News Shop Talk Unique Pets



Shop Talk: Unique Pets
4th April 2018

By Sandra Pearce

In six short years, Unique Pets has established itself as a specialist raw food retailer and is now looking to open a third shop. But it’s not all been smooth sailing. Owner Jenna Tomlins talks about the challenges they face

Just a few of the 28 freezers!

Pretty much three-quarters of sales at Unique Pets in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, is frozen raw food.
With 23 freezers, owner Jenna Tomlins says they get through about five tonnes from nine suppliers every week. That’s the weight of 1,500 bricks. Or 2,000 chihuahuas.
Or 15,000 cans of Heinz Tomato Soup. Every week. “If the bottom falls out of raw tomorrow, we would have to seriously rethink our game plan,” she said.

Unique Pets offers complete frozen recipes as well as the raw ingredients from which Jenna and her team create tailored raw feeding plans for each pet – all her staff have undergone training provided by Natures Menu and are Raw Advisers.

Customers travel miles to get to Unique Pets, including from Surrey, Watford, Luton, even Bicester, Abingdon and Oxford, and she’s had many compliments since picking up the award for Independent Pet Retailer 2017 at the Pet Industry Federation Awards.

Cat food section is nicely laid out

But being a raw specialist has brought its own challenges, particularly from vets. For example, some of Jenna’s customers have been dropped by their vets, who claim that their dogs are ‘dropping bacteria’.
There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about raw feeding, especially when vets equate commercially prepared raw food (which has stringent microbiological controls and checks) with pet owners who may be preparing their own raw food at home.

“We run lots of events here to try and clear up such misunderstanding,” she said. For example, it will run a taster day with Natures Menu to let dogs try raw, and will also be hosting a raw feeding seminar with holistic vet Dr Nick Thompson, sponsored by Nutriment.

Loads of guides and how-tos are dotted around the store

“As well as raw feeding, Nick will cover vaccinations and holistic medicine. We are trying to raise awareness that there are other ways of doing things, such as with holistic practices,” she said.
Local vets are invited to all these talks in the hope of helping clear the air.

Something for everyone
It’s been an incredible journey, said Jenna, especially when you consider her first shop only opened in Winslow in December 2011. That is a tiny unit (it still has four years left on its lease), but demand for raw forced her to open a second unit in Aylesbury in August 2013.

Stock levels of natural treats have to be kept high to cope with demand. Empty spaces don’t sell!

Within six weeks, she had to vacate that unit and move to a bigger unit a few doors down – and demand kept growing.
As a result, Unique Pets moved (again) in October 2015 to this 6,500sq ft unit on an industrial estate. The move, she said, was challenging. It took 11 months to sort out all the paperwork and about six months for everything to be exactly how it should be.

“We shut the old shop on the Thursday, moved here on the Friday and opened on the Saturday. We also needed additional freezers, new units, and we bought a large walk-in storage freezer as well.” That big freezer alone cost £14,000.

Hydrotherapy service is slowly growing its client base

But the space meant Jenna can now offer so much more. Apart from the hydrotherapy service, Unique Pets offers training classes, sponsored by Feelwells, which run five days a week from its own dedicated room.

These training sessions are so popular there is a waiting list and there has been no need to advertise.
“It’s all been word of mouth,” she said. “We do not even promote it on Facebook.”

Attractive display of coats

Her father runs photography sessions for pets from a photo studio upstairs (owners bring their pups and dogs in at intervals for professional shots, charting their growth in a pictorial essay), and there is an onsite grooming salon.

Unique Pets also organises regular puppy parties and courses for owners such as first-aid for pets, the latter of which takes place every two months.

Owners can also choose from large wet offering

It also runs one-off special events like Santa Paws at Christmas and a yearly Dog Show, which raise funds for local charities.

Jenna is excited as a Bowen therapist is on the cards to offer sessions for pets. She’s also hoping to hold a Ferret Day later this year to raise awareness about rescuing ferrets.

With 12 full-time staff and two part-timers, Unique Pets is open seven days a week, though Jenna now takes Monday and Tuesday off.
She said: “I will always remember my first landlord who told me, ‘If your doors are shut, customers cannot come in and spend their money’.”

Space is not something Jenna and her team have to worry about now

Something different
Jenna will only sell products that she believes in. She said: “The problem here in the UK with products is that there is a lot of the same thing, variations on a theme.
“I want to see something new, and not just tweaks to something. It’s about looking for products from a dog’s point of view. So I do a lot of Googling and have found a few things.”

Unique Pets sells a number of brain games and activity games for dogs, and natural treats form a decent chunk of sales.

Though frozen raw is her top seller, she does stock a small range of dry pet food, but these are strictly assessed.
“I do like to support local companies and British companies, and for us, Eden Holistic Pet Foods, Akela Whole Prey  and Simpsons Premium are our two big dry sellers, and they protect the independent retailer.” 

Jenna’s rescue dog Joy loves these treats from Finer by Nature

She has also just started selling homeopathic remedies, and this is a direct result of her own experience with her rescue dog, Joy.
Joy, a three-year-old French bulldog, had been handed into the vet to be put down due to severe mange and loss of fur.
To cut a long story short, Joy ended up with Jenna who immediately switched her on to a raw diet. Jenna also enlisted the aid of holistic vet Nick Thompson, and through holistic remedies and the new diet, Joy went from being underweight at 9.2kg to a healthier 11.6kg.
“She’s still got a way to go, but she is a totally transformed dog,” said Jenna.

Thinking big
Jenna is now looking for a new location of about 4,500sq ft on a farm or industrial estate as she would like to open a third shop in December and hit the Christmas trade.

Eye-catching MeatLove display

“I know what I want and what I want it to look like,” she said. She’s looking where there is a gap for a raw specialist.
She said: “I would love to have a dog park, with ball pits and play areas. I want to make the new shop a journey, a destination.
“I have my eyes on a whole new world.
“I want to offer a place so owners can bring their dogs for a couple of hours and let them play, where they can also sit and have a coffee.
“A place where people come in because they like to have a chin wag about their pets, and know that we are giving them the best advice and knowledge.
“Joy is a reactive dog, and I notice we are getting a lot more reactive dogs, and so I want us to be a place where owners can feel safe with their dogs.
“Yes, there are providers who have fields for hire, but they are not ideal and more and more land is being bought for development.

Strong healthcare range includes homeopathic remedies

Besides, what do you do when it rains?”
If by some chance she finds a place on farm, it would be perfect if she could then put solar panels on the roof or invest in a wind turbine – her current electricity bill is around the £1,000 mark each month.

The icing on the cake would be if she could convince a holistic vet to open a practice on the site!

If there’s a big Pets at Home within a 10-15 minutes’ drive, she’d be even happier.
She said: “If there is a Pets at Home, I’d set up shop, but not if there’s a good independent selling raw.”

Being close to a grocery chain is also good because you then tap into their customer base.
“We have an Aldi around the corner from us, and it’s good because people go there for their shopping and then come here at the same time.”

She will not, however, open a grooming salon again.

Reflecting on their winning the Independent Pet Retailer award last year, she said it was phenomenal.
“It was so surreal. I almost died,” she said. “I almost choked on my water – I do not remember the rest of the night, but the next day I was here at 8.30am for a Natures Menu delivery. We came in with cakes and flowers for everyone.
“This was their award. I have such a fantastic team, and I have full confidence and faith in them. They’re the ones that did it. This award will stay with us forever.”

Since the win, other retailers have visited to see what Unique Pets is like and what makes them different.
She said: “Our big challenge remains getting the right information about raw food out to people and vets.” 

Training classes are so popular there is a waiting list

Out of the blue
Raw cat food is growing massively in Unique Pets, especially the Purrform range, which Jenna admits took her by surprise. Shop manager Hannah had been feeding Purrform to her own cats and suggested they try it out in the shop.

Jenna said: “Purrform is not cheap, so we ordered in the tiniest order possible. It came and after about an hour, it was gone.

I thought, that’s a fluke, but we ordered a slightly larger order, and it came…and it went. It just sells. Once they have had Purrform, that cat will not go to anything else.
“Purrform is now overtaking all the other brands of cat food here, and we order it in every single week.”