From Hip to Healthy
Over the past decade, Chicagoland’s Two Bostons pet store chain has thrived by responding to a changing marketplace and delivering a healthy dose of customer service.
When AdreAnne and Andy Tesene opened their first Two Bostons Boutique and Gourmet Bakery in Downtown Naperville, Ill., in 2005, they did so in a marketplace that was very different than it is today. Back then, it seemed like the demand for fashion-oriented pet products was on an unending upward curve, and anyone with the right retail space, a cute store name and a trendy product mix could run a successful pet boutique. Over the decade since, however, reality set in as outside influences undermined the demand that fueled the boutique explosion of the early to mid aughts.
Between 2007 and 2009, the combination of high-profile pet food recalls and a severe downturn in the economy proved to be a game changer for many pet retailers, particularly in the boutique segment. Consumers suddenly found themselves with far less discretionary dollars to spend on their pets, and what little they did have to lavish on their four-legged loved ones was not being spent on primping, but rather on advancing the health of the animals. As a result, many shortsighted boutiques that failed to respond to this shift in the market fell by the wayside.
Two Bostons, on the other hand, thrived by evolving its approach.
“When we first opened up, we were definitely more of a boutique-type store,” says Andy. “That was when Paris Hilton had her little dogs on TV, and everyone was looking for fun outfits and things like that [for their pets]. Since then, we’ve pivoted into more of a wellness role and have focused more on items like quality treats, chews and food.”
“When we first opened, we carried one type of food—the type that we fed our own dogs,” says AdreAnne. “When the big food recall happened in 2007, that’s when we really got into food and started focusing on educating pet owners about what a species-appropriate diet should look like. Since then, we have really been heavily into food. We feel that providing a good, proper diet to your dog or cat can solve a lot of their health issues.”
This wellness-oriented approach has served Two Bostons quite well. Over the past decade, the single-store startup has grown into a three-store chain in the western suburbs of Chicago, with two locations in Naperville and one in Burr Ridge, Ill. Of course, it helped that the local customer base—which Andy describes as being filled with somewhat affluent and highly educated young families—turned out to be the perfect audience for this retail evolution.
“Our customers feel comfortable challenging [convention] and are open to hearing new perspectives,” says AdreAnne. “Our ability to help them with that is ultimately why we’re here.”
“They’re passionate advocates for their pets, as opposed to just passively letting things happen to them,” says Andy. “That is what we want in our customers.”
The desire to reach more of these customers and help them keep their pets healthy and happy is what has driven the expansion of Two Bostons—which was honored with a Retailer Excellence Award for Customer Service at the 2015 Global Pet Expo—into a multi-unit retailer. “It is exciting to us to know that we can go into different communities and help educate them on how to care for their pets,” says AdreAnne, noting that she and Andy also take great pride in having a positive impact on the lives of their growing staff. “Those are the two factors driving our growth.”
Part of this approach to expansion means tailoring each store to cater to its unique customer base. As a result, while each Two Bostons location—which range in size from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet—has a similar look and feel, there are variations from store to store, including within the product mix.
“The branding and the look is the same, but what ultimately sells in a given location depends on the local community,” says Andy. For example, he notes that the Two Bostons store in downtown Naperville does not sell as many big bags of dog food as the other two locations, and for good reason. “People don’t walk around the downtown setting carrying 30-lb. bags of dog food on the weekend,” he says. “Our stores that have parking lots right in front tend to do more business in those types of products.”
Of course, understanding and reacting to various wants and needs of each store’s customers isn’t always this intuitive and requires some work on the part of the storeowners. “We do a good job of listening to our customers,” says AdreAnne. “Our store staff is instrumental, because they really know the customers coming into the store and what they need.”
Two Bostons’ newsletter has also proven to be a valuable resource in assessing the preferences of each store’s customer base. “In all of our newsletters, we say, ‘Please respond, and let us know what you want,’” says AdreAnne, noting that this is particularly important as the storeowners prepare to attend trade shows like last month’s SuperZoo show in Las Vegas. “We want people to let us know what we should be looking for, what is missing from our mix.”
While serving a passionate, highly educated customer base can be personally fulfilling and financially lucrative, it does require that retailers bring their A-game. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that we have such an educated customer base, we have to stay one step ahead and on top of the latest trends,” says Andy. “We can’t have a static selection in the store, and the knowledge that we have cannot just be a snapshot in time, because we do have engaged customers who, when they hear about new [wellness concepts], will come in with questions.”Having an educated and engaging staff has proven invaluable when it comes to answering these questions. To this end, Two Bostons has a comprehensive training program in place for store associates and well as managers. “Part of our customer service philosophy is that we don’t practice on our customer,” says AdreAnne. “We provide a minimum of 60 hours of training to new team members before they are allowed to interact with customers. Our customers are so valuable, and they deserve the best from us.”
The training utilizes a combination of workbooks, video and role-playing exercises developed by Two Bostons, as well as some sales training from a third-party provider. “We’re trying to hit them from multiple angles, so they are able to retain the material,” says Andy.
The training does not end once the initial education is accomplished, though. Monthly team meetings, sales training videos about new products and periodic training sessions conducted by vendors are all vital parts of a robust ongoing educational track for store employees. Two Bostons’ approach to employee education also extends into developing store managers. Preferring to fill each store’s manager and assistant manager position by promoting from within, the company carefully selects and trains candidates for these posts. “These are people who understand our culture, and we want them to see that there is an opportunity to move up,” says AdreAnne.
Another important aspect of Two Bostons’ approach to delivering a high level of service is its Boston Bucks Club loyalty program. Through the program, pet owners receive significant discounts and newsletters from the retailer. However, the program is not just about collecting customer data and distributing coupons, but rather building relationships, says AdreAnne. “We want [customers] to feel like they know us, and we know them as a person, not just as their loyalty club pin number,” she says. “We start all of our customer relationships by engaging them in the store, knowing that we are going to send a hand-written thank you letter to every customer who signs up for our Boston Bucks Club.”
At the end of the day, providing award-winning customer service at Two Bostons is as simple as following the golden rule by giving pet owners the type of attention and assistance that the Tesenes want when they are shopping. It is an approach that the storeowners say requires a big-picture perspective, rather than focusing on closing the sale at hand.
“Our overall strategy is concerned with the lifetime value of the customer,” says Andy. “We are looking to be around for a long time, and we’re looking to develop those relationships. We are not focused on the transaction. We’re focused on doing right by our customers because we know that the lifetime value of a loyal customer is worth more than any transaction.”