Key West, Fla., sits at the southern most point of the continental U.S., right where America dips its big toe into the waters of both the turbulent Atlantic Ocean and the balmy Gulf of Mexico simultaneously. A magnet for avid boaters, anglers, snorkelers, sun worshippers and fans of Jimmy Buffett, Key West—along with the other islands comprising the subtropic Florida Keys—is a rare flower among the lower 48 states. But, as exotic as it may seem, Key West shares at least one common passion with the rest of the country—pets.
It is this passion that has served as a boon to American Dog Outfitters, a five-year-old pet specialty shop located on the outskirts of the island’s most visited tourist area. In just a few years, American Dog Outfitters has become a beloved spot for many local pet owners, with its ample assortment of premium pet foods and basic pet supplies.
“Key West is an extremely dog friendly town, and as we like to say, cat friendly, which makes its fun,” says Sean Potter, the store manager in charge of day-to-day operations. “I think for how small our population is—about 18,000—it’s pretty impressive how educated our pet owners are about pet nutrition and health. People care so much about their animals.”
Of course, a loyal customer base of pet owners alone could not guarantee American Dog Outfitters a long tenure in the business. At times, local and online competition combined with supply-chain challenges have conspired to make the road to success tricky to navigate.
But American Dog Outfitters has proven that it has more than one trick up its sleeve to face down obstacles and adversaries.
One of its most notable advantages has to be the store’s synergistic relationship with its parent company, the Lower Keys Animal Clinic. Dr. James Waddell, DVM, opened the clinic over 20 years ago; then, five years ago, he opened American Dog Outfitters next door. This prime location puts the store directly in the line of vision of every pet owner who visits the clinic.
Appropriately, the retailer focuses heavily on nutrition and health. The 2,400 square-foot store sells approximately 25 lines of pet food, including frozen raw diets—and its connection to the clinic makes it uniquely positioned to support that wide range of diets.
“If we ever have a question, we have a vet tech or doctor at our disposal whenever we need one, and that gives the customer a lot of confidence in us, as well,” Potter says.
Still, while the clinic may lend American Dog Outfitters credibility and help deliver some customers to its front door, the local competition won’t allow Potter and his staff to get complacent. The city’s locals, as well as the thousands of tourists that visit each year, have several other options when it comes to pet care.
“We do have some very good local competition that keeps us on top of our game—no doubt about that,” he says. “We have one of the larger box stores, which has come into the [market] in the last couple of years, and we have been lucky to not see our numbers go down. We have continued to see growth, and we’ve done things to make things a little different.”
American Dog Outfitters distinguishes itself in several ways, says Potter. Its frequent-buyer program, for example, helps keep even the higher-quality foods it sells affordable. And its free home delivery service has been a sleeper hit for the store, which will deliver frozen foods as well as any other products it offers to mostly local clientele.
“[The service] is being used a lot more than I anticipated, but it’s a good growth problem that we have, and we’ve had a lot of success with it,” he explains.
Potter holds up his staff as another distinguishing characteristic of the young store—and one that he feels particularly fortunate to have.
“I’m knocking on every piece of wood as I say this, but it comes down to having an extremely educated staff that really buys into the industry and what we are trying to achieve” he says. “I owe a lot, if not everything, to my staff.”
He is also proud to proclaim that he has retained the same staff for nearly two and a half years—half of the store’s existence. “Key West is a very transient community, so that is something that makes us special,” he says.
However, even with all of the inherent advantages that came with its unique position next to the clinic and its crackerjack staff, getting to this point wasn’t without road bumps. Doing business in Key West offers a unique set of complications.
“Being all the way down in the Keys, obviously, we get charged some surcharges that I think the mainland doesn’t see,” Potter says. “And when the gas prices go up, we do see some of that.”
Although these costs may be unavoidable, American Dog Outfitters works to offset them for the customer—for instance, with its frequent-buyer program that many customers take part in and appreciate. Potter adds that the store has been sensitive on price since its doors opened.
“When we opened five year ago, it was during a very tough economic time,” he explains. “For us to survive, we really thrive on suggested retail prices, and if someone can get it online, we consider that major competitor of ours.”
Even with the issue of pricing addressed, just getting product into the store has been thorny at times. “When we first opened, we would really receive our orders usually once a month from our various vendors, and that created a lot of different challenges,” Potter recalls.
Fortunately, the store has gotten even this obstacle licked. Over the years, the supply chain challenges subsided as sales and volume grew. Potter says vendors have adjusted their schedules to accommodate the store’s needs, and most vendors make it down. Doing business in Key West, in general, he adds, has improved in recent years.
Still, Potter says that even as he and his staff find ways to clear the inevitable obstacles of retailing, they remain vigilant in their efforts to keep customers happy and business flourishing.
“There isn’t a magical wand,” he says. “It’s a day-to-day deal. I truly feel that if the customer has a good experience—and that’s our job to make sure that happens—nine times of 10, they are going to come back and shop at our store.”