Shop Talk Primrose Hill Pets

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Shop Talk: Primrose Hill Pets
10th October 2016

By Sandra Pearce



Falling footfall is a common problem facing many retailers, but Primrose Hill Pets is not taking this sitting down and has launched an initiative that it hopes will encourage visitors from far and wide

Imagine paying just over £3,300 every month in rent – for a 300 sq ft unit. This is precisely what Gail Levy, owner of Primrose Hill Pets, forks out, which comes to an eye-watering £40,000 each year.
“When I started 22 years ago, it was £8,500,” says the cheerful 72 year old. “It’s shocking, but that’s the way it is. It’s very challenging, but we’re not complaining.”

Every inch has to work hard and in her shop, approximately half is used for retail sales, followed by a grooming salon with two tables and a tiny storage area.


Gail shows the exclusive hand-knitted coats she can offer her customers

Primrose Hill Pets is located in a sought-after London location, literally steps from Primrose Hill, within proximity of the West End and on the north of Regent’s Park. Property prices have shot through the roof with a number of celebrities making this their home. The pet shop is located on Regent’s Park Road, in a parade of mid-Victorian shops, cafés and restaurants, but as Gail says, 40 years ago, this was largely a working class area.

 “It’s now become very trendy and property is very expensive, but there are still estates around here and people who have lived here for 40 years or more when property was not expensive,” she said. “It’s not flashy, very understated, that’s why celebrities feel quite comfortable here. It feels like a little village.”

Gail counts her blessings that she started Primrose Hill Pets when she did. “There is no way I could start the business today, not at these overheads,” she said. The main reason she is able to keep the business going are the margins she gets. “I used to have a wholesale company, and supplied Harrods, Selfridges and upmarket pet shops. I developed good relationships with suppliers, and they gave me very good terms, and I still get these from a number of suppliers.


Antonio has a reputation for being able to handle the most stressed and anxious of pets

“I would not be here if I did not look at margins. If I see a new product I’m interested in,  I will call up the supplier, but if the margins are not viable or feasible for London shops, then I won’t take it. I have to be very selective about stock, and I need those margins. My relationships with my suppliers are paramount to the success of the business.”

But Gail does not just have to contend with astronomical rents. She explained:  “This year has been very, very tough. This street used to be much busier, but footfall is dropping. You used to see all sorts of independents, but now when one shop comes up, it gets taken on by estate agents as the rents are so high, and estate agents do not create footfall.”

Not one to sit idly by, a community initiative has been launched to make Primrose Hill a destination point for Londoners.

A GRAND DAY OUT 
Gail said: “What we have to do is to make Primrose Hill really exciting and a destination. We need to try to attract people from outside the area. My strength is in products and the shop, but I admit, I am hopeless about social media.”


Gail and Helen, with Gilbert

And this is where Helen Sweeney, a freelance marketing consultant and customer of Primrose Hill Pets, has stepped in. Together, Gail and Helen have launched an initiative to make Primrose Hill a
responsible, dog-friendly destination for Londoners.

Helen, who is doing this on a voluntary basis, said: “We want to celebrate Primrose Hill and bring the community together, with dogs. We want to celebrate dogs, the dog is the hero.”

They have approached all local retailers, cafés, restaurants, even the local doctor’s surgery, and 85% have agreed to let dogs (not just guide dogs) on to their premises. Helen said: “We are uniting the shops, saying that dogs are welcome, but you have to be responsible while doing it. For example, do not go into the doctor’s with a big, aggressive dog. Owners need to be responsible. We want to tell people they can bring their dog here for a day out.


Treats take up a whole section as they sell really well

“Go to the hairdresser, have a meal, pop into a café, have a picnic in the park. There is so much you can do here, we are making this a destination day out with your dog.”

Gail added: “At weekends, people come here for Primrose Hill, and on a sunny day, it’s absolutely packed with picnickers and children and dogs.”

Helen’s dog Gilbert, who is also a Pets as Therapy dog, is fronting this initiative. “It’s not me or Gail who is saying all this. Gilbert is our spokesman,” she said.


When space is tight, every inch has to count

Helen is using Instagram to spread awareness, and content is geared towards building up a community of dog lovers, sharing tips and advice, and photographs of their pets having fun. “There is no selling of products here. That’s not what this is about, it’s about spreading goodwill and hopefully sales will increase.”

The display in the pet shop window is all about this community project and changes according to
season. The current display is about summer fun: it has a bright blow-up sun in one corner, and is filled with tennis balls, a mini golf set, pictures of customers’ dogs and Gilbert, while pride of place goes to a photo of Gail’s beloved three Dalmatians – the daughter is now 11 years old and is still with her.

Peppered throughout are framed words of advice, such as to remember to put sunscreen on dogs that are vulnerable to being sunburnt.


Not a spot or stripe in sight – plain colours sell best at Primrose Hill Pets

Added Helen: “We wanted to put a smile on faces of people who walk by. Again, we are broadcasting the message of responsible dog ownership and the dog community. It’s not about the products, it’s about the dog.”

All this ties in nicely with ongoing community initiatives, such as the Primrose Hill Festival and Dog Show in May, in which the road is closed and the street taken over by entertainment, a dog show, food stalls and arts and crafts. And of course PupAid, the anti-puppy farming awareness event, is held in Primrose Hill in September.

SMALL BUT PERFECTLY FORMED
Being so small and with not much storage room (in the main reserved for treats), delivery via pallet is not an option. When stock arrives, it is priced up and put straight on to shelves – literally within minutes. Now that Harrods and Selfridges no longer have a pet department, customers have to look elsewhere for quality products, said Gail.


Compact healthcare offering has everything owners could need

“We have our product mix right,” she said. “If something is sat there, is it there because the customer does not want it, or is it in the wrong place?”

 If the product is wrong, she is quick to get rid of it and substitute it.

Dog food and accessories are the highest seller, and she also caters to cats, wild bird (very popular with locals), aquatics and small animals (children come in at weekends to buy items for their hamsters and guinea pigs).


Shop is tiny – this picture is taken standing at the entrance

“Dogs all know they can come in and get a treat and a fuss,” she said. “I do not sell anything I would not use myself. Nothing. I’d also say 60% of my treats are totally natural. When Lily’s Kitchen came in, I was concerned about the price, could I sell it at that price, but it sells very, very well, and is my top seller.”

She introduced an own-brand grain-free product about 18 months ago, and this has taken off strongly, thanks to sampling.

She said: “If you can give out a sample and the pet likes it, their owners will come back straight away. Especially with cats, you cannot force a cat to eat.”


Food is a strong seller – but 15kg bags have been discontinued as a result of internet competition

She sells the world’s strongest catnip (imported from America) and backs up the claim with a money-back offer – and to date has not had a single return. Through trial and error, she has discovered that her customers do not like patterned bedding or accessories. “People here like plain colours. Whenever I have introduced patterns, sales have been a disaster.”

Another draw for the shop is her grooming salon, which has a waiting list of four weeks. Staffed by two Brazilian brothers, Antonio Daltro has a reputation of being the local Dr Dolittle. “He is amazing,” said Gail. “He’s so calming with dogs. We have pets that have not been able to go to groomers before, but they kind of melt in his arms.”

The local Pets at Home does not bother Gail as it attracts a different  customer. What is a bother are internet sales. “We’ve had to change the way we sell because of the internet, and as a result have now stopped all 15kg big bags of food. Now we just have a few 7.5kg bags. I try to get as much stock as possible that is not on the internet, and sell differently from the internet. For example, with cat food I have customers coming in and buying a few of five flavours, which they cannot do on the internet as you need to buy a whole case. Here you can mix and match.”


Classics always sell well, such as tennis balls!

Gail also has two suppliers who knit dog coats exclusively for her, from sizes 8in to 20in, and can also provide coats to custom measurements, useful for dogs with deeper chests, for example. “I am really fussy that coats fit properly, and in winter can sometimes have three to four dogs all waiting to be fitted.”

Gail leaves the day-to-day running of the shop pretty much to her trusted four members of staff – Elena, Urszula, Angela and Jasmine.  “I have got to the stage in my life where I want to do the things I want to do, but I love my girls here, I love their vitality and enthusiasm and so do the customers.”

Gail has worn several hats over her lifetime – wholesaler, retailer, show judge of Dalmatians, breeder – but Primrose Hill Pets is her first love: “We offer service and a bit of theatre, a bit of fun.”


Locals with gardens enjoy feeding wild birds

Helen adds: “Gail is a bit of a legend around here, people trust her and respect her, and if people trust you, they will always come back. There are customers here who are on their third dog with Gail, this is her legacy.”