PIJAC Behind the Scenes: My Visit to Petland
By Ed Sayres
Steve Huggins has subscribed to Tropical Fish Hobbyist for 26 of his 38 years. He still has every monthly issue, never having thrown away or misplaced even one over the years. Today, as Vice President for Operations at Petland, Inc., Steve remains a loyal subscriber to the magazine that helped him learn the fish hobby as a child. He had his first aquarium when he was just five years old and a few more by the time he was six. At 12, he was already a successful entrepreneur, breeding and selling tropical fish to pet and fish shops around Ohio, including Petland’s store in Chillicothe, near Columbus.
Petland founder and chairman Ed Kunzelman opened his first store in Chillicothe in 1967. Since then, the company has grown into a franchise operation with 130 full-service specialty retail pet centers across the U.S., Canada, Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador and South Africa. It maintains its corporate headquarters, flagship store and international training center in Chillicothe.
As a teenager, Steve Huggins visited Petland in Chillicothe every week, selling fish, often for store credit so he could buy more fish and supplies. Well, one thing led to another, and Steve joined Petland as a Pet Counselor, the company’s sales associate position, in the fish department exactly one month short of his 16th birthday. (In Ohio, minors can get a work permit at 14.) That was back in 1992.
As a Pet Counselor, Steve educated customers about fish, planned and maintained aquariums and helped acclimate the fish that came in each week. “At that time I was very shy, but my comfort zone was fish so it was easy for me to talk to people about aquatics. I had years of experience as a hobbyist and knew how to take good care of fish – to breed them, feed them and keep them healthy and happy.”
With his knowledge and knack for teaching, Steve sold a lot of fish. In six months, he was promoted to fish department manager, and six months after that, the department had more than doubled its sales and boosted profitability. During his senior year in high school, Steve became assistant manager of the store, working full time, evenings and weekends. At 19, he was general manager, running all of the day-to-day operations. Steve loved working at Petland, and after 16 years in retail operations, he moved on to operations and franchise management positions at the corporate level before assuming his current role.
During my visit to the Chillicothe store in November, I saw Ed Kunzelman’s vision for Petland brought to life. Ed is a fish hobbyist himself who loved the carnival as a child. Inspired by Disneyland, he later applied the hallmarks of the Disney experience – immaculate parks, many choices of amusements, energetic employees and a joyful mood – to the pet trade. (Ed even named his company Petland in homage to Disney.)
The result? Petland features a large selection of pets (fish, birds, small mammals, reptiles, puppies and kittens), high-quality animal care, clean stores, knowledgeable employees and outstanding customer service in an exciting atmosphere. This is just what I saw during my visit to Chillicothe. I was struck in particular by the amount of time that the puppies in the store spent in the arms of employees and the number of families spending time together in the store.
None of this is an accident of course. A great deal of effort goes into creating an environment that is inviting for pets and people alike: deliberate community hiring practices to recruit dynamic animal lovers; in-depth training for new franchisees and new employees; ongoing technical support for franchisees; continuing education for employees including hands-on classes, on-the-job coaching and online Petland University courses covering a range of pet care topics; and animal care technicians in all departments who spend two hours before the store opens, every single day, to focus on nothing but animal care and cleaning.
Petland knows that you can’t rush the sales process. Anyone preparing to take home a first pet needs time to understand what it takes to care for even a guinea pig or hermit crab. As Steve puts it, “At the end of the day, the Pet Counselor is a teacher whose job is to educate customers about pets and pet supplies so they can make a good buying decision and care for their pets properly.” In terms of financial metrics, this means that the company’s sales transactions per store visit are relatively low, reflecting the time it spends on the in-store customer experience and education while its investment in staffing is high to ensure top-quality service.
Petland’s approach, as reflected in its mission statement, applies to first-time and veteran pet owners alike: “Our pet counselors are dedicated to matching the right pet with the right customer and meeting the needs of both. To our customers who already have pets, we are dedicated to enhancing their knowledge and enjoyment of the human-animal bond."
This mission also reflects the company’s commitment to pets and owners over the long haul. While in Chillicothe, I learned about Pets for a Lifetime, a program that works to see that no Petland pets end up homeless or in an animal shelter. When circumstances arise that make it impossible for pet owners to continue to care for their pets, the Petland store where the animal came from will take it back and find a new home for it. While the company’s contributions to the local community are many, this program is the one that, to me, best exemplifies Petland’s legacy, mission and values.