The Supernatural Success of Kriser's
Kriser’s Natural Pet Stores blazed a trail in natural pet retail about a decade ago and has grown into a burgeoning chain to watch.
When Brad Kriser opened his first pet specialty shop in the Lincoln Park section of Chicago, he was blazing a new path. Focused on natural pet foods at a time when supermarket brands were held up as the gold standard, Kriser was about to become a forerunner in a movement that had not quite taken shape.
It was 2006—a year before a spate of pet deaths and illnesses caused by contaminated food triggered widespread pet food recalls. Consumers were comfortable with the pet food choices available on the market, and they trusted that these diets were safe and nutritious for their companion animals. Yet, while Kriser did not possess a crystal ball, he believed pet owners would respond favorably to an independent specialty retailer that went above and beyond what the supermarkets and big-box stores were offering both in terms of product assortment and customer service.
“We opened the store right across the street from a big-box pet store to show and prove that I had an offering that people were looking for—a curated [product] set, knowledge, education, and a place to come and get what’s best for your pet,” he said.
Then, in 2007, news of the recalls reverberated through the industry. It was a dark time for almost everyone in the pet product arena. However, when the dust settled, and supermarkets and other retailers were left with gaping holes on their shelves and tarnished reputations for selling potentially lethal product, Kriser’s was still standing, perfectly poised to offer pet owners something that so many other retailers could not—trustworthy products.
“[The recalls] opened up people’s eyes, and that made them look for us and search us out,” Kriser recalls. “We had already established ourselves in that short time as a place that you can trust.”
Twenty-nine store openings later, the Kriser’s Natural Pet Store chain is well known for its judiciously selected assortment of pet foods, treats, and healthcare supplements and remedies for cats and dogs. It also sells a full spectrum of pet supplies from toys to grooming products to leashes and collars.
Not a typical regional chain, Kriser’s—winner of the 2014 Retailer Excellence Award for Best Overall Multi-store Chain (10 or more)—has locations in four states: Illinois, Colorado, Texas and California. Although geographically spread out, Kriser says, each location was thoughtfully considered and deemed to be an appropriate demographic fit for the business. Its 30 stores range in size from 1,000 to 3,000 sq. ft.—the average being about 2,400—and they boast a uniformity in design, product assortment and customer service offerings that belie many customers’ expectations of mom-and-pop pet shops.
“I wanted to change the experience [of shopping at a pet specialty store] so that not only do you have an aesthetically pleasing place to come into, but most importantly, a place where you can come to be educated and trust that everything you see in the store, I have personally looked at and vetted to [ensure] that it is best for your pet.”
Although Kriser’s is now a midsized chain with plans to grow to 40 stores by the end of 2016, the retailer started as almost all do, with a single store. Its first incarnation was actually an outgrowth of an earlier business—The Barking Lot, a service-hybrid business that offered veterinary, grooming, daycare and boarding services, with a limited retail component, which opened in 1998. Kriser decided to launch a retail-focused shop when food sales at The Barking Lot took off.
Today, in keeping with the company’s service-oriented roots, every Kriser’s store also offers grooming services, a reflection of the chain’s holistic approach to animal wellness. “We integrate the two so that they really work together,” he explains. “The [retail] team is very educated about the grooming [side] and what the groomers need, because they are the front support for that [part of the business].”
Retail staff fields grooming-related calls, makes customers’ appointments and takes down all the critical information the groomers need before appointments. “They really are the first line for the groomers,” he says. “So [the retail employees and groomers] form a relationship with each other. You’re in the same store, and you don’t want it to be two separate businesses within the same store.”
Kriser adds that the grooming component is an important and synergistic part of the business, and a helpful complement to its retail side. Still, in the front of the house, Kriser’s selection of food and treats clearly gets top billing. The chain’s reputation is strongly tied to the care it takes in choosing the products that grace its shelves. In fact, with more and more manufacturers joining the natural-product fray over the past decade, Kriser’s expertise at vetting the foods the stores sell has become increasingly important, as well as labor intensive.
Indeed, earning space on the chain’s shelves is a process, and a long one, says Kriser. Pet food manufacturers seeking a vendor partnership with the company must meet a number of criteria. For starters, it will only consider foods that do not contain corn, wheat, soy, byproducts or any ingredients from China. Only manufacturers that pass this gauntlet of guidelines earn the opportunity to even be considered for the retailer’s inventory.
“Beyond those basics, we take a look at the brand itself, the source and where they get their ingredients and where they manufacture. Do they manufacture themselves, or do they work with a co-packer? Who is that co-packer?” Kriser says.
The assessment process may also include a visit to the co-packer or the manufacturing plant where the product is produced, and Kriser says he also seeks to build a relationship with manufacturers before adding any of their products to the planogram.
“That’s what I need to feel comfortable,” he says.
Understanding that offering a top-notch assortment is only half the battle, the company is equally committed to ensuring that the chain’s employees are equipped to assist consumers with purchasing decisions. Employees are brought up to speed through rigorous training provided by Kriser’s University, which includes a wide array of programs including online courses, and offsite and onsite training with managers and even vendors.
“I’m very proud of the training and educations that our employees get,” Kriser says, adding that the company has a full-time educator on staff devoted to overseeing training and development. “We have put together a lot of different programs within Kriser’s University to train employees on all aspects of the business, whether it be products, operations or any other part of the business.”
Among the company’s goals is to empower employees and foster an environment in which they can grow and move up within the company. Kriser says the company seeks employees who seem to be good candidates for future promotion—people who can truly become part of the Kriser family.
“The amount of promotion that we do from within is enormous,” he says. “We do that by bringing in good people, and then training and mentoring them so they’ll be ready to take over the next store or be the next manager in the store that they are in.”
The chain’s definition of family extends well beyond the walls of its stores, as well. Kriser says he remains committed to making sure the chain’s stores are community focused and in service of their respective customer bases.
“Despite the fact that we are growing rapidly, every store is very much a part of its local community, especially its local pet community,” he says. “Each store is responsible and able to create their own relationships with as localized group so they can have an impact in their area.”
The stores are collectively logging in about 100 events monthly, Kriser says. These soirees range from educational seminars and training events to playdates, rescue events and yappy hours.
“We make ourselves part of the community, and that’s very, very important to us, because when you come to our store, you become part of Kriser’s,” he says, “and we have to be part of the community to be part of the family.”