Getting the Most Out of Grooming
Five retailers discuss the opportunities and challenges that come with offering grooming services and self-service dog washes in pet stores.
With all of the competition that brick-and-mortar pet stores face in today’s crowded pet supplies market, it’s no surprise that these retailers are increasingly looking for new ways to draw customer traffic into their aisles. For many, pet care services fit the bill perfectly, as they not only complement a pet store’s traditional retail fare nicely, they can also contribute to the retailer’s reputation as a valuable, trusted resource for local pet owners. Even better, these offerings simply cannot be replicated by the online retailers that have become pet stores’ largest source of competition in recent years.
Pet grooming—whether in the form of a full-service salon or self-service dog wash—has become a particularly popular choice for specialty retailers that want to incorporate a service component into their businesses, and for good reason. Because many pet owners will use grooming services regularly throughout the life of their four-legged friends, these offerings have the power to inspire a steady stream of repeat visits. In addition, depending on what types of grooming services a pet store offers and how they are handled, these services can also be a direct source of revenue.
Despite all of this upside, though, grooming services do present a unique and formidable set of challenges. With this in mind, Pet Business asked five successful retailers to share their experiences and insights into what it takes to harness the power of grooming in a pet store environment.
The participants were:
What inspired you to offer self-service dog washes and/or grooming services in your stores? Was it always part of your business model?
Andrew Kim: We felt the same customer that would benefit from our curated products would be the same pet parent looking for differentiated service offerings. Grooming was an obvious choice because all dogs need grooming. We always had this as a focal part of our business, and it remains a pillar to what we offer.
Scott Click: Customers had asked for [self-service dog washes] and we began seeing them around the country at stores like ours. We felt it would be a good service for customers.
Laura Gangloff: We originally conceived Riverfront Pets as the village it takes to raise your pet. We provide a full range of supplies and services, and create events and opportunities for our neighbors to spend time in the shop.
We live in a ‘resort style’ urban area that is largely comprised of apartment homes and condominiums, so a self-wash facility makes perfect sense. We provide the humans with shampoo, towels, dryers, aprons and extensive hair traps in the plumbing—which they aren’t likely to have at home. We also clean up and provide a little help if their pet is not fond of the bathing process.
We offer full service grooming services for animals whose grooming needs are a little more specialized, or for owners who are pressed for time—we provide the service and can engage with the customer at drop-off and pick-up.
Alison Schwartz: Our store opened in August 1992. In 2000, we moved to a location that had three individual bays, and when one of the bays became available, our landlords approached us to see if we were interested in expanding. At the time, doggy daycare was a popular business (and still is), so we began a doggy daycare and grooming combination. However, due to some extenuating circumstances—a walkway was added behind our building, which ate up green space for walking dogs—we decided to close the daycare and focus on grooming.
Grooming has proven to be a valuable service for our customers, but it has also given us an opportunity to give back to the community, just as our store has always done. Our groomers offer significant discounts to rescuers for foster dogs in their programs and have groomed shelter dogs for free for several years.
Kim McCohan: When we built our building almost 15 years ago, we made sure to include space for a wash to be included. It just made sense to have that service for the public, as our motto is, “We believe improving pets lives will make the world a better place for everyone.”
What made self-service dog washes more attractive to you than adding full-service grooming?
Click: Self-service washes allow a time convenience for the customer, as no reservations are needed. They can come in, wash their dog and be done in a few minutes as opposed to making a reservation, leaving their dog and returning later. Customers have said they also like the ability to try different products like Furminators, special brushes or eye, ear and face washes that we provide.
There is also the added benefit that less space is needed for these washes than full-service grooming, since we don’t need to board the dog.
This doesn’t take the place of full-service grooming for customers who need it. The washes are just for in-between grooming visits.
Kim McCohan: We wanted to maintain a level of overall calm in the wash environment. Grooming can take hours and sometimes creates a very stressful time for dogs. We wanted to limit the amount of dogs we wash, and we have an online appointment calendar that the public can access where, again, we can limit the amount of people at any one time in the wash. This reduces the frustration of walk-in traffic not having an available tub. There are plenty of groomers in our area, and we wanted to have an environment where pet parents get empowered to do things themselves and learn, instead of drop and go.
What benefits do these offerings bring to your business overall? Is it a profit center? Does it simply generate customer traffic?
Schwartz: Obviously, the benefit to having a service-oriented business attached to the retail store keeps customers coming in and viewing the products we have for sale (and reminds them to purchase their pet food and treats). We do hand out samples to our grooming customers to encourage crossover purchasing, as well as display popular grooming products in our grooming lobby to encourage impulse purchases.
McCohan: We send customers into the wash all the time to play with the products we sell on the floor. It’s a great environment where pet parents can learn what works best for themselves and their dogs, and also ask questions. Most grooming products can’t be returned, so we tell pet parents to bring their dogs in and play around with the items before making a purchase.
While the wash isn’t a profit center, it can be invaluable for the wash staff to facilitate a conversation to help improve a pet’s diet. Customers may discuss their dogs’ dandruff, brittle nails, bad breath, etc., which begins a deeper conversation that could end with the goal of getting this dog healthy from the inside out. There are some customers that are dog wash customers only, but the majority shop in our stores, as well. Overall, I’d say the dog wash is a nice complement to Bend Pet Express, but it’s really about a convenience for our customers.
Click: It does generate traffic to our stores, but it also firms the relationship we have with customers and their pets. Some customers have thanked us for providing a ‘community service.’
Kim: The goal is to make all business segments profit centers! Grooming is a sword that cuts both ways. It can lead to sticky clients, foot traffic, profits and a competitive advantage to brick-and-mortar.
However, grooming poorly executed will lead to loss sales of both services and retail. You can lose an excellent retail customer if you impair the relationship through grooming. As a higher cost labor center and sunk investment in equipment, plumbing etc., if you do not have it thrive, its difficult to convert back to retail, leads to losses, etc.
How does managing self-service dog washes differ from a full-service grooming component? Does their impact on your stores differ?
Gangloff: In general, I would say we require professional groomers to run the full-service grooming department, but the retail staff can run the self-service without difficulty.
In terms of impact, we have found that the self-service dog wash is not lucrative in itself, but it does contribute to the shop’s success in the big picture. 1) It doesn’t cost much to support, so we can use it as marketing by providing coupons for a free self-wash in order to entice people into the store. 2) We partner with a local rescue/shelter and have been able to host dog washing fundraisers. Occasionally, the Delaware Humane Association will bring dogs over to be cleaned prior to adoption and we receive the accompanying publicity. 3) The local parks and beaches can be a little muddy, so owners can stop in for a quick wash before their pet gets back in the car. 4) The self-wash inspires loyalty: we have pet families that return regularly; and owners will generally buy toys and treats for a dog well washed.
The full-service grooming area is more directly profitable, but a little more challenging to manage. Our shop is still pretty new (seven months in business), so we are still finding our way with scheduling and maximizing productivity.
Do groomers serve an important role in recommending products and providing pet care advice in your stores?
Gangloff: Absolutely! Customer service is the key to our business model. Our groomers are always available for customers (whether they avail themselves of grooming services or not) to discuss skin and coat issues, promote pest control, recommend the appropriate brush, comb or deshedding blade, and/or point out the benefits of our all-natural (and sometimes homemade) shampoo and skin care products. At times, I have seen our groomer and nutritionist collaborate on supporting an owner whose pet has developed allergies—they work so well together!
Kim: Clients can develop a deep trust and relationship with their groomers. As a result, they can be powerful as subject matter experts making recommendations as vets would. We want our groomers educated on our products because they can identify through the grooming process targeted suggestions that the dog can benefit from. We view success when the groomer can make a recommendation and than transition to our retail staff, who can fully engage in the pet care advice. When this teamwork happens, we believe the magic happens for our client.
Schwartz: Absolutely. Groomers are in the top three of persons from whom a customer takes advice seriously. In addition to grooming clients, we often will refer store customers to our groomers to discuss appropriate brushes and grooming tools for everyday care for their pet.
Has there been anything that has surprised you about offering self-service dog washes, whether it’s in the process of adding this component or the impact that it has had on your stores?
Click: It has been most popular in stores located in medium-income areas. For instance, in one store located in a higher income area, we had at least two customers say they liked the washes so much they had one built in their home. These customers also seem to use full-service grooming more often.
McCohan: The only thing that may be surprising to others is we limit the volume of dogs in our wash. While it makes us money to have every tub filled at every moment of the day, that’s not our focus. We want to have the best environment possible for what is an already stressful time for most dogs. We love pet parents who will come in with their dogs and walk through the steps, like getting into a tub or getting onto the nail trim table, without anything happening. We want to help desensitize those pets to our wash environment, and make sure customers who just ‘stop in’ while shopping with their dogs find a welcome sight.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of offering bathing services in addition to a self-service dog wash? How do these two components complement one another?
McCohan: The main challenge we see when offering the public self-service right next to us washing a customer’s dog would be the hair factor. We will blow out a dog’s coat to get out as much water as possible, resulting in a less than ideal experience for the public.
However, we have taken many strides to not only limit the public access when something like this occurs, but also make personal calls to customers who have booked tubs during a blow out and explain what to expect. This allows the customer to change their appointment.
The secondary challenge we have seen is not having enough tubs. We have executed a $5 reduction in bath price if customers reserve their tubs online. This has not only been extremely helpful with controlling walk-in foot traffic, it can also help walk-in customers who didn’t get a tub learn that they can be guaranteed a tub and save $5.
It’s super fun to have all the same brushes, shampoo, items, etc., as the public right next to you. They witness our staff make miracles happen with all the same items they have access to in the same tub. This usually spurs one of two things: either the customer wants to learn how to bathe as well as we do, which opens a fun conversation; or the customer wants to have us wash their dog next time.
From your experience, what are the biggest challenges that come with offering grooming services and/or self-service dog washes in a retail environment? How have you overcome these challenges?
Kim: As I stated before, grooming business can’t cut both ways. If your groomers do a poor job, it can have a pronounced adverse affect on the business. A poor experience on retail can lead to a vocal customer, but a poor experience in grooming is far worse, given the direct care of the pups.
We have developed our own talent development program that focuses on delivering the Healthy Spot experience through high-quality, safe grooming and relationship building.
In addition, we have a strict safety policies and operational standards that help set up team members for success in their crafts. Groomers are the artists of the industry and we want to provide a proper environment that cultivates their craft and passion while delivering great business results.
Schwartz: Grooming customers are fickle. Just as every dog is different, every groomer is different too. Breed-appropriate cuts differ in look from groomer to groomer, simply because grooming is an art. We have found grooming customers to be extremely challenging when they do not understand proper care of their pet’s coat.
To try to overcome this challenge, we have developed a special release for matted pets, as well as a take-home handout about what customers can expect to see when they pick up their groomed pet that has been relieved of mats. We discuss why it is important not to demat large portions of a pet, as well as the painful aftereffects of releasing the mats.
Gangloff: We still have a lot to learn about the scheduling process—predicting how long a groom will take with a dog of particular size, hair length and behavior status. Customers may not be punctual, and no-shows are a problem. We end up with too much unproductive time. All scheduling is currently handled over the phone, as we have not yet been able to find a software plug-in that meets all of our needs and integrates smoothly with our point-of-sale system. Ideally, we’d like a system that can schedule walking, pet sitting/check-ins and training classes as well.
As for self-wash, scheduling isn’t necessary as we are 100 percent walk-in. We have found that the majority of our customers respect the process and use the equipment appropriately. We did have some difficulty with smaller children spraying water across the shop, so we have put age restrictions in place and insisted on parent supervision throughout the premises. That has helped a lot.
What advice would you give to other retailers considering adding grooming services and/or self-service dog washes to their stores?
Click: Keep them clean. The wash area must be thoroughly cleaned after every use. Nothing turns people off more than a wet-dog smell or a messy wash bay.
Kim: We’ve heard mix bag from many other retailers who have wandered into this business. It is definitely not as easy as it looks, but it can be a good contributor to the business when executed properly. The biggest factor is the talent. Finding, attracting, retaining and growing your talent is fundamentally important to the success of the business. Being able to understand how to do that at a high level will determine whether grooming helps your business or hurts it.
Gangloff: It took us a long time to find the right groomers. I think it is important to include the groomer as a collaborative member of the store team and not just an adjunct professional. They have a lot more to contribute to our mission than a cut and blow dry.
In addition, I would say that the inclusion of a self-service dog wash functions best as a valuable marketing tool, rather than a direct source of income. Most of our neighbors are grateful that they don’t need to use their own shower or tub at home; and our current, primary marketing goal is to get customers into the shop!
Schwartz: Be sure you have compassionate groomers that can talk with customers and inform them kindly about the importance of day-to-day care of their pet’s coat.
Also, have lots of cameras that record audio covering every square inch of the grooming process; this is as much for the safety of the business as it is for the safety of the pet. It can be referred back to when a customer is complaining or assuming that something was not done properly.
We have found that iCalm Dog Speakers help to calm barking dogs and keep the salon a more pleasant atmosphere. We offer “Tranquility Sundays” as a more quiet, laidback appointment time for pets that might need to be groomed straight through without other pets in the salon that might increase their anxiety.
McCohan: Research, research research! Ask questions from people who have been in business for five-plus years. We had a dog wash open down the street and it lasted three months. What they thought would be super cute ended up being their downfall.
For example, clawfoot tubs are super cute, but they are still at ground level, which results in back pain—and forget trying to get a big dog in and out of that cute tub. Ventilation is also a must. Review what other businesses are around the space you are trying to occupy. If you want to put a dog wash next to a restaurant that has a shared HVAC, it just isn’t going to work. Likewise, don’t build a doggie spa next to a peaceful retreat. Those dogs will bark, and what may look super cute from the outside can be a nightmare inside for the neighboring business. PB