An Old-School Approach
By Pamela Mills-Senn
The owners of Pet Express have built the kind of pet stores they grew up with as kids, offering animals a safe environment and customers a memorable shopping experienc

It wasn’t a decision they made lightly, and it hasn’t always been an easy one to stand by—especially in today’s climate. But Rob Mellace, co-owner of Massachusetts-based Pet Express, says the decision to include animals in the inventory was the best one he and co-owners/siblings John and Lucia Mellace Castle ever made.

“Originally, we were going to be just a pet supply store,” says Mellace. “But then we decided to bring in pets, to be the kind of pet store we grew up with as kids. It’s an old-school mentality and a difficult one to keep sometimes.

“The recent changes have given retailers a lot of fear about selling pets,” he continues, referring to the efforts of cities in various parts of the county, most notably in California, to ban the sale of live animals. “And some people shouldn’t do this; it’s not like selling dog food. It took us years to adapt a very appropriate training program for handling live animals.”

Understanding the issues surrounding the sale of live animals—dogs in a particular—the siblings have taken measures to ensure that they are part of the solution and not the problem, Mellace says. He is one of the founders of a fledgling organization dedicated to closing puppy mills and preventing unethical breeding practices. Ultimately, Mellace says he’d like to see a rating system for breeders, along with inspections and greater transparency.

“Retailers should be proud of where their puppies come from,” he says.

The wellbeing of the pets Pet Express sells is also top of mind for the stores’ owners, who prioritize the health and safety of the animals. “All of our enclosures are custom made,” Mellace says. “There are no grates; the puppies walk on solid ground. All the enclosures are individually vented and are five feet wide, three feet deep and three feet high. We work diligently to create a perfect environment for them.”

In addition to creating a safe environment for puppies, Pet Express mandates that employees assigned to live animals undergo a 30-day supervised training program at the end of which they’re evaluated to ensure the fit is good.

Magic Moments
Despite the challenges of selling pets, however, Mellace says it is well worth the effort. “There’s a split-second moment when a family decides to buy a pet,” he says. “There’s that moment in time when they all look at each other and they’ve made the decision; you can see that moment on their faces. That moment is precious.”

The first store, which opened in 1995 in Lynn, Mass., is a full-line, 10,000-sq. ft. superstore. The store carries a full gamut of live pets and is split into roughly three departments: birds and small animals, fish and reptiles, and puppies and kittens. In addition to supplies, the store offers dog training and grooming.

The owners launched the second store in 2009. Unlike the Lynn store, which is on a main highway, it is located in a mall in Danvers. For their third store, they headed to a mall again, opening a Pet Express about two years ago in the Square One Mall in Saugus. The three stores are within about 10 miles of each other, says Mellace.

The two mall locations are more compact than the superstore. At 2,800 square feet, the Danvers store is the smallest. Coming in at 3,500 square feet, the Saugus shop is a little roomier and houses a full-size bakery, “Mutts & Stuff.” A local pet bakery makes the treats, all of which are wheat, soy and gluten free. The other two stores also sell the treats in their display cases.

The mall locations differ from the superstore in another way—the stores’ emphasis is on selling puppies and puppy products, as well as products for dogs of all ages. The Danvers store—located in a family oriented mall with a IMAX theater and an indoor kiddy play area—is particularly popular among families with children, making it a prime location for a first-puppy purchase.

Still, all three stores sell puppies and the owners strive to ensure that all of their puppy-purchasing customers are well prepared to handle the new responsibilities. Whenever a puppy is sold—between the three stores they usually offer 150 to 175 puppies at a time—employees are trained to recommend a “puppy package.” This includes a puppy crate for training, a bed, a leash/collar, stain and odor removers, treats, a brush and food. When it comes to the latter, they have limited their recommendations to two products.

“In our superstore we carry the full gamut of food, from grocery brands to high-end brands,” Mellace says. “But in the mall locations, we offer only Vet’s Choice Healthy Extensions—this is our kibble—and we mix this in with Stella and Chewy’s freeze-dried raw diet.”

The puppy package varies depending upon the size of the puppy and time of year—for example, in the winter they may advise adding a sweater to the mix. On top of the puppy sale itself, the package itself typically adds about $150. For older puppies, they’ll offer a discount on those that go home with the proper starter kit.

“We’ve found that a puppy that goes home with the right products stays home, and that’s what we want to see,” says Mellace.

A Recessionary Assist
Although the Great Recession certainly gave them pause, rather than hunkering down, the owners of Pet Express looked at it as an opportunity for growth. In fact, this is how they ended up in the malls, says Mellace.

“Prior to the recession, mall locations were too expensive,” he says. “But because of the economy, so many stores left the malls that they became way more affordable, and we were able to go in. In fact, the malls came to us.”

Expansion during a time when one business after another was closing up shop may seem counterintuitive but to Rob, John and Lucia, it made sense. “Opening more locations helps you survive,” Mellace says. “You have more exposure; you become more of a force to be reckoned with. We’re looking for strength in numbers and the ability to offer a giant selection.”

The strength in numbers paradigm is working for the company’s organizational structure, as well. Mellace says the partners have a harmonious working relationship, which is not always the case when it comes to siblings and business. Rob serves as overall district manager, going from store to store, taking a hands-on role when it comes to store appearance and displays. He also works with vendors and suppliers. John is in operations and serves as the communications link to store employees. Lucia handles the books, scheduling and other back-office functions, and has a “huge knowledge of products and prices,” says Mellace. All three are involved in inventory management and decisions.

“We communicate all day long, every day,” Mellace says. “The success of our business is that we’re able to turn things around fast. We’re chameleons; we can change quickly and can make decisions quickly. The ability to act and move quickly when necessary is essential to what we do.”

They also get creative with their suppliers, buying a lot of closeouts and pricing these accordingly for their customers, passing along the savings. “You have to give them a break and offer them a positive shopping experience,” Mellace says.

They announce sales, specials and promotions on their Facebook page, which he describes as “very big for them.” As for the future, Mellace foresees opening another store south of Boston in the next year or two.

“As a company we’ve grown, but we’ve definitely tightened out belts,” he says, remarking on how they’ve weathered things so well over the last several years. “You can’t spend frivolously. You have to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the industry.

“You have to get out of your store,” he continues. “Get out and shop the competition. It’s not a time to be negative; it’s a time to stay creative because when everything changes, you will have to change again.”