Aquarium Retail Holdings opened its sprawling Tamarac, Fla.-based Allfish Emporium at an interesting time. In 2010, the foundering economy had fish hobbyists emptying their tanks to save the money spent on maintaining them. But instead of clamping down on any further investment into the pet market, the company did something surprising. It expanded.
After being in business for a year, Aquarium Retail Holdings debuted two Allpets Emporium locations in 2011—one in Pembroke Pines and the other in Davie—changing its focus to include supplies for dogs, cats, small animals, reptiles and birds. The company has recently announced a third Allpets, set to open in the spring—a 14,500-square-foot upscale store in Coral Springs that will strongly promote premium dog food offerings, as well as cater to the aquarium hobbyist, with the aquatics section occupying almost one-quarter of the location’s square footage. The visual focal point of the store will be a cylindrical aquarium six feet in diameter, featuring wildlife indigenous to the lakes of Africa.
Yet, while the stores have plenty to offer in terms of assortment and visual appeal, CEO Steve Berlin, says Aquarium Retail Holdings’ main strength has been its ability to compete with impersonal “pet warehouses” that can’t compete on customer service.
In a market that Berlin admits is very crowded with competitors, Allpets and Allfish stores capitalize on the weaknesses of nearby big-box stores by providing customers with a more personal touch. “A lot of them miss that last five percent,” he says. “Your car may be clean, but there’s still mud on the tires.”
Berlin is referring to follow-up phone calls and the service after the sale that the stores offer. He is also proud of the stores’ ability to obtain almost any product within a day. He calls this “promoting the yes.”
“If customers are looking for something specific, and it’s not there, we can get it within one day,” Berlin says. “We have phenomenal relationships with the best distributors in the country and can cater to every customer, from entry-level to high-end.”
The aesthetic ‘wow factor’ of its overall in-store presentation also keeps customers coming back, Berlin says. The stores are known for their giant tanks. A 5,000-gallon shark tank is the centerpiece of the Allfish Emporium, while Allpets locations boast 3,000-gallon marine cylinder exhibits.
School children from three neighboring counties visit the stores on field trips to gawk at the marine life and take tours.
“The thinking here is we’re breeding future aquarium owners,” Berlin says. “We’re very lucky that we are involved in an industry that’s very colorful.”
Expanding Into Pet
For a company whose core competency is fish, branching out into the pet-store business in 2011—that is, catering to species that don’t swim—made sense from a business standpoint.
When the recession of 2008 hit, Berlin says, customers were quick to drain their aquariums and store them in their garages—but they weren’t about to find another home for the family dog.
“We thought, ‘If aquatics is flat for 2008-2009, let’s look at the pet industry,’” he says. “We knew we’d done it right in the aquatics business and had captured most of the market within a couple-hundred-mile radius. From the Orlando area to the Keys, people drive to us. So we took those same fundamentals and applied them to the Allpets stores.”
In addition, Allpets’ grooming salon—for dogs, cats, other small animals and birds—is “tremendously successful” and offers standard grooming services, along with upgrades such as blueberry facial scrub, fingernail painting and perfume.
In keeping with its commitment to quality customer service, Allpets and Allfish mandates that their employees undergo a bevy of educational training before they even hit the sales floor. For Allfish in particular, Berlin only hires “nice, energetic, passionate” folks with experience in the hobby, and the quality of hires for store and livestock managers is also important.
“The people we choose to work with us are very important because our customers are savvy,” he says. “They know what they want in a food and they rely on us to help them make that choice.”
The store offers ongoing education for customers, as well, including free water-chemistry and care demos every weekend.
To cultivate more pet owners, Berlin says supporting the local community is crucial not only to the company culture, but to its bottom line. Ten or 15 years ago, “every mall had a pet store—and it was socially acceptable,” he says. “Today, it’s really not. Society has done a complete 180 on how to bring in that new family member.”
So rather than combating or resenting the growing trend toward adopting pets from shelters, Allpets supports local rescue and adoption efforts, eschewing the sale of dogs or cats themselves. Instead, representatives from local shelters come to the stores, and Allpets will offer puppy and kitten packages, which include discounts on everything from food, crates, and training to treats and toys. They are partnered with a vaccination clinic as well.
“We need to support what the majority of society is supporting,” he says. “From a business-owner’s standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.”
Berlin has noticed some of its smaller competitors still sell dogs and cats, but that big-box retailers have increasingly gone the way of these local partnerships.
Multiple times a week, the stores get calls asking if they sell dogs and cats. “Our response dictates whether they are going to come into our stores are not,” Berlin says. “Choosing to [support local rescue and adoption efforts] shows we are as caring and compassionate for those local animals as our customers are. We have to throw everything we’ve got into earning their trust and faith.”