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Shop Talk: Petfood Supplies
28th December 2014

By Sandra Pearce

This green and pleasant land

Petfood Supplies may be located in deepest rural Lincolnshire, but that does not mean it is untouched by many of the issues facing independents across the country. Sandra Pearce visits to learn more

When a vet called up to say a client had rescued a pea hen and did Caronne Daft know of someone who could take it in, she was immediately able to think of a customer who kept poultry and peacocks. Just your typical day for Caronne and her team at Petfood Supplies.



Now in its 25th year, the pet and animal feed store is based in Antons Gowt, a picturesque hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire, yet only a three-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of the busy medieval market town of Boston.

“There’s never a dull moment,” says Caronne, recalling how once a fire engine pulled upfront, filled with firefighters, for one of its crew to pop in for a couple of boxes of tripe. Another time it was an ambulance, and yet another time a public bus – empty of passengers, of course! “Each day is different,” she states.

Caronne, who set up the business with her husband Roy, even recalls how when the circus used to visit, the elephant handler would pop in for high fibre grass nuts. How many retailers can say they’ve fed everything from mice to elephants? As it is, her shop still sells food for goats, pigs, sheep and horses.

Petfood Supplies actually started as an extension to the couple’s main business of pheasant farming. “All the gamekeeepers and landowners would come in, and they all had working dogs to be fed. In those days it was just Meat Greaves, from Luda Meaties, and terrier meal from FC Lowe & Son,” she explained. It was simply a matter of joining the dots. Game farming was hard work, literally 24/7, and four years ago, changing farming patterns led to their reducing the rearing side of the business.
A warehouse opposite the pet shop houses bulk bags of food and bedding, its front decorated with vintage signs of pet food manufacturers from a bygone era, picked up at auctions. “Old-fashioned, that’s what we are,” she said.



This is a very close-knit community, and Petfood Supplies is seen as a well-established local business. She knows all the vets (“We all grew up together, and they send their clients here”) and pretty much everyone else. As with so many long-established pet retailers, she is now seeing the grandchildren of some of her original customers. “We hear of weddings and funerals all the time.”

Most people who are born in the area remain in the area. Many of her customers are staunchly loyal, and although a Pets at Home opened in Boston about five years ago, her store has stood firm. The problem with competing against Pets at Home is that the general perception is that the chain store is cheap. She said: “It’s not. And we don’t have a £50,000 advertising budget to convince pet owners of that.

“We see 100-plus customers a day; Saturday and Sunday are busiest, and this is when people have time to chat. It’s the customers who make you tick.”



She remembers a woman who came in about eight years ago, looking to re-home her Amazon parrot as her daughter had developed an allergy to him. She actually lived about 30 miles away, but was petrified her Charlie would fall into the hands of a white witch coven that was in her town. “She wanted to make sure they could not get their hands on him,” Caronne says. “That was one of the more unusual things I’ve heard. We gave Charlie a home in the shop.”

Charlie, now 14 years old, is a firm favourite with many of her customers, and has ‘a wicked sense of timing’. “One of us will bend down to plug the cleaner in, he will give a wolf whistle! Also just as we answer the telephone to say ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Afternoon’, he will often chime in and say ‘Hello’ in the poshest Lesley Phillips accent. He causes great mirth on a daily basis.”

Change happens
This is ‘deepest, rural Lincolnshire’, with lovely big skies and a vast feeling of space, but this has not protected it from the pressures that all independents face. For one, everyone seems to have got in on the act of selling dog and cat food. “It’s on every garage forecourt and store,” she says, and every bit of competition affects one’s business.



The recession also hit the region very badly, which is coming out of it very, very slowly. “There is absolutely no boom around here. The local economy is underpinned by farmers, and they are still having a bad time of it as cereal and potato prices are very low.”

Unique to the area is how Boston has been a magnet for Eastern European immigrants, who now make up about 20% of the population. Some have taken on pets since settling – mostly toy dogs – and ‘they all ask for Royal Canin’.

There is no denying the region has a very low economic threshold and low income. “Which means opportunity for growth is quite restricted,” she says. “It’s therefore down to good customer service, a range of good products and food to cover every pocket.”



With its name Petfood Supplies, the emphasis is clearly on pet food. “We give good nutritional advice,” said Caronne. Whether it’s for someone looking for a super premium food or a budget range. “Somebody who earns £150 a week cannot afford to buy a £50 bag of dog food,” she says pragmatically.

To back this up, while economy food products sell the most volume-wise, when it comes to monetary value, Royal Canin takes pole position. Which is all down to the socio-economic situation of the area. She has, however, noticed rising demand for hypoallergenic products and frozen foods. “Funnily enough, we used to sell a lot of green tripe years ago, but that’s history repeating itself.”

Her philosophy as far as stocking brands is to stock a good range both in quality and price, to give an optimum choice to the customer. “There are so many brands out there, customers are getting bamboozled. Why do you need 99 varieties of chicken and rice dog food?”



Wild bird food sells extremely well, despite the mild winter, and rabbit food is also extremely popular. Poultry is, however, ‘massive’ – which considering the rural location is not surprising.

She believes good advice has to be backed up by practical experience, especially in this trade. True to her words, she has a horse, three dogs, chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl and pondfish. “I think it’s important to know about the animals and have hands-on experience.”

To encourage footfall, Caronne is fortunate that Petfood Supplies occupies a four-acre site put to grass (remember the pheasant farm?), and a dog trainer holds classes a couple of days each week. The land is also used for a number of events, including charity dog shows and equine events, and there is also a car boot sale every Sunday.



Out front is an automatic dog wash, installed over a decade ago. “It serves its purpose,” she says, “but it could do with a bit of a spruce-up now. It’s looking a bit tired.” The wash has been a blessing for countless dog walkers who stop by after river walks: “Mud is a fact of life around here.” She has even seen builders use the service on themselves in summer!

There is a free delivery service for a 15-mile radius with a minimum order, and as far as possible, she and her staff put on new displays every month to keep the store looking fresh and bright.

“We have to keep reinventing the wheel to stay on top,” she says. It’s all about understanding what’s going on and keeping ahead of the times. The Internet, for example, is a big challenge. Petfood Supplies has, however, embraced the Internet age and offers a click and collect service, and is also on Facebook. “We try and make ourselves readily available for whatever our customers want.” Caronne is exceedingly grateful to her two sons, aged 23 and 27, who keep her up to date on all things IT and take care of the website. “Look, they’ve even got me an iPad and iPhone that are all linked up so I can pick up my emails and keep in touch 24/7,” she says gleefully.



What about Internet prices? “Oh, we do not get too bogged down with prices or competition. That’s all negative energy and distracts you from what’s important,” she responds. “At the end of the day with all the problems in the world – Syria, Ebola, to name a few – we are only selling pet and animal feed, and our daily problems and issues are insignificant with what lots of others are having to deal with on a daily basis.”

Moving on
About six years ago, a garden centre on the opposite side of Boston approached Caronne to see if she would be interested in opening a second pet store as a concession. “Half of me said no,” she says, “but there were warning signs we were going to hit a recession, and as it was in a more affluent part of town, I thought, good idea. Give us a chance to diversify a bit.”

It was a bit of a culture shock, to say the least. Caronne went in with an identical stock portfolio to her flagship store, but the customer and business profile was very different. “It’s a more elderly clientele, and more ladies than men. A lot of them have cats. It’s been an interesting learning curve.”



Whereas the store at Antons Gowt did not sell cat pouches, there was high demand for singles at the garden centre, and premium cat food is all the rage there. Its customers are also far more willing to try new products.

Reflecting on changes to the pet industry, she voices what many retailers are thinking – that the pet trade could be at risk of losing the wholesaler. With more and more manufacturers selling direct, where will wholesalers be in years down the road? “As independents, we do need the wholesaler. Our main wholesaler is Copdock Mill; they are a traditional family business and we know their telesales and sales reps very well. They treat us as a business with our own identity and we are not just a number; we know our regular lorry driver, and most of all, if there are going to be any changes in timings of deliveries or out-of-stock items, etc, they ring and tell us. That’s traditional, good old-fashioned service.”



Yet despite the concern (she’s also annoyed how some wholesalers will deliver to those who are clearly not bricks-and-mortar retailers), Caronne does not lose any sleep over these. Life’s too short, she says. About a year ago, she broke her ankle very badly, and thought at one point she would lose the whole foot. She was on crutches for months and in severe pain.
“It puts things into perspective,” she said.

“This is home. I love my job, and my staff say the same. One of my favourite things to do, after a busy day’s work sorting out all the problems and issues of the day, is to take my dogs out, often walking towards a breath-taking sunset, and I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people alive.”