News Shop Talk Waggles Pet Emporium



Shop Talk: Waggles Pet Emporium
22nd May 2017

By Sandra Pearce

Family-run Waggles Pet Emporium has two shops and an e-commerce site and last year won a local business award. We visit to learn more about this award-winning business

It all started in 2001 with a van and a garage, said Graeme Lawrence. His parents, Steve and Janet, had bought a Trophy Pet Foods franchise and were running the business from their garage, also visiting car boot fairs and markets.

“We realised home delivery is only part of what you can offer,” he said. It was not long before they bought their first shop, and now the family business has two shops in the London borough of Bromley and a rapidly-growing e-commerce site. Today, Graeme and his sister Claire Best see to the day-to-day running of the business, which also has a warehouse with about 100sq m containing stock for the two shops and online business. The first shop was an existing pet shop called Waggles, which they re-named (and since trademarked) Waggles Pet Emporium. Both shops – the second is in West Wickham, about three miles away – and the website have the same name. “Branding is very important to us,” said Graeme. “It’s something that people recognise, the Waggles name.”

Both shops were ‘gutted’ upon purchase, and though they carry a similar range, the atmosphere in each is distinct. The larger Bromley store is more of a community shop, but its turnover is lower than West Wickham which is a ‘destination store’ being on the high street.
“We have to fight for the business in Bromley as that shop is not a destination like this,” he said.

Graeme with two staff members, Sally Draw and Lisa Evans

The family employs 17 staff members, but only two are full-time as some work just two days. Although they used to sell livestock, this stopped about four years ago as they now work with rehoming and rescue charities – one of their staff members runs a small animal rescue, and fosters and rehomes rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters. “What we do now works very well for us,” he said.

They provide a delivery service, and this is so well-known that everyone knows they can place an order by Tuesday lunchtime, and they’ll get their delivery on Wednesday.

Graeme was for years in sales and marketing in hotel management and loved it. But, as he says, hotels never stop or shut, so was not conducive to starting a family. It was a lifestyle choice to then join the family business – at least a shop has opening hours! His marketing and organisational skills have been put to good use.

He said: “We have a structured plan. Every four to six weeks our shops have a new theme, and we tie this in with marketing, products we are pushing and our monthly newsletter. So we will mention a product and you’ll see it in the window. We also coordinate this with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

Graeme was so taken by these edible cards that he tracked down the manufacturer in America

When they visited the Happy Pet Products trade show last year, they ordered a load of new products but kept them under wrap until January, ‘typically a bit of a dull month, to keep interest going’, he said. Next on the agenda will be a focus on wild bird – they have ordered new tables and feeders – and at some point their summer display will roll along with the theme of travelling with pets. Halloween and Christmas always create a lot of interest and energy. Promotions, which are manufacturer-led, are also widely used.

“I am used to that level of planning from the hotel; l like excel spreadsheets,” he said. “There are very few things in marketing that you can translate into actual physical sales, but it’s all about the PR, brand awareness and exposure you get.”

Their newsletter is not just about promoting products as it has animal care and well-being features, contributions from charities as well as a list of animal services such as local dog groomers. “It’s a collaborative effort, and is what we’d like to think people find to be a good read,” he explained.

Wild bird will feature as a theme later this year

The Waggles team works hard to be active in the community, whether it is by sponsoring aspects of events or working with local animal charities to support them through collections. These charities include the local RSPCA branch, Last Chance Animal Rescue and Second Chance Animal Rescue, Foal Farm and Guide Dogs. They also support their staff member who has the small animal rescue with food and bedding. “We support quite a bit through raffles, for example school and summer fetes. This tends to focus on wild bird, so we donate seeds, feeders and coconut shells,” he added.

For the last four years (long before the government legislation), they have requested a donation from anyone who requires a plastic bag. “Our customers have always donated generously, and we have managed to raise an average of £100 a month,” said Graeme.

What’s new?
New products are very important, he said, and the family makes it a point to attend the PATS shows and other trade shows. He explained: “We always like to try to support innovative products, and they do good deals at PATS, especially for non-food items. That’s where you get the best discounts. We place a huge order and that can last us the whole year, so we get the margins.”

Symply and Canagan sell well – the family looks for suppliers that support the independent

The family also tries all new food on their own animals first – and as they have seven dogs and seven cats, that’s a number of willing tasters. Many customers are now asking for natural food, which has become a talking point. As far as possible, they try to ‘move away from supermarket stuff’. “People do come in and ask for big brand supermarket names, and we can show them something else and say this is what we recommend. We talk to them about ingredients. Grain free is huge and growing every day, and as a result, we are phasing out foods with grain as that is where the demand is.

“Lily’s Kitchen is very much on our radar. We’re working on creating space to do it justice – we know there is a market for that price point.”

He does admit that giving advice can be difficult if an owner is ‘stuck’ on a particular brand. He recalls one owner whose dog was suffering from digestive issues, but was only fed wet. Despite suggestions to try a dry food, the customer refused to try anything apart from wet.

Some people like their poo bags to look attractive, and Waggles Pet Emporium caters to all tastes

Raw has absolutely taken off. West Wickham has three freezers in-store and one out back. “It’s a growing market and we’re really glad we took this on.”

Sometimes his quest for new products can lead him on a chase around the world. He saw some edible cards that are not made in the UK, but managed to locate the manufacturer in the US. He tracked them down and after failed attempts at calling and emailing, Facebooked them and got a reply. He now orders these direct and they’re selling well as they are ‘so unique’.

Customer recommendation can also give good hints as to what to stock. “We’ll research what they ask for, and then stock accordingly,” he said. One product that arose from a customer’s recommendation was Thornit, for canker.

Wet food a plenty to choose from

“If something is wrong with an animal, we always recommend they go to the vet first. If the vet has made a diagnosis, then we can step in,” he said.

Offer a service
Occasionally, someone will walk in and talk about ZooPlus and how cheap some products are on its website. “I do not know how they get it at that price,” he said. “I do think the independent needs more help from the big suppliers, especially on price, and there is certainly an opportunity for the retailer to be stronger.”

As far as possible, they buy direct from the manufacturer, but when it comes to food, there is no beating the prices that can be offered online. So the Waggles e-commerce site deals specifically with non-food items. “We just cannot get the prices on food to get competitive, and we’ve found that online, small items costing less than £10 do better.”

The shop has a large health-care range

Offering about 450 lines, they send out 20 to 30 orders every day through their own website and off eBay, a ‘comfortable’ level, he said.

Even though customers could buy their big bags of dog food online, Waggles still sells ‘quite a lot’ in-store. He said: “People come to us. Yes, they know they can get it cheaper online, but the knowledge and advice we give means so much more. We have dog trainers who work here, and so we offer value in that people can come in and ask if they have an issue, and our advice is not specific to a brand.

“My concern is the online generation, the millennials who mostly shop online and who do not shop in-store. We’ve got to show them the value in shopping in-store. I want to build relationships with them. Which is why it’s so important to do social media, where you can first make contact with them.

West Wickham store is tight for space!

“It’s then about adding value to the shopping experience, like how we have dog trainers on staff. Yes, you can Google, but that’s not the same like coming in and talking to someone. So we want to create a reputation as being a puppy specialist and can get you started with starter items.”

Recognition that the team is ‘doing it right’ came when it scooped the title Independent Retailer of the Year at the Bromley Business Awards 2016.

There is growing demand for natural products, including for small animals

“Everyone then realised what a good job we do,” he said. “And not just with our customers, but our staff too! It’s too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day running and not realise what a good service we provide. Sometimes it takes someone looking in from the outside to point that out.” 

A lot of food is bagged up for sale

Introducing new lines is always a challenge when space is at such a premium!