— By Katie Lee —
How Cincinnati-based boutique retailer, Pet Wants, is both a growing cause and a growing company.
We’ve heard all about the pandemic’s doom-and-gloom effect on retail, but 2020 actually ended up being a boon to the pet industry. As record numbers of people in quarantine opened their homes to four-legged friends, pet stores continued to be essential businesses in high demand. What a pet needs and what a pet wants are embodied in an up-and-coming Cincinnati-based retailer, Pet Wants, a boutique franchise of high-quality pet food and supplies that marked its 10th anniversary in 2020 and its 100th franchise location in less than 5 years of franchising.
Today Pet Wants has approximately 115 locations, 33 of which are physical stores versus mobile operations. With a brand-new president at the helm, Ed Evans, and a recent partnership with Strategic Franchising, Pet Wants’ store count is ready to take off. The company had set a goal to open 43 locations this year, and its pace is already well ahead of that goal: Pet Wants should hit 43 new locations by August or September of this year.
“That puts us on a nice trajectory to double the business in just the next couple of years,” Evans says. “We’ll probably triple the business or more in the next 5 years. It’s definitely a fast-paced, high-growth, transitional time for Pet Wants, and I’m very excited about that.”
Many of Pet Wants’ mobile franchisees are expanding/diversifying their business by adding permanent physical storefronts to their stores on wheels, but mobile operations remain integral because free home delivery is at the core of what Pet Wants offers: fresh, natural, smaller-batch pet food that has been prepared within days of delivery. Food does not sit on warehouse shelves for months, growing stale and losing nutritional value. Whether mobile, online or in-store, Pet Wants finds a way to deliver for customers wherever they are.
Parlaying her passion for pets and their health, founder Michele Hobbs consulted with manufacturers and food scientists to create a much healthier pet food. In 2010, she launched the first Pet Wants location, a high-traffic kiosk at Findlay Market in Cincinnati. Five years later she started franchising, where she found experienced, dynamic owners who were already immersed in their local community and were not your typical ‘corporate’ retail store managers.
“We’re definitely a neighborhood boutique, and that’s the feel we’re going for,” Evans says. “There’s no question that our owners are our trusted advisors in their communities. Most of them come into the system with a high degree of expertise. It’s very natural for them to connect with their local market. They’re friends with the people in the community. They interact with them not only at the store but out at field events, at farmer’s markets, at [animal] shelters. Then you have brand marketing, food science, supply chain and analytics behind the scenes that we manage through Corporate to leverage those economies of scale.”
While the pet industry overall has enjoyed great success through the pandemic, Pet Wants attributes so much of its success — March 2021 was the second highest sales month in company history, second only to December 2020 — to these expert franchisees that customers trust. They truly become the ‘hero’ in their community.
“The pet industry has really transformed,” Evans says. “All of the industry markers are there for success if you have a quality product and a quality brand. For us, the differentiator is we have these expert, trusted advisor-owners on the street in addition to all of the online capabilities of just pure online retailers.”
Another factor contributing to Pet Wants’ growth and success is heightened demand from Millennial and Gen Z customers. These cohorts fully embrace the trend toward healthier lifestyles with diets of fresh, natural foods — for themselves and for their pets. Even Baby Boomers, of which Evans counts himself, have embraced more active lifestyles than previous generations and love to make pets true members of their family.
“They just live differently,” Evans says. “Innovators like Michele, who have refused to live the old way, really transformed that. I think in part you can look at the opportunity and say, yes, it’s generational; in other ways it’s cross-generational. Millennials and Gen Zs will connect with our brand online and on social media — in a different way than a Baby Boomer will. But I think all of us have a heightened sense of responsibility to our pets that really are family members. And we want to treat them well. Regardless of generation, I think there’s been a big transformation from the healthy products available to how you connect with our brand.”
When it comes to transforming into a physical footprint, Pet Wants connects with its customers in prime traffic areas, usually in a 1,500-square-foot space but are testing smaller footprints as well. Franchisees are given space to be creative and innovative, too. The company has invested heavily in its defined business models for mobile and retail and, while most stores are in-line, there is a variety of community specific applications to enhance the consumer connection. According to Evans, this is where Pet Wants’ franchising model sets itself apart: it encourages individual innovation, not cookie-cutter conformity.
“Our approach leverages the best in corporate development with locally owned and operated businesses,” he says. “We do require owners to stay true to the brand and quality standards that have proven to be successful with consumers. Pet Wants has this high-integrity brand that transports across concepts. The things that I’ve seen them do are really fun. They connect with their local markets.”
In terms of maintenance and operations, Pet Wants also gives the power to its owners. “Maintenance and Operations is largely handled by the local owner,” Evans says. “We want to provide them that flexibility. We don’t want to be overly rigid, again, in requiring them to use a particular service. They’re high-functioning owners. We have that relationship of trust with them.”
At the end of the day, having the right people in place and trusting those people is how the magic happens. “I love connecting with the owners,” Evans says. “One of my favorite things is working with them in how they want to innovate.”
Evans had been on the job as Pet Wants’ president for 6 weeks when this interview was conducted. “You don’t have to be here long or spend much time with our franchisees to understand how capable they are, how passionate they are, and to see the things they’ve already done,” he adds. “And I’m a consumer first. I always approach this from that perspective. A lot of times in retail, people step behind the counter and they kind of lose their consumer connection. I love this brand — it’s really emotive and fun and high-quality.”
Another future goal for Evans is to reconfigure and evolve the company’s business model because “a retail operation is like a living, breathing organism,” he says. “It’s something you have to stay on top of all the time and innovate. We will elevate our marketing, focus on data driven analytics, and be enabled by technology.”
Due to Pet Wants’ smaller batch, slow-cooked production, and key industry partnerships, the retailer is moving product all the time. With a background in AI/tech and supply chain, Evans looks forward to tackling these challenges hands on, all the way from specialty food production to the consumer. That’s because delivery of fresh food plus local pet expertise are at the core of Pet Wants’ philosophy.
And fresh food means Pet Wants is providing healthy, safe, great products to its consumers and their pets. “Pet Wants for me is both a cause and a company,” Evans says. “This is our life — it’s not just a job. When you have a brand like this that really is both a cause and a company, you can’t go wrong.”
— This article originally appeared as the cover story of the May 2021 issue of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine. Email the editor, Katie Lee, at firstname.lastname@example.org.