A New Breed of Standards

The Pet Express retail chain seeks to elevate standards in the live-animal sales sector of the industry by setting the example and collaborating with retailers and breeders to raise the bar.


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The role of live-animal pet retailer is not one that many are taking up these days. It is a business model fraught with challenges, from the steady blitz of controversy surrounding live pet sales to the day-to-day logistics of caring for and selling animals. So it is no small feat in the year 2016 for pet retailers in the live-animal business to thrive and win the hearts of animal lovers, but Rob Mellace and his siblings John Mellace and Lucia Mellace-Castle are proving it can be done. 

The three own and operate Pet Express, a Boston-area retail chain featuring a winning business model that they debuted about 20 years ago. Ever since finding success with live-pet sales with their first store in Lynn, Mass., in the mid-1990s, the three have been impressing customers and their counterparts in the industry with a conscientious and pet-centric approach to selling puppies. However, now more than ever, given the scrutiny that is continually aimed at businesses in the live-animal sector, Pet Express’ owners hope to help reset the standard for pet retailing and demonstrate through example how to operate such a store responsibly and ethically. 

“We would like to serve as a model for other stores,” says Rob Mellace. “When it comes to live animals, you have to do the best you can, and then you have to step it up again.” 

Winner of the Retailer Excellence Award in the Live Animal Retailer Category at this year’s Global Pet Expo, held in Orlando, Fla., in March, Pet Express has four locations—a 4,000-square-foot stand-alone store on a busy, main street a few miles from Logan International Airport and three located in Boston-area malls, ranging in size from 2,500 to 3,500 square feet.

Puppies are the main attraction at the three mall shops, where animal sales make up about 80 percent of the business, says Mellace. Bouncy, bright-eyed pups serve as a powerful magnet, drawing in shoppers browsing the mall corridors.  The eye-catching storefronts outfitted with bright, cheerful signage also go a long way in attracting visitors. Mellace adds that what lies beyond the entranceway is equally likely to impress and delight shoppers. Once inside, he says, customers will find that the puppies are attractively displayed, in comfy five-foot by three-foot pens in a cheery, well-lit atmosphere.

“We had to create an environment that did not look like a shelter,” he explains. “It needed to meet the standards of a high-end mall. These concepts needed to be family friendly, socialization friendly, colorful, playful, uplifting, very bright and very clean.”

However, the stores’ most visible features only tell part of the story. The behind-the-scenes operating procedures and practices reveal the nature of the business more fully, Mellace contends. As puppy retailers, Pet Express’ reputation is dependent on a number of factors, from its puppy sourcing practices to the care of the dogs prior to sale, and these are points that the business does not take lightly.

Probably among the most critical aspects of the business is the sourcing of the pets. Choosing a breeder, Mellace explains, is a painstaking process that is governed by an internal task force of five employees who are charged with researching breeder inspection reports to ensure their practices and procedures uphold Pet Express’ standards. 

“We are working with breeders to make sure that they are meeting and exceeding industry standards,” he says. “That’s our philosophy—we don’t want minimum standards anymore. We want to raise the bar on all standards.”

The task force inspects breeders, looking at pedigrees, lineages and how often animals are bred. It is a process of drilling down as deep as possible into breeders’ practices for assurances that guidelines are met all along the way. 

“Our window of breeders gets smaller and smaller as you get more and more choosy,” Mellace says. “It is definitely challenging.”

Pet Express’ employees—who Mellace says go through rigorous training to work in the stores—also guarantee that the animals are well cared for once in the store, and do what they can to promote responsible pet ownership among the stores’ customers. The end goal is to make sure the stores sell healthy pets to responsible owners who will provide a high quality of life for their dogs throughout their lives. 

“It takes us probably 45 minutes to an hour and a half when selling a puppy,” he says. “We do a walk around; we show them the products we are feeding and using. Then we talk about behavior issues with the breed. We talk about how to train and about quality nutrition and vet care. We tell them to make sure the puppy sees a vet right away. We say it’s not a final sale until you see a vet and make sure everything is okay.”

Meanwhile, to support its efforts at promoting higher industry standards and to give live-animal retailers a more powerful voice in an increasingly contentious climate, Pet Express’ owners have joined a retail advisory board for the American Kennel Club (AKC) that convenes at major industry events and remotely to discuss standards for live-animal retail. 

“We want to make sure that retailers understand the concept of quality sourcing, guarantees and animal care,” Mellace says. “It is very important that everybody be on the same page when it comes to animals. We want to make sure that our industry isn’t tainted by people who are not doing it correctly.”

Despite the care that Mellace says the company takes to make sure that it is operating responsibly and in the best interest of both the pets they sell as well as the pet-buying public, the stores continue to draw ire from local animal activists who oppose the sale of pets and call the stores’ sourcing practices into question. Protesters, he says, picket about once a month. They don’t, however, seem to deter shoppers.

“You can have five or six people protesting your store, which draws a ton of attention, and of course, consumers are curious. But when they walk in the store and see a magnificent [setup], and it’s happy and bright and there are people playing with the puppies, they tend to look at the protesters as not as credible anymore,” he says.

Still, the controversy surrounding the sale of live animals weighs on Mellace heavily, as he seeks to both protect his business and offer the public a different perspective on the realities of pet breeding and the assertions made by animal-rights activists.    

“We just want to make sure that all pet stores and all breeders are on the same page,” he says. “We don’t want to be painted with same brush as the bad guys.” 

Despite the scrutiny, Pet Express is forging ahead, with its sights set on creating a new paradigm for pet retailing. The company’s latest incarnation is a standalone store that represents a departure in concept for the business. Pet Express recently relocated the original Lynn-based shop to a new site 1,000 feet away in a 100-year-old former lumberyard, giving it a refreshed look that is at once modern and retro. 

“We’re going back to basics,” he explains. “The feel is very farmers market meets Whole Foods—a natural kind of environment with concrete floors, high ceilings, chalk boards, very earthy tones and a very cool vibe, but still with a pet shop feel.”

Aesthetics aside, however, the more notable distinction between the new location and the other three is the absence of Pet Express’ headlining star—the puppies. With limited floor space to devote to live-animal displays in the new location, the company’s owners decided to leave puppies off the inventory. Instead, the location boasts a full-line of other live animals to enchant customers, from birds and bunnies to reptiles and fish.  

The store also differs from the others in that it offers services. Customers will find grooming and training services offered at the Lynn location. And while the mall stores continue to thrive, this new iteration of Pet Express may represent the company’s future, as Mellace says the company is looking to replicate this model in a new location soon. 

The goal, he says, is to continue to provide customers the kind of store that is increasingly difficult to find these days, an old-fashioned pet shop with a choice of animals to choose from. In the end, he adds, it’s all about the smiles on customers faces as they embrace their puppy for their first family portrait before leaving the store. 

“When you see that picture, you can see the happiness—that’s what you’re going for,” says Mellace. 

“We don’t consider what we do as ‘selling products.’ We have feelings, we have heart beats, we have fur and everything that comes with it.”  

 

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