Shop Talk Posh Paws Harrogate

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Shop Talk: Posh Paws Harrogate
9th October 2018

By Sandra Pearce

The Stothard family has been trading in the historic town of Harrogate since 1968. Third-generation siblings Ben and Michaela look back at the family business and talk of the challenges they face


Ben and Michaela were in the shop when still in their prams!

Michaela Stothard and her brother Ben have grown up in the pet trade. Michaela, 28, who runs Posh Paws in Harrogate, says: “We were born into it. My mum was going to work in the shop when she went into labour with me, so had to go to the hospital. Two days later, I was in a pram and she was back at work.”

This year, the Stothard family celebrates its 50th year serving the Harrogate community – Michaela’s grandparents, Peter and Kath Stothard, started a tiny corner shop selling tropical fish in the town centre in 1968. Over the next couple of decades they slowly acquired neighbouring units and knocked through walls – AP & K Stothard & Sons now incorporates four units and is about 1,000sq ft.


Posh Paws has a large selection of beds and bedding

Second shop Posh Paws opened in 2012 about a mile away, on the outskirts of the town centre, and is about 800sq ft. “I guess because we have been in the pet trade for so long, we saw the opportunity of Posh Paws,” Michaela added.

Ben, who is three years older, is also involved. “It was a risk taking this unit on,” he said. “The previous owners did not have a pet trade background and it was more a hobby for them. In the end, they wanted a quick sale and contacted us to see if we were interested.


Shop is immaculately tidy and organised

“It needed a lot of work and we gutted it – it needed new shelves, lighting, paint, a new front. There was also not much stock. It was a lot of work but we eventually got it just how we wanted.”
Granddad Peter  was looking forward to celebrating the 50th milestone but died a couple of years ago. “He would have been so proud of what we’ve become,” said Ben.

Chalk and cheese
As a general rule, the town shop is run by their dad Mick and Kath, while Michaela and Ben are at Posh Paws – Ben also handles the paperwork, ordering and admin side. Ben said: “When we were looking at taking on Posh Paws, initially we were concerned we would cannibalise our sales. But not at all – the customers are completely different. Here at Posh Paws, 80 to 90% are dog owners, whereas in town, it’s more wild bird, cat and small animal.”


Precision lines!

Its previous owners had styled it more along the lines of a boutique shop, said Michaela. “Many residents in Harrogate are busy business people who are careful with money and will buy, for example, new collars and leads more frequently at mid-range prices. They are also very busy and tend to shop online,” she said.

“With Posh Paws, we have a big focus on natural products and nutrition, and we spend a lot of time making sure people know about nutrition and the product. We give advice on every product – not every product suits every dog, it’s about knowing each dog. So often we will see a customer pick something up, and because we know that dog and customer, we can suggest ‘This is more suitable’.”


Many of their customers have pedigree cats

The Posh Paws customer tends to want advice rather than a quick pop-in and pop-out, like with the town store, they said.  Customers here are also so used to Ben and Michaela ‘knowing’ their dog and their order that they often come in and ask for their ‘normal biscuits’ – and the siblings have to remember what that is!


The bulk of Posh Paws customers are dog owners and prefer natural ranges

Needless to say, big bags sell well, and the shop benefits from free parking directly outside; parking is a big bugbear for the town store. Ben said: “In our town centre, parking used to be free and when the council wanted to introduce charges, we had a petition and had thousands of signatures, but it was ignored. The council went ahead with parking charges and since then, footfall has gone down.”


Customers can pick and choose their own treats

Compounding falling footfall is the closure of a number of retailers – both independents as well as the big names like TopShop and H&M. “When big brands like Miss Selfridges go, you realise, flippin’ heck, it’s not just the independents who are finding it hard,” he added. “The more empty units, the less the attraction for people to come. Then of course more people are shopping online.”


Posh Paws occupies two units in Harrogate

Both say that while parking is a big issue, it’s just one of many economic factors affecting business – others include extortionate  business rent and rates. Michaela said: “The current shopping pattern of people who shop online is also a factor, as is how everywhere sells everything now. The sectors are
diluted.


Counter is laid out to attract the last-minute impulse purchase

“Saturday used to be crazy,” she added. “Dad’s favourite words to describe a Saturday in town is you could play football down the middle of the street, it’s that quiet.”
“From the Seventies to the early 2000s, our turnover was always rising, now it’s rocky and in decline,” said Ben. “It may come to it that we may have to shut one of the two stores, but this is our livelihood and there are three generations in it. Just think of the knowledge base that has built up all these years.”
There is talk of Harrogate becoming a BID town.


Large selection of shampoos and conditioners

A Business Improvement District is a business-led partnership that improves trading in a high street or town centre, and is made up of local businesses that back a business plan that sets out a range of activities, all funded by a BID levy, payable by the participants. “It’s been done in Leeds and York, who have had mixed results. But a company that is struggling to pay rates could find it very difficult to pay an extra percent for the levy. And really, should the independent have to pay for it?” said Ben.


The Stothards also bag up treats and chews

Keeping things fresh
Apart from attending as many training sessions as possible to increase their knowledge, Ben and Michaela work hard at sourcing new products. And anything new is immediately put onto their Facebook page. “As soon as I received our first order of LickiMats, I put them on social media and there was a real buzz about them. Now they’re selling like crazy. I sold six this morning alone,” she said.


Raw is a recent addition, and the duo vetted suppliers very carefully

They research new products and ranges thoroughly. For instance, they spent about three months researching raw, and Michaela sent a detailed list of questions to their shortlist of suppliers. “We ended up going with Nutriment because of the quality of the product and they also came back with an answer for everything. I asked all sorts of questions, like why should we stock your range, where does your meat come from and how will you support us as an independent?” she said.
“Nutriment can always be reached on the phone, and that is how we have to be with our customers.”

Posh Paws has a huge selection of beds and bedding. “Beds are quieter in Summer, but come September/ October, it will start again,” said Ben.
“With beds, it’s all about the colour. Just like with collars and leads, people want to match their pet’s bed with the room décor. So many of our customers will buy a few beds, but for the different rooms. We keep an eye on trends and refresh the range twice a year.”


No one product suits every dog, so a good variety is important

They also offer their own-brand pet food, Lanshaws, named after the farm their grandparents bought in 1991. On the topic of food, both said a strong emphasis is now on natural and grain-free ranges. “People want grain-free meat and veg,” said Michaela. Yet the odd treat goes down well, as demonstrated by their Barking Bakery muffins showcase, which they introduced about six months ago. “I remember calling Ben and asking if I could place an order for £150, and he was like, ‘For cakes?’ ”
Her gut instinct has, however, proved right!

Open all hours
Although the Stothards do not have their own loyalty card, they offer six from manufacturers including Acana, Burns, Burgess and James Wellbeloved. Loyalty cards help with customers who may not know what they have had before, or if another family member pops in for ‘the usual order’ – and has no clue what that is. “It helps us be more efficient,” said Michaela.


Manufacturer loyalty cards make it easier to keep track of what customers have

The rhythm of shopping is, however, proving more difficult to spot. “Years before you could judge which day is going to be busy, now, you can never tell. Some days are dead, other days we’re non-stop. Yet no matter how busy, my customers will wait patiently if they see me talking to someone.”


Fashion trends also dictate collar and leash sales, they say

Both admit to working long hours, typically starting at 6.30am and carrying on when they’re at home. Plus, many customers have their mobile numbers – it’s part of the service, they said. “I have had conversations with customers who have a dog with an upset stomach at eight at night when I am cooking dinner,” she said. “My other half will call to say if I am coming home. But this is home from home, and it’s normal for us to put in so many hours.”


Own brand is named after the grandparents’ farm

Customers will also call their mobiles to place an order for their free delivery service. It’s all about convenience, said Ben, who has two young children and a third on the way. “We put our heart and soul into the business, and we bend over backwards to keep our customers,” he added.


LickiMat sales have flown since being introduced

That excellent customer service translates into word-of-mouth recommendations; Harrogate is a close-knit community, they said. Their ethos is simple: “We know our customers and their dogs, and we have built up that relationship so they trust us and our advice,” said Michaela. “I can tell them, ooooh, I have this in and Ozzie will like this! It’s about offering tailored advice. Really, we are more like personal shoppers.”