A Fresh Spin on Retailing

Offering allergen-free foods and helping the community has been a winning formula for TailsSpin.


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When Jusak Yang Bernhard and Jeff Manley relocated from Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga., they wanted to open a business, but a pet specialty store was not their first idea. They thought about opening a restaurant.

“We wanted to open a noodle shop,” Bernhard says. “But Savannah wasn’t ready for it.”

Bernhard had worked as an actor and producer, and Manley had worked as a producer and editor before moving to Georgia to be closer to family. They wanted a business that would be different from the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, one of their dogs, Kai, suffered from health problems. The couple took their beloved pup to a veterinarian who began a course of steroids, and the dog became lethargic. A neighbor referred them to a holistic vet, who recommended a diet of higher-quality food without allergens. They wanted to buy Natural Balance, which they knew had been available in pet specialty retailers back in L.A., but could not find the brand in Savannah.

“This was the universe telling us to open a pet store,” Bernhard says. He adds that they had to iron out one detail. “We knew nothing about opening a pet store.”

The two took a business plan writing class at the local Small Business Development Center, sought advice from experts, and researched the types of foods to sell, settling on premium foods that did not contain corn, wheat or soy. Then they opened TailsSpin Pet Food & Accessories in October 2007.

On the first day in their 800-square-foot store, they had one sale. “We sold a can of Coke for 89 cents,” Bernhard says. “We were just freaking out. We had put in our money and taken out a loan.”

The second day did go better, he says, and eventually the store’s sales grew.

It helped that the store also offered smoothies, which were the basis for the name “TailsSpin.” The beverages were intended as an incremental sale for people who stopped by when they walked their dogs at the nearby park. Instead, Bernhard and Manley found themselves giving away smoothies to thank everyone, from early customers to delivery drivers who managed to back their trucks into a small loading area. The smoothies were not great revenue generators, but they did build goodwill.

More important to boosting sales quickly was that TailsSpin offered a selection of premium foods, which were getting much attention in 2007 because of the melamine-related pet food recalls. The storeowners took advice from a representative of Summit Pet Product Distributors (now part of Animal Supply Company) about which foods to carry, and they were able to work with the distributor to get competitive pricing.

Price was important because TailsSpin does not offer any bargain foods, but they do offer a variety of high-quality dog and cat foods and treats, and also toys and accessories.

“We needed a whole range of food, and we needed to make sure all of it is hypoallergenic,” Manley says. “We knew people are value conscious, and health conscious as well, [and] when money gets tight, they don’t go back to the grocery store.”

Pet owners responded positively, and TailsSpin soon had to hire employees. The first was a Savannah College of Art and Design student who was working at a local big-box hardware store.

“We met him in the tile section,” Bernhard says. “We were renovating a home we had bought.”

The young worker was so helpful and had such a great work ethic that the couple hired him to work at TailsSpin. He stayed for years, building the store’s website and handling other tasks, and still remains a friend even after moving to California.

Other changes were happening too. TailsSpin outgrew its original location in about a year and moved to a larger space. Two years later, the co-owners opened a second store in Pooler, a fast-growing community near Savannah.

A third location, in Macon, Ga., came about as the result of a contest.

“We saw an ad in a magazine that Macon was looking for businesses to come their way to rejuvenate the downtown area,” Bernhard says. “We said we would just apply for this and see where we go. We ended up winning it.”

The award included some financial incentives to open the store, but about a year later, it was clear the store was not going to survive due to parking issues and other obstacles.

They closed that store, which was located more than two hours away from Savannah, and were determined to concentrate on the two locations in Savannah and Pooler. Soon, another complication arose: PetSmart decided to open two stores in the now-attractive area. One is two miles from the Savannah TailsSpin, and the other is across the street from the Pooler TailsSpin. Also, Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming opened some locations nearby.

“It was our fault,” Bernhard says. “We had shown them there is a market in Savannah.”

TailsSpin sales were down about 20 percent, so the co-owners made some changes.

“We got rid of certain brands, brought in certain things, trimmed payroll, and we extended our hours of operation,” Bernhard says. “We looked at a lot of things.”

They also realized they had to stay open seven days a week.

A new loyalty program helped too. The stores offer Rotational Rewards, a frequent-buyer program with a twist. The customer buys 11 bags and the twelfth bag is free, but the difference is they are encouraged to change the foods they feed their pets. The theory is that eating the same food for several years can cause the pet to become allergic to that food, so trying a different protein can help.

“It’s going really well,” Bernhard says. “So far, we increased our sales in all brands.”

After opening a store in Whitemarsh Island, Ga., TailsSpin now has three stores again, and the owners have a positive outlook about competition and overcoming obstacles.

“I think it helped us, kept us on our toes,” Bernhard says. “We try to make the best of the situation. We kind of needed to grow up as a business.”

The pair likes to show their gratitude to the community. Among its charitable efforts, TailsSpin supports three major events a year. One is the Disc Dogs Championship Qualifier, a competition that involves dogs chasing flying discs and is a fundraiser for Pets for Vets. Another is the Pet Care & Adoption Fair that brings together adoption agencies, vendors and low-cost vaccinations.

The third event, the Woof! Woof! 5K Run/Walk Over Pet Cancer, was inspired by the couple’s beloved dog Kai, which died in 2015. The fundraiser, which TailsSpin organized with the running gear retailer Fleet Feet Sports, benefits the Blue Buffalo Pet Cancer Awareness Research Foundation and several local nonprofits.

“I think it’s a wonderful event,” Bernhard says. “We’ve done it three years now. We love these things. I think community work is the secret to our success.”  

Thanks to this approach, TailsSpin has won several awards over the years. In 2015, the retailer won a Blue Ribbon Small Business Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes businesses for their demonstrated success, innovation, and contributions to economic growth and free enterprise. This year, TailsSpin won the Retailer Excellence Award in Multi-Unit (two to 10 stores) by Pet Business and the organizers of Global Pet Expo. Bernhard and Manley brought their management team with them onstage to accept the award.

“We love our management team, and we always bring them to trade shows,” Bernhard says. “We always operate out of our gratefulness. We have been so very blessed.”

 

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