Four Your Paws Only has found the recipe to success by catering to both locals and visitors in its New Hampshire resort-town location.
Twenty years ago, Brian and Kathy Ahearn drafted a plan to open a pet gift shop in North Conway, N.H., a popular getaway for campers and hikers in the summer, and skiers and snow-sports lovers in the winter—that is until some concerned locals pointed out a potential flaw in their original design.
“We were told that during mud season—when there are really no tourists in town—you have to have something to bring local people into your store, or you won’t survive,” Brian says.
Armed with this revelation, the Ahearns adjusted their focus and opened Four Your Paws Only Pet Gifts and Supplies—a happy medium offering both everyday necessities and gift-oriented merchandise. Since then, they have balanced the two roles quite well. On one hand, they provide basic products and services for their loyal local customers; on the other, they have established themselves as a destination for the steady stream of tourists that visit the area much of the year. In both cases, the Ahearns say it is their laser-sharp focus on customer service that has made them successful—even when so many others around them have failed.
“We just watched the competition come and go over the last 20 years, but I think for us it’s been our customer service [that’s kept the store going],” says Kathy. “That’s what we hear repeatedly. We get stopped in the supermarket or in the bank, and we’re told, ‘your employees are so helpful.’”
Four Your Paws Only—which was named Best Overall Single Store Retailer at the 2014 Global Pet Expo Retailer Excellence Awards—occupies more than 5,000 square feet of space in a standalone building. It retails a full line of supplies for dogs, cats, birds and small animals, but dog-related sales account for a bit more than half of the store’s business. The roomy sales floor allows the store to showcase a variety of merchandise that many mom-and-pop stores would be hard pressed to find space to display—large bird cages, elegant cat trees, crates and freezers for an assortment of raw foods.
The store’s customers, however, are just as apt to visit the store for its services, including affordably priced walk-in nail trims and free weekly playgroup sessions in a designated area of the shop. The business also boasts its own in-house bakery, producing pet cookies and treats baked by the store’s fulltime baker. “We probably sell more bakery treats than our local bakery does,” jokes Brian.
However, despite all the bells and whistles the store has to offer, the Ahearns are most proud of their finely tuned attentiveness to the people they serve.
“It is all about the little details,” says Brian.
And there are plenty of little details to tend to. For example, one particular customer who comes in twice a month with his wife bristles at the normally innocuous greeting, “Hey guys!” So, Brian has employees well trained not to address the couple this way. It is a small concession, he says, that goes a long way in maintaining the store’s long-standing relationship with those customers.
Another source of pride for Four Your Paws Only’s owners is the store policy that all bags get carried to customers’ cars.
“Everything in our store gets carried out,” says Brian. “I don’t care how old you are—I don’t care if you are 16 or 66, or if [the bag] is 10 pounds or 100 pounds, it gets carried out to your car. It’s one of our better services, because it’s not about who you are or what you can carry; it’s simply part of the service.”
At the core of the Ahearn’s approach to retailing is the notion that the customer’s needs come first. In keeping with that tenet, the store’s sales employees are dissuaded from going for the hard sell, and are encouraged instead to concentrate on customer needs and demands—even if that means losing a sale.
“We’re not going to sell you something you don’t need,” says Kathy.
Brian echoes the sentiment. “We approach customers in a way that is helpful to them,” he says. “We’re not into high-pressure sales. We don’t sell things just to sell things. We sell things that the customers need, and we solve their problems.”
However, since the store’s early days, part of the challenge of meeting those needs has been defining the customer and what that customer is seeking from a pet specialty store in North Conway.
“I have to acknowledge two separate markets—we have our visiting market and then our locals,” Kathy says. “It’s tricky, because you’re advertising to two different crowds.”
Despite the couple’s original intention to focus on gifts and souvenirs, the importance of catering to the locals became clear early on.
“This place was starving for a good, honest pet supply store,” recalls Kathy, who says the only other pet-related stores at the time included a grain store and a mall pet shop specializing in live-pet sales. Fortunately for North Conway, the Ahearns were happy to fill the void.
For the year-round residents of the resort town, the Ahearns make sure to promote sales on basics such as food and other supplies. The store carries a selection of natural and premium foods—an assortment meant to appeal to discerning consumers with high standards for quality. Monthly events, such as “puppy parties,” photo sessions with Santa Claus in the winter and ice cream socials in the summer also appeal to the regular customer base.
During off-peak seasons, when foot traffic in the store tapers a bit, the staff is encouraged to spoil locals with a little extra attention. It is during these times when sales staff can also brush up on their product knowledge.
“When it’s slow, that’s when we can spend the most time with our customers” says Kathy. “So, if we are learning about a new dog food, now we can take the time and explain it to people. It’s a beautiful thing. It just works out so well, because we can take advantage of that time—because it’s crazy during tourist season.”
At other times of the year, the Ahearns lay down a welcome mat for the many visitors who flock to the area to enjoy the region’s natural beauty and resources.
“I have to get creative and do different things for the tourists,” Kathy says.
A comprehensive advertising and marketing campaign is key to making sure that tourists put a visit to Four Your Paws Only on their to-do lists. The store advertises not only on the radio and in local newspapers, but also in tourist magazines, brochures and maps. Kathy says it is important that visitors traveling with their dogs know that they are welcome to come in with their pets.
“I let them know that their dogs are welcome to come out of the car and stretch their legs,” she says. “I promote our store as an attraction in the area for people with dogs.”
Four Your Paws Only also cross-markets with other local businesses—for example, the store runs a promotion during which it offers discounts to people who bring in their room key from a participating hotel.
“Because we are in a resort area, we work a lot with pet-friendly lodging establishments—camp grounds, hotels, motels. We have a page on our website with pet-friendly lodging in the valley, so when people come into town they know where they can stay with their dog,” says Kathy, who having noticed that people were increasingly traveling with their pets, has long encouraged the local businesses to be as pet friendly as possible.
However, no matter who the customer is—a loyal local or a weekend visitor—the Ahearns make sure everyone who walks in their door is afforded the VIP treatment. It is store policy that everyone is greeted when they walk in the door, and every canine customer is offered a fresh baked treat, compliments of the house.
“I say, kill them with kindness,” Kathy says. “I’d rather a customer say, ‘Wow, 12 people said hello to me,” than say no one said anything to them when they walked in the door.”