CELEBRATION — Inside the boutiques, treats are arranged on white platters in a display befitting any cocktail party. They’re surrounded by gourmet food, toys and even bathrobes.
All for dogs, of course.
But it’s what goes on behind the store that has turned Orlando-based Woof Gang Bakery into a fast-growing, pet-pampering business. Grooming services added a couple of years ago have boosted visitors, sales and profitability.
Now the chain is adding veterinary clinics to some stores and experimenting with doggie day care.
“We have an incredibly loyal client base,” said Paul Allen, Woof Gang’s founder and chief executive officer. “Why not provide a service?”
Privately owned Woof Gang is 7 years old (in human years) but already has 43 stores around the South and Eastern Seaboard. The chain plans to have 61 franchises by year’s end, including a soon-to-open location in Orlando’s Waterford Lakes neighborhood.
Year-over-year sales in 2013 jumped 40 percent to $16.5 million.
It doesn’t hurt that Allen, a former franchising consultant who owns a couple of mutts himself, got into an industry that is practically recession-proof.
Pet store revenues have grown 3.4 percent annually in the past five years and were expected to reach $15.9 billion in 2013, according to a report last year by research firm IBISWorld. “Pet parents” – owners who treat their four-legged friends like family – are driving the trend.
They are people such as Karen Amick, a Michigan business owner who spends her winters in Celebration. She has young human children but still likes to indulge her Basenji mix and her Bichon with goodies such as Woof Gang’s snacks, baked on premises and in flavors such as cinnamon oatmeal and blueberry shortbread.
“Sometimes, you want to spoil your animal a little bit,” said Amick, 47, perusing the shelves Woof Gang’s Celebration store. “They give so much. You want to give them something, too.”
The Celebration store attracts many browsing tourists. But in other stores, it’s the groomers who have brought in customers such as Emmy Lawton of Winter Park. She followed her groomers to Woof Gang when they started working there.
Lawton takes her two Cavalier King Charles spaniels to the Winter Park store for a bath and toenail trimming at least every two weeks, and a full grooming every month and a half. While at the store, Lawton sometimes picks up doggie treats, bowls or holiday scarves.
“They’ve got a great selection of merchandise,” Lawton said. “I’m sure they sell a lot of retail because people bring in their dogs to be groomed and see all this cute stuff.”
The average store customer drops at least $30 per visit, Allen said. The average person who comes into Woof Gang for grooming spends $90.
Woof Gang also is expanding by starting to package its own brand of chews, bones and treats. Woof Gang stores also have small “kitty corners” for cats.
Mainstream pet chains also have begun offering services such as clinics and grooming. It may be a little easier for pet stores to offer services than other types of retailers, said Mark Kalaygian, editor in chief of Pet Business.
“They just may have more opportunities,” he said. “Obviously grooming is a natural connection.”
Allen said he knows the bite he’ll take out of overall sales is limited, given his size.
“We’re never going to compete with the big boys,” he said.
But where Woof Gang stands out, he said, is by giving the pet stores a human touch. Customers get coupons for free treats on their dogs’ birthdays. They are invited to “yappy hours” with refreshments for owners and pets alike. Employees in the hot pink stores get to know customers on a first-name basis.
In fact, Allen said, he and his wife, Cara, started Woof Gang in 2007 because he felt that personal service was lacking in other stores.
“I never understood why someone didn’t learn my name and my dog’s name,” he said.
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Orlando Sentinel, 2014 http://www.orlandosentinel.com/business/os-woof-gang-bakery-20140127,0,467961.story