News Shop Talk Pets Pantry Chatteris



Shop Talk: Pets Pantry, Chatteris
6th December 2016

By Sandra Pearce

Mark and his wife also own a holiday park

Pets Pantry is located in the Fenland market town of Chatteris, a commuter town for Cambridge, Peterborough and Huntingdon. We meet owner Mark Brackley, who describes it as a traditional, old-fashioned store

Mark Brackley recalls the time a tourist came into his shop and asked for directions to the town centre. “I looked at him and said, ‘This is it, you’re in it.’ We’re not a big town by any description,” he said.

Pets Pantry is located at one end of the town’s High Street, which houses a decent mix of independents and chain stores. Mark and his wife Sarah have owned Pets Pantry for nine years, and say they ‘must be doing something right’ as they’re still in business. It’s a small store, probably no bigger than 300sq ft, but it’s ‘fit for purpose’, he said. They bought it as a going concern – it was not doing well when they took it over as the previous owner seemed to have lost interest and was not overly concerned about customer service.

“We saw the potential,” he explained. “I’m a fisherman, and around here there’s a lot of water, so I thought, let’s put some fishing bait in. Which we did, and that’s worked really well.”

Mark sells a lot of bait and fishing accessories

With rivers and canals criss-crossing the Fen landscape and fishing lakes open year round, bait sales have quieter periods, but they never stop, he explained. Pets Pantry now stocks everything from line, floats, weights and hooks to a range of bait including Dynamite and Van den Eynde. Mark remembers his first fishing experience with his mother, when he was about six, and loves it when families come in for bait. “It’s great to see families doing things together. Nowadays with kids, all they want is computers.”

In 2009, the opportunity came up to buy a nearby holiday park, which Mark hastens to add was more a field with a fishing lake and some infrastructure.  They added two static caravans, which since 2012 are available for lettings. Pets Pantry in turn supplies bait to these holidaymakers.

Life, says Mark, is simple. “Yes, we are here to make money, but if we can help someone, we will. And instead of trying to get something for nothing, you should be trying to help each other.”

He’s had customers ask for credit as they’ve not been paid yet but need to get some food for their pets. “Nine times out of ten I will help. Yes, I’ve been caught a couple of times, but it’s about being a good judge of character.”

Customers like weigh up

Some of his mature customers will pass over their purses and ask him to take out the correct change. Any sales prices are always passed on to customers, and he is more than happy to point out that buying big bags of dog food is more cost-effective than smaller bags. He said: “That’s why I think the shop has been here for so long – people know I will look after them. I call a spade a spade, and I am fairer than a lot of people. People know I am not going to dupe them. You know, my mum and nanna taught me that manners cost nothing. This is a family business, and we have grown it to what it is.”

It’s about building a relationship, and he recalls how several of his customers have sought him out when either a pet or a loved one has died. “I know roughly who is going to be here on which day, and if they are not here, I do start to wonder if they are ok. We do have a lot of banter, the customers and I.”
One of his regulars comes in every Friday, bearing a sausage roll for him. “Last week she came in and said ‘I’ve brought you something healthy for a change’ and gave me a bag of plums.”

Bird seed sells well

Mark does not have a loyalty card, instead preferring to give regulars a freebie. When one regular had a birthday, he wrapped up her usual order and made it into a hamper. And the florist next door is no longer surprised when he quickly pops in for a bunch of flowers to give to a customer whom he’s just told ‘Hang on a minute, I need to check something out back’.

“It’s just a gesture,” he said, “but they are so happy. As long as it brings a smile to someone’s face, that’s all that’s important.”

When the council-run Friday market introduced a pet stall, his customers were up in arms. “My takings on Friday have since gone up. It shows the loyalty of the Chatteris people. On principle, a lot of people said ‘Why has the council allowed this to happen? I will support Mark.’ And this is not the first time this has happened. Locals also supported our local butcher when competition turned up.”

Mark says he believes in good, old-fashioned service. He is not really a fan of technology, and does not have a card machine for credit or debit card purchases. Their rental rates are too high, he says, and besides, his shop’s located between two cash machines and customers are more than happy to nip out if they are short. In any case, the vast majority of his customers are regulars and know his cash-only terms. He also does not have a website or any social media presence. He has recently acquired a mobile phone, but reveals this is kept in his car. All day. And it’s never switched on.

Treats at eye level encourage impulse buys

“I am in the shop six days a week. If people want to talk to me, they always call me here,” he explained. “That’s the way I am, I like it this way. It’s like my cash-only policy… I have customers who joke if my cash till is an Arkwright.” (It’s not, it’s a Sharp.)

All orders are placed by phone. “If I am talking to someone on the phone, they can tell me if such and such is in stock or not, talk about alternatives or promotions, or give advice on something. You can’t get that level of service on a computer.”

He’s got a very good relationship with his wholesaler’s telesales team, and very often sends them Jelly Babies via the drivers. New customers are often the result of word-of-mouth recommendation, though he does still have locals come in and say they did not know he sells fishing bait. Mark also always tries to help community events or charities by providing a donation or raffle prizes.

Tidy window display draws attention to bait sales

“People know they can come here and get good advice,” he said. However, it’s not always a win-win situation. “Sometimes you can stand talking to someone three to four times over a few months about pet food, but they will still go the budget route.”

He also does not sell much wet food as his customers seem to prefer to purchase this from grocery outlets. He does, however, sell a lot of wild bird food and big bags of dog food, especially James Wellbeloved, Skinner’s and Dr John.

“We also weigh up a lot of food,” he says. “It’s a small town and many of our mature customers cannot carry much and will come in say they want a pound’s worth of something.”

Although he does not offer a delivery service, sometimes he will pop out on his pushbike to drop off a bag as a favour for someone. And as with so many other retailers, the internet has had an affect. “I have had people walk in and say their Amazon delivery is late and they need an emergency supply of something. I do ask them, what will you do if your shop shuts and when Amazon does not deliver? Some people, they only want us in an emergency, but not to support all the time.

“But you know, things go round in circles.  Who knows, in years to come, people may stop using the internet and say ‘Actually, I quite like going to the shops on Saturday’. Let’s hope it won’t be too late.” 

Store is small, so space has to be used very carefully