Ruff Life Pet Outfitters: Excellence in Merchandising

Entrepreneur Gary Albert found retail success with an inviting industrial chic ambiance and a judiciously selected assortment of premium pet products.


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A career in pet specialty retail can draw on any number of seemingly unrelated talents and skills—a background in marketing or bookkeeping, for example, or even a habit of tinkering with woodwork in one’s garage.

A theater background, on the other hand, does not come immediately to mind as an asset in the pet business.

Yet, Gary Albert has indeed repurposed his theater experience to great success in the industry. The owner of Ruff Life Pet Outfitters, a pet specialty boutique in Petoskey, Mich., Albert says his work with stage sets and a well-honed understanding of how to create a compelling visual scene has proven handy in his relatively new role as pet specialty entrepreneur. In fact, his theater sensibilities helped him to develop the store’s industrial chic aesthetic that has locals coming back again and again, and customers from afar asking him if it would be possible to open up another shop like it in their neighborhoods.

Still, as any storeowner surely knows, Albert’s knack for merchandising and design is hardly enough to guarantee the store’s financial success. Since the store’s opening in 2012, he has also applied some good, solid business sense and put his extensive retail experience to good use, as well. “Every year has been a year of steady and rapid growth,” he says.

However, he adds that the business was a gamble—albeit a carefully calculated one.

A lifelong dog owner, Albert had his eye on the pet industry for some time before making the move to become a storeowner. In doing his due diligence, his research revealed that the industry had experienced strong growth since the early 1980s and that people were spending more and more on their pets—proving to him that investing in the industry could prove highly profitable.

The endeavor also seemed a good fit for Albert personally. He was working in retail, selling cell phones, at the time and was seeking a career change that would afford him more flexibility in his schedule and an opportunity to spend more time on one of his main passions—his dog.

“The timing was perfect,” he recalls. “I had the capital, and even though it was supposed to be [for] my retirement, I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I will never do it, and I will regret it.’”

So, armed with his customer service skills, his academic theater experience and his retirement fund-turned-entrepreneurial capital, he set to work on opening a pet boutique that would focus on a carefully curated assortment of quality pet foods and mostly American-made supplies and accessories.

The first summer was lean, he recalls. “I was paying everything in cash,” Albert says, explaining that he had avoided using credit or taking on loans early on. “I didn’t want to do it out of the gate. I wanted to see if the business would fly, and if it didn’t fly, I wouldn’t be stuck with bills.”

He had earmarked a portion of his liquid capital for the store’s inventory, only to discover that he didn’t have enough product to meet consumer demand. He quickly funneled his profits into correcting the shortfall and began to rethink his position on credit.

But again, any risk he took on was calculated and well planned.

He hired a manager—someone he had a great deal of confidence in and who had a wealth of health and nutrition knowledge that would be useful in assisting customers. Lisa Turk, a former cardiac nurse, became his point person on pet nutrition.

Albert also gave careful consideration to the rest of Ruff Life Outfitters’ product assortment. “I was very prudent with what I brought in,” he says.
His focus has been primarily on dog-related products, premium goods made in the U.S. and items shoppers would not find in mass-market and big-box specialty stores.  “I’m not in the business to compete with the big-boxes,” says Albert.

Ruff Life’s assortment includes an array of beds, dishes, collars and leashes, and toys—the store’s biggest sellers. Albert also stocks people goods—pet-themed, slogan-bearing T-shirts and magnets, for example. The selection is meant to appeal to both the store’s year-round customers, as well as the many tourists that flood the area during the summer, which he describes as his “money-making months.”

The store’s product assortment also caters to outdoor enthusiasts. “My store has a distinct angle toward customers who are always outdoor with their pets—hikers, kayakers and other activities,” he says.

Meanwhile, the food selection is kept lean. The store carries two brands of kibble, two of raw food, and a couple brands of premium cat food. The trim, carefully selected premium offerings are performing well, according to Albert. “I wasn’t expecting food to do as well as it has, but it has taken off.”

However, one of Albert’s most notable accomplishments lies not only with the product assortment itself, but in the way it is presented and merchandised. Winner of the 2015 Retailer Excellence Award for Merchandising, awarded at this year’s Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., Ruff Life Pet Outfitters is well known among its customer base for its unique and artistic ambiance. Eschewing conventional means of displaying pet products, Albert applied his studied eye for design when building out and merchandising the store.

“Having a background in theater and having managed a retail store, I know it’s all about the experience the customer has when they walk into the store—those five seconds as they walk through the door and they are hit with a store that has style,” he says. “I used my design aesthetic to create a place that people will be impressed and excited by.”

The store itself is located in what used to be a 20th century barber shop/bath house, says Albert, and when he took occupancy over the space, it was pretty much a blank slate. The interior design is an enthusiastic nod to the local area’s industrial past. Using vintage pieces mined from online and regional salvage sellers, Albert has avoided using traditional display fixtures to showcase his wares. At Ruff Life, merchandise can be found in laundry baskets, a vintage book depository cart and wood crates; or it may be perched upon an orchard ladder or farm scale and hanging from carabiners and heavy-gauge chain.

 “I went to a sporting goods store and bought all of the carabiners I could find, in different sizes, and just started hanging merchandise: toys, backpacks, slings, whatever I could,” Albert recalls. “It became the single most remarked-upon and one of the most successful decisions I made.”

Ruff Life’s look continues to evolve. Albert’s latest creation is a display of Polaroids taken of the store’s canine customers. The photos are mounted on corkboard within an ad-hoc industrial steel photo frame.

“I have started taking pictures of everyone’s dog when they come in, and I put them up on the board,” he says. “When dogs come through the store, our hearts just melt.”

Yet while the captivating merchandising and design strategies keep evolving, the main objective remains steady—to give customers a singular retail experience, while supplying them with quality products and, equally as importantly, helpful information. “One of the other things I wanted to be was a resource for dog owners,” Albert says. “When you go to a big-box store and ask them questions, you’re not sure if they know what they are talking about. I wanted to be in a position to educate customers as part of the sales process—but not in a preachy way.”

For Albert, education can come in many forms, such as helping a customer understand how supplements might help his aging dog or explaining to a shopper the importance of buying the most appropriate toy for her dog’s play habits.

He adds, “It’s all about helping people help their dogs and care for their dogs in a way they can feel good about.”

 

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