taking students from the project for work experience placements with some success. One young lady went on to get a job at Morrisons.


Everyone and that includes the young adults from Team Domenica,
a local project supporting young adults with learning difficulties to find employment


“My brother has learning difficulties so it is a world I am familiar with, but I know not many people are,” explained Hannah. “At the moment people with learning difficulties are not often seen as part of the community and that needs to change – it needs to be normal. I hope by supporting this project I’m helping to change that and it’s certainly been great fun.”

At 366 sq ft The Pet Shed is not huge, but its high ceilings and large shop window allow plenty of light to flood in. An ambition of Hannah’s is to ‘one day’ get larger premises, but she also doesn’t want to leave the area and clientele she loves and so that has been parked for now. She uses the space she has very effectively, however, stocking items from smaller firms such as Oscar & Hooch collars and leads and Woofins dog muffins, as well as more mainstream products. Cats, and small pet aren’t forgotten either.

“I’m just an animal lover,” said Hannah, 50. “I’ve had them all over the years. Currently we have three cats, my Dachshund Bourbon, two snakes, a tortoise, chickens and turkeys, fish – oh and I have a husband and two children!”

Hannah has also recently been stocking more chicken feed. One thing she has noticed, particularly during the coronavirus lockdown, has been an increased interest in poultry, one of a number of changes to come the shop’s way since the onset of covid-19.

“I don’t know if people will remember,” said Hannah, “but Brighton was the first area of the country to have someone infected with coronavirus. In fact my Tuesday girl was treated at the GP practice at the centre of it…so I had quite a head start when it came to knowing what the requirements might be!”

INCREASED DELIVERIES

Hannah has had to change practice during the crisis, just as so many other pet retailers have done. She has reduced opening hours so she can concentrate on increased deliveries and ensuring stock and cleanliness are kept up to date. Social distancing measures are in place in the shop and she will serve customers at the door if they don’t wish to enter. Her Tuesday and Saturday help are staying away for safety, so Hannah has increased her own days to six a week, but as ever she remains positive: “My new normal isn’t so different from my old normal,” she said. “Our takings have been fine and I think people have appreciated having a local service to support them, particularly those who are isolating. Yes, I am working six days a week, but I love what I do so it’s no real hardship.

“In fact, on Monday mornings I wake up and think: ‘Great – I can go to work today.”