Growing a Retail Brand

Parker's, in Chicago, has evolved from a boutique into an "independent-box store," meeting the needs of residents in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood.


Seven years ago, Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood welcomed Parker’s, its first pet boutique, to the area. The store’s high-end product selection for dogs and cats appealed to the neighborhood’s residents, and its pet food section was more convenient for pet owners in the area who, before Parker’s opened, had to drive 30-plus minutes to the nearest pet store for premium food.  

However, soon after Parker’s opened, the economic landscape changed, and owner Katie Pottenger had to adapt the store along with it. “Before the economy crashed, we were more of a boutique,” she says. “People were willing to spend more money on their pets, so we had all the high-end products like clothes, collars and toys, and good food. Then, the economy changed. People weren’t willing to spend $80 on a dog sweater like they had before, but they were still willing to spend good money on food for their pets.”

The store transitioned from a small specialty boutique to a more comprehensive pet store, doubling its size to 4,000 square feet, expanding its food selection, and adding grooming and self-wash services in 2011. Now, the store carries a variety of supplies for dogs, cats and small animals. “We try to be an independent-box store,” Pottenger says. “There isn’t a big-box store within miles of us, so I try to have a little bit of everything that people are going to want, but the higher-quality, independent business-friendly version, to keep people from traveling to the big-box stores.”

The concept fits perfectly in Hyde Park, which is near the University of Chicago, and draws more educated customers to the store. “Instead of coming in and asking what kind of food they should feed their dogs, our customers question us as to why one food is better than another or what the difference in quality is between companies,” adds Pottenger.  

Having inquisitive customers means that Parker’s staff members—which includes three full-time and two part-time retail employees, as well as two groomers—must undergo extensive training to ensure they can field any customer’s question. Pottenger hosts weekly training sessions allowing employees to familiarize themselves with new products. She invites manufacturer representatives to teach the staff about new products, and  she often asks reps to come back for refresher courses on products the store has had in stock for awhile.

“One of the things that sets us apart from other stores is that we won’t blindly hand customers a bag of dog food and say, ‘Here, try this one.’ We’re going to tell the customer exactly why it will benefit their pet over what they are currently feeding or over another food,” Pottenger explains.

Pottenger also notes that, while sales are important, she doesn’t encourage excessive upselling. “I don’t want [employees] to just push products on people, unless they truly think a product can help that animal,” she says. “My focus is more on how we can make a dog or cat’s life the best life it can be.”

Over the years, that focus has helped Pottenger determine the products and services that Parker’s needed to not only retain loyal customers, but also gain new ones. The store’s grooming services, which accounts for roughly 300 square feet of the store, have done just that. Pottenger added the services three years ago after noticing that some of her customers were getting their dogs groomed at a competitor, and taking their food purchases with them.

“Adding grooming services was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she says. “It really keeps the customers here; they don’t have to go anywhere else to get their dogs groomed, and they continue to buy everything else for their pets here. We are generally booked out about a month in advance, and our tickets have gone up a lot.”

Parker’s also offers dog-training classes, which has helped attract new customers. A positive-reinforcement trainer teaches in the store three nights a week, and if a dog owner forgets to bring treats to class, the trainer can offer the person a bag of treats right off the sales floor and take down their information for the sale. The partnership has been mutually beneficial. “We’re gaining sales, and we’re gaining customers of hers that happen to live in the neighborhood but didn’t know we were affiliated,” says Pottenger. 

The store’s services are not the only way it attracts new customers. After realizing that Parker’s was losing potential sales from small-animal owners to big-box stores, Pottenger added a small-animal section a year and a half ago. While it took some time to gain traction, the category has been a boon for business. “We have a lot of customers that not only have dogs and cats, but small animals too,” she says. “It’s been beneficial for them pick up all of their supplies at one store, and it’s doing really well.”

An Engaging Strategy
The secret behind the success of Parker’s endeavors in services and other animal categories can be attributed to its award-winning marketing strategy. The store, which was honored with the Best in Marketing Excellence Award at the 2014 Global Pet Expo, utilizes digital and social media, television and in-store programs to gain and keep customers.

While the store’s traditional means of advertising—a commercial that runs on a local TV station, plus quarterly segments on the station’s morning show—drives a lot of business, Pottenger says her focus is digital and social media. “I’m of the Internet generation, and it’s always first in my mind, as far as what new marketing trends are emerging and how we can be involved in them.”

One such trend that Pottenger is getting involved with is Postmates, a delivery-service application that connects users with local couriers, who purchase and deliver goods from restaurants and stores in cities around the country. Parker’s, the first pet store to partner with Postmates, will utilize the app to deliver pet food citywide. The store currently delivers locally in its neighborhood.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to be the first pet store in the country to get involved with Postmates,” Pottenger says. “It costs me nothing, as far as expanding our reach. They take a percentage of the delivery sales, but it does not cut into my margins at all.

“It will help me if I do want to expand and open another store,” Pottenger adds. “It will help me see where people are getting deliveries the most from this app, and it will show where there’s a lack of stores.”

Parker’s also has a strong Facebook and Twitter following, plus a monthly newsletter with over 5,000 people subscribed. The store’s social media posts typically cover new products, grooming appointment availability, in-store events, articles of interest, contests and photos of customers’ pets.

The store’s loyalty program and in-store events have also been successful marketing tactics. The loyalty program offers 10 percent back on non-food purchases, and when a customer hits $250, they get a $25 store credit, which can be applied to food. All of the store’s foods have loyalty programs as well.

Parker’s often incorporates its loyalty program with in-store events. For example, on Small Business Saturday, the store offered bounce-back dollars for every $25 a customer spent in the store; they received $5 in Parker’s bucks (good Jan. 1-31). “It will keep us from getting slow [in January],” Pottenger says. “Customers will have to spend that $5 on purchases of $15 or more, so it doesn’t really cut into my margin that much.”

Pottenger says she uses marketing as a way to remind customers that Parker’s exists. “I want to engage customers in what we’re doing and make them feel like they’re a part of our business. We are a truly family-owned business, and our customers appreciate that.”

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