Losing a Great Full-Line Pet Retailer


I recently heard the sad news that the pet specialty channel will be losing one of its great full-line retailers. After more than 40 years of serving Milwaukee pet owners, Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets is expected to close its doors forever at the end of the year.

The giant 34,000-square-foot store has long served as an exemplary model of what a traditional pet store should be. Owner Mike Hoffer has remained committed to categories such as small animal, aquatics and herptile products—not to mention the concept of actually selling pets—even as other retailers have chosen to forgo pet sales altogether and focus solely on high-volume dog and cat items. And having had the opportunity to speak with Hoffer on several occassions, including earlier this week, I've always gotten the sense that this commitment has been driven not by his business's bottom line, but rather a passion for these pets, as well as the customers who care for them.

Unfortunately, as my colleague Jennifer Boncy writes in next month's Pet Business cover story about aquatics retailing, "...passion will not pay the bills."

Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets' course to eventual closure actually began back in 2010, when the retailer saw a steep, post-recession drop off in sales. Luckily, as Hoffer explained to me when contributing input for Pet Business' May 2013 cover story, the store was able to somewhat rally back from the brink that time, thanks in large part to help from key vendors. However, apparently, all this did was delay the inevitable.

In the years that followed, the store continued to struggle as a result of stagnating sales—particularly in the aquatics arena—yet Hoffer still supported the struggling elements of his business, keeping the shelves well-stocked with everything aquarium keepers might need to care for their pets. “Maybe I was creating an illusion of success,” he says. “I felt that was important for the customers; and I thought that things were going to turn around eventually. They didn’t.”

At the end of the day, it has been competition from online retailers that has sunk Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets, says the owner. The big, brick-and-mortar store simply cannot not keep up with the pricing that shoppers can find on the Internet, which is often lower than what Hoffer can get at wholesale. I suspect that more than a few other aquatics retailers can relate.

But Hoffer's Tropic Life Pets is not closed just yet. The owner says he is committed to finding loving homes for the hundreds of pets that are still in his care, which he expects will take a couple more months. Of course, this leaves open the possibility—no matter how small—that things may turn around for this pet specialty stalwart in the meantime. "Who knows," says Hoffer, "maybe we'll pull a phoenix and rise from the ashes."

For the sake of pet owners in Milwaukee, at least, I hope Hoffer's speculation proves right.

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