News Shop Talk The Doghouse



Shop Talk: The Doghouse
13th February 2018

By Sandra Pearce

Right is Jacqueline who is training to be Lauren’s No 2

In six short years, grooming salon and boutique pet shop The Doghouse has 3,000 clients on its list. Owner Lauren Pavey talks about her plans and the challenges she faces

Lauren Pavey may have grown up in Eltham, London, but it’s only since she’s owned The Doghouse that it has sunk in what a community really is. “I now feel part of the community and know what it means – everywhere I go, I meet someone I know. Some of my customers, I know their whole life story, their kids, when they go on holiday. And we all look out for each other,” she said.

Lauren, 28, set up the grooming salon and boutique pet shop six years ago and now has 3,000 dogs on her book with schedules filling up six weeks in advance on three grooming tables. She’s happy – and never a more perfect example of someone who took the lemons life handed her to make lemonade.

When she was about 11 years old, her knees started to hurt. The pain got progressively worse, yet doctors could find nothing wrong and put it down to growing pains or, worse, that it was in her mind. And so she struggled for years. It was only during a second operation and biopsy that doctors discovered she has chronic rheumatoid arthritis, a type that does not show up on blood tests, and osteoporosis.

By 18, she was in a wheelchair; and then it was crutches. Yet throughout, she led as normal a life as possible, studying fashion and costume design and moving into TV and post-production work. She is honest about those dark years, the bouts of depression and loneliness. She said: “I got so angry that I could not do what I wanted to do or what normal 18 year olds were doing. Social media had just come out and that made it worse because there were all these posts about my friends doing things that I couldn’t.”

When she started working in post-production, the daily commute to London got steadily worse.  “When you’re on crutches at 21, 22, people think it’s because of a skiing accident and you’re not disabled and do not need a seat. I remember once asking someone if I could please sit down, I thought I was going to faint, and she asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’. On my hospital visits, I have a blue badge for parking and a nurse asked me why do I need one. I was always being questioned.”

Lily’s Kitchen is in The Doghouse!

The turning point came when she learned that life was not about what she could not do, but about what she should not do. And that she had to find ways around things. So instead of going to a nightclub, why not have friends over for a nice meal and a movie? She also learned that it is not failure to ask for help, and that not everything has to be done instantly. “I have good friends and fantastic family – you do not have to do everything yourself! When you explain, people do understand.”

However, the daily commute got too much and she was broken-hearted when she was forced to leave her job. However, an idea had been forming in her mind for a long while. Growing up, the family dogs were brought to groomers who usually groomed the dogs in their kitchen. “I felt really uncomfortable leaving my dogs with them, and I remember I kept saying, this area needs a proper groomer with a proper business,” she said.

Then by chance she got talking to a groomer who was looking for a new opportunity. Within two months, Lauren had found premises for her new grooming business and pet shop.

Counter top displays seasonal purchases – this was clearly in the run-up to Christmas

While Lauren ran the business side and shop, she picked up a qualification in grooming. She admits it was all a bit scary in the beginning: “I have someone’s baby in my arms!”
As demand grew, she had to recruit more staff. She now has a team of seven part-timers which includes a vet nurse who comes in at the weekends and a self-employed groomer who comes in once every two weeks as she wants the company and opportunity to learn about new styles and trends.

Brown, brown and yet more brown!
At the start, Lauren had a budget of £1,000 to stock her shop. It’s not a large shop by any stretch of the imagination, but she admits the budget was not a lot. “My dad and I visited as many other pet shops as we could. I figured, if they are stocking those items, it must be making them money,” she said. “I did notice that there was a lot of brown and green for collars and leads!”

Her brother , Lee, was working in TV/film post-production and special effects in Los Angeles, and so she would visit him and pop into local pet shops there – and was amazed by the variety on offer. “I like colours, design and fashion, and so I started bringing in collars and leads from America to trial, and my customers liked them and asked for more.

Nice display of pick and mix treats and impulse purchases

“I started going to PATS, which is a really good show for new products. I do also like to support companies that make in Britain. You know, no one wants the same collar as everyone else – every dog is unique, so what they buy should also be unique. I now only buy in one of every colour and pattern. That’s what my customers expect. You need to give customers new things.”

Today, Lauren also imports dog clothing, coats and shoes from America. What is important is that every dog has to try the product. “I want everyone to come in and try things on. What works for one dog will not work for another – you need to try a dog coat on!”

The other thing that struck Lauren about shops in America is the customer service, which she said is absolutely top class. “I remember going into some pet shops here with my dad, and it was like, do you want to serve me? There were times I was just ignored, but in other shops the staff were really nice and helpful. You need to go the extra mile for your customers. If you do not, why should that customer come back to you? It’s all about building up customer loyalty.
“I have a rule: I will never cancel an appointment. If there are no appointments and I do not feel well, I might close early and leave a note on door. Often customers will text me to see if I am ok!”

Lauren only brings in one of every design

Training is very important to Lauren and she displays all certificates with pride. So even though she does not sell raw food, she has studied and undergone training in raw just so she can talk to customers who might have queries. As it is, customers are always asking for advice. One customer has a dog that can only eat white fish, no dairy or gluten, and is allergic to dust and grass mites. “I found Benevo, and then I also found some sweet potato chews. The owner is absolutely delighted. The poor dog had been scratching so much she was self-mutilating, but now is ok.”

There are always opportunities to learn, she said. She has good friends in America, with whom who she keeps in touch via Facebook, and they share ideas and news on new products.
And Lauren likes trying new things – if you hadn’t got the idea yet! In summer, she was offering Puppoccinos for pets – a twist on the Bambinoccino frothed milk served in some restaurants for children. Pawsecco sales are also doing well, she said. “It’s funny, but in the first four years there was no real demand for cat, but this is now picking up. But cat owners want quirky items for their cats, like new grooming items – and Pawsecco!”

Kindness costs nothing
Lauren says where she is today is down to her parents. “My mum and dad (Sue and Joe) brought me up knowing what is right and wrong. Why would you not invite a neighbour who is alone for Christmas in? Simple things count, like every day my dad brings in a newspaper for a neighbour who is elderly and struggling.
“I am so thankful to my mum and dad. This really is an invisible illness, and when I was younger, they had to do everything for me, including carrying me up the stairs.

Tempting array

For them to have to smile at me and say everything is ok when I was upset and crying, and I now know it was killing them to not break down in front of me. They were, and are, always encouraging.”
At one point her dad had three jobs and her mum also had more than her fair share of health issues. “But mum and dad taught me to always be positive, that things could always be worse. I have enough for my bills and  have a roof over my head!”

Her dad, who is in his early 60s, works from 4am until about 2pm as a casino manager, and her mum now writes children’s books, the Charlie Dog series, and goes into local schools, telling the primary school children her stories.
“Kindness costs nothing. It’s simple things, like if anyone has not come in for a while, I will ring them up, not to book an appointment but just to check that everything is ok. One lady walked in and she had had an operation on her foot – I drove her home!” she said.
“Everyone is always talking about helping on social media, but no one is actually helping! You look after people and treat them like you want to be treated yourself. It’s as simple as that.”

When employing her staff, Lauren was amazed to learn that at least one had never been issued with a contract before, and two were not allowed lunch hours.

Team spirit is high on the agenda, and they all go out once a month or so – outings have included bowling, pole dancing and even a spa day. “You have to have that bit of fun, and everyone enjoys it. It helps build the team and job satisfaction, and in the long run helps my business. It reflects in their job if they are not happy.”

Fancy a tipple?

Every year, Lauren runs a raffle for a Romanian charity that rescues strays, and last year raised £140. That was enough for 10 bales of hay to keep the dogs warm in winter and to fill the car with dog food.
She also helps groom the rescues which are brought into the country. Last year she was asked to help groom one that was in a particularly bad way. “I said ok, bring her after hours and I’ll groom her,” she said. “The moment I saw her, I said ‘She’s my dog’.”
Betty, a small border-cross, was thin and trembling. About four years old, she had no front teeth and there was a hole on her neck – probably caused by a starving bigger dog. Today, Betty is a transformed dog and has ‘a heart of love to give’.

Lauren also has a rescue cat and two kittens. A woman had called saying she wanted to rehome two kittens. Although Lauren doesn’t normally do this, this time something made her agree to pop round to have a look at the kittens. “When I walked in, it was terrible. There was this man hitting one of the kittens with his crutch, and a boy was holding the other by its tail. I said, ‘Give them to me. I’m taking them’.”

And that’s how Lauren came to have Lily and Lola, who are now about five months old and getting up to all sorts of mischief at home. “I cannot imagine not having a pet,” she said. “There is too much of an attitude of ‘Why should I do this’ or ‘Why should I help? Someone else will do it.’ Yet you have time for social media and to take to Twitter or Facebook. Do something instead! Help someone!”

The sky’s the limit
It comes as no surprise to learn that Lauren has won a Young Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Thames Gateway Business Awards, organised by publishing company Archant. And she has big plans for the future of the business.

Her first plan is to move to bigger premises, hopefully a unit two doors away which is easily three times the size of her present unit. There she could have a dedicated room to groom nervous dogs, a much larger general grooming room, more space for the shop, and a coffee bar – one day she’d really like to have a hydrotherapy pool as well!
“Oh, I’d really like to include a coffee bar. For many people, a dog is their link to the outside world where otherwise they might feel intimidated. Also, so many places do not allow dogs in. If I had a coffee bar, it could become a meeting point for people and local groups to meet, such as the local MS group.”

Certificates are proudly displayed behind counter

One of her customers has multiple sclerosis and mentioned to Lauren how she was concerned that if she fell or something, she would lose her grip on the leash and her dog could run off. So Lauren suggested using one of her more fashionable collars as a bracelet, to which her customer could attach a leash. Problem solved.

Lauren would also like to host monthly seminars on a Sunday for groomers. She said: “So many groomers work from home, but there is not much provision for training and meeting up with groomers in London. It would be nice to build up a community, where we can ask questions without feeling intimidated.
“I would also like to host workshops and talks for owners, such as first-aid courses. So many owners do not know what to do in an emergency. Or even with day-to-day care like which is the correct grooming brush to use.”

The lack of information is a big challenge, she said, especially for young people starting out. There needs to be more mentoring schemes and information points, where one can find out all manner of topics ranging from local grants to VAT, from payroll to business rates and tenancy agreements.
“It’s a minefield,” she said. “There are some training schemes and mentoring programmes, but they are few and fleeting. But I must say Lisa (Pawsey) at the Pet Industry Federation is fantastic and such a help. She is so lovely and I can ring her any time. But you know, if I can do this with my ditzy brain, then anyone can do it! And if anyone needs help, they can always contact me.”

It is a shock when Lauren reveals that she would be better off if she claimed disability benefits and lived off the state. “Yes, I would be better off if I did not work, but then seven people would not have a job, and we are all paying taxes as well. It’s completely crazy, I know. I have interviewed people who applied for jobs who say they would earn more on Job Seekers’ Allowance – and I am paying the Living Wage!
“But having this shop has made me feel that I am helping in my own way, even if just having a chat with people.”

Salon has three grooming tables

It’s not a hobby!
Why is it that people think running a pet shop and grooming is ‘easy work’ and ‘a hobby’, Lauren asks. “It’s so common that people have this idea that it’s a chance for a quick buck and it’s easy work – it isn’t! As groomers, we are trained in skin conditions, hair growth, grooming techniques, anatomy, health…
“I like it when customers come in and watch us. They always say, ‘Wow, I did not realise you do so much. I need to leave you a tip.’ It’s two hours of standing and working hard. There is no playing with the puppies!
“Yes, we do have fun while working. For example in December we had a Christmas jumper day, a Rudolph day and a ‘Christmas outfit you have made yourself. But it is still hard work.
“You’ll never get rich running a pet shop or doing grooming. You do it for the love of animals.”

Deep breath…
People can be very patronising, Lauren said. “The number of times I get called ‘girl’ or referred to as the ‘blonde girl’, or Jacqueline gets called ‘the Asian girl’.”
Jacqueline Nguyen is, in fact, Vietnamese and training up to be Lauren’s Number Two.
Lauren added: “I’ve had to lie about my age. I’ve had customers say ‘I want to talk to the manager’. I say I am the manager, ‘No, the real manager,’ they say.
“All these attitudes: ‘You cannot be young without being an idiot’. ‘Oh, mature dog lady, oh, therefore bad with people’. ‘Male groomer, something wrong there’. ‘A woman, you should be looking after children’.
“I’ve had people come in and say, ‘Oh, you’ve gained weight, are you pregnant?’
“No, I’m on steroids for my arthritis’. We see it so much.”