Shop Talk The Pet Corner

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Shop Talk: The Pet Corner
16th November 2016

By Sandra Pearce



When Julie Holmes decided to shut the door on her accounting and finance background to enter the pet retail scene, she knew exactly what she wanted her shop to look like. The result is a pet shop – but with a distinct boutique feel

The Pet Corner in Worcester is in a class of its own. Owner Julie Holmes clearly does not ascribe to the cram-to-the-gunnels, use-every-inch-of-shelf-space mindset. Instead, products in key locations are arranged artistically, just as you might see objects on display in art galleries or boutique shops.

“I like the shop to feel nice,” she explained. “This use of space subtlety makes you want to slow down and have a good look around at what’s on offer.

“And I do like a tidy shop.”

She admits she is always changing things around to create new interest. “When I have finished, I will walk out of the shop and come back in again to see if what I have moved or changed, works; I look at it like a customer sees it.”


Julie (left) and staff member Jo Kelly spend as much time as possible with customers

Aisles are nice and wide, so customers with wheelchairs or baby strollers can move around easily. Her four staff have pointed out that one of her favourite phrases is ‘just so’ – everything has to have a reason, and be in the right place.

It all feels rather elegant. Even the weigh-up bins and pick-and-mix treats have a distinct classiness about them.

“We want to encourage our customers to choose what they want, like in the old days of Woolworths – help yourself, but with a boutique feel.”


Each dog has its own weight record

There is certainly a relaxed atmosphere; some of her customers come in just for a chat, and Julie and her staff are in no rush to send people on their way.

“We like to take time with our customers, for example when fitting dog harnesses, and if we are trying to sort out their food, that can take absolutely ages,” she said.

She’s obviously had to be very strict in deciding what to stock. “You cannot stock everything on the odd chance someone might come in for something,” she says realistically. “We can always order in to demand.”


Wild bird is a lovely mix of branded, pre-bagged and weigh up

Another strategy she uses is to store all her big food bags out back, leaving only display bags instore – “Otherwise you get taken over by these big bags.”

Her customers obviously like what she has to offer, and sales have risen every year since she first opened in October 2012. She had started out with one unit, and joked with staff that if the neighbouring betting shop ever became vacant, she’d take it over.

“I mean, whoever heard of a betting shop closing down?” she asked.

Well, The Pet Corner rapidly outgrew its original space, and the betting shop closed down. There was only one thing to do. “So I threw caution to the wind and took it over,” she said.


Boutique feel to pet shop

Last December, she added yet another service by opening her grooming salon Wash Tub. Julie handles the grooming herself, having completed a City & Guilds qualification under the Pet Industry Federation.
She said: “I only accept two to three bookings a day and have them spaced apart, so if a dog has matted fur, I do not think ‘I need to rush’.

“I want this all to be relaxing for the dogs… this is not a conveyer belt. I have the music playing, and the dogs look at me like I am crazy!”

Within five months of opening, her waiting list is already six weeks long.

Nutrition specialists
The Pet Corner has managed to build up a reputation for its nutritional knowledge and its range of natural treats for dogs with allergies and sensitivities. Not surprisingly, dog food is her biggest seller, with Symply and Canagan leading the way.

“We do sell a lot of Symply and Canagan, and I must say they have been such a support. They’ve a brilliant rep in Aimee (Cinderby); I can pick up the phone and call her if I have issues on anything, and not just pet food. Aimee is a brilliant sounding board and has so much information.


Symply and Canagan are strong sellers

“It’s great how they support the independent.”

(Symply Pet Foods founder Eddie Milbourne has pledged to sell Symply and Canagan only through the independent pet trade.)

Julie also singles out Terry Barber of Pero Pet Foods. “He is full of good advice and very supportive. He believes in what you do.”

The Pet Corner offers a weighing service and helps owners manage their dogs’ weight, whether it is to gain or lose a few pounds. Each dog has its own card, and staff record a pet’s weight to make sure it is on target. They also offer a tailored nutrition plan for each pet.

“I always look at ingredients and prices – I have been known to send back products if the ingredients do not match what’s on the packaging. It’s such a false economy buying something cheap, full of fillers,” she said.

“We will work out how much a dog has to eat and how much it costs to feed them what they need.
“ It’s all about the customer and their dog. Just because it is a premium food, it does not have to cost the earth. I want to make sure each dog eats the best according to the owner’s lifestyle and budget.
“If the customer is happy and their dog is happy, it’s win-win.”

She’s noticed older customers tend to prefer to stick with supermarkets and grocery brands, but younger customers are happier to shop in independents and are more willing to listen to nutritional advice. Which led her down the route of sourcing her own-brand of grain-free dog food, but crucially which would not cost the earth.


Own-brand Just So makes it presence felt

Pero Pet Foods produces her food, which she has called ‘Just So’.

“We were all wondering what to call it,” she said, “and just could not agree on the name. Then one of my staff said, ‘It’s just like you in the shop, it’s all got to be ‘just so’.’ And that was it!”

Just So puts a new spin on weigh-up as each flavour (chicken, duck, salmon and lamb, each with sweet potato) is housed in a large lined drum for customers to scoop.

But you won’t find traditional plastic bags or brown paper bags. Instead, the bags are brightly coloured, as found with pick ‘n’ mix sweets and chocolates (though 2kg branded labelled bags and 12kg bags are also available).  It’s all about having fun, which is why the display area is set out like a British garden in summer, with wind spinners that children are always drawn to.


Shop has a reputation for its natural treats

Her treats offering is extensive, with big brand names jostling alongside the lesser known. All have one thing in common – these are natural treats, and include low-fat and grain-free offerings. “Treats are easy things for people to buy, it makes them feel better that they can buy a nice natural treat for their pet that does not cost the earth. It’s a real feel-good factor.”

No point worrying
As with most independents, competition from online retailers is an ongoing issue. But Julie aims to be philosophical about this.


Good selection of wet food

“Yes, I sometimes have people come in and price compare with online. I tell them to buy it online and sometimes joke ‘Can you get it for me as well at that price?’It’s hard enough as it is with supermarkets, but you cannot compete with online competition. I used to worry about it, but I know I cannot get it for the price they sell it at.

“I try not to worry about competition or about the big pet store. This is where Symply and Canagan stand out. They are sticking by their word and not letting their food go on the Internet, and it’s a great support for the trade.”


New products are clearly signposted

Her big advantage is that she and her staff ‘offer something totally different’ to big chains, online and grocery. That ‘something’ goes beyond friendly service, good knowledge and quality product offering.
“We’ve become an extended family to many of our customers.

“We’ve had customers who have lost a pet come in and have a cry and a hug. People know if they have a problem they can call on us.

“It’s a complete package made up of the dog, customer and us. We’re so much more than a shop for people to come in and buy something off the shelf.


Julie also sells pet-themed cards, wrapping paper and gifts

“You know, I opened this shop because I was fed-up of being lied to when I first got a dog. Fed-up with people not telling me the truth and just selling me a premium brand or own-brand. I am totally honest, and I do not worry about being honest. I do not have to sell this food or say that is the best food. My customers and their dogs come first, and they know they get the truth from me.”