If you ever find yourself in the unusual position of needing a pair of posh pants for your pet, look no further than Pets at Home. The retailer is today launching its latest product: Calvin Canines. And, as chief executive Matt Davies aptly demonstrates, they even squeak.
It is quirky products such as these that have helped the retailer grow its share of the £2.5bn to £3bn pet product market in recent years, and Davies says it is all down to passion. “You have to be in love with the subject matter. We’re always inventing new products.”
It helps that Davies is an animal lover. “We always had dogs when I was a child,” he explains. And this has continued into adulthood. Davies has a black Labrador, Archie, who accompanies him into work twice a week and is known as the “chief dog-treat taster”.
“The success of this business is all down to a very talented dog,” jokes Davies. If so, Archie should be applauded, or at least given a very large treat. Last week, Pets at Home revealed a 29.3 per cent surge in profits to £40m, in the 52 weeks to March 26.
“Pets at Home is recession-resilient, not recession-proof,” says Davies, who has noticed customers seeking value more than ever. But he is convinced pet lovers will continue to shop.
“We sell a lot of toys priced below £3; people are still willing to spend,” he says. “Pets are a real part of the family in the typical British household. Pets – like children – give us long-lasting joy, so we’re willing to spend on them.”
Would the retailer consider a value range of products to appeal to the more cash-strapped pet owners? “No,” says Davies adamantly, who explains the retailer’s mantra is “pets before profits”. For instance, last year it stopped selling goldfish bowls without filters at the expense of sales.
Davies says that alongside the retailer’s 4,500-plus pet products, the store environment is also key. The superstores vary in size from 3,000 to 20,000 sq ft. “Shopping at Pets at Home is an upbeat experience,” says Davies. “It’s more than just a shop.” Most retailers would say this, of course, but he may have more reason to than most. Its Stockport store, for example, houses a 15-ton shark tank. “I truly believe it is the best pet store in the world,” says Davies.
He first came across the retailer while working at investment bank Rothschild, when Pets at Home founder Anthony Preston became one of Davies’ first clients. When the two bumped into each other a few years later, Preston offered Davies the job of finance director at the retailer.
“I knew it was a special business so I bit his hand off for the role,” Davies recalls. As a 33-year-old, he was then promoted to chief executive in 2004.
“I felt quite insecure at first, but five years on and I’m still here. I don’t have a box of tricks because I’ve never done it before. But I do have a fantastic team.”
This team includes Preston, who stayed on as non-executive when he sold the business to private equity firm Bridgepoint in 2004, and chairman Luke Mayhew, who is also chairman of the British Retail Consortium and a former managing director of John Lewis.
The people on the shopfloor, 90 per cent of whom own a pet, are crucial too, insists Davies. He regards one of his proudest achievements as cutting staff turnover from 77 per cent to 25 per cent in his five years in the top job.
And if this legion of passionate staff have anything to do with it, the nation’s dogs will soon be modelling Calvin Canines in parks up and down the country. You have been warned.
Last Christmas Pets at Home sold:
250,000+ dog and cat Christmas toys
400,000+ dog and cat Christmas treats
300,000+ Christmas stockings for dogs, cats and small animals