We can all agree 2021 was a rollercoaster year for business, but how exactly has it affected independent pet traders? We speak to some pet shop owners to find out…
What happened in 2021? Quite a lot in fact…
We began the year in lockdown yet again, with another surge in Covid cases which saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordering people to stay at home again in January. While essential shops and garden centres were allowed to open, people were still erring on the side of caution and shopping more online. Even those who were going shopping in stores were not able to browse, but were simply doing their essential shopping, getting in and out quickly, and buying what they needed, as opposed to perusing the shelves for additional treats.
Trading during a pandemic
So how was trading in 2021 for the independent pet shops? Michaela Dalton, owner of Woodley Pets in Reading, Berkshire, said that their 2021 sales had been slightly up on their 2020 figures, but were at around the same figures as in their third or fourth year of trading — a decrease considering the business has been trading for nine years.
“Our footfall was obviously lower too as people weren’t able to come in and browse, they were just doing their basic shop,” Michaela said. “Luckily, we were able to put figures down in the black instead of in the red, which was a relief.
“We still hope that this year the figures will increase on last year, but we think it’s going to take a few years to get back to normal.”
Situated near the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB is Country Garden Pet Foods in Horncastle, owned by Melissa Bray, which offers not only a one-stop shop for anything you and your pets need, but also wild animals too, including wild birds, ducks, hedgehogs and fish.
Melissa found that during lockdown many of the local businesses trading in the rural market town of Horncastle were being used much more than many of the larger companies, and people were desperate for human company.
But as Country Garden Pet Foods has a large elderly customer base, she made plenty of adjustments to keep everyone safe.
“We had a door service at first, where the customer came to the door to say what they wanted and then I’d go and get it for them — it was like being back in the old days!” she said.
Country Garden Pet Foods, in Horncastle, Lincolnshire.
Unfortunately, this obviously led to a loss of trade as it eliminated the opportunity for people to browse and impulse buy, but Melissa said all they could do was have a flexible and adaptable approach.
One positive that came out of the pandemic, Melissa said, is that a lot more people have started buying wild bird food as they were spending more time watching the birds in their garden, and were also spending more time outside.
“I did have a little bit of a supply issue there as so many people were buying bird houses and food!” she said.
Adapting to the times
Even as the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown began in March and non-essential retail stores began to open again in April, many businesses had to make adjustments to their working practices — some of which were so beneficial that they have continued post-lockdown too.
Melissa at Country Garden Pet Food has offered a weekly delivery service to the Horncastle and surrounding areas for years, and when the pandemic hit, was able to utilise this service to keep her customers well-stocked with everything they needed.
“2021 was a difficult year for us, but we were able to trade a little bit and I was able to extend the delivery service and people really appreciated that.
“We introduced a one-way system and two people were only allowed in at a time, people were really good at wearing masks inside and if they couldn’t they’d wait outside to keep everyone safe,” she added.
“I have such loyal local customers and they’ve really supported me throughout the pandemic. Horncastle is a nice market town and has many independent shops and we’ve all been really well supported.”
Melissa also said that while they may not be able to compete with internet giants such as Amazon, sometimes people just wanted to see a friendly face and if they couldn’t find what they were looking for online, they would call her.
“I offer a personal service and the internet just doesn’t provide that,” she said, “While there’s no denying the internet has been so helpful during the pandemic, especially if you needed something quickly, some people I’d deliver to wouldn’t have had human contact in ages and we’d spend half an hour there chatting — they just needed someone to talk to.”
Woodley Pets was able to stay open during the pandemic, but to keep their customers safe, Michaela said that they sectioned off areas of the shop and introduced a one-way system to keep their customers safe.
“We installed plenty of sneeze screens, and also went and found products for customers so they didn’t need to go wandering around the store.
“We also keep the door open 90 percent of the time to keep airflow around the shop and have plenty of sanitizer around.”
The business also launched an online shop to offer their products to people who weren’t yet comfortable with going out to shops. They even managed to keep some of their personal services going, such as the harness fitting for dogs, by encouraging the owners to fit their dogs themselves and the staff will step in and help if needed so they weren’t getting too close unnecessarily.
What about this year?
With the emergence of the new Omicron variant emerging at the end of 2021, there is so much uncertainty around as there is still so much unknown about this new variant.
Although the latest figures (as of January 2022) seem to point towards infection rates reducing and hospital admissions also on the wane, there’s still not enough known about Omicron to know when, or if, we can get back to normal this year. With this in mind, how do our businesses hope that this year will pan out, and what are their hopes for 2022?
Michaela said that this year, she and the team at Woodley Pets were hoping that things can get back to some kind of normality.
Michaela Dalton, owner of Woodley Pets in Reading.
“We want people to be able to shop with confidence about coming out without restrictions, but everyone is still wary about Omicron and with January and the beginning of the year being so tight for people money-wise.
“There’s been a steady flow of people coming in so far, and we’re hoping that will increase.
“We want people to feel comfortable when they come into our shop and as we get used to life with Covid, maybe start to shop as normal again.
“We’ve maintained our sneeze screens to keep everyone safe, and we’re maintaining social distancing as well.”
Michaela also said they planned to spend more time on the Woodley Pets website (www.woodley-pets.co.uk/) to be able to make their products more accessible and varied for their customers.
Melissa is also hoping for an upturn in sales in 2022 and for the country to get back to some semblance of normality. “It would be great if people could just trundle round the shops again and find us.” She also hopes to give the business more of a social media presence and to give their online trade a boost through their website at https://countrygardenpetfoods.weebly.com/