Curt & Sharon Jacques, owners of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., which was named Best Overall Single-Store Retailer at the 2013 Global Pet Expo Retailer Excellence Awards discuss how they have turned their passion for pets into a successful retail business.
Congratulations on the Best Overall Single-Store Retailer Award at Global Pet Expo! What does the win mean to you and your staff?
Having an opportunity to be recognized by our peers in our industry is very humbling. It re-enforces the high level of service and commitment we have established for ourselves and for our customers.
Owners Curt & Sharon Jacques (center) accept their award at Global Pet Expo. (Photo courtesy of The Photo Group)
To what do you attribute the success of West Lebanon Feed & Supply?
Success is never defined by one singular act but by the events that lead to the beginning of a company’s “bloom.” It is our belief that in order to have true success, a series of events must first take place:
• Business owners must first love what they do! We have been personally involved in the pet nutrition/supply business for over 34 years. We love animals and we love people, two of the most important foundation points to serving this industry. We have a passion statement, not a mission statement, to facilitate the direction we have chosen for our company’s future success.
• We are constantly enhancing our company’s image. Most weak business owners, no matter what industry they are in, fail to have both a visual image as well as an emotional image. The visual image tells our customers what we look like on the outside, the shell of a company that may not get a second chance to make a great impression. How attractive is our facility? Would you shop for your pet’s needs in a filthy store or a clean, attractive, well-merchandised store? Six years ago, after many years of planning and traveling to other stores in our industry, we built a new store that identifies who we are (agricultural) and where we are (a historic rail yard). Hence the design of a store that has the look of a barn yet could also pass as a 1920s railroad building. This image, along with an elaborate lighting scheme, black shelving fixtures and the antique decorations of our industry really came together to encourage our customers to shop and to spend more time in our store. We know the longer they stay, the more they will spend.
The emotional image is always a work in motion. Being genuine about our passion and our community is probably the most important work a successful business will perform each and every day! When Hurricane Katrina caused millions in damage to our nation’s south, we launched a program called “Cause for Paws,” and in 10 days we raised over $20,000 and purchased 66 tons of cat and dog food and sent it to Louisiana for distribution in animal shelters. This past year, Hurricane Irene caused tremendous damage to our own area and we launched the program “Hands Across the River” and organized work teams to clean up recreation fields, businesses and others in need.
Every May, we conduct an ongoing campaign called “K-9 Awareness Day,” which draws upwards of 3,000 people to our store to highlight the Police K-9 Agencies for the Vermont state police, town and city municipalities, and New Hampshire state police. Our own Lebanon City Police, which we sponsor with food and supplies and organized veterinary care at no charge from our local pet emergency hospital, helps us host visiting agencies. All the proceeds go to support the Vermont Police Canine Association. Every sales circular features a non-profit organization and we distribute over 40,000 of them six to eight times a year. We conduct dozens of programs throughout the year and we find that our customers enjoy supporting an organization that supports the community.
• Finding and cultivating a dedicated team of employees that believe in our passion and continually training and enhancing their abilities to be number one in customer service.
• Constantly bringing new products into our store so we are never complacent. The value of shows like Global Pet Expo are such a huge part of our success. The average retailer purchases from approximately three dozen vendors for their store. Our vendor list is over 170 and growing. It’s a pain to manage, but it’s extremely difficult for competitors, especially the box stores, to duplicate our success. By attending these shows, we are able to bring in the latest and greatest products on the market, have meaningful face-to-face discussions with the manufacturers and their management teams, and develop a better understanding of where our industry is headed and help to plot the direction from a retailer’s perspective. Mixing up the merchandise, pricing it competitively and get rid of stale product is a must.
• Merchandising know-how. You need to have the ability to know the difference between what looks good and what doesn’t when building displays. Training a merchandiser for our store has paid huge dividends. If our displays are not attractive, customers will not buy. Always put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Get them involved in feedback on your displays since they are the ones that will ultimately decide. If we don’t change our store on a regular basis, customers get bored and won’t see new products.
• Smart advertising. We don’t waste time with yellow-page advertising, since it’s too costly and too difficult to evaluate. We run six to eight circulars per year (40,000 each time), radio advertising and lots of social media. E-mail blitzs, Facebooking and Tweeting have the lowest cost (no cost), and we do fairly well with it. E-mail is the focus of our events to get new addresses to add our list of over 20,000 members. We also have success with transaction ads (type ads usually on the back page of the first section) versus display ads. A transaction ad costs as low as $85 and we will get a greater response than a $400 display ad.
What is the biggest challenge your business has faced over the past few years, and how have you overcome that challenge?
One of our biggest challenges is not having much control over rising health insurance costs. We are working with our local hospital to develop a “well-care” program that will enable us to carry a higher-deductible catastrophic event policy and still offer an affordable maintenance program that gives our employees an opportunity to have a weekly clinic available for minor issues and a referral program for the more urgent care needs of our workforce. It is a work in progress, yet it is exciting to see the potential of a more affordable program to minimize lost time in the workplace.
What is your favorite part of being in the pet industry?
Our favorite part about our job is working in an industry that supports animals. We will have anywhere from 50 to 100 dogs in our store on any given day, and it is so rewarding developing a relationship not only with our human friends but our four-legged friends as well. Being a part of our customers’ pets’ lives is like watching children grow into adults and the stories told along the way. Unfortunately, we also share in many customers grief when they lose a pet and it always tugs at the heart when this happens. But for the love and joy pets bring to our lives, who could imagine not having those warm wet kisses and wagging tails to help us through those days!