Rob Thompson has had a lifetime in retail; literally. His folks had shops and, on leaving school, he joined the electronics shop at which he’d worked casually as a student. “From there I moved to the ill-fated Brashs. I worked there for many years until they folded”. After a stint as Publican at the historic “Middle Pub” at Violet Town and managing various Corporate retail positions back in Melbourne he answered an advertisement for a Pet Stock store seeking an experienced retail manager.
He felt qualified for the position on two counts. “I’d had dogs for a good part of my life. I’ve owned and bred Staffords for 15 years. The Franchisee of the store liked my experience in management, coaching and mentoring a team, training assessment, my OH&S background; he knew his shop would be in good hands. I ran that for three years and won Store of The Year twice in that time. However, he had to sell his share back to Pet Stock corporate. I’d had enough of the corporate environment by that time. It lacked the flexibility for individualism that I enjoy in my management. So, I thought, I can do this myself and started Claws’n’Paws on a shoe string budget.
“I had just enough money in hand for the lease, the fittings and a little bit of stock. The bank advanced me a bit more against the house and I joined Just For Pets Buying Group, which allowed me to get credit terms with companies that would usually require payment up front. This was at the first store in Bayswater North. We were there for six years and won the Australian Retailers’ Association Retailer of The Year twice. A nice feather in our cap, obviously, but we had to change our cap with the way our industry has gone. Over that time rent and other expenses went up crazily and margins came down just as crazily. We chose not to renew the lease and settled in our new “little” home for now, here at Kilsyth, until we can find something bigger along Canterbury Road.
“Changes in the industry have been massive. Consumers have gone online; they’ve become price conscious. Some of these lines are expensive and I understand that they shop around for value. But we can price match. It’s not a problem for us, and as far as the customer goes, it keeps their money in the local community”.
As a buffer against the big chains and supermarkets that have come to dominate the industry, Rob had nothing but praise for the services offered and the economies of scale he gained by joining a national buying group. “As a small, independent retailer I couldn’t do half the things we do without Just For Pets. The rebates and support that came from the suppliers in the early days dwindled over the years. The marketing support I get from Just For Pets is amazing. It allows me to manage cash flow through their central billing. This in turn makes it easier to keep stock on the shelf. Without it, like so many small businesses, we’d constantly be juggling cash flow and finances. It allows us to trade well and drive catalogue activity, social media activity; I’ve virtually got an extra employee in my marketing department provided by Just For Pets in my monthly membership”.
“As part of the Just For Pets network, we do offer a free 6-point health check for any dog that comes in the store. This includes skin & coat, weight, nutrition, it also addresses parasites – how often the dogs are wormed (sort of thing), vaccination history and dental health.”
Another benefit from the membership Rob felt added value to it was the camaraderie. “I can pick up the phone and be talking with like-minded retailers right around Australia. A lot of them come to me for advice, I can also go to them for advice. With my Just For Pets membership comes free membership to the Australian Retailers Association. Just the other day I did one of their free webinars. We can refer to them for payroll and legal issues; issues I can get on the phone to them about. Things that small, independent retailers wouldn’t have access to, and in many cases wouldn’t know where to go to get the information.
“Another advantage is building supplier relationships. We get to meet them at seminars and conferences in an informal manner. I meet store owners and managers that are running bigger operations than ours. That inspires and encourages me to reach for the sky a bit more”.
Asked about the changes he’s seen in pet food over the years, Rob said, “I guess my mantra from Pet Stock was the holistic movement. It was just starting to take place. Black Hawk had two varieties in a white, plain paper bag. That was the first Australian made holistic food that I had any experience with. We were the second biggest seller of Holistic Select and Eagle Pack. I’d done a lot of my early nutritional training on holistic food. I’m passionate about that and more than 50% of the stock in our store is holistic based dry food.
“When LifeWise came along we were having supply issues with one of our main holistic lines, Meals for Mutts. It was an amazing food with a passionate following, but as a small independent retailer, when supply became erratic, I couldn’t afford the minimum buy levels demanded by the distributor to keep our shelves stocked. We were also kept in the dark about the change in manufacturer, recipes and packaging. I was visiting another independent store down in Richmond and I knew he used to sell a lot of Meals for Mutts so when he said you’ve got to get onto this LifeWise it’s going well in my store – and his store’s a lot smaller than mine – I thought, if he can sell it, I can sell it. I’m proud to say that now, as far as volume goes every week, it’s definitely my number one product in-store. It would rate double the volume of its nearest competitor.
I’m very happy with our relationship with LifeWise. Very happy to do business with, like ourselves, a small, family owned company supporting local manufacturing and creating local jobs. That’s why independent retailers are in business: to keep it local and keep it real. Being able to get on the phone and talk to Kristy and Bill is reassuring. You certainly wouldn’t be able to do that with big suppliers. You wouldn’t know who to call for starters”.
“As far as palatability goes, we’ve probably put through a thousand bags of LifeWise and would have had only four back, and three of those were cat food. And as we all know, cats are very finicky to change sometimes. In dog food, we’ve had amazing results, especially our skin-issue dogs. These are customers who have converted from other premium brands that have either crept up above their reach price-wise, or availability issues. They’re very happy with the switch.
“We have our ambassador dog, Dennis, who belongs to football celebrity Luke Darcy, on LifeWise foods. Luke and his wife run a wellness retreat over in Bali and are very much into a holistic approach to food and it’s a natural step to have Dennis eat the same way. He’s a blue Stafford, which are absolutely renowned for having the most sensitive skin out of any dog breed out there. A lot of Staffords have trouble with beef and/or wheat. Putting Dennis on LifeWise was a straightforward call to make and he hasn’t looked back.”
Having their own grooming salon, you’d expect Rob and Claws’n’Paws’ groomer Emily, would come across lots of skin issues. “We do … but most dogs that require grooming don’t get too many skin issues. The Staffords we mostly see through our DIY bath and air dryer out the front. Or someone will come in complaining that their dog’s itching. Nine times out of ten they’re on supermarket wheat-based, beef-based dry food. We can take them straight over to something else; to an elimination diet. Add a few bibs and bobs to deal with the inflamed area and within 3-4 weeks nearly all of them have shown amazing improvement in skin lustre, no itching, no dandruff, no flaking and it hasn’t cost them a vet consultation.
“As part of the Just For Pets network, we do offer a free 6-point health check for any dog that comes in the store. This includes skin & coat, weight, nutrition, it also addresses parasites – how often the dogs are wormed (sort of thing), vaccination history and dental health. We consider the breed of dog, age, gender; right down to the owners’ budget.
“Initially we were putting our established customers on LifeWise, we’re now starting to see word-of-mouth referrals coming in. Inquiry spiked after Dog Lovers’ show too. I don’t know how many samples Bill and Kristy handed out but it looks like quite a few hit the mark. We’re getting a lot of repeat business.
“We hand out a lot of show bags ourselves and the dog grooming presents an opportunity to do that. Traditionally half our grooming customers wouldn’t purchase food from us in-store. There’s a great potential there. We actually find that they’re feeding a lower grade supermarket based-food. We’d like to see them on a better diet, but sometimes costs can be a problem. Around 80% of pet food is sold through supermarkets and transitioning onto premium holistic diets is a slow process, but we do find them, one-by-one; those who assess the value and the overall cost of feeding a diet that’s balanced to keep your pet healthy and happy. Partnering with someone like LifeWise ensures that we have the backup service and the science to be able to support those making the transition.
“I met Bill Wiadrowski for the first time at Just For Pets Byron Bay conference and was blown away by his level of knowledge and expertise. We get customers coming in the door – who have spoken with him on the phone, – asking for diets he’s suggested for issues their dogs have had. They’ve come in raving about the service they’ve got from LifeWise and Bill in particular.
“Another thing I like – and appreciate – about LifeWise is their simple and informative packaging and marketing. They spend their money on nutritional research, not on fancy marketing and focus groups and studies in supermarkets to find out what people want to see on a pet food bag. They leave it to the experts in-store to suggest and guide the customer on what they need for their individual dog rather than having to try to work it out off the packaging like they would standing in the pet food aisle at the supermarket, where’s there’s no help available”.
While we were interviewing Rob for this story, customers were coming and going. Not only his knowledge, but also his dedication to and passion for the pet industry shines through in his every word. It clearly demonstrated the value to pet owners of the independent store keepers with a world of knowledge and experience in their field. We’re proud to have Rob and his team as LifeWise Ambassadors.
Rob can be contacted by email on firstname.lastname@example.org
or through their website at www.clawsnpaws.com.au