Confessions of a Pet Retailer
Forty-five years after he took over the family pet store, Al Selmer offers some insight into the challenges facing the modern independent pet retailer.
Pet industry insiders often boast of the industry’s good fortune, even in the face of the current economic crisis affecting nearly every sector of business. They call the market resilient, nearly recession proof, and say it is stalwart against the ravages of a tough economy, thanks to loving pet owners who are committed to caring for their animals. But there are cracks in the veneer.
While the industry remains generally robust, independent pet retailers, as a group, have suffered in recent years, besieged on a number of fronts. They are forced to share their clientele with mass merchants, Petco, Petsmart, supermarkets and the terrifyingly expansive and often cheap Internet marketplace.
The toll the recession took on customers has also been passed on down to the independents, which, without the purchasing power of their super-sized competition, have to fight to keep at least a portion of their shoppers from defecting to cheaper and seemingly more convenient venues to get their pet supplies. It is a fight some have lost. Naturally, there is plenty for the average pet storeowner to worry about. Just ask Al Selmer.
In 1965 Selmer was dreaming of being a pilot when his father, Bruno Selmer, asked him to lend a hand at the family pet store for a couple of months. Three days later his father died, but not before he made Al promise to take care of the family business, Selmer’s Pet Land. That promise led to more than half a lifetime devoted to pet retailing.
A Half-Century Later...
It is 45 years later, and it’s a sun-drenched April morning. New York has been given a reprieve from the wet spring weather. The phone at Selmer’s Pet Land, situated on a busy thoroughfare in Huntington, a typical Long Island town, hasn’t stopped ringing since the store opened at 9 a.m. There are already several cars in the store’s lot. The sales floor is bustling. Visitors from a local group home for adults are captivated by a black bunny for sale. A puppy is barking energetically. A five-year old boy is dragging his nanny up the stairs to see the birds, again. “We just saw them and we can see them next time,” she protests in vain as they make their way up. Dennis, the live stock manager, is busy cleaning the fish tanks, and general manager Bill Brown, a dedicated employee for the past 37 years, is constantly in motion.
Things are good. Business is good.
But as any small independent retailer knows, even a blessedly noisy sales floor does not drown out the daily worries flooding the mind of a pet store owner. Concerns range from the benign, like finding someone to cover a vacationing employee’s shift, to the dire, like fretting over how the new Petco opening a mile away will impact business. Cumulatively, the weight of these worries can be crushing.
Selmer, like many independent pet retailers, has been bracing himself for some time now against the market shifts and changes continually roaring his way. This isn’t to say the store has not thrived. For six years running, the readership of a local paper has voted it the best pet store on Long Island, and the store enjoys a loyal following.
Still, when one of the big-box pet retail chains came to town about six years ago, Selmer noticed the impact within days. And yet, he doesn’t consider pet superstores to be the most menacing threat to independent retailers.
“If you don’t realize that supermarkets are your biggest competition, you aren’t thinking clearly,” he says.
For many shoppers, the draw is the convenience, he says. Even loyal customers, people who love their local pet shop, can be lured by the convenience and attractive price points offered by supermarkets, with their 100-foot aisles of pet food, supplies and toys. Selmer knows all too well how a time-starved busy local mom may skip a trip to his store, deciding instead to just pick up a bag of dog food while at the grocery store.
“It happens four times and they’re not my customer any more,” he says. “It only takes two times to get over the guilt.”
“Our Conscience Guides Us”
Competition from other retailers is just one of Selmer’s worries when it comes to the future of his business. There was a time when it was considered fun to visit the local pet shop to see the animals for sale, especially the puppies. It wasn’t uncommon for families to pop in just to see them.
The puppy business is an important part of the store’s identity and still serves as a draw for neighborhood families who like to visit and play with the puppies. Often enough, those interactions lead to the eventual purchase of a puppy, which Selmer assures are healthy and well cared for.
The practice of selling puppies, however, is not short on detractors, and this area of Long Island certainly has its fair share of people who don’t believe any store or breeder should be selling dogs. Case in point: a Honda Civic parked nearby bore a bumper sticker reading, “Don’t breed or buy while homeless die.”
“It’s vogue to dislike pet stores,” says Selmer.
Of course, Selmer doesn’t disagree that adoption can be a noble way of adding a pet to the family home. There is a page on his store’s website devoted to the topic, providing links to several organizations that offer pet adoptions. Still, he is quick to point out that adoption may not be the best option for every family.
“If you take a shelter dog, you can’t tell if it has been poked and yanked,” he says. “You can’t tell if the dog is going to go home and than, whap, [someone gets bit.] You can only hope that the puppy doesn’t come from a place of abuse.”
For his part, Selmer avoids getting dogs from major puppy brokers. He looks for breeders with healthy and immaculately clean dogs–puppies that look as if they’ve been pampered and truly cared for in the first several weeks of life. The puppy area is kept spotless, he promises, and there is staff dedicated to doing just that. He also trains his staff to discourage the sale of puppies to families that in any way seem ill suited to handle the demands of raising the pet.
“Our conscience guides what we do,” he says. “Is that the best way to make money? No, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in this for the money. I could’ve done other things [in pursuit of] money.
“I’ll spend a half-hour telling someone not to buy a dog, and my staff will do the same thing. We’re not here to push animals down anyone’s throat.”
Still, selling puppies draws fire. Even customers, afraid of being on the blunt end of criticism, often don’t want to admit to others that they got their family pet from a pet store, he says. Meanwhile, he acknowledges, plenty of people are buying from breeders online, shelling out money for the dog and the shipping without seeing the pet or the actual operation. It is a type of transaction that often ends in buyer’s regret, but many people are lured by low-ball prices for popular breeds.
So why does Selmer bother to sell puppies at all?
“For my clients,” he says, explaining that he offers an alternative to the uncertainty of shelters or opaque Internet operations. “I find great joy in having someone say, ‘That dog we bought from you six years ago is the best,’ or, ‘The dog has brought my grandma so much joy.’ People should have the option of getting a young animal that is healthy.”
Pondering the Future
Of course, most days keep Selmer too busy to ruminate over the moral complexities of selling animals. He spends six days a week at the store, working basically nine to five. If he could, he would spend most of that time on the floor, talking to customers, helping them to find solutions to their problems. But inevitably he finds himself manning things from his desk, responding to email or on the phone.
“I hate this room,” he says, referring to the 10-by-15 foot office tucked into a corner of the store. “All the crap comes here; it all stops here.”
Selmer enjoys interacting with customers and their pets. He jumps at the chance to clip the wings and nails of a parrot he sold to a loyal customer 15 years ago.
“Such a good boy,” he coos, as he gets to work. He has bestowed this customer with free grooming for life, he reveals. It is precisely this kind of hands-on, personal customer service he credits with being the lifeblood of his business. He also considers customer service to be the independent retailer’s best line of defense–and best offensive tactic–in the fight against supermarkets and the chains. But he’s not necessarily convinced that even this distinction will save the mom-and-pops from falling victim to any number of foes, from a weak economy to the competition to technology.
Selmer worries about the future. Like many of his peers, he feels encroached upon by a growing trend toward state legislation governing the sale of animals. Prescribing a dose of preventive medicine, he says the industry’s best bet would be to take a long hard look itself and address issues from within. Beyond that, he theorizes that it’s going to takes a combination of responsible retailing, responsible breeding and responsible pet ownership to stem the tide of scrutiny washing over the pet industry.
“We as an industry should not be a social problem,” he says.
Meanwhile, he fears that there is too much competition for people’s attention these days. iPads and technology-driven toys have replaced crayons for many children, and he speculates that living, breathing play buddies may not be in demand the way they once were. He suspects that the days of the old-fashioned, full-service pet shop may be near an end.
“I don’t think Game Stop is having a problem, and people can just get a virtual pet,” Selmer says.
As for matters closer to home, he worries about the fate of the business. He feels responsible for the staff, always cognizant of the fact that they depend on the income they make there. Still, he’ll be 70 years old soon and is flirting with the notion of retirement.
When talking about his plans for the future, Selmer is prone to contradiction. He steered his kids, now grown, to stay out of the business (all three are now professionals in other fields, although one son is a veterinarian). So there is no obvious successor. Asked when he’ll sell, he quips, “Make me an offer.”
Seconds later, he becomes more reflective. “It’s so amazing,” he says. “When you love what you do, it’s not a job. But on the practical side, how long do you want to do it?”
When Selmer says that maybe he will sell in about five years, it’s more like he’s trying the idea on for size. It is a fluid prediction at best. In almost the next breath, he reconsiders. “It’s almost implausible that I would sell,” he says. “No, I couldn’t do it.”
Giving up control of the family business suddenly seems too much of a stretch. He seriously doubts his ability to find a replacement who cares for his customer and staff as much as does.
“My wife says I would have to move out of the state if I ever sold this place,” he says.
And besides, the store carries his family name.
“The only thing you live and die with is your name,” he says, “and it’s not called Jump Around Pet Store, it’s called Selmer’s.”