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Animal instincts

By The Drum, Administrator

February 25, 2004 | 9 min read

The only scary thing about the latest Friday 13th was the performance of the company I went to see. Pets at Home may sound like a nice, fluffy kind of concern but, as its competitors have found out to their cost, so far it’s made an absolute killing.

From a standing start in 1991, the Cheshire-based firm has propelled its finely honed business model forward with frightening efficiency. It now has 150 super-centre pet stores, employing around 2,000 animal lovers and generating a turnover in excess of £235m. Last year the “Europe’s 500” listing crowned Pets at Home the fastest growing company in the UK and the 11th fastest in the entire continent. This is one business animal that’s yet to be tamed.

Upon arriving at its Handforth HQ, I’m met by some rather chilled-out fish at reception and a very focused Cat in the boardroom – a Mrs Catriona Marshall to be precise.

Group trading and marketing director Marshall, unlike her meandering aquatic friends, knows exactly where she’s going and is very ambitious about getting there. A veteran of some seven years at Asda Wal-Mart, leaving in early 2003 as European Director of Private Label, Marshall doesn’t waste words – speaking with automatic authority and at a pace which renders note-taking unintelligible. Luckily, Mr Dictaphone is on hand to translate.

“Personally, I’d always wanted to be part of a small team,” she retorts when quizzed on the move from the world’s biggest retail group to one that, impressive as it is, isn’t quite as big. “Pets at Home is still a relatively small business on the cusp of this massive opportunity. It’s privately owned, it’s in a market that’s relatively untapped and it’s just starting to really take off. It had everything I was looking for and I was eager to be a part of it.”

With a backlog of visitors conversing with reception’s oblivious fish, not to mention a romantic weekend curtailing her hectic day slightly early, we dive straight in to the interview. The competition pool is first up.

After buying out their only direct ‘super-centre’ competitor, Petsmart, four years ago, Marshall and Co are focused on the same threat as almost any other retailer in any other retail sector – the supermarkets: “There’s no doubt that the grocers are our biggest competitors by far,” she says of her former friend turned foe. “They’re expanding their ranges from food into accessories, into health and hygiene – into areas that were traditionally catered for by the specialist channels. Because of that, the reasons to go to a specialist are fewer and fewer.”

She continues with what seems like an air of incredulity: “I was in a Tesco Extra yesterday and they were selling collar-and-lead packs. Asda has developed a super-centre concept, where they’ve got pet departments selling beds, bowls, leads and toys – a good range – even fish tanks. Wilkinsons are also taking a huge chunk out of the market and they’re doing it very quietly. A lot of people are having a pop at our market.”

But, as you’d expect from her experience and insider knowledge of these key competitors, this is one cool Cat that isn’t fazed by the challenge: “The supermarkets have expanded from market to market – they were eventually going to reach pets and they’ll continue to build the departments. However, I’m sure, and there’s absolutely no complacency in saying this, that a pet department within a supermarket is just another supermarket department. The difference between them and Pets at Home is huge. They may score well in terms of convenience but in terms of the retail experience itself they’ll never come close.”

It’s this brand experience that Marshall sees as the secret ingredient that’s facilitated Pets’ recent retail alchemy. “Yes, without a doubt it’s the ‘experience’ that’s made the company so successful – all of our research points towards that. When shoppers go to Pets at Home they call it a ‘time-out’. It’s a pleasurable pastime, a fun place to be. Ask the kids if they want to go to Tesco and you’ll be lucky to get a reaction. Ask if they want to go to Pets at Home and it’s ‘Yeaaahhh’.”

“If you love animals, which our customers do, then it’s something to get excited about. The staff are young, they’re well trained, they’re as enthusiastic about animals as the shoppers are. You can take your dog in, it’ll get free biscuits, you can talk to the parrots, you can look at the fish. If you love animals you’ll love the Pets at Home brand experience.”

For all the differences between Marshall’s current employer and her previous pay cheque provider, they do bear certain similarities. When I ask if the company’s faced criticism for threatening traditional, independent pet shop owners, she replies, “To date, we haven’t had any experience of that. But then up until now we’ve been based in out-of-town retail parks.”

Up until now?

“Yes,” and it’s here the expansion models of Pets and the supermarket giants seem to converge. “But now we’re looking to open local stores.” Hmmm, Pets at Home Local and Pets at Home Express perhaps – now where have I heard an idea like that before?

“We’ve started in Knutsford with our first local store and that’s the first time we’ve been just off the high street. It opened at Easter last year and it’s been very successful. We’ve taken all the positives about the Pets at Home brand and transported that to a local store. It’s light, it’s bright, it’s got fantastic hygiene standards – it’s so far beyond anything that’s existed of that size before. And yes, we do see it as a major growth area for the future. We’ll open up to 80 local stores in the next three years.”

I get the feeling if they haven’t faced the wrath of the small business owner just yet, they soon might. But it’s all part of the company’s plans to cover as much ground, give themselves as much UK coverage and make their business model as hard to emulate as possible before anyone else spots the opportunity and decides to get their asses on this benevolent bandwagon.

Own-brand pet food is another tool they’ll be utilising to fine-tune their proposition and accelerate further away from the competition. Especially, they hope, those pesky supermarkets.

“We’re launching our own-brand food, which we’re really excited about,” she says, with appropriate excitement. “Elmwood has set up brand guidelines for us (as a true local marketing champion, Pets also employs Clear Marketing for its advertising requirements and Tangerine for PR) and it’s a fantastic range of products.”

She continues, “It’s an important step forward for us in terms of brand positioning. At the moment we’ve got our own range of small animal and bird foods, but that fits within a traditional opening price point proposition. What we’ve done with the new range (which starts filtering onto the shelves in May) is thought, ‘Let’s not follow the grocers with their own-brand produce, let’s look at our own brand and what it stands for.’ We’re seen as an authority in the marketplace and we want to compound that by giving people top quality product.

“With that in mind, we’ve developed food formulas across all areas that are the best in the market. So, we’ve got more meat content than the top premium brands in our dog food. We’ve got the highest meat content, bar one brand, in our cat food (which she justifies by saying something about too much protein and cat pee – tell me about it ...). We are absolutely confident that we’ve got the best scientifically based product in the market. We’re launching it in the summer, positioning it as a super premium product, but making sure that price-wise it’s accessible to everyone. It says absolutely everything about the brand that we want it to and it’s a big step towards building awareness and confidence. Also, it’s another key point of difference that we’ll have over the competition.”

Marshall, Tangerine will be pleased to hear, reveals she’s planning a major PR drive to herald the arrival of the range and may consider an advertising launch once the product is bedded in. For the time being, Pets is predominantly relying on one of its most successful media to capture the consumers’ coppers. “The staff will be integral to the launch.” intimates Marshall. “They care about animals and, once it’s communicated that we have absolutely the best product out there, they’ll buy into it and sell it for us. After all, most pet food is sold on testimonial recommendation.”

She finishes by stating that the specialist food producers have nothing to fear – Pets wants to consolidate the specialists’ positions as experts, and in turn its own, at the expense of the omnipresent grocers. “We don’t want people to trade down from the premium products we already stock, we want them to trade up from the grocery suppliers – from own brands and names like Winalot, Pedigree and Whiskas. They’re the ones with something to fear, but that’s life. They’ve been in the market for years, so it’s about time they had some real competition.”

Pets at Home clearly means business and this particular Cat isn’t afraid to bare her claws. Maybe it’s time for the supermarkets to get a mauling for once ...

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