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Pet Gazette 2013

Leading by example (article taken from Pet Gazette Jan 2013).

Deliberately rejecting the big name brands, PIERS AND MICHELLE SMART of Scampers have embraced a whole new philosophy on feeding and created one of the country’s first holistic pet shops

Piers Smart has taken the bold step of removing many of the leading pet food brands from the shelves of his store and swapping them with foods, treats and accessories from a whole host of lesser-known natural companies. To many this may seem a little foolhardy, and to others it’s nothing short of commercial suicide, but then Piers and his wife Michelle have never been afraid ruffling a few feathers in the pet sector.

Piers established Scampers Natural Pet Store in 1985 stocking a vast array of products for all different types of animals from cats and dogs, and rabbits and birds plus an extensive range of equestrian goods. In the early days, Scampers was very much in the style of a traditional pet shop with instantly recognisable pet brands and veterinary-recommended foods. Today, the store has been transformed to reflect the couple’s commitment to a more holistic way of caring for pets. As Piers explains: “I wanted to work with companies that were proud of what they sold. Companies that don’t have big marketing budgets and live and die on the quality of their products.” In fact, the range of pet foods and accessories the company now stock comes almost solely from independent suppliers and manufacturers. As Piers adds: “We support smaller producers because we know the commitment and values they put into their products matches the passion and energy we put into our own business.”

As well as offering his customers the chance to feed their pets a natural diet Piers admits that another key motivating factor for removing the big name brands from his store was the decision taken by the James Wellbeloved and Royal Canin to withdraw their pet foods from independent wholesalers. Not only does he think this will threaten the livelihoods of many pet stores in the country, he has also seen first-hand the impact it has had on many businesses in the trade whom he regards as long term friends and associates. He says: “Too often these days we see massive corporations walk roughshod over small independent companies and we don’t want to be part of this, nor do we want to work with companies who put profit before people and especially profit before pets.” As a result he has cleared his shelves of all leading brands including Nestle, Pedigree, James Wellbeloved and Royal Canin – the subsidiary company of Mars pet foods – and his ultimate goal is to become a sole stockist of independent brands by the end of 2013.

Piers has found that there is burgeoning market for natural foods and has sourced a wide range of alternative brands to offer his customers. Lovejoys has developed a premium dog food to specifically target James Wellbeloved customers and names such as Acana, Almo Nature, Applaws, Nature’s Menu, Canagan, Gentle, Lily’s Kitchen, Orijen, Symply and Taste of the Wild have also all found space on the shop floor. Together, they now make up what has become the widest range of natural, high meat content, biologically-appropriate and raw foods in the country. Piers says: “We’ve had the courage to challenge the big manufacturers and move into new areas” and he is actively encouraging other retailers to do the same. He is also promoting an honest and open approach to product marketing insisting on easy-to-read, on-shelf ingredient panels covering all the foods and treats in store. He continues: “We know that most of our customers want to avoid added preservatives, fillers, colourants and derivatives, so we make it easy to spot them.” So far he is stocking an entirely natural range of dog foods and treats and currently working on extending this to the complete range of cat products.

This radical new approach to retailing was prompted by Piers’ own personal experience when four years ago he noticed a marked change in the condition of his own dogs. He contacted Pro Plan the pet food manufacturer involved only to discover that it had changed the ingredients or as Piers explains, “reduced the meat content to cut back on costs.” He feels that far too many pet food companies place too much emphasis on SKUS, promotions and USPs and not enough on what is actually contained in the pet foods. He also believes that more vets are seeing increasing incidences of diet-related health issues such as gastrointestinal problems and skin and coat conditions as a result of their poor diet.

It was on a trip to Germany that Piers discovered what he calls “a whole new approach to feeding” in the form of the BARF (or biologically-appropriate raw food diet). Not only did he question the way he was feeding his own dogs, he also began to look at the foods he was stocking in store. He says: “I soon began to realise that many of today’s products bore no resemblance to the ranges I used to sell. They didn’t used to contain ingredients such as wheat, maize or sorghum but real meats such as chicken.” This prompted Piers to launch his “Where’s the meat?” campaign, which not only marked a radical change in direction for the company but also had a dramatic impact on the lives of his own pets and those of his customers.

The impetus behind the campaign was to highlight the low meat content in cat and dog food, instead encouraging pet owners towards feeding programmes as nature intended. As Piers adds: “It’s not just about feeding raw, it’s also about introducing the concept of education to people. We encourage variation in an animal’s diet. It’s about rotational feeding – some wet, some dry, some raw. It’s about creating a specifically tailored diet for pets – one size definitely does not fit all.”

He believes the high meat content ranges he stocks offer huge health benefits for pets from improved behaviour and increased energy levels to better weight control and it appears his customers would agree. Michelle says: “We’re getting fabulous feedback about how people’s dog and cats are doing and lots of our customers are seeing that a good diet can make a world of difference to their pet’s overall health, appearance and life expectancy.” Piers also says that change of direction has enabled us to re-engage with our customers again and adds: “Being prepared to change our minds and business and to embrace a new way of thinking in the interests of pet welfare has also galvanised us as a team.”

With an office door that’s always open he regularly visits the shop floor meeting and talking to customers and actively championing the range of foods he sells. All the pet care advisors at Scampers undergo a rigorous training programme so they can offer advice on nutrition, behaviour and healthcare and this has become a key part of the service as Piers explains. “In the recession people can’t afford to go to a vet to get the basic advice they need. As a specialist pet retailer, we can talk them through their pet’s nutritional needs. Pets can be brought in and weighed; diets checked; and foods recommended according to an individual pet’s breed, weight and level of activity.”

This collaborative approach to pet care has also extended to the addition of an in-store tasting table, introduced after a visit to a Brighton restaurant. Piers says: “What a lovely way to get to sample all the chef’s very best creations – we immediately thought, why not do the same for our customers’ pets.” Now visitors to the shop will find a classic dining table complete with checked tablecloth laid out with bowls and jars of foods and treats to try. Currently the table is graced with cat and dog foods from Natures Menu Raw – freshly prepared each morning – Thrive, Ziwi Peak, Gentle Cold Pressed and Canagan among others, but the staff will allow customers to pick out any product from the in-store range and open the can or pouch for the pet to taste. In the tradition of all the best restaurants – staff can also send diners off with doggie bag to sample at home.

Not only does Piers think that retailers should set aside retail space for sampling, he also urges them to embrace natural pet foods. He believes that this is the way forward for the pet food market with increasing numbers of consumers looking for independent, boutique-style delicatessens like Scampers. He has already prompted a great deal of interest among other pet retailers, with many visiting the superstore in Soham, near Ely. He says: “Other pet shops are starting to follow suit. We’ve invited independent pet stores to come and meet us, show them around and give them suppliers names and ideas.”

Despite the loss of the major brands, Scampers continues to grow their turnover but it is not the financial success that continues to motivate Piers after 30 years in the business. He believes he is better off building relationships with smaller companies and as he says, “revolutionising how people feeds their dogs and cats, providing quality, natural pet food made with the very best natural ingredients to nourish healthier, happier pets.”

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