News Shop Talk Potty About Pets



Shop Talk: Potty About Pets
13th December 2017

By Sandra Pearce

Meg looked after Fudge when he was a little one and fell in love with him

When Meg Johnson took over Potty About Pets in Louth, Lincolnshire, in July last year, she was three weeks shy of her 18th birthday. And while it probably made her the UK’s youngest pet retailer, it also presented a unique predicament.

“Because I was under 18,” she said, “I was not allowed a business debit card. So there was this weird situation in that I had a business in my name but I could not have a business debit card to make payments for it. So in the beginning everything was done by cash – I begged with the bank and was then able to get a cheque book, which made things a little bit easier. As soon as I turned 18, I called up and said I wanted my business card.”

Meg would like to one day have separate bird and small animal sections

She also had a bit of explaining to do with the utility companies, but thankfully because she was using the same suppliers who therefore knew the business and because she was so close to being 18, they were prepared to open an account with her name.

Previous owner Ros Harris had been ill for some time, and sadly died in February 2016. Meg and her family had been customers for years – Meg remembers coming in as a young girl – and as a young teenager, helped out on Saturdays which became a perfect fit when she was on a two-year Animal Management course at Riseholme College in Lincoln. She worked with Ros for about 18 months, and Ros had indicated that at some point she would hand over the reins to her protégé. Sadly, Ros’s health continued to deteriorate, and when she passed, Meg bought the business from Ros’s husband. She said: “I love this little place, and I am so grateful to Ros. She was a lovely person.”

Health care range is neatly displayed

However, because Ros had been so unwell for such a long time, the paperwork side of the business had been neglected. So in the beginning, the priority was to get the business (thought to be about 20 years old) ‘just right’. “At first, I’d rather not take a wage and use the money to get the shop right, and I’m lucky that I still live with my parents. But my bookkeeper said I needed to take a wage, if only to get a more accurate view of the business, so I do now draw something.”

Her first year has been ‘a bit crazy’ and definitely full on: “I wanted to do so much because the shop was so tired,” she said. “The business had become run down and there was no clear layout or organization to the shop…everything was muddled up.”

Signs help customers narrow down their search

Not one to do things by halves, Meg decided everything had to go and ripped everything out, manpower cheerfully provided by her family. The shelving dated back from when the shop sold shoes, 40 years ago, and the carpet was not much younger. When the shelving came out, Meg and her mum were horrified to see bare earth – which very luckily turned out to be the result of years’ accumulation of dirt and dust that was removed by the shovel load. “The dust and smell was terrible,” she said. “Not much puts me off but even I was thinking of using a mask. We worked on the store in the evenings and over weekends as I could not afford to shut the shop.”

A number of customers place regular orders for live feed

Her dad and uncle built new shelves using wood offcuts her dad was able to source from the recycling bins at his place of work. “My dad basically said to me, what colour do you want your shop, and where do you want the stuff to go?” she said.

Fudge is one very content rabbit

Apart from refitting the entire store, Meg also had the electrical wiring seen to – the electrician remarked that the wiring and junction box looked to date from the Seventies. “I’m glad I got it done!” she said.
Then to throw a curveball, just before Christmas, the washing machine in the flat above sprang a leak, sending a flood into the back of her shop. Twice. Thankfully not much stock was damaged as Meg was around and able to move things out of the way quickly.

Small animals is a top seller for Meg

Star attraction
Fudge can quite happily spend his day sitting on a Trixie box, stirring to accept a treat or to hop across the floor to his litter tray. Fudge is the official top rabbit in the store – he came in as a baby to be sold but went down with a temperature. “I looked after him, fell in love with him and that was that,” said Meg. “Select children know they can get his brush and groom him – but only select children!”

Meg is growing the natural offering

Other store pets include Piggy the guinea pig inherited from Ros’s days and Piff and Pilla, two jirds that were given to Meg by a wildlife photographer five or so years ago. These are in addition to the animals Meg has at home which include a selection of reptiles, amphibians, birds – of which Meg is particularly fond of – and a jack russel.

Treats need constant refilling on Saturdays

It’s no surprise then to see that Meg sells small animals, birds and a small selection of tropical and coldwater fish. “I think selling live animals is part and parcel of a pet shop,” she said, adding that small animals are very popular and there is huge demand for guinea pigs, which she sources from a local breeder. As such, small animal food, hay, bedding and accessories are her strongest sellers.

Collars and leads always create eye-catching display

“It’s amazing how many people around here have rabbits and guinea pigs,” she said. One regular, for instance, comes in and buys 10 bags of hay and 10 of straw at same time.

She also sells a lot of live food for reptiles, which can be tricky knowing how much to order. Thankfully she has a pool of customers who place their orders regularly, helping with planning.

Customers like choosing their own treats and chews

In terms of dog food, her top seller is James Wellbeloved, probably because all the vets in the area recommend it, she said. “And for treats, we are topping these up all the time on Saturday. I have pushed to sell as much natural as possible.”

She also sells frozen raw – both for reptiles and Natures Menu. But due to a lack of space has had to put the freezer in her storage area. As far as possible, she tries to support local businesses and sells collars and leads made by man about six miles away and sources Skipper’s dried fish treats for dogs from the nearby seaside town of Grimsby.

Bagging up takes time but is worth it

Meg has also carried on a boarding service started by Ros, and says this is growing in demand. She currently has space for a maximum 30 rabbits, which proved useful when a customer wanted to board 11 rabbits. She can accommodate small animals, birds and reptiles. “It gets very, very busy,” she said.

Many hands make light work
In her first year of business, Meg went basic with insurance and so did not have any facility to take on volunteers or work experience students. This has now changed, much to Meg’s relief. “I’m so glad that I can now take on work experience,” she said. Cleaning the cages and pens of boarders and the shop’s livestock alone can easily take half a day, so having extra hands is a blessing. On Sunday, mum and dad come in to help with the clean-up, but even then it takes them three hours. A long-time family friend, Rachel, comes in to help during the week and a young lad who breeds rabbits comes in for a couple of hours on a Saturday.

Meg’s dad and uncle built all the shelves using offcuts

Meg would still like to see a few more changes in the shop. Although her dad and uncle revamped the small animal units by re-doing the fronts, she’d ideally like a new bird unit – but these are pricey. She also wants to change the last bit of old carpet and has applied for a micro business grant by her local council. “I could do with more room,” she adds. “I just don’t have enough space, and it can be difficult to know where to put stuff.

Quirky interest in shop window display

“You know, everyone said to me when I started, is it enough for you to have a pet shop? But since I was two, I have always said I want to work and want my own business. I like doing this because I am able to do so many different things.

“I am also so lucky that I have a lovely, lovely family and Rachael, who has known me since I was a baby. Thank you so much to my family – mum Tracy, dad Andy, uncle Tom, grandma Floss and Rach.” n