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Shop Talk: Thearne Pet Stores
21st July 2015

By Sandra Pearce




Hull’s thriving Thearne Pet Stores hits its 70th anniversary next year, but the going has not always been smooth. Owner Robert Nicklas talks about the moment that caused him to re-think his strategy – as well as airing a few other issues!


Until about 10 years ago, Robert Nicklas admits to trying to compete on price with popular brands. Then one day, just by accident, he drove past Wilkinson’s huge distribution centre in Worksop. He recalls being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the building. “I stopped the car to have a look and said to myself, ‘How can they be this big? Robert, you cannot survive; you have to do something different. That was my ‘Road to Damascus’.”

Over the years, Hull’s Thearne Pet Stores had lost 50% of its historical trade to Wilkinson’s, Pets at Home and other big retailers – in its early days, there were two shops selling pet food in the city centre; today, over 20 stock pet food. Yet despite this, the 1,000sq ft store is thriving and has reclaimed this trade through new tactics, with over 2,000 people joining its loyalty card scheme and a 10,000-thereabouts customer base.



Part of this success is down to Rob’s insistence on moving away from supermarket brands and other Known Value Items (items that shoppers purchase so regularly that they are aware of their prices).

There is no way a small independent can compete against supermarkets, so you have to offer something different, he explained. In his store, dog food focuses on Thearne’s own brand, Arden Grange and Canidae, and he is a strong advocate of grain-free foods. “We don’t stock anything with a filler in it,” he added, “and we avoid any product that is wheat based.”



Robert believes that wheat-based foods shorten dogs’ lives and lead to a rise in diabetes. “I am not a vet and have not read any paper specifically on this, but I am convinced.” After years of talking to customers, he says anecdotal evidence is suggestive that feeding a wheat-based diet ‘does something to their blood sugar’. “If I had the money, I would pay for research into this,” he said.

The bottom line is that to counter the growing domination of supermarkets and chain stores, the independent has to become specialist, and so Robert and his team increased their knowledge base to become experts. And this expert knowledge goes hand in hand with excellent customer service.



His team of eight staff (two are full-time) have between them clocked over 170 years’ experience in the trade – there is never a vacancy. Five years is the shortest length of employment, and the longest-serving staff member has notched up 40 years.

Specialist retailers have to keep abreast of what’s going on the industry. “There isn’t anything we buy that we don't check up on first; we get full product knowledge,” he said. As such, his staff are in a strong position to inform and educate their customers, giving them a clear advantage and unique proposition in the city – there are no pet food advisers in supermarkets! “We simply tell customers the facts… we are educating people all the time; all successful stores have done exactly the same thing,” he said. “Take Forthglade food; you need to talk to people about the product, but once they try it, they don’t switch.”



It’s about trading customers to a better brand, of which price is not necessarily an indicator. If a product is advertised on television, you can be sure that the consumer is paying for that along with the manufacturers’ other costs and overheads. “If something is advertised on TV, there will definitely be a cheaper and better alternative,” he states. It’s avoiding what he calls ‘flannel’ – this convincing customers of a product’s quality using ‘pretty pictures’. “I am selling a better dog food; they sell pretty pictures and say how fantastic it is; it’s all flannel.” So Thearne concentrates on three dry dog food brands, with three price points. “That’s enough if you have a good sales team,” he said.

“I do not want owners who do not care about what they feed their pet and only want the cheapest food. We have to be profitable, but on moral grounds. If you convince someone to try something else, and they find the new is better than anything else they have tried, there is an inertia to go back to the cheaper food. It’s like once you have been to a nice restaurant, you won’t want to go back to cheap fast food.”



A different world
Thearne Pet Stores first saw light of day in 1946, when it was opened by Rob’s dad – Rob’s grandfather was a butcher, and Rob’s grandmother started a business supplying horsemeat for human consumption during the war, and then as dog food in the post-war years. When his dad had the opportunity to visit America in the early 1960s, he returned and opened the first self-service pet store in the UK, a new concept at the time.



Rob feels like the pet trade has been a part of his whole life (even though he worked as an accountant for a multinational for a while); he remembers stuffing bags of sawdust as a five year old, and spending holidays and Saturdays at the shop. ‘Three generations of us have served five generations of you’ sums it up perfectly – some of their customers have been with them for 50 years. Being smack bang in the middle of the bustling city means most customers arrive on foot, so 15kg bags of dog food are not high-demand items. On the other hand, weigh-up does exceptionally well, which is good as it has higher margins.

The store also sells a small selection of caged birds, fish and small animals. Birds are doing well, thanks to immigrant populations, but small animal sales have slowed. “Children in general have fewer pets,” he observes, “which is sad because if you have a hamster, you are probably going to be more concerned about polar bears. It's a responsibility; this caring for animals is important for children.”



Livestock sales have certainly evolved – he remembers when they sold pups in the front window, tortoises and wild-caught birds. “It’s all changed, and that’s good,” he says. Selling puppies in windows was wrong and encouraged impulse buys, but he questions whether the current situation is any better. “If I pick up the local paper tonight, there will be 10 ads of pups for sale. And most of these have no controls over them, absolutely no controls whatever. Selling pups from puppy farms in a scruffy house is also wrong. There is still lots of work to be done.”

It’s an issue how the pet store tends to get the blame for bad animal welfare, he says. And this is partly because of a ‘historical antipathy’ between vets and animal welfare organisations against the pet trade. Unfortunately, he says, vets and animal welfare groups see the worst of pet ownership, whereas pet shops see the best. “We see the people who love their pets, but the animal welfare groups see the worst and blame the pet shop,” he said. If vets, welfare groups and pet shops worked together, animal welfare would improve dramatically. “Vets and animal welfare groups have the political influence that we do not.”



What’s with pricing strategies?
With items that do not have a Known Value, Robert tends to ignore RRP and admits to being frustrated by companies who either over- or under-value their products, whether through not knowing the market well enough or insufficient research. “There is not enough consultation on prices,” he states, as he often sees products coming in which could easily sell for a pound more, or conversely, generics that are over priced, which he won’t stock.



What with rising minimum wages and utility prices, no reform on business rates, retailers have to increase their margins. “All successful stores ignore RRPs,” he said. “We need to get margins back into the trade through proper pricing.”

Many talents
Apart from the pet shop, Robert has his fingers in several other pies. For one, he is a serious musician and writes his own material, playing live at least twice a week. He is also on the AMTRA Council as the companion animal SQP representative.

His main area of concentration today, however, is his ID tag engraving business, VIP Engravers. Rob and his wife had visited the Backer Spring Trade Show in Baltimore in 2008 when he saw the machine on one of the stands. “I bought one just for the shop. But when I got home and saw how well it worked (Thearne sells about two tags a day), I called them and said, ‘Can I be the agent?’ ”



The rest, as they say, is history as he is now agent for the CE1000 Pet tag engraver, a low-maintenance engraver capable of producing high returns over a long period.

His passion for the trade is clear: “I enjoy working in the shop when I do it; I would not enjoy it if I had 20 stores and had to look at a computer print-outs and sales figures. That’s never appealed to me.”

The pet trade is an amazing place to work, and he and his wife have met ‘some lovely people’ which have developed into good friendships. “I can call the owner of a large company about a problem I am having, and he will talk to me. What other business does that? Yes, we are all seriously competitive, but it’s full of good people.”