Experience Over Everything
Bark Out Loud Doggie Boutique & Café makes an impact with local pet owners by hosting charming events and marketing with a personal touch.
When Connie Romano left her 37-year career at General Motors, she didn’t want a traditional retirement.
“I wanted to do something fun, and it had to be dog-related,” she says.
A daycare facility or grooming salon didn’t sound right to her, as she didn’t have the skills or the desire to gain them. Instead, Romano came up with the concept of a dog café where folks could bring their dog to hang out, eat together and purchase toys and accessories. The idea came from imagining the type of place she would have liked to take her beloved dog Stuart, who passed away in 2012.
Bark Out Loud Doggie Boutique & Café in Mansfield, Texas, which opened in August 2015, is exactly that—a place where dog fanatics and their pups are welcomed with open arms to relax, munch on snacks and maybe pick up the latest squeaky toy or doggie tuxedo. And a portrait of Stuart hangs in the store.
“He oversaw the creation of the store, and he is still here every day,” Romano says.
The Bark Out Loud menu includes normal bakery or cafe items, but made specially for dogs, like ice cream and ice cream sandwiches, cheesecake and cookies—all lactose free aside from the whipped cream on the “bark-a-lattes.” Most of these items are made fresh in the store, but some, like the custom cakes, are baked at Romano’s home and brought in.
Romano also sells a plethora of treats, chews, toys and apparel that add a shopping element to Bark Out Loud. She tries to tailor her product selection to the customers’ wants and needs.
“If someone comes in and asks, ‘Do you carry such and such?’ and I don’t have it, I’ll jot it down,” she says. “If I get two or three other people who ask for it, I’m going to start looking into carrying it.”
Bark Out Loud’s product niche lies in items that are whimsical and cute, affordable and durable. Romano says she often gets ideas for new products to carry at trade shows.
“I look for stuff that’s different that you can’t buy anywhere,” she says.
Although the concept of a dog café might seem aligned with boutique exclusivity, Romano wants Bark Out Loud to be accessible and affordable.
“We try to be reasonable. I’m just having fun,” she says. “I want people to be able to come here and have fun with their dogs. It’s all about the dogs and the experience.”
And people show up. Romano says because Bark Out Loud is the only dog café in the area, pet parents and their dogs will travel an hour across Texas to see what all the hype is about.
On top of the day-to-day café offerings, Bark Out Loud’s special events show Romano’s dedication to going above and beyond. At the store’s doggie birthday parties, guests play games, sing and open presents.
“They’re just like kids’ parties,” Romano says.
With the birthday parties, pet parents get exclusive use of Bark Out Loud for 45 minutes. The store provides invitations, party decorations, dog bandanas, cake and ice cream for the dogs, gifts for the birthday dog, party favors and game prizes—plus human food and drinks for the pet parents.
The store’s Paint Your Pup Paw-ty events are also exceptionally popular, Romano says. Every month, Bark Out Loud hosts 16 people in store to paint a photo of their dog onto a canvas. Prior to the event, an artist sketches the pets onto canvases and then guides the participants through painting the picture on Paint Your Pup night.
“Paint Your Pup sells out every month,” Romano says. “We tend to book months ahead of time.”
Bark Out Loud hosts nightly Yappy Hours where pet parents are encouraged to enjoy the store’s back patio with doggie beer and wine, and the human variety as well, of course. The patio is completed with tables, chairs, umbrellas, lights and fencing that allows dogs to run loose as they please.
The list of creative events goes on: Santa Claus visits, a Halloween social and costume contest, a Valentine’s “puppy love” social and more. Romano has made her mark as an innovator in events and community engagement.
The buzz and publicity surrounding events like these are part of what helped Bark Out Loud win a Retailer Excellence Award for Marketing at Global Pet Expo 2017, but the biggest key to Bark Out Loud’s marketing success is Romano’s use of Facebook. She makes it a point to advertise most of the store’s events via posts on Facebook and other pet-related apps.
“I was really reluctant at first,” she says. “I was not a Facebooker until a month before I opened my store. I was really nervous about it and everything, but I went ahead and did it. It’s been kind of crazy because we get a lot of responses through Facebook.”
Romano takes a photo of every single dog that comes into Bark Out Loud, especially on their first visit. She then makes sure the photos—often arranged in a collage and with a caption that “matches the dog’s personality”—get shared on the store’s Facebook within 24 hours. This tactic both increases the chances that the dog owner will feel special and valued and the likelihood of a return visit. The visitors often share the post, exposing the store and the personal experience it gave to that customer’s network of Facebook friends.
These customer-oriented posts also tell Bark Out Loud’s Facebook audience that the store takes the time to engage with each dog and dog owner that comes in.
“Everybody says, ‘They made us feel special,’ or ‘They sang to my dog’ or ‘My dog was nervous when they came in, but they helped them calm down,’” Romano says. “People appreciate the attention you give their dog. Make the experience personal to the dog. That’s what people like. That’s why they come back.”
Bark Out Loud is a solid example of taking the challenges pet retailers face in utilizing social media and putting a great deal of work into being successful in this area.
“Technology kind of scares people who aren’t young and didn’t grow up with Facebook and stuff,” says Romano. “You think, ‘I don’t know if I can keep up with this.’ It’s a lot of work. I can’t do Facebook when I’m in the store. I’m actually doing it at home at 10:00 at night.”
Romano takes advantage of the educational seminars regarding topics like social media marketing at trade shows. Most of the large shows have at least one learning session focused on these areas, if not an entire track dedicated to the ins and outs of everything from Facebook analytics to boosted posts.
Having just passed its two-year anniversary as a store (complete with a big party with ice cream floats and sundaes for dogs, of course), Bark Out Loud has seen a lot of success and positive traction in its short time on the scene.
Going forward, Romano’s main prerogative is continuing to cater to her customers’ wants.
“Listening to my customers instead of just doing what I think they want has worked out really well,” she says.
With this sentiment in mind and Stuart’s presence guiding the store, Bark Out Loud’s early popularity and success is surely just the beginning. PB