News Shop Talk 2015 Unique Pets



Shop Talk 2015: Unique Pets
17th March 2015

By Sandra Pearce

Unique Pets has a bit of a reputation as being a raw pet food specialist. Sandra Pearce pops in to visit the Iceland of the pet trade

Unique Pets certainly lives up to its name. The store has 11 large freezers stocked full with Natures Menu, Nutriment and Benyfit frozen raw food. Yes, 11. Not counting a small domestic freezer of frozen food for reptiles.

Yet even with 11 freezers (her electricity bill is £400 a month), owner Jenna Tomlins said she could really do with another. In fact, she is planning on reducing her dry food offering to make space for a 12th freezer.

Do you hear that? That’s the sound of the hallowed Retailer’s Guide to Selling Pet Food being torn up. In an age when dry dog food is king, Jenna is proving you can re-write the rules. At Unique Pets, 90% of her turnover is from frozen food. She sells two tonnes of the stuff every week; a tonne is delivered every Monday and Friday.

When we were visiting in the second week of January, a ‘small’ order of 347kg which ‘should last for the day’ was being delivered – Christmas had thrown off their natural rhythm. Takings had increased significantly over the festive period, and Jenna and her staff had to pack 80 pre-orders on Christmas Eve. “We were playing tetris with the freezers, trying to pack all the orders in as well as deal with customers coming in,” said Jenna’s right-hand woman, Ellie Munro.

Unique Pets in Aylesbury is Jenna’s second shop, her first is at Winslow (opened on Dec 1, 2011), and she has already started looking for a third location as Aylesbury is ‘ just about coping with demand’. Jenna says she did advertise ‘a little’ in the beginning through the usual channels of local radio and magazines, but word of mouth has been her town crier. Facebook is also useful and her site has over 1,100 likes.

She said: “Demand in this shop has totally shocked me. I thought it would take another two to three years before we reached this point; business has totally taken off.” 

Winslow has only four freezers, and two of those are domestic freezers, but it is also a much smaller unit. She opened the Aylesbury shop on Aug 31, 2013, and followed Winslow’s example by having four freezers. Within six weeks, she had to move to a bigger unit a few doors away as she could not keep up with demand. And there’s a disadvantage of freezers – space. You need a large floor footprint as you can’t stack ’em high.

Her success as a raw food specialist is ironic when you consider that at the beginning, although she wanted to go the natural route and do things differently (no yellow, please), raw was not on her agenda. “I belonged to the group who said my dog is not a wolf. I was not interested in raw, and felt dogs did not need it.”

However, to paraphrase a popular idiom concerning puddings and eating, ‘the proof is in the raw food’. It all came down to Jenna’s Bichon-Shih tzu cross named Gus, the runt of the litter. “In his first year he was very poorly, had bad skin, and kept losing weight,” she recalls. Walking around Crufts, she stopped at the Natures Menu stand and was given a packet of raw nuggets to try. “He ate it, stopped itching, and started gaining weight almost immediately,” she says. Convinced of the power of raw food, Winslow soon saw two standard Natures Menu freezers and two domestic freezers.

One size does not fit all
Jenna has lost count of the number of customers who walk through her door saying their dog is hyperactive, has itchy skin, gunky eyes or loose stools – ‘we hear it all’. Most of the time, the pet’s condition is down to diet.

“People like us because we will talk to them about their dog, and explain exactly what’s what – we tell the truth. We talk to them about their dog, and not give general statements like, ‘Oh, he’s a spaniel and that’s what spaniels do.’ No, your dog is unique; your dog is your dog.”

For Jenna and her team, it’s not then a matter of just shoving a bag of raw nuggets or mince into their customer’s hands. Instead, each customer is given a tailored, feeding plan. “We do not let people leave without a meal plan,” she reiterates. Working generally to the 80-10-10 principle (80% muscle meat, 10% organ meat, 10% bone), she says that if customers just feed white fish for example, there will also be problems.  “We tailor each menu depending on the dog and how he responds. Then we see them in a couple of weeks and see how that is going on and what progress has been made, and whether tweaks need to be made,” she explained.

Local vets have come on board, she adds, and many of their receptionists now buy raw from her. “One receptionist had trouble with her dog, who was on a prescription diet for pancreatitis. Well, she tried raw and her dog has not had a bout in two years now. She tells their clients about raw as well.”
Not surprisingly perhaps, customers have been known to call Jenna for veterinary advice. “I always tell them I am not a vet, and they need to see their vet. I do not want to tread on any toes.”

And speaking of treading on toes, ‘that’ documentary certainly sparked a bit of a panic. We are referring, of course, to Channel 5’s The Truth About Your Dog’s Food, shown in January 2014. “There was a lot of sensationalism, and it did not explore the topic properly,” said Jenna. The night it aired, Jenna was up till midnight on Facebook, answering customers’ queries about salmonella and e-coli. “I came to work at 8.15am, and bearing in mind the shop only opened at about 9.30am, there was already a queue of people outside all wanting to talk about the programme. They were scared, yet you are more likely to get salmonella from dry food than frozen raw.”

She is especially irritated that the programme did not explore the use of additives in pet food. “Some other stores have removed small animal muesli food, but still stock foods that are packed with additives. Why? There is no logic in this.”

A total experience
Last October, Jenna added a grooming salon. “It’s not a conveyer belt-type service with a dog waiting in a cage for its appointment. Our clients leave before the next comes in. We never have dogs waiting for appointments.“It’s a service rather than a money-making scheme,” she said. A service which seems to be finding favour with owners of ‘difficult’ dogs. “We are picking up many dogs that other groomers won’t do, so we see a number of nervous or even aggressive dogs. Handling them takes patience,” she says.

For instance, for first-timers, Jenna lets the dog visit the shop after hours, about four weeks before the first session so it can have a good sniff around. The salon is located upstairs, so on a subsequent visit, the dog is brought upstairs and allowed to play. “By the time their grooming session is due, the area is not so scary anymore,” she explains. Not to mention the dog also knows that Unique Pets is home to lots of treats!

Following the natural theme, the salon only uses the Wildwash range of natural shampoos.
For puppies, there are weekly training classes held by Rachel Hopton Canine Training after hours – all shelving units are built on wheels, and are simply pushed to the side to create a space in the middle of the shop for about eight pups and their owners. She has also started a photography service, run by her dad, for studio shots of pets. And she offers free local delivery on orders over £15.

“I do a lot with kids, cubs and schools, which is all wildlife-based. I give them some bird feeders and bird food, and help them understand that if you do not look after wildlife, there will be nothing left.” Though wild bird food is a good seller in Aylesbury, it literally flies in Winslow. 

She is currently looking at starting adult dog training sessions and running a weight clinic – she already has the weighing scales because ‘you need to know the weight of a dog to feed accurate portions’. “Too often owners go to vets and are told that the dog must lose weight, but are not really given the understanding how to do this. This is something we could do.”

When it comes to deciding what service to add to the store, or even whether to open another store, Jenna says she does not spend ages researching. “I lick my finger, hold it up and say, yup, that will do for today. I see how things sit with me. It is all gut instinct.”

And right now, her gut instinct says that her third shop will open with 12 freezers… a Petland in the making?