Naturally Nooga

Nooga Paws has brought the natural pet product movement to the bustling city of Chattanooga, Tenn.


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Bob Poore had always hoped he would open a business of his own some day. However, the vision of what that business could be was unclear after he graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in geology and environmental science. He entered the corporate workforce, first doing exploratory work for BP, and then joining an engineering firm working on roadway construction. He had settled on that career path after going to back to school in 2010 for a master’s degree in engineering and construction management.

However, around the same time, his beloved dog was diagnosed with cancer. Poore and his wife, Courtney, sought information from several veterinarians hoping to discover what could have caused the disease, but they were left with unanswered questions. “No one could give a solid answer [about what caused the cancer], but I learned that cancer was becoming more common in dogs,” Poore says. “I did some research to figure out what could have caused it, because dogs don’t have a lot of vices. They aren’t smoking and drinking; they simply eat the food we provide them. So I figured food was the starting point to determining what may have caused it.”

Poore reevaluated the food he was feeding his dog, but had no substantial evidence proving it caused the disease that would eventually take his pet’s life. The experience spurred him to research healthier foods he could feed his other pets, but finding a resource for premium pet food where he lived in Chattanooga, Tenn., proved challenging. That was when Poore had a light-bulb moment, and his vision of opening his own business became clear.

As he began formulating a business plan for a pet store with a mission to offer the natural food that was unavailable in his local area, Poore realized a corporate career with the engineering firm he was working for was not for him. “The engineering firm had organized my career path and presented me with a packet explaining where I would be at age 65,” Poore says. “Having my life laid out like that freaked me out. It was time to pull the trigger on the business idea. It was a passionate plea for us to become the resource [for pet owners] that we didn’t have in Chattanooga.”

In 2012, Poore and his wife opened Nooga Paws, a 2,000-square-foot natural pet market that aims to educate the city’s pet parents about the high-quality, natural food, treats and pet products lining the store’s shelves. At first, Poore worried that the concept of an entirely natural pet supplies store would be lost on Chattanooga’s residents, who are a few years behind the natural food movement, he says.    

“I feel like Chattanooga is a progressive city,” Poore says. “However, we’re still in the South, and the concept is lost on people sometimes. We’re just now discovering what’s good for us to eat and how we should properly be taking care of ourselves. Until people can wrap their head around how to care for themselves, it won’t expand to their pet.”

While Poore understood that the natural lifestyle Nooga Paws offered the city’s residents and their pets would take some time to gain traction, he knew a location in a shopping complex downtown would help the store quickly find a following.

Poore found an available retail space at 2 North Shore, a LEED-certified shopping center located across the Tennessee River and off a busy highway intersection. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. LEED-certified buildings—which are certified through the non-profit organization U.S. Green Building Council—save money and resources, have a positive impact on the health of their occupants, and promote renewable, clean energy.

The 2 North Shore complex is home to 20 businesses with philosophies similar to Nooga Paws, and it boasts eco-friendly practices like collecting rainwater and growing live plants on its roof. Poore estimates that roughly 60 percent of the complex’s building materials are post-consumer products, and 2 North Shore has electric car charging stations and is easily accessible to public transportation. The complex’s eco-conscious practices, along with a list of tenants that includes Whole Foods, helps Nooga Paws reach likeminded pet owners.

“The people shopping in the complex are hyper focused on health, fitness and outdoors, and that speaks to our crowd,” Poore says. “That’s why we chose the location, because people shopping at Whole Foods already understand that they need to buy better products.”

Having found the perfect location to attract the right mix of customers, Poore shifted his focus to building a product selection that aligned with the company’s mission while catering to the different needs of the city’s pet owners. Poore personally vets each product on the store’s shelves, and while he does not follow an official procedure, there are a few product characteristics—particularly in the nutrition category—that he seeks.

“I really look for manufacturer support, but I also look to make sure it’s a product I would feed my dog,” he says. “There’s not a product in the store that I wouldn’t feed my pets.”

While there are many ways to analyze pet food and treats, Poore sticks with a basic method: checking the first five ingredients on the label. “It has to have balanced formula,” he explains. “I want to see that everything in the food is level and not just a tag word or a photo on the packaging. The colorful images on the outside of the bag must match what’s inside the bag.”

Poore aims to educate Nooga Paws customers about the store’s food offerings not only by having knowledgeable employees available to answer questions, but also through the food aisle’s presentation on the shelf. “We’re always on the floor to answer any questions a customer has, but we try to make sure that our shelf system tells the story of the food,” he says.  

At the front end of the food aisle, customers will see foods with moderate to high levels of protein that also include good grains. As customers walk down the shelf system, they will find foods with moderate to high protein levels, but little or no presence of grains. Then the aisle guides pet owners to the store’s four freezers, which contain raw frozen foods. “The food aisle tells a story, and we do that so we can educate the customers,” Poore explains. “But we also want to provide a wide spectrum of products to meet the financial needs of every customer.”

The company’s approach of providing a variety of products that promote a healthier lifestyle for pets extends to its toys and accessories section, as well. Poore’s goal is to find sustainable products, and many of the store’s toys and accessories are safe for pets and toxic-free.

The store’s focus on natural and sustainable products requires very knowledgeable employees—which include three full-time and three part-time retail employees, plus a groomer—on the sales floor. The staff participates in training, whether it’s through a manufacturer supported program or by reading an industry publication, three to four times a month. The result is the exceptional customer service, says Poore.

“For me, customer service is where it’s at,” he says. “People can get any of these products online and sent to their door, so why would they come to my store? It’s clean, it’s organized, and we offer an experience and atmosphere—but ultimately, it’s because we treat them great and bend over backwards for them every time they walk in the door.”  

In addition to exceptional customer service, Nooga Paws offers two self-service dog wash stations. At first, the company did not consider the services for extra revenue. The self-wash was used a marketing tool to get more pet owners in the door and spark a conversation. “We thought regardless of whether or not someone understands the food or products, every one understands washing a dog,” Poore says. “We thought if we could get the person in the door to wash the dog, it might be a way for us to have a non-pressured conversation.”

The services were so successful that Nooga Paws added full-service grooming in 2014 and plans to add an additional 1,000 square feet dedicated to grooming in the future. “It has turned out to be a very busy component of our business,” says Poore. “Services make the business healthier, and we’re looking at what other revenue streams, like a training component, can pick up the pace when retail sales slow down during certain times. We really want to offer the whole experience so it’s one-stop shop.”   

Grooming services are just one aspect of the company’s marketing strategy. Nooga Paws supports local rescues and shelters through events and donations; runs an ad on National Public Radio, which has a strong following in the Chattanooga area; and utilizes social media and e-mail to engage its customer base.

The store’s best marketing tool, though, is word of mouth referrals, which has become an easy way for Nooga Paws to gain new customers that may not be attuned to a natural lifestyle. The company seeks referrals from existing customers through its online pet food recommendation program. New and existing customers will receive a discount on their next purchases. “We’ve had huge success through word of mouth, because our customers share their great experiences with their friends and family.

“We have a culture now; it’s more than just selling product,” Poore says. “I’m always going to feel comfortable with my store and what I’m selling in it. And since I will sustain on the natural lifestyle we’ve created, I feel people are going to continue to trust us to do right by them.”

 

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