Why pet franchises reign essential in the franchising space
By Gina Makkar
Canadians love their pets. In 2020, pet owners spent more than $5.7 billion on their furry family members, and 58 per cent of households report being a pet parent to at least one cat or dog. The love grows stronger every day, and it doesn’t look like our furry friends—or the care they need—are going anywhere, anytime soon. We took a look at the flourishing franchise brands offering pets and pet services for animal lovers.
Pet Valu got its start in 1976, and today is Canada’s largest specialty pet retailer. Stores carry a wide selection of food, treats, toys, and accessories, with Animal Care Experts at the ready to help find the right nutrition and products for each individual pet.
With strong brand recognition and a finely tuned business model, it’s easy to see why people with a passion for pets often turn that enthusiasm into a full-time career.
“What makes this industry so appealing is that there’s so much emotion and personal connection behind the intention to own a pet related business,” says manager of franchising, Lisa Bourcier. “The comment we receive most frequently from franchisees is that they’re so happy they decided to leave their previous role or career and pursue something that they love.”
Like others during the pandemic, Pet Valu continued to serve devoted pet lovers by offering a guided shopping experience and curbside pick up. They also launched a direct-to-customer e-commerce website, and integrated click-and-collect in 2021. “This offered a supplemental revenue stream for our franchise partners at a time when our customers’ ability to shop in stores was restricted.”
Bourcier says that successful franchisees should be hardworking, energetic, and dedicated, and want to serve their community by partnering with rescues and charities and running in-store fundraisers and adoption drives. “This isn’t just a pet business, but a people business as well, so our future franchisees should be interested and prepared for a customer-facing environment. We want you to be the face of your store and become the local pet expert.”
In addition to initial training, franchisees and their employees complete more than 18 hours of training with Pet Valu’s industry-leading online learning platform. Once open, a dedicated Franchise Business Consultant (FBC) is there to ensure the franchisee starts off on the right foot.
Bourcier’s advice for those looking to get into franchising is to pursue a passion—because it’s not just an investment, it’s a lifestyle. “Our franchisees eat, sleep, and breathe pet specialty, and our customers can see that. Not to mention, it makes you excited to get out of bed and go to work. We’ve heard many franchisees say to us that it doesn’t feel like a job when you love what you do.”
Bark Busters first started in Australia in 1989 and arrived in Canada in 2003. Today, it has 23 locations across the country and more than 250 around the world. With a low cost of entry and simple business model, it’s a good fit for fledgling business owners. “In the last two years, people are re-evaluating their lives and looking to do something they really love,” says president Jeffrey Cooke.
With dog ownership on the rise, franchisees often deal with families in crisis mode. Customers come to Bark Busters to help their dogs overcome training or behavioral issues. “Sometimes, we’re the dog’s last hope,” says Cooke. “We have an incredibly effective technique to turn things around. Normally within the first three-hour session, people see dramatic results.”
A key to training success is understanding a dog’s behaviour. “When dogs are barking, normally it’s not because they’re happy. They’re stressed or are alerting you about something they think is a danger. When dogs get yappy, they’re adrenalized. Once you teach them and take the worry away, they’re much more relaxed. It’s better for everyone, including the dogs.”
During the pandemic, the franchise moved online, training via Zoom training and producing materials to take clients through the curriculum. “Clients learned better because we weren’t there to hold their hands,” says Cooke. It spurred the idea of follow-ups on Zoom, a more efficient way for clients to touch base.
In addition to loving dogs, successful franchisees enjoy dealing with people, and have great customer service and communication skills. “You’re a teacher, and sometimes a therapist in a way, and you have to be able to help through stressful situations to teach people how they need to change, because that’s what’s going to change the dog’s behaviour.”
Bark Busters’ four-week training program has evolved to include an online component, something the brand is likely to keep post-pandemic. Cooke says their success is reliant on having well trained people that represent the Bark Busters brand and get results for their clients. Monthly conference calls provide a space for franchisees to learn from one another. “Every dog is different. You never stop learning. You don’t learn from the easy ones, and every dog will teach you something.”
Cooke’s advice is to keep it simple. “We have a simple business model, and if you follow the proven formula, it works great. Our job is to select the right people and get the right fit. Like every business owner, you just have to be disciplined and put in the work. The core of it in the long term is keeping customers happy.”
Global Pet Foods
With the slogan “eat. play. love.” Global Pet Foods—the largest Canadian-owned pet specialty retailer in Canada—has the best in mind for furry family members.
Unlike other concepts where franchisees purchase stock from their brands, Global’s established distribution network provides customers with access to all the offerings on the market. Each franchisee has the flexibility to deliver a curated selection of high-end pet products from around the world. “We believe that each market is different. Our franchise partners have the opportunity to create their own niche in their marketplace,” says president Dino Fragaglia.
As a leader in pet innovation, the brand is often first to market with the best in pet nutrition, Fragaglia says. “It’s one of our strengths. 93 per cent of our stores are franchisee owned, and we can take a product that’s innovative, focus on it, and recommend it through education. That’s really how we differentiate within our channel.”
As the head office team identifies new, innovative products, franchisees are buoyed by being the first to market. For instance, Global Pet Foods was the first to showcase raw alternative and frozen foods.
Sustainability is also something the brand hangs its hat on. Locally sourced, GMO free ingredients provide pet parents the option to choose healthier products. Along with the benefits to the environment, Global Pet Foods requires brands carried at the store to adhere to the highest safety standard, ensuring pets get the best food possible.
One of the benefits to franchisees is the comfort of partnering with a Canadian, family-oriented company without the bureaucracy. “We can make decisions quickly, allowing us to move ahead of our competitors and move toward the market trends,” Fragaglia says.
As it did for many companies, the pandemic brought its own set of challenges including securing real estate and navigating supplier shortages to maintain quality service to their furry counterparts. “People don’t travel or eat out as much, but they do spend time with their pets. They’re family,” says Fragaglia. He adds that the company’s ties to its large distribution network was a great advantage in navigating supplier shortages.
As small business owners that are independently-owned and -operated, franchisees have to understand and make adjustments that cater to their markets, he says. Successful owners with entrepreneurial spirit will work the store and put the time in. They also must enjoy people and pets and have good time management and hiring skills.
Fragaglia’s advice for future franchisees? Commit and be ready to work within a proven system. “You have to work it; you have to build a good team around you. This is grass roots. You have to get involved in your community. This is how you’ll be successful: give back and be visible. I think that’s critical. You build customers one at a time with the tools and support Global Pet Foods provides.”
Dogtopia opened its first location in Virginia in 2002 and expanded into Canada in 2014 with its Coquitlam, B.C. location. At the time, dog daycare was a new, innovative concept, and today, it shows no signs of slowing down. With a presence in all major markets and room to grow, CEO Kim Hamm says the brand strategically and sustainably expands as new prospects arise.
“We’re so blessed to have an amazing brand where dogs are part of our culture—they’re the product and the service we get to work with. We attract an amazing group of franchisees and pet parents who are engaged and love the work we do. It takes a village to raise a dog, and we’re a trusted home away from home for our pet parents—they think of us as family.”
As part of their brand mandate, they also work with their foundation. “We have a platform that allows dogs to give back to humanity and positively change our world,” says Hamm. They sponsor service dogs for veterans and first responders, foster literacy in classrooms and work with and employ adults on the spectrum. “It’s really helped our brand find its heart.”
The brand boasts 200 locations across North America, 20 of which are in Canada. This means Canadian franchisees benefit from the intimacy and dedicated support of a smaller system coupled with the maturity, infrastructure, systems, and support of a large, established brand.
Deemed essential throughout the pandemic, it’s become evident that Dogtopia is pandemic-resistant.
It pivoted when pet parents were no longer allowed in the lobby, moving to curbside pickup and drop off through a mobile app.
Today, with the pandemic almost behind us, the focus has turned to what the next phase looks like as Canadians return to work. “We’ve all been able to spend time 24/7 with our dogs which is great for the pet parent, and great for the pets, but separation anxiety on both sides is something we’re really educating on,” says Hamm.
Dogtopia seeks franchisees that have business acumen and transferable skills. “We want you to be a dog lover, but we also want to make sure from a business perspective that … some fundamentals are there.”
For new franchisees, five weeks of training over 12 months starts with one week of classroom training and ends with a bootcamp right before the grand opening. “Dog experience is not a pre-requisite to becoming a franchisee, so we have a comprehensive training program because we know it can be a steep learning curve for those that don’t have the background and don’t have dogs,” Hamm says.
“I think the value proposition of Dogtopia is very strong, and we have a lot of tailwinds behind us. We’re fortunate that we have first-mover advantage here in Canada, and we don’t have much competition. [So we] want to take advantage of that and the brand equity that we have across North America.”