Expression Through Design
Pet Express’ unique store setup coupled with an abundance of live animals makes for a memorable shopping experience that keeps customers coming back.
What does the world look like from a dog’s perspective? It’s a question all pet lovers have pondered, and it serves as the inspiration behind the design aesthetic of Pet Express, a chain of Massachusetts pet stores. At Pet Express’ three mall locations, customers pass through an entrance shaped like a doghouse and find themselves in a space inspired by what a puppy would see through his front window.
Each store has the feel of a neighborhood or a small town’s Main Street. A “Mutts & Stuff” bakery boasts an authentic bakery case stocked with dog treats and cookies available for sale. Miniature street lamps line the aisle that holds the store’s main attraction: puppies ready to find their forever homes.
Even the puppies’ enclosures reflect the store’s theme, since each one has a façade shaped like a house. The puppies are able to look through the glass and see the customers who have come to greet them. Familiar phrases are painted on the walls. “Sit,” “Stay,” “Roll Over” and “Good Girl” are all echoes of what these pups will hear every day once they go home with a lucky family.
The founders of the Pet Express chain hope to differentiate their stores from big-box competition with this unique design aesthetic while still being accessible to modern customers who prefer an in-store experience to shopping online.
“We’ve tried to create a fun Disney feel,” says Rob Mellace, co-owner of Pet Express. “We’ve tried to mimic a fun, great environment.”
The Family Business
Along with his siblings John Mellace and Lucia Mellace Castle, Mellace opened the first Pet Express in 1995 in Lynn, Mass. It was a 10,000-square-foot superstore that carried a diverse range of live animals and supplies. Following the success of their first store, the owners secured three more locations, all in shopping malls in the Boston area.
Pet Express’ Lynn store moved to a 100-year-old former lumberyard 1,000 feet away from its original spot. With a decrease in floor space, the owners decided not to sell puppies at the new location, but it continues to offer other live animals such as reptiles, birds, fish and rabbits. Sales have actually increased at the new location.
Opening a new store gave the owners an opportunity to get creative with how they decorated the space. With a look inspired by Whole Foods, the newest Pet Express has high exposed ceilings, concrete floors, chalkboards and a natural, organic feel. It serves as a stark contrast to the cold, expansive feel of big-box stores.
The intended purpose of this refreshed look is to make customers feel at ease as they peruse the store’s products. “Perception is everything,” says Mellace. “When stores look dismal, customers have something to say.”
Perception proves to be particularly important for a retailer like Pet Express because of its live animal offerings. Even though the Lynn location does not sell puppies like the mall locations do, the store still sees its fair share of protestors.
“They care about animals. We care for animals,” says Mellace. “If there are advocates for animals, it’s people who care for them everyday.”
This compassion for pets shines through in the personal and attentive touches taken in accommodating the stores’ live animals. Every puppy at Pet Express is purchased through USDA certified, trained and inspected breeders/dealers. None of their enclosures contain grating, so the puppies build up muscles in their knees and hips by walking on solid ground. The cages are temperature-controlled for maximum comfort. On-staff veterinary care ensures that they are happy and healthy while waiting to meet their families.
This devoted care continues even after the puppies go to a new home. Every pup receives a free vet visit within seven days of being purchased at Pet Express. Low-cost neutering/spaying is available, along with a one-year health guarantee. Puppies also get free and discounted visits to the Lynn location’s pet spa.
Special care is taken in preparing the staff to work safely with the puppies. A month of intense training goes by before a new employee is even allowed to handle a pup. Store uniforms are never taken home by employees and are instead sanitized by a professional cleaner to ensure that they’re hygienic.
Mellace finds this kind of precaution necessary to ensure the puppies’ safety. After all, “You are talking about babies,” he says. Mellace and his siblings work alongside their 100-person staff to ensure that proper protocol is being followed, rotating between different stores every week.
This attentive and caring attitude extends outside the walls of Pet Express. Four years ago, Mellace joined the American Kennel Club Retail Advisory Council, which meets five times a year to discuss ethics in the pet industry.
In addition to keeping pets happy and in good health, Pet Express also looks to please customers. On weekends, balloons bearing the Pet Express name are handed out to children visiting the mall locations, making for colorful mobile advertising. It’s a smart strategy—Mellace estimates that 1,000 people walk through each of the mall stores on a given Saturday. “You need to create buzz about what you stand for and what you do,” says Mellace.
And while the puppies are the main attraction, there are other standout features to be found in the Pet Express locations. Customers frequently examine the unusual tanks that house the stores’ live fish, since they were designed by the team from the popular television show Tanked. Grooming centers are also available in the stores to provide baths and haircuts for lucky dogs. “Our groomers never run out of clients,” Mellace says.
Due to the current success of the Pet Express chain, there are plans to develop a fifth store called Healthy Pet. This location will focus on offering natural, holistic pet products rather than puppies. Whereas the current standalone store has a Whole Foods feel, this new store will have a look inspired by Trader Joe’s. If Healthy Pet flourishes, Mellace and his siblings hope to open even more locations, with plans to develop two stores a year for the next five years.
While deviating from a formula of proven success may be risky, Mellace feels confident in the decision. He has advice for other retailers who may be looking into opening a new location with a different theme or who are considering a store redesign.
“Stay fresh and clean. Come up with a theme and stick to it. Keep your eyes open for what’s out there,” says Mellace.
He mentions that simple changes such as getting new signage and moving displays around can invigorate a store’s look. Most of all, he says not to worry. “People will come.”
Coming from someone who’s been in the business over 20 years, this seems easy to believe. PB