Talk of the Town
A balanced product selection featuring both pet essentials and quirky items, a cat café, and a modern and spacious design aesthetic have people in Naples, Fla., talking about Planet Tails.
Ericka Basile knows the basics of running a pet specialty store. She understands that it is everyday supplies like food, treats and leashes that drive the majority of a pet retailer’s sales—they are the lifeblood of the pet store.
But she also knows that it is not her assortment of food or durable pet bowls that has people talking about her shop around the dinner table.
“I have a lot of unique things,” says Basile, owner of Planet Tails in Naples, Fla. “I’ve been able to bring in things that no one has ever seen.”
The PyroPet Candle, for instance, is far from being a typical pet shop item, but she chose to stock the company’s cat-shaped version of the candle, which burns down to reveal a little metal cat skeleton. It has been a hit.
“That’s been one of my big sellers; I’ve reordered it and turned that over probably four times,” says Basile, who often looks to the funding platform Kickstarter and Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage items, for inspirational new products.
Yet her aspirations for Planet Tails have expanded beyond her inventory selections since opening the store late last year. She has not just opened a pet specialty store. She has created what she intends to be a 2,400-sq.-ft. hub for pet-owners—a one-stop shop where consumers can find their basic pet supplies, and a whimsical selection of novel and impulse-buy-triggering non-essentials, as well as a suite of services including doggie daycare, pet boarding and one of the nation’s first cat cafes.
The endeavor was ambitious. Opening a store presents a heap of challenges; opening a store along with a host of services—including a non-profit cat café—adds a great deal of weight to that heap.
Yet, in the short year since it debuted, Planet Tails has snagged a Retailer Excellence Award for Store Design at the Global Pet Expo trade show, forged a synergistic relationship with a local shelter that has resulted in the adoption of more than 40 cats, and even caught the attention of the CEO of one of the nation’s largest mass-market retailers, who according to Basile, has lauded the uniqueness of her store.
Most importantly, the store has created a buzz among Naples’ pet owners, who are as likely to stop by to pick up a bag of dog food as they are to visit to see what’s new or to cuddle with a cat.
Planet Tails’ speedy rise to success, while no less admirable, is not a great mystery if you consider Basile’s pet-centric career track. Although her original dream of becoming a veterinarian was squashed when she didn’t get into vet school, volunteer opportunities with the Humane Society, the launch of her own charitable pet magazine, Naples Dog Magazine, and writing assignments with various pet-related blogs got her significantly closer to where she wanted to be.
Positions as a pet buyer for two ecommerce companies cemented her role as an industry expert. She has also put her expertise to good use as a pet product scout for Good Morning America’s famed veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and national television talk show host Dr. Oz.
However, her knack for finding unique and unusual products was underutilized during her time working for Good Morning America, Dr. Oz and others. It wasn’t until she opened her own shop that Basile had the opportunity—and the freedom—to fully explore that talent.
“I would always find all these unique products that wouldn’t be suitable for the mainstream—either because they were too expensive or the company couldn’t scale to meet [mass] demand,” she recalls. “There was no outlet for me to display my secret amazing finds.”
She admits that she didn’t know if her penchant for peculiar or unusual products would be accepted by Naples’ pet owners or the tourists who visit yearly. But Planet Tails gave her a platform on which to test out her eye for novel items not normally sold in pet retail—and she has been rewarded for it. Her clever assortment, which includes anything from beds made from repurposed first-generation iMacs to the cat skeleton candle, is often the draw that gets bodies into the store.
“It turns out my quirky and weird buying habits are appreciated,” Basile says.
Weird buying habits aside, however, she is neither married to nor overly dependent upon her personal preferences when it comes to her assortment. She says that while novelty items often drive foot traffic, it is largely pet supply staples—toys, food, leashes, harnesses and other necessities—that generate that all-important repeat business.
Although it may be the “wow factor” that brings people into the store, customers quickly realize that the store will also meet their need for ordinary pet supplies. “Then, I’ve gained a customer, which is gold in retail,” she says.
And yet, retail is only one of the many plates she has spinning midair. The cat café, she says, is the heart of the store—a place where people can sip on a coffee (donated from a local Starbucks) and commune with adoptable cats. The not-for-profit café is a result of her partnership with a local shelter that supplies the cats. There are no time limits for visitors, nor is there an entrance fee. Donations help Basile cover the cost of kitty litter, food and maintenance, and while the café does not add a dime to her bottom line, it serves both as goodwill marketing for the store and as a social hub for animal lovers.
Planet Tails’ doggy daycare and pet boarding, on the hand, are moneymakers for the business.
“Whenever other companies looking at opening a pet store or cat café contact me for advice… I tell them that the only thing I know definitely is to diversify,” she says, adding that the various components of her business work as safety nets for the whole. “If one slacked off, my business would not fail.”
Yet while the daycare and boarding services are a fairly natural fit for a pet specialty retailer, Basile chose to add another, less traditional, component to her business—an educational day camp. For kids.
During school breaks, Planet Tails hosts up to 30 children, ages seven to 13, who participate in activities such as baking dog treats, visiting an animal shelter and learning about various pet care topics from bite prevention to wellness. She relies on a wealth of high school volunteers who are all too happy to earn school-required volunteerism hours working with children and pets. Basile also hires a couple of college students to help run the program—her camp attendee to counselor ratio, she adds, is outstanding.
While, like the cat café, the camp may not generate Planet Tails’ main bread and butter, it is also an effective form of community outreach and marketing.
“During my slow periods, I wanted to still get exposure, and the goal is not to just be a pet store, but to be a pet community center,” she says.
Birthday parties have been yet another revenue stream. “I provide everything,” she adds. “All parents have to bring is the cake.”
However, Planet Tails has a couple of advantages, in particular, that have made much of what Basile has accomplished possible—space and a well-defined vision of how to make the most of it.
Unlike the prototypical pet store of old, crammed with wall-to-wall product, Planet Tails is airy, open and spacious. Having taken a minimalist’s approach to merchandising, there are only a handful of shelves tethered to the walls. And on the sales floor itself, nothing is permanent.
“The reason that it works so well is that the whole store is very modular,” she says, explaining that all the store’s displays and components are mobile or movable, giving her the ability to rearrange the space quickly and as needed. Displays are strategically placed throughout the sales floor and with enough space between them that one could conceivably rollerblade among them without knocking any over. Her ample square footage also allows her room for services such as the day camp and cat café.
Yet her virtually Spartan approach should not be mistaken for a lack of branding. On the contrary, she has developed a singular and distinctive aesthetic and brand.
“I wanted it to be like an Apple store,” she says. “All my fixtures are white or chrome, with the color orange, which pops, especially at night.”
She also opted against traditional store fixtures, instead using white Ikea furnishings when possible, preferring the way the clean, simple designs set off the products. However, even when it comes to store design, Basile has not always been certain that customers would appreciate her choices, and given that the store is still new, she remains open to the idea that an alternative scheme may prove more appealing to some.
Still, she has good reason to be hopeful that she has indeed hit her mark.
“I like people to be able to walk around and have some space to see the product,” she says. “The flow in other stores may have a different vibe—you walk through and you can reach left and right and touch product. [In Planet Tails], you see the product, and you have to walk over to it. I don’t know what’s better.
“But I just really like walking around like this, and I figure there have to be other people like me.”