Gorge Dog has established itself as the place to go for dog-lovers in Hood River, Ore., whether they need a bag of food and a new collar or a keepsake T-shirt to take back to their hometown.
Lisa Willis Wiltsie recalls sitting outside the ice cream parlor with her husband in her picturesque Oregon town years ago, simply people watching—or more accurately, people and dog watching. It seemed that most everyone who sauntered by was accompanied by at least one dog. It was a town, she observed, where everyone had a Subaru and a Lab, and seemed a perfect spot for a pet specialty store. Of course, as it often goes with endeavors that are somehow just meant to be, it would not be long before that pet store of her dreams would become reality.
In 2000, she took over a storefront vacated by a jewelry shop with only a couple of months notice from the time she discovered the space would be available. She chose a name that she predicted would resonate with her future customers, reflecting two top passions for those visiting or living in the city of Hood River, near the base of Mount Hood right on the Columbia River Gorge—Gorge Dog. A fortuitously timed pet product trade show helped her stock up in a hurry, and her and her husband’s shared knack for DIY fixtures and décor made for a quick make-over of the store’s interior.
Sixteen years later, save for a few adjustments to the store’s product assortment and merchandising strategies, Gorge Dog stays true to Wiltsie’s original concept of a dog-themed shop selling pet accessories and necessities, as well as a complementary selection of products for humans. It has become a beloved fixture in the city of Hood River.
Gorge Dog resides on Hood River’s main commercial street, slotted among a host of gift and novelty stores, restaurants and other businesses well-suited for the mix of residents and tourists who stroll by year-round. The city attracts a steady stream of outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers, and Wiltsie estimates that half her customers are out-of-towners. The store draws international visitors, who come at all times of the year, as well as day-trippers from nearby Portland Bend and weekend revelers from Canada, and Gorge Dog has curated its product assortment with these travelers in mind.
Items such as portable water bowls and life jackets sell strongly at Gorge Dog, reflecting the outdoorsy spirit of the city. For example, many hikers visit the area, she says, and “stand-up paddle boarding is huge here now because we are on a river, so I sell tons of life jackets, travel bowls and that kind of stuff.”
Gorge Dog also indulges another common tourist demand—keepsake items that will remind them of their visit long after its over. The store boasts a robust selection of T-shirts, visors and hats that bear the words Hood River, Ore., and the Gorge Dog logo. Effectively, they serve as both souvenirs and marketing for the store’s brand.
Over the years, Wiltsie has adjusted her pet food selection to better match travelers’ needs, as well. Not too long after making food a more prominent segment of her assortment—her original focus leaned more toward accessories and gifts—she reassessed her inventory. “I have learned that people visiting from Canada, or even someone visiting from Portland for the day, may need a smaller 2-lb. or 4-lb. bag of food rather than a larger bag,” she says.
Still, the other half of Gorge Dog’s customer base hails from the Hood River area, and these pet owners have different needs and demands. The store’s range of collars, leashes, toys and premium foods serve these shoppers well, giving them plenty of reasons to stop by regularly to see what’s new. Treats, toys and collars are in particularly high demand by the store’s indulgent dog-owning customers, but Gorge Dog also offers a kitty corner for feline lovers. Wiltsie also takes care to ensure her offerings are quality goods that she feels good about stocking.
“I choose things that I believe in, and I think that’s what makes selling something successful,” she says. “If I like or believe in the product, it’s easier to get that across to the customer.”
Winner of the Retailer Excellence Award for Merchandising at Global Pet Expo this past March, Gorge Dog is notable as much for its on-trend assortment as it is for its aesthetics.
“I’m a very tactile and visual person,” Wiltsie says. “[My husband and I] created almost all of our own fixtures.”
Handmade pine shelving units complement the store’s wide-plank oak floor. “My husband carved southwestern ladders out of pine pole, and we’re still using all of this today,” she adds. “I’ve never been drawn to plain, old grid or flat wall, so we would decorate or frame [product displays]. I wanted the store to look different.”
Beyond the store’s rustically chic aesthetic and eye-catching product assortment—the collars and toys, in particular, create a kaleidoscope of color—Wiltsie’s charitable efforts also help secure Gorge Dog’s place as a staple of the Hood River business and pet-loving communities. For the past five years, she has played a fundraising role for the Hood River Adopt-a-Dog animal shelter. Although the county owns the shelter, Wiltsie says, money is always tight, but that is where she can help. “I like the fundraising aspects of things” she says. “We do a silent auction every year, Paws for a Cause. We do it at a winery called Spring Hill Cellars, and it has grown every year.”
A 27-year resident of Hood River, Wiltsie also puts her knowledge of the community, its businesses and residents to good use, serving as a resource for dog owners seeking anything from veterinarians to pet-friendly lodging and dining to pet boarding services. A listing of such businesses on the Gorge Dog website helps spread the word. Still, customers have come to rely on Wiltsie herself, up close and in person, when they come to the shop.
“I work in my store—which I think is key,” she says. “After six years, most people know me and want me to be there.”
On the other hand, Wiltsie speaks highly of her staff—one full-time employee and two part time. “You are who you hire, and I’ve been really, really lucky.”
In reality, however, luck probably has played only a small role in Gorge Dog’s quick success. In fact, Wiltsie had ambitious plans when she opened the shop, already having confidence that she had a concept that would be profitable and in demand.
“When I first opened I had a five-year, five-store plan,” she says. “I looked at spots in Portland and Bend.”
A mere six years later, she has had a change of heart. Owning multiple stores in various locations would necessitate an unappealing change in lifestyle and work habits for Wiltsie. “I love being in the store; I love being face to face with the customers—and dogs,” she says. “I don’t want to be in a car, and I don’t want to be managing 20 or 40 employees.”
She says the store is also financially viable and allows her husband and her the latitude and time to enjoy the simple things in life right there in Hood River.
“I meet dogs and dog people everyday,” Wiltsie says. “I’m working in my happy place. It makes the job easy.”