Image: Love My Human, King's Road, Chelsea, London
Article by Kristian Maris
The Traditional Pet Shop
Ah, the traditional pet shop. What a joy. Bursting with randomly sorted toys and accessories, no-frills bedding stacked high, rows of collars and leads, shelves upon shelves of cat and dog food alongside birdseed, fish food, and more. Everything tightly jammed in to make full use of the shop’s limited size. Plus, for many, the wonder of life: a variety of birds, fish, reptiles, and small animals (even puppies and kittens at one time). Some even have snakes.
And, that distinctive smell we either love or hate, now a fixed sense memory (perhaps from the gerbils and hamsters, mingled with the whiff of bull pizzles or pig and cow ears).
Though the direct sale of kittens and puppies from shops has ended (at least in the UK), you can still find these crowded, lively emporiums, often managed by a hugely knowledgeable character with a cracking sense of humour.
There is, however, a perception of decline in traditional pet shops. You'll hear stories they've been pushed out by higher rents and business rates. Owners simply retiring. Competition from the big box retailers or garden centres and the advantages of more choice, with the added convenience of easy parking. And, of course, squeezed margins competing with e-commerce.
However, many traditional pet shops have adapted brilliantly in recent years. They still have the draw of live animals. They provide a level of knowledge, service, experience and expertise that differentiates them from the competition. Many are doing a roaring trade selling pet food in high volume - identifying themselves as a reliable stockist that local pet owners can depend on. Instead of dying or closing down, they are adapting, and thriving.
New Pet Retail
Meanwhile, small, independent, owner-operated pet retail in the heart of our communities, is emerging. But in a radically different guise.
Today, a pet ‘boutique’ may look and feel a bit like a designer clothing outlet. It may be airy and light. There is mood music. The selection of products on offer have been carefully selected and displayed. A delicious aroma from diffusers or scented candles fills the space.
Of course, dogs are both welcome and encouraged! Most owners of these boutiques are wise to ensure an informal and interactive, welcoming and pleasure-filled environment.
Here you will find beautifully handmade, stylish luxury leather dog collars and leads; artisan ceramic dog bowls; printed cotton aprons and tea towels featuring your favourite breeds; books and cards and stationery about cats and dogs; smart dog food storage containers; imaginatively decorated pup-cakes and bakery items; rustic-style air-sealed meat treats; throws, blankets, high-end beautifully upholstered dog beds that suit a minimalist aesthetic. Plus, unique accessories for ‘their humans’. Ironically, you might not actually find much choice of cat and dog food.
Many of the boutiques also provide dog grooming. Or it may be that grooming is the core service and the owners have added retail. But they are doing so in creative and inspired ways. Many are wise as well to ensure that joyful, welcoming, informal environment, tapping into the same down-to-earth appeal of the traditional pet shop serving its local community.
I have the great privilege of visiting various pet boutiques and speaking to the owners regularly. Among the approaches being taken by them, I observe three interesting developments.
1/3. Curated Offering
First, the shop owner provides a ‘curated’ offering that is thoughtfully merchandised. To differentiate themselves from the brands you can find easily on Amazon, the owners have been particular, selecting unique and gorgeous items they know we’ll love. The shop is like their signature. Sharing personal favourites with their local community. Served up with flair and personality and an infectious enthusiasm that ensures we come back for more. It’s a truly personal touch but within an elevated shopping experience.
2/3. New Retail
The second approach is fascinating, if still less evident among smaller shops. This is what may be called ‘New Retail’. New Retail is the use of the latest technology integrated holistically across the business. From the suppliers to shop delivery to end-customer fulfilment and all employee and customer touchpoints, even to the bookkeeper and accountant and the Treasury.
It’s what many also describe as ‘clicks and mortar’ but it’s much more than simply posting on a Facebook business page or bolting an ecommerce-enabled website onto your physical shop. For example, an upholstered dog bed on display in this new pet boutique. Use your smartphone to scan the QR code and you are taken to the shop’s relevant webpage where you can have the item made to order, select the size, fabrics, finish, colours, and arrange delivery.
3/3. Ethical Business
The third approach – which underpins everything – is equally radical, and startling in its pace of adoption. It is what may be described as Ethical Business.
In her book, The Kindness Economy, the UK’s ‘Queen of Shops,’ retail expert Mary Portas, argues that ‘business’ must prioritise “people and planet over profit.” The days of thoughtless mass-consumerism must stop because it’s killing our planet. And we must treat people well. Our employees, our customers, our suppliers, the manufacturers, everybody in the supply-chain.
Hyper-connected by social media and with the advantage of a physical presence, small businesses serving their local communities are well-placed to revolutionise the High Street. They are doing so energetically, fuelled by convictions around sustainability, reducing a reliance on plastic, rejecting ‘fast-fashion’, supporting homegrown talent and authentic artisan craftsmanship.
As a London-based manufacturer of higher-end accessories to independent pet boutiques, I find increasingly that my introductory conversations with the shop owner or buyer are initially about values and partnering with like-minded people. It’s great for bonding, getting to know each other and sharing ‘a-ha’ moments. When we’re on the same page, it’s a great start. Plus, it’s invigorating, hopeful, exciting. We’re part of something bigger. On a Mission.
Discussions around price points and margins are of course necessary, but secondary. We aren’t just lucky to work with others who are enthusiastic about promoting British handmade goods that are fit for purpose and built to endure. It’s something we decided on and committed to. And it works. Or, as Mary Portas reassures about this great change in how we approach business: it’s still business, “but it’s wrapped in kindness.”
The traditional pet shop continues to offer a meeting point among like-minded pet lovers and provide us a connection to each other. As a society that lived through covid, we discovered we all rather liked being connected, in person, instead of just virtually. I am confident that we can also delight in the renascence of the High Street and our local shops in part through the new emerging independent owner-operated salons and pet boutiques.
If you're a shop owner who would like to know more about stocking authentic British handmade leather dog collars and leads, please visit our Wholesale page for more information.