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Shop Talk: Toby's Pet Shop
19th September 2017

By Sandra Pearce


Sarah runs the shop with her husband Mike, and they alternate between running the shop and looking after their young children

Toby’s Pet Shop is located in the Suffolk market town of Framlingham which is famous for its 12th-century castle – apart from a loyal pool of customers, it also sees many tourists who often pop in because they have forgotten a lead or bowl for their dog

There is no better feeling than knowing that the nutritional advice you’ve given a pet owner has worked. Sarah Jennings, who owns Toby’s Pet Food along with husband Mike, says nutrition is the driving force at their store.


The wall of natural!

“The difference a good food can make to skin, epilepsy, diet, the overall health of a dog… I became seriously interested in nutrition and love it so much that I am now studying for a nutritional diploma at Reaseheath College,” she said.

“I remember one lady was ever so skeptical of our recommendation that she changed her dog’s food, but she stuck it out and now says his hair had grown back. Good nutrition works!”


Customers like choosing their own treats

Apart from natural dry food, frozen raw is doing really well – at the time of visit, Toby’s had four freezers: a 2’, 4’, 6’ and an upright stocking Natures Menu products – and was awaiting delivery of a new 5’ freezer from Natural Instinct. “Raw food is so big that we warrant another supplier,” she said.

A raw diet also seems to help dogs suffering from pancreatitis. “Pancreatitis seems to be becoming more prevalent,” she said, “and dogs with it really need a high-meat, low-fat and low-fibre diet. Raw, being naturally low in fibre and fat, works – once customers start on it, they tell us the dog is a completely different animal.”


Own-brand food was launched in response to the East Of England Co-op store expanding its pet offering

Stepping up a gear
Toby’s Pet Shop is the only pet shop in Framlingham, and other businesses and services have nibbled a bit at the market thinking that pet food presents easy sales and guaranteed income. But the Jennings suffered a blow late last year when the East of England Co-op store across the road extended its pet offering to two aisles and included brands not normally seen in grocery such as Burgess Excel, Skinners, Pet Munchies, Ancol and Natures Menu frozen raw. Some of these brands were distributed to the grocery chain by Su-bridge, which also released its own Select brand.


Shop has more space than their previous unit on the high street

Business was adversely affected, especially its small animals range. Sarah said: “We built our business around a number of smaller companies that we thought would support us, but we were wrong.”

Not one to sit on their laurels, the Jennings decided to stand their ground. Apart from contacting the various manufacturers, Sarah launched a Facebook page for the shop and in publicising what was going on, tapped into a stream of vocal support.


Wild bird and hedgehog have their own room

 “We have some really lovely customers, and they were so cross with the Co-op – especially when it says it has an ethical stance and supports local businesses – that we began to see our customer numbers go up as people wanted to support us,” she said.

The big advantage Toby’s has over the East of England Co-op is that supermarket staff cannot give nutritional advice, said Sarah.


Small animal corner

“Prior to this, we had more of a softly, softly approach. But we now went up a gear and brought in our own-brand dog food, we moved our wild bird food into its own area and created a ‘wall of natural’, a display of all foods and treats that are natural, with high-end brands that we feel are best for dogs occupying the top three shelves.”

On these shelves are brands including Barking Heads, Canagan, Green Dog and Lily’s Kitchen.
Manufacturers also helped out – Natures Menu gave Toby’s a loyalty scheme to offer to customers, and Skinners sponsored a weighing scale so they could start weight clinics. The Jennings are also now more selective about brands they promote. She said: “We won’t delist specialist brands that are stocked in the Co-op, but we certainly don’t promote them.”


Grooming range covers something for every need

She sings praises of Green Dog: “They’re a small company, but when we call we can speak to actual people who know actual things who give us actual service. Once I ran out of puppy food and I called; they were at a local country show and popped by and dropped some bags off. And it’s a really good food. We promote it and it sells really well.”

Customers make the shop
Both Mike and Sarah have worked with animals in one way or another pretty much all their lives. Mike is a gundog judge and Sarah used to work for the Cats Protection charity and owned horses. Between them, they have vast experience in all pets – as it is, they have nine dogs at the moment.


Shop is named after Mike’s champion, Toby

Their first pet shop was in Halesworth, but it was not long before the opportunity arose to buy a second on the high street in Framlingham. The Framlingham store had been going for 25 years and was a very good business, said Sarah. They re-named it Toby’s Pet Shop after Mike’s first Field Trial Champion, a black Labrador called Toby who became a stud dog, but who died at 13½ years old a couple of years ago. Sarah said: “Toby was a lovely, lovely dog. He also saved my life when I was mauled by a German shepherd dog.” That rescue GSD had without provocation attacked Sarah and went for her arm, breaking it in two places.

The Framlingham shop was 650sq ft and way too small. She explained: “It was chaos on delivery days. We had no storage there, so we would flood the shop with boxes, unpack everything and put all stock onto shelves immediately. With customers, it was always ‘Excuse me, excuse me’ as you walked around. But after five years, this unit became available and we decided to move.”


Treats are strong sellers

Customers warned that the move away from the high street would ‘be a disaster’ – but it’s been the exact opposite. The new store is 950sq ft with 650q ft of storage space, and customer numbers have actually increased. Sarah said: “There is all this space. Although it’s a rental, it’s in less prime position and the rent is reasonable. Customers can also bring in their buggies and dogs, which they couldn’t before. It’s just lovely. You actually have the space to potter about, browse and look at things.”

The town is also home to Framlingham Castle, owned by English Heritage, and so gets a lot of tourists, many with dogs. “We always joke that in winter we run on bird food and dog coats, and in summer we run on flexi leads. When people come on holiday or for a day out, they always forget something like dog bowls or leads.”


Cat selection has something for every budget

The Jennings have two children aged 18 months and four years and share the childcare between them – each works in the shop for three days and then stays at home with the children for three days. They sold the Halesworth shop as ‘one shop earns us enough’ – having two shops means increased staffing costs which then eat into profits. “Besides, we really love this shop and area, and we definitely put more into it. We are so lucky to have the customers we do; they are so friendly. We are nothing without our customers,” she said.


Shop sells both live food and frozen for reptiles

It’s a two-way relationship, she said, and the Jennings and their three staff members will do everything they can to help their customers, whether it’s carrying bags to the car, even if parked a distance away, or little things like holding a pup while the owner has a good look round the shop. They see on average 100-150 people a day, and offer a number of add-on services including home delivery, key cutting and pet-tag engraving, a horse rug and dog bed washing service, as well as selling the more unusual items such as salt for water softeners, logs, kindling, wild bird food hampers at Christmas and apples and carrots in winter. The previous owner had started the key-cutting service. “I can see why he did it,” she said – it makes a tidy profit, and people need keys all the time.


The Jennings had to learn about reptiles as this was the only species they did not have experience keeping

A successful business is all about being honest and having integrity. She said: “If customers do not need something, we do not sell it to them and we also recommend better ways of buying. So if someone comes in each week to buy a small bag of food or something, we recommend buying big bags. It’s little things like this that customers appreciate.” 


Every inch is used…

If a customer is not sure how much food to feed their pet, they are quite happy to open a small bag, pour the required amount into a measuring cup, mark the level off and give the cup to the customer. “We then take the bag of food home to our dogs. That’s the advantage of having nine dogs!” she laughed.


Frozen has been a runaway success

Customers are also told with items like leads or collars that they can bring them back. “It makes no difference to us, but it gives them the confidence,” she said. “A lot of people think working in a pet shop is fun… it is, but it’s also hard work. Some days you can get frantically busy, but you can never predict what’s going to happen. But we must never be complacent. You hear all the time of pet shops closing down – no, you must never be complacent.”

Apart from growing the raw food offering, the Jennings are planning to introduce a seasonal display unit – for example, displaying cooling coats in summer and toys and treats at Christmas. They also want to take on more engraving work, such as plaques. She said: “We just love this shop, we love our customers. We put everything into this shop. If we can try something new, we will.”


Sarah likes collecting old signs – how many of you remember Spratts?