Pet Retail Pioneers
With their two Northwest Pets stores, Angie and Del Peterson have brought the holistic pet care revolution to Boise, Idaho.
When Angie and Del Peterson opened Northwest Pets in Eagle, Idaho, in 2005, local pet owners did not know what to make of the place. The store, located 10 miles from Boise, offers high-end natural foods that were not well-known in those days. It didn’t help that the 3,300-square-foot retailer was not in a strip center but was a stand-alone site with little signage.
“A lot of people said, ‘I’ve been driving by, but I thought you were a veterinarian,’” says Del Peterson. When consumers realized the business was a pet products store, they asked for the big, well-known brands of food that they were buying from other pet specialty or from food and mass retailers.
In its first year, Northwest Pets spent $10,000 on radio advertising to get the word out about the new business. Pet owners showed up and soon found themselves in half-hour conversations with the Petersons, learning about holistic pet care and how foods without corn, wheat or soy can help improve dogs’ and cats’ health. Then in 2007, the much-publicized pet food recalls helped encourage consumers to buy better-quality foods for their beloved animals.
“People started converting to brands that were more boutiquey at the time, that are now household names,” Del says. “There was an up-tick in business for sure.”
The up-tick continued, and in 2012, Northwest Pets opened a second store in nearby Meridian, Idaho. “If you sit idle with one store, you are creating a job for yourself,” Del says. “If you are going to grow, the business is more a long-term asset than just a job.”
He adds that opening a second store helped Northwest Pets get slightly better pricing in the up-market foods. The stores do not have the same buying power as a chain, Del says, but there is a price break when he buys two pallets of food instead of 20 bags.
Both stores sell brands such as Natural Balance, Canidae, Eagle Pack, Stella & Chewy’s and others, many of which are made in the USA. Northwest Pets positions itself as the “Ultimate Outfitter for Four-Legged Friends,” and sells only dog and cat products. That strategy came from Del’s experience working in an aquatics store in California years earlier. “What I learned was, be an expert,” he says. “Don’t try to be everything to everyone.”
The business probably could not have offered everything to all pet owners, even if that had been the goal. The other obstacle, Del says, was that in 2005, there were very few pet products distributors in the area. “Idaho was kind of an outpost,” he says. Animal Supply was the only distributor with a local presence, so Northwest Pets worked with them. (Animal Supply has a warehouse near Boise now.) The Petersons would find other products at trade shows and try to have orders shipped directly to the store.
It was the trade shows that initially got the couple interested in the industry. Del and Angie had little pet products experience before opening the stores, but they showed Bernese Mountain Dogs. “I ended up faking my way into SuperZoo through the Bernese Mountain Dog Club,” Del says. “We had a great experience, and we learned a little about the retail business.”
Before moving to Idaho, Del and Angie worked in finance in a large biotech company in California. Over the years, their employer grew from 2,000 to 35,000 employees. “It just wasn’t the same small company feel,” Del says. “It was less personal. So we started thinking about things we could do.”
They ended up doing several things. They quit their jobs, moved to Idaho to be near Angie’s family, and researched healthful dog and cat foods. They knew they were not going to be able to compete on price, so they decided to open a store that would focus on premium foods and on excellent customer service.
“We had been to a store in California where there were stacks of food piled high, flies buzzing around, and a guy sitting behind the counter reading a book,” Del says. “Your actions show how much you care.”
Another concept they remembered from California was the self-service dog wash. Del, who earned a business degree from UCLA, immediately understood that the margins are better for that service than for foods, treats and toys. More importantly, dog-wash customers would bring incremental sales. Each dog-wash user receives a small bag of treats, which some dogs have learned to sit and wait for while the human pays at the counter. That often leads to sales to customers who previously had not bought products at the store.
Northwest Pets also has a loyalty program, called Ted-e-Club, named for one of the Petersons’ first Bernese Mountain Dogs. Consumers earn one point for each dollar they spend at either store, and dog washes earn double points. When shoppers accumulate 200 points, they receive $5 worth of credit toward the next purchase.
Ted-e-Club is not only a discount platform, it is also a way to target consumers who could likely buy more. “We might realize, hey, they only do dog washes, give them some food samples, let them know of the quality of food we carry,” Del says. “The food is the thing people come back for every month.”
The sampling and social media have helped the business grow. While the early radio advertising helped raise initial awareness, these days Northwest Pets turns to social media for much of its communications. Facebook and Twitter are much less expensive than radio, Del says, so the business has been able to lower the amount it spends on marketing as a percentage of sales.
The stores use Facebook and Twitter to promote in-store events. The two main annual events are the Halloween party and costume contest in the fall, and a truckload sale in the spring. The Halloween event attracts 50 to 100 dogs and their pet parents, and the truckload sale attracts customers as well as vendors and local pet businesses that set up booths in the Northwest Pets parking lot. The stores also host smaller events such as adoption days for Greyhound Rescue of Idaho, charity dog washes for the Idaho Humane Society and vaccination clinics.
The efforts have helped the stores gain new customers. Del says Northwest Pets gets 20 new people a week at the Eagle store, and 40 new people a week at the Meridian store. It helps that the Eagle store is no longer a far-flung location. The standalone site is now surrounded by Eagle Promenade, a retail development anchored by a Home Depot and a WinCo supermarket.
One challenge the business still faces is competition from online sales, especially when consumers can price check from their smartphones. “Showrooming does not impact you too much when it’s a $10 toy, but some of the more expensive brands of food can reach $100 per bag,” he says. “People care about $100 versus $90 and free shipping.”
With this in mind, Northwest Pets invested in a point-of-sale system that enables website sales. Of the 9,000 products available in-store, 2,000 of those are available online. So far, that seems to be enough, as regular customers, who Del reaches by email and direct mail, are buying online. “I call online my third store,” he says. Again, he thinks long term. “Millennials and generations after them still will have pets, and they are geared to buying stuff online. You cannot ignore that space.”