Shop Talk Walnut Pet Supplies

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Shop Talk: Walnut Pet Supplies
11th July 2016

By Sandra Pearce

Walnut Pet Supplies is a one-stop shop for pet owners in Milton Keynes, and is constantly adding to the services it provides. It is also carving out a reputation as a raw food specialist


Nigel (on the right) came in to help Ron about four years ago, and liked it so much he stayed!

It is no longer unusual to find a vet and/or a groomer within a pet store, but Walnut Pet Supplies in Milton Keynes is a very different beast. Not only does it have a grooming salon and a veterinary practice, but it also houses a canine hydrotherapy pool, conducts training classes, rents out an exercise field to dog owners and this summer will open a dog day care centre. 

Walnut’s MD Nigel Labaleine said: “We very often have customers come and put their dog into the grooming salon, grab a coffee and do their shop. Many others use the field to exercise their dog and then pick up whatever they need. “You should see us on Saturdays – we can have a queue for the groomers, and the field is going full strength. It gets manic!”


We’ve never seen one of these at a pet shop on our travels! Walk-in freezer has become a necessity for Internet orders

It helps that space at Walnut Tree is not an issue. The shop occupies about 3,000 sq ft, which owner Ronald Spencer rents from a farmer. The former farm has a number of outhouses, and the pet shop is housed in what used to be the milking parlour, which explains how it seems to go on and on and on.

Ron set up the shop about 25 years ago, and remembers how in the early days he sold lots of livestock, including pigs! That’s all gone now, and the shop has evolved along the way. For example, he introduced the pool about eight years ago, which is now rented out to a canine hydrotherapy specialist. In a way, the evolution of Walnut Pet Supplies is a microcosm of the growth and changing landscape of Milton Keynes, a designated fast-growing ‘New City’ and home to several national and international companies including Argos, Domino’s Pizza and Mercedes-Benz.


Walnut offers bespoke hutches, aviaries and runs

You need to change if you want to continue to succeed, say Nigel and Ron. Nigel, who is Ron’s nephew, came to help out in the shop when Ron had a health scare a few years ago. That health scare is now well and truly vanquished, and Ron has found himself a new partner. “I really am here to help move the business in a different direction,” said Nigel.

Which meant diversifying and adding value. He added: “When I came in, I looked around Milton Keynes at the other pet shops, and noticed that many of them are the same, they’ll sell Pedigree, Beta, all similar to supermarkets. I wanted to bring in something different, and brought in many new products. It also meant talking to local people, for example dog trainers, vets and breeders, and getting ideas of what they thought and what they wanted to see.”


Simple sign outside – the council objected to the original sign (which had been in place for over two decades!)

As a result, even though there’s a Pets at Home about two miles away, it’s not a worry as the vast majority of what Walnut sells is not stocked in the pet chain.

The pet store now rents space to a VetSavers branch and the Snuggles Dog Grooming Walnut Tree Salon – the groomer is so busy there are three tables as well as a self-service dog wash unit. A dog trainer also conducts training classes on a couple of weekday nights and all day Saturday, and the store hosts puppy parties. Don’t forget the field – this is a quarter-acre of secure, fenced-in pasture, which owners can book and use in half-hour slots. “It’s always busy,” he said. “People come from Oxford, Luton, all over because it is an enclosed area.” Needless to say with everything going on, the self-service coffee machine gets constant use.


Shelving instore was all made by Ron

Once a month, Vince MacNally, a vet with homeopathy qualifications, runs consultations instore. Vince has his own range of raw pet food and supplements, which Nigel says caters to the holistic side of the business.

“We all speak the same language,” said Nigel. “The groomers and vets are all on board, we all believe in good nutrition.”


Dog food is a big seller

There’s also Les, who hand-makes a range of bespoke hutches, houses and aviaries that are on
display outside. “You could say we support a lot of other businesses,” says Nigel. “And we’re always looking for other pet businesses, and will be opening a dog day care in Summer, in partnership with the hydrotherapy owner.”
 
Nom, nom, nom…
A whopping 95% of business at Walnut Pet Supplies is now dog food – it sells literally tonnes every week. He said: “I wanted the shop to be as niche as possible, and I looked at the top end of food and decided to go for super grainfree from independent manufacturers rather than big suppliers. So I brought in the likes of Lily’s Kitchen, Simpson’s Premium, Barking Heads (thanks to our dog trainer who recommends the brand to his customers). I like Green Dog, because it is unusual, and we also offer our own-brand from Pero. AATU is expensive, but people come here asking specifically for it. And with brands like Arden Grange and Burns, again, people like it and expect to find it in a pet shop.


Treats are strategically positioned close to till to encourage impulse purchases

“In the beginning it was difficult to convert customers; people have their own ideas of things, but now they are coming in and asking for the top-end foods. We’ve found that people are more inclined to listen to advice and to want better food for their pets.

“It’s a slow process to convert people to new, better-quality food, but we like it that we are converting people. We’re doing something we believe in, and it’s not just making a profit for the company.”


Wild bird display greets customers as they enter the store

Ron introduced raw five or six years ago, recognising that it had the potential to grow very fast. Though that is perhaps a bit of an understatement! The shop now has 12 freezers instore and a large 7m x 3m walk-in freezer outside, and is now recognised as a raw food expert.

Nigel feeds his Labrador a raw diet, and customers comment on its beautiful condition and coat. Talk about a walking, barking advertisement! “A couple of years ago, raw was perhaps 10% of our business, now it’s 50%,” said Nigel. “We go through about four tonnes of food each week.”


Shop stretches on and on

He added: “The food we sell is high quality. People come here and ask for the best food and the best treat. As a result, we do not need to sell many supplements – if you feed your dog the right food, you don’t need vast amounts of shampoos and supplements for itchy skin, etc. All you need are wormers, flea treatments, perhaps some salmon oil, stuff like that.

“Our customers now know what to expect when they come here. Our social media also highlights our stand on specialist nutrition.”


Layout encourages customers to trial new chews

Social media and the digital side of things is another aspect of the business that Nigel has developed: “It’s nothing too corporate, it’s about fun, and in a way, building a community.”

Facebook (with 5,000 likes) for example releases information on best sellers, new products, dog shows or special events. It’s also used to promote the store’s website.


Compact healthcare and supplements range

Nigel has introduced an online shop, and its incredible success has come as a great surprise, proving to be a business on its own. He admits he started the online site more as a tool to raise awareness of the shop, to attract new customers and to demonstrate its specialist nutrition status. It’s been live for about four years, but about two years ago, sales really kicked in. Remember that walk-in freezer? Well, the bulk of its online sales are for raw food! “It’s been incredibly successful,” he said. “The food comes in and goes out almost immediately.”

Evolved Digital is a digital marketing specialist that produces regular Online Competitor Intelligence Report, and in its Winter 2016 Pet Supplies report, Walnut Pet Supplies made it into the top list in several categories including organic visibility, beating swellpets, berriewoodwholesale and pets-pantry. “We only went live in the Autumn of 2012, and to get such a high score and beat such well-known names is absolutely fantastic,” said Nigel. 


Super premium brands are stocked

At its heart, however, is its roots as a community pet shop on the immediate doorstep of a large residential area. “We’ve got the perfect location,” he added. “True, there is no passing footfall, but we have ample free parking outside, and those who come here are genuine pet lovers who want our specialist food.


Frozen raw does very well!

“We have a large pool of regulars, some who have been with us for over 20 years, and everyone knows where we are. We are also still growing, thanks to social media, dog trainers and word of mouth. We’ve never had trouble with shoplifting or any other problems. We have really nice customers, people who are real animal lovers and who want to come here. They’re real pet people!”


Cats are not forgotten