Keith Zeiler opened Paws on Chicon for one reason: to make every dog’s life better—including his own. When his beloved pet became sick, Keith delved deep into dog nutrition, took an extensive course on the subject, and would soon share his knowledge via his boutique pet store in East Austin.
“Every person that walks through this door and every one of my employees that I train, it is about helping that dog,” Keith said. “It’s not about making that dollar [off of] them because if we can help their pet, that builds loyalty, and that makes me and my staff feel like we did an amazing job.”
For Keith, building loyalty also meant expanding to a second location in South Austin, where he could help even more dog owners with their pets’ wellbeing.
Opening a second storefront can feel like a big hurdle for a small business, from maintaining consistency between stores, managing two different staffs, and choosing inventory for different neighborhoods and demographics. But it can also be an incredible opportunity for growth, allowing customers to experience the same connection and service in a location convenient for them.
Below, Keith shares three lessons that helped him expand the business while staying true to his mission.
1. Keep the customer experience consistent
Location is one of the biggest factors in a business’ success—a brick-and-mortar in one neighborhood has different advantages and challenges than the same business across town.
For example, Paws on Chicon opening a spot in South Austin was a big draw for Yelp reviewer Nicole B., who was excited to support local business in a neighborhood dominated by chain stores. “I’ve heard amazing things from coworkers about the other Paws on Chicon location, but never managed to get over there,” she said. “When I saw they opened an outpost near my house, I was so happy.”
However, when you’re building a brand, consistency between locations is key. Imagine if Nicole had visited the South Austin location only to find out the service or offerings were not on par with the more established East Austin store. If both locations can’t deliver on the same expectations, you might lose that customer.
Keith puts it this way: “My biggest [pet peeve] when I didn’t have a store was going to a pet store and [getting] different answers… I want [my customers] to get the same answers. I want them to be able to go to any store and feel that they—no matter which store they end up at—they will always go out with the best knowledge and the best service.”
To ensure consistency across locations, Keith recommends using checklists and streamlining employee training to make sure every aspect of the store looks and feels the same as the original.
2. Empower your employees
Employees are on the front line as the face of the business. They represent your brand and culture when you can’t be there in person. With two stores, Keith can’t be in two places at once, so he has crafted training for his staff to make sure they are all sending the same message to their customers.
“We go through an extensive four-week training with our staff, which, from what I understand, is [unusual] in the pet industry,” he said. “We try to be very cautious because we don’t want to make pet parents feel like they’re doing something wrong.”
At Paws on Chicon, employee training includes an education in compassion, as well as customer service. Keith wants to make sure his team is investing in building relationships, instead of passing judgment. By using this softer approach, he’s created a safe space for pet owners who want what’s best for their pets—even if it means losing a sale.
“We try to give [customers] the tools to educate themselves if they don’t have time to talk to us in the store,” he said. “For example, if their cat or dog had bladder stones or kidney stones, and we’re like, ‘Well, you’re feeding [them this] food and this is why,’ that doesn’t help. You’re not there to shame because people don’t know. Our approach is always, ‘Let’s see how we can help them.’”
3. Stand out from the competition
As you expand, it’s important to replicate any features, offerings, and values that make you unique in your industry. Opening multiple locations doesn’t make you a monolith—Paws on Chicon is successful because it operates differently from its competitors. “My approach is not about the money,” Keith said. “It’s about healing and giving the best for the dogs.”
Added features can also differentiate your business from the competition. When Keith expanded his first store, he added dog-washing stations—an amenity that’s not necessary to run a pet food store, but it certainly makes a tough, dirty task much more convenient for customers. He also made sure to provide washing private rooms, which put anxious dogs and owners at ease.
Keith said: “We have a system that’s easy—it’s like a car wash. So the shampoo, conditioner, everything comes out through the hose. We tried to make it as easy as possible. We have little hoodies for the dogs, so when they get blow dried, it doesn’t hurt their ears. We have an upgrade where there’s a peanut butter lick mat that they can lick while they’re getting washed. And then the owners get a free drink while they are also doing their dog wash.”
For customers like Nicole, this bonus creates a moment of surprise and delight, in addition to putting pets at ease in the space. In fact, the dog wash is such a huge hit, Keith’s upped the amenities to include soft-serve dog frozen yogurt with a toppings bar.
Photos from Paws on Chicon on Yelp; interviews by Emily Washcovick and editorial contributions from Holly Hanchey
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear from Keith and Nicole, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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