Clearly, Ashevilleans love their pets. Take a roam around town and you’re likely to pass an independently owned pet shop, groomer, dog behaviorist or rescue organization somewhere along the line. But amid a landscape of big-box pet stores and online retailers, what’s business — and life — like for the folks who keep those beloved pet shops chugging along?
“Business is good,” says Jenna Wilson, who owns Patton Avenue Pet Co.’s three outlets. “As Asheville grows and people are more educated on the importance of pet nutrition, it helps our business grow as well.”
Wilson has been in the industry her entire working life — as a groomer, pet sitter and at doggy day care centers and rescue organizations. But when she moved to Asheville after college she had a tough time finding a job in the field, so she decided to strike out on her own. Wilson opened her first store in West Asheville in 2011 when she was just 24 years old. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I was very passionate,” she recalls. “I took my passion and realized there was a lot of need for it in the community.”
Caroline Gunther, the owner of Hendersonville’s Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique, has a similar story. Back in 2008 she, too, was searching for employment. “There were no jobs in the equestrian industry,” she says. “It was basically banker or bartender. I decided to [open the shop] instead.”
Asheville Pet Supply owner Mary Hourihan has been in the business a long time. “When we moved here in 1989, we had a lot of animals, and the only place to buy the good stuff was Pet Love at the mall,” she remembers. “Then we found this store, but it was really small and you had to order in advance. The lady who owned it had some health problems and put it up for sale. My husband and I were both retired and bought it as a hobby business in 1991. Then we became very successful, and we’ve really grown since then.”
Jessica Kent used to shop at the Weaverville Pet Pantry before teaming up with her sister, Erin Kent, and other family members to buy it nearly three years ago. “I appreciated their model of healthy foods that don’t contain fillers,” she says. The sisters were inspired to buy the store after their mother died of cancer. In the wake of that loss, “We came together to work together,” says Kent. “Our mom was a nurse and passionate about pets.”
Ask any of the independently owned pet shops how they manage to compete with the big-box stores and you’ll get the same answer: It’s their level of service that sets them apart. “I have very knowledgeable employees,” says Hourihan. “We listen to our customers; we talk to them. We help them make the best decisions for their pets. We are not here to sell anything but to solve problems. I’ll be the first to tell you if you want to buy something but it isn’t what you need. No matter how expensive or how much money is involved, I’ll tell you if something else would be better.”
It’s that kind of earned trust that has enabled local pet shops to thrive. “We have a relationship with people that come into the store,” says Gunther. “We have so many incredible regulars that are like friends now. One of the guys who works for me has a standing lunch date with a customer on Friday afternoons,” she reveals.
Those strong relationships with customers are an integral part of what makes local pet shops successful in a crowded market. “My sister and I are in the store every day listening to what people want,” says Kent. “We are meeting their pets, we are fitting them for harnesses, we are helping them decide what kind of food to feed. We know all of our customers’ pets. We are here getting to know our customers every day.” And although many of those beloved animals are dogs, these businesses also carry products aimed at other kinds of pets.
Shop owners say that one reason they’re able to have such positive interactions is because they have the freedom and flexibility to ensure that they and their employees maintain a good work/life balance.
“Making sure that staff are happy, enjoying their jobs and feeling supported in their work is very important to me,” says Gunther. “If staff aren’t happy they can’t do their jobs well.” To that end, she makes sure that her four full-time employees have at least one day off per week that they can spend at home with their significant others. “If they aren’t happy at home, they can’t come to work and be present and engage with the customers,” notes Gunther.
Doggone good products
Shop owners also stress the importance of offering quality items as another way to set themselves apart from big-box stores.
“We had a PetSmart open recently less than a mile away, and I saw no effect whatsoever,” says Gunther. “It didn’t do anything to us at all. We have completely different products than they carry. We have the same types of products, like grooming supplies and food, but there is very little to no overlap of the specific products that we carry.”
Kent agrees, adding that the Weaverville Pet Pantry “carries products that not all of the national chains have.”
Hourihan sounds a similar note. “We have a fabulous selection of high-quality products. One of my customers got a puppy from a breeder in California, and the breeder gave her the name of three foods that she thought were acceptable but also told her she’d never find them in a little town in North Carolina — but we had all three.”
That commitment to quality, local shop owners say, runs right up the supply chain. “A lot of the companies we buy from are dedicated to supporting local and independent stores,” says Gunther. “They feel their products need to be sold with support and information behind them. They want people to have the education piece, too.”
Kent has also found that to be true. “A lot of pet food companies are looking out for small businesses like us. They’re aware of what internet sales can do to us. Many of them started out as family businesses too, so they have our interests in mind.”
One might imagine that that kind of cozy relationship between vendors and shops could come with a cost, but local pet shop owners say that’s just not the case. “There is definitely a value perception in shopping at a big-box store versus an independent pet store,” Wilson concedes. “People think they are going to save money or get a better value, but what our customers realize is that that isn’t true: We are competitively priced.”
How do you spell community?
But Asheville’s pet shops aren’t content to just keep pet owners supplied with high-quality products. They’re also involved in their community in other ways. “I am on the board of a local pet rescue,” says Wilson. “We work with groups from the ACLU to homeless charities and also donate,” she notes.
Hourihan, meanwhile, tells a similar story, saying, “We work with a lot of charities and nonprofits and engage in community service.”
And alongside their commitment to the community at large, these local owners are devoted to each other, too. “I appreciate and like the other independent stores in Western North Carolina,” says Gunther. “Sometimes a client from Asheville will come into the store, and when I find out where they’re from I’ll say, ‘Go to Patton Avenue Pet Co., because that is where you’re going to shop,’” she reveals. “I’ll guide and help them if they want, but they aren’t going to drive here all the time to get this stuff. You should shop your independent where you live and where you pay taxes,” she believes. “It’s nice to be in good company with those stores.”