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Burton Patrick Featured

6:59am EDT May 30, 2003
For Burton Patrick, the most important thing in the pet supplies business isn't selling the most dog food.

"It's not about turns, it's about getting people to understand what they need and then selling the supplies that they need to do a good job," says Patrick, partner and COO of a group of six Pet Supplies Plus franchise stores.

The iconoclastic and outspoken Patrick will relegate a major brand to a secondary position in his stores in a blink if he finds a product he believes is better than a heavily marketed item. Still, he's is smart enough to realize that he has to sell merchandise to stay in business and thrive, so he's turning to what he perceives as the strengths of Pet Supplies Plus to carry the day: A level of service and expertise that big competitors like PetsMart and Petco can't match.

A substantial number of his approximately 100 employees have as many as 10 years with Patrick, a factor he says is a marked advantage in retailing, where turnover is typically high and experience levels are often low. To educate customers and showcase his expertise, he hosts a weekly radio program on which he doles out advice on pet care.

To leverage its strengths, Pet Supplies Plus will open a new store in Chartiers Township, slated for July, that will include considerable space and facilities to help pet owners learn about their animals and engage in do-it-yourself pet care. A groomer, for instance, will show owners how to wash and groom pets, and the store will offer seminars and training sessions on a variety of other care issues.

All of this is part of an overall strategy to build a relationship with customers that will keep them coming back.

Says Patrick: "I want them to think of us as their pet's friend."

What is your business philosophy?

I want people to enjoy their pets. And if they enjoy their pets, and people start getting more hands-on, I consider that important, especially for kids, to have adults lead the way into pet ownership and quit sitting in front of the TV all the time.

With animals, you have to have patience, work with them, understand them. It's not like turning on the Discovery Channel and turning it off when you don't feel like looking at it anymore.

Because pets are such a big part of people's lives, there ought to be someone out there to help them care for them better rather than sell them the new fad of the week, and that's what I think the radio show does.

In our case, I want to give people a balanced view of how to take care of their pets by having a place where people can come in and ask questions and get them answered. We don't want to sell something at the expense of an animal's well being.

We're in business and we need to pay our bills, and God knows that the business community doesn't appreciate anyone who doesn't pay their bills. We're also a firm believer in treating people fairly and helping them take care of their pets. You've got to impart something besides selling things to be part of a community.

How did the radio program come about?

A fellow came in from KDKA and asked me if I wanted to step in and do four slots that were open that month. I didn't know if this was something I wanted to do, I didn't know if I could carry the show.

I didn't know why anyone would want to listen to what I had to say for an hour. I mean, my managers had to (listen to me), but that's not the public. So I did it, and I was so amazed at the number of people who came in and said, 'Gee, what great information.'

So the following May, they had that space open again, so I said, OK, I'd take it. We did it for a year, and we got a lot of good feedback. By the end of the second year, it really began to mushroom.

Every store, every day, people were coming in saying, 'I heard Burton talking about this and it made so much sense. I want to do that, I want to try that.' People come in every day and talk about the radio show giving them things that seem so simple, but that they had never thought of them.

That's what I like about the radio show.

What's the purpose of the service center in your new store?

What this service center does is, for instance, let's say you own a ferret and you're going out of town on a two-week vacation. Currently, there's no almost no place to take that ferret to have it cared for.

We're going to have a place we're going to call the bed and breakfast, where people can drop off their pets, small animals, not dogs but birds, ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, and they're going to have quality care while their owners are away. Birds in particular are a problem because nobody wants to take care of them, so what do people do? Absolutely the worst thing; they leave the bird alone and have somebody come in once in a while to look in on it.

Parrots are very interactive, and all of a sudden you're gone for two weeks. The stress level of that is a lot higher than you would imagine.

Part of the service center will be a demonstration area. Small groups of kids can come in, there will be reference materials, we'll have videos there. We'll also have an updated library of pet care. Too often, people read one book and they'll get one viewpoint and that's all they want to believe.

I try to encourage people to listen to my view and tell them that they need to look at this book and that book and then to get involved with their pet's care.

After the first service center is off the ground, will you expand the concept into your other stores?

It's going to evolve -- there's going to be, how should I say -- tweaking. There's a training area, and we're going to do different types of training. We're going to do agility training, common obedience training.

My concept of puppy training is a little different than most, and I've got to test that out. I believe it's not the puppies that need trained, it's the humans.

It's kind of like everything else; once you make a change, you're going to have to find out how it's going to function, and I don't perceive every store having this. We're going to have to find people to fill the positions before we continue to expand.

Right now, we have all the people to do this store. Once we start expanding, then I've got to start doing a lot of training.

I look at that as being my job, creating enthusiasm for the subject matter and then training them after they've got the enthusiasm for it. How to reach: Pet Supplies Plus, (412) 369-7530 or www.petsuppliesplus.com