How a 31-Year Old Pet Store Thrives in the Age of Big Box, Amazon and Chewy

The pet food and supply industry is highly competitive. Pet food and supplies are a category that Amazon is heavily invested in, and players such as Petco are actively finding ways to win over customers both online and offline.

Despite a challenging market, at least one independent pet supplies store is not only thriving but is successfully luring shoppers away from Amazon and larger pet supply retailers.

We’re referring to The Hungry Puppy, a pet food and supply retailer located in Farmingdale, New Jersey. The Hungry Puppy has been around for 31 years, and it continues to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing landscape of retail pet supply.

We recently caught up with Frank Frattini, the owner and CEO of The Hungry Puppy. In our conversation, we discussed:

  • How the retail landscape has evolved over the years
  • The huge advantages that brick-and-mortar retailers have over ecommerce
  • How they compete with the prices of Amazon, Petco, Walmart, etc.
  • The simple (yet effective) way that The Hungry Puppy drives foot traffic
  • How they get shoppers to come back
  • The ways in which they enrich the customer experience and serve their community

Let’s dive in!

On the changing retail landscape

We kicked off our conversation by talking about how much retail has changed over the last several years. Frank acknowledged that consumers have vastly different expectations today, and retailers have to evolve in order to meet those needs.

“Thirty years ago, we were just a retailer, buying products wholesale and selling at retail” he said. “But it’s changed a lot because we’re not only retailers today. There are other components that go into it. In addition to being retailers, we have also evolved to become educators and entertainers.”

That’s why The Hungry Puppy has numerous entertainment and educational initiatives to keep shoppers engaged.

“Some of the unique features of our company are that we have our own dog park next to our store that we make available to the community for free. We hold training classes and seminars in the park as well as pet related events such as pool parties, ice cream socials, Easter biscuit hunts and puppy luaus, to name just a few of the more popular events we hold.”

As for the retail side of things, their store carries pet supplies at competitive prices, and they offer free delivery within a 35-mile radius of the store for any purchase over $50. “We have 3 trucks on the road several days a week. This is a benefit we have provided our customers for 31 years and has acted as an insulator to big box and online competition. ” Frank notes.

On selling online, and why brick-and-mortar has a huge advantage

Frank’s business maintains 2 websites. One is NJPetSupply.com which sells pet supplies online regionally (outside of a local 35 mile home delivery radius), through their website. This online site is viewed as a separate profit center from their physical store, with a totally different pricing model than The Hungry Puppy.

NJPetSupply.com gives them a presence for e-commerce in markets from Boston to Washington DC. The ecommerce site has only been up for a couple of years now and has been showing excellent incremental growth.

“TheHungryPuppy.com is primarily for our local brick and mortar customers, which represents a larger percentage of our sales. TheHungryPuppy.com is more of an informational website featuring new products in the store, different events, a product catalog and the various services that are offered by The Hungry Puppy.

Although not a transactional site, our local customers do have the ability to order products for pickup in store or to request a local delivery via one of our trucks. One of the unique features of our delivery program is that we have the ability to deliver for free with a $50 order or an automatic delivery (subscription based), or an express service for delivery within 24 hours for an additional fee.”

Being both a brick and mortar and ecommerce retailer, Frank finds brick-and-mortar stores to have far and away more advantages compared to ecommerce merchants.

“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh E-Commerce is low-cost provider,’ but it’s really not. Especially when you consider that it’s very expensive to ship a bag of dog food 150, 200 miles away,” he says. “It is exponentially more difficult to make a profit selling dog food online when taking into account infrastructure, shipping, technology, advertising and customer acquisition costs. (Ask Chewy.)”

“The powerful advantage that brick and mortar retailers have over online retailers is the ability to develop a physical “in person” relationship with the customer and their pet. It’s very, very difficult to develop that relationship online. [On ecommerce,] it’s mostly transactional. It’s very difficult (and expensive… again, ask Chewy) to get that personal relationship online that we have with our customers who come into our store every week, every month or every couple of months.”

Frank continues, “If retailers recognize that advantage, they would realize that all they have to do is just develop relationships. When that happens, it is no longer a transaction predicated on price, but instead, it becomes a personal relationship. The secret is not to sell products, but to instead sell solutions! We don’t sell products at The Hungry Puppy, we sell US! We give our customers what they want, where they want it, when they want it and how they want it, all at a price that both the customer and us think is fair.”

Frank added “I sometimes get the impression that retailers feel that they are entitled to either keeping a customer, a product, or a price that they wish to charge while being totally insulated and protected by manufacturers. We take the opposite approach. We are entitled to nothing other than the right to go out and earn our customers business every day no matter who else sells the product or at what price! Again, we’re not selling products.”

On having competitive prices

Speaking of which, The Hungry Puppy has a significant competitive advantage when it comes to pricing because they’re able to sell pet food and supplies at lower costs.

How? One factor is their lack of debt. “We carry no debt, so we have no carrying charges. We pay no interest. If the offer is appealing enough, we are actually willing to pre-pay for a product to accrue a better discount.”

“And on top of that, if the offer is good enough we will buy in volume. We are not opposed to buying a trailer of dog food if the pricing is right.”

Another advantage? Their company owns the property that The Hungry Puppy operates out of.  “Because we own the property [without debt], our cost basis is quite low which allows us to offer most products at exceptionally competitive prices that can easily beat Chewy, Petsmart, Petco or any other retailer including Amazon, Walmart or Target.”

On driving traffic and repeat business

The Hungry Puppy signage from about 3 years ago, prior to Minimum Advertised Pricing (MAP) pricing.

While The Hungry Puppy has a number of events and initiatives that attract visitors (and we’ll get to those in a bit), Frank shares one simple tactic that attracts traffic to their location: attention-grabbing signage.

“We have 10 4’X8’ banners along the outside fencing of our property. They feature different reasons as to why you would want to shop at The Hungry Puppy. One of those signs reads ‘100 pounds of dog food $36.98.’”

“Since I have three Walmarts within eight miles of me that sell Old Roy, which is probably the largest selling brand in the country, when people see that sign out front they say, ‘Hey, let’s see. I’m paying $22 for a 40-pound bag of Old Roy. I’ll buy 100 pounds for $36. At least I’m actually saving money, and have enough money left over to also get a box of biscuits or some other treat for my dog.’”

“I want that customer in our store, where we will at the very least, have the opportunity to have a conversation with them about dog food and hopefully turn that transaction into a relationship. It then allows us to ask pertinent questions about the customers pet like ‘How’s their coat? How’s their skin? How’s their stool? How’s their weight?’”

“At least we get the opportunity to discuss and potentially upgrade their choice of food. Most customers that come in to buy that food would never have come into a store like mine because they would think that we’re way too expensive.”

In addition to competitive prices, customers of The Hungry Puppy return to the store because of the strong relationships they have with the staff. According to Frank, having managers and associates who been with them for several years adds tremendous value to the business.

“We have associates that have been with us for 15, 20, 22 years, and this is their career. I think the average tenure of our management team is 17 or 18 years. Our sales team has been with us an average of 10 years.”

“Over time, what happens is our sales team develops a rapport and trust with the customer. We are able to guide those customers that might have initially started buying from us as ‘pet owners’ into ‘pet parents’! The spend rate is substantially higher for a ‘parent’ than for an ‘owner.’”

“In addition, if done effectively, we’ve created the bond where the customer doesn’t want to go anywhere else. They want to shop with us. It is no longer predicated necessarily on price at that point. It’s based on the relationship because they know our sales associate Donna, and Donna knows them and their dog.”

On choosing which products to stock

Unlike most other independent stores, Frank says that The Hungry Puppy isn’t a place where customers would necessarily go to discover new products. They’re more of a destination for replenishment.

According to Frank, The Hungry Puppy’s inventory strategy is different from other independents, in the sense that they’re not looking to stock new or unique merchandise.

Instead, The Hungry Puppy decides to carry products only after Petco and other stores have proven that there’s a demand for the merchandise. Frank states, “Due to the fact that we are a stand alone store on a highway with no other retail around us and with a limited amount of showroom space (3000 sq feet), we value the space that we have for merchandise and products that we already know is in demand.”

“We know this because it is already being sold in big box stores. Why dedicate the space to an unknown product that we have to convince our customers that ‘we have this great new product they should try’, when instead just give them what they are already looking for?”

“Because we are a destination, customers come to us with the comfort of knowing that we have what they want albeit probably at a better price. Our only calculus is to figure out how to sell those products for less and still be profitable.”

On entertaining customers

As mentioned, The Hungry Puppy hosts numerous events during the year that keeps customers engaged and entertained. In addition to their free dog park and playground, they hold events such as doggy yoga parties (doga) and other functions that bring people and their pets together.

“Every Friday night during the spring, summer, and fall we have a big party (Friday Nite Bites) with pet parents, mostly single people who bring their dogs down and maybe a bottle of wine,” he shares. They serve cheese and crackers and hors d’oeuvres as well as provide treats and interactive games for the dogs.”

“It’s advertised as a ‘party with your best friend before going out with your people friends’. All the dogs get to run around together while pet parents socialize and converse in a relaxed setting. It’s funny but we’ve heard patrons say that they don’t feel quite as guilty leaving their furbabies at home while they go out later in the evening after our event.”

Another example Frank gave:

“We will do a similar event on select Sunday afternoons when pet parents and their kids, are invited to come down with their dog and enjoy a day in the park. We have a little veranda also enclosed off the park where the people can sit, lounge, and and relax while our party hostess will serve free snacks and refreshments for both them and their pets. Depending on the time of the year we may have several pools set up for dogs to cool off and bob for balls. Other times we may have ball pits set up for dogs to dive into and become ‘ball’ consumed.”

All events are co-sponsored by various partners that are usually manufacturers that The Hungry Puppy works closely with. The advantage is that the manufacturer gets exclusive access to an audience of “pet parents” to trial samples and or new products, as well as the ability to provide compelling offers for product trials by the event patrons.

Frank states, “all of our engagements, including the events, the seminars, our app, Facebook page, and website, as well as the various products and services offered at The Hungry Puppy is all done with the intent to cultivate a community of pet-loving folks. Our mission is to help folks celebrate the relationship that they have with their pet. Our hope is to be an integral part of that relationship. That is the true measure of our success!”

Further Reading


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About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.