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Local pet stores doing well despite economy
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The economy may be going to the dogs, but a dog’s still gotta eat. And that’s been good news for local pet stores. While most of the pet stores in the Tahoe-Truckee area are feeling the impacts of a slower economy, the majority say they are faring a lot better than other retailers. What’s the secret behind their success? It turns out that even when money is tight, a dog is still man’s best friend.

'It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen that people are not willing to cut back on their pets’ good food,' said Sandy Tibbles, owner of Tahoe City Scraps Dog Bakery. 'I wonder sometimes if these young guys eat as good as their pets.'

Small, boutique pet stores like Scraps sells high quality pet food that can cost as much as $55 for a 35 lb. bag of grain-free Now! by Petcurean, compared to $35 for lower quality food such as Iams or Science Diet at the grocery store. Despite the higher costs, Tibbles said her customers are still buying.

'Their attitude is: these animals are worth it,' said Tibbles, whose store did 20 percent better over Christmas than the previous year. 'It’s such good food people are willing to put up the extra cash for it.'

Michelle Shumway, who owns the Kings Beach Scraps, has also not seen a slowdown in the sales of gourmet dog food. But she admits that businesses like hers may still be experiencing a residual boost from the pet food recall that occurred last March, when over 100 dogs and cats in the U.S. died from digesting tainted food imported from China.

'People realized it was important to feed their pets higher-end food,' Shumway said, noting that brands she sells, like Natura and Breeder’s Choice, check all their products’ ingredients.

Other pet stores owners, however, have noticed that the $50 bag of dog food is no longer feasible for some customers. Eight months ago, Truckee Pet Station owner Marshall Grattan saw the signs of the coming recession and stocked his store with new lines of lower-priced dog food as a way to give people options. His foresight paid off.

'There is a large group of people buying the same food they were one year ago, but we have had an even larger percentage of people who say, ‘I can’t afford this food anymore, what else do you have?’' said Grattan, who estimates that up to 20 percent of his customers have at least inquired about cheaper food.

Even though local pet stores are still selling high-end food to their health-conscious customers, it’s not all a rosy picture. Pet stores actually make very little money from food sales. The products with the highest profit margins are toys and treats. But that’s where pet stores are being hit hardest by the economic downturn. Jessica Solberg, owner of the Truckee Scraps, said that accessories used to account for 40 percent of her sales, while food made up the rest. Now, 70 percent of her sales comes from food; toys and treats have dropped to 30 percent.

'Spending habits have changed,' Solberg observed. 'People are not spending any extra money on accessories or non-essentials.'

Grattan has observed the same change in his customers’ buying habits.

'There has been a shift away from impulse items, like toys and treats, towards more staple items, like food,' he said.

Both Solberg and Grattan, however, say that while their stores are not booming like last year, they’re doing fine. The main reason? They are not losing customers.

'The good thing is that we are keeping customers,' Solberg said. 'The store is not down, just different.'

But not all pet stores have avoided the doghouse. Tails by the Lake in Squaw Valley, which depends more on tourist business than the Truckee and North Shore stores, has noticed a large drop in customers.

'This past year has not been great,' said Tails by the Lake owner Lori Dotterweich. 'We are definitely struggling with the economy.'

Unlike other area pet stores, Dotterweich said sales of toys and treats are still going strong. What she is not selling, however, are high-ticket items like bowl feeders and beds, some of which are priced as high as $200, and food. She has started advertising the price of her dog food, which she says is the cheapest in town, on local radio station KTKE.

Nevertheless, Dotterweich is optimistic for the summer. She hopes the many events at the Village at Squaw Valley, like the Wanderlust Festival and Tuesdays Bluesdays, will attract people to her store. Every Friday in July and August, Tails by the Lake also hosts a 'Yappy Hour' where canines receive free doggie ice-cream and beer and their owners get a glass of wine in exchange for a donation to the Truckee Humane Society.

Other pet stores are also coming up with deals to drum up business. A few months ago, Solberg started offering her frequent buyers 10 percent off all toys, treats and accessories. Sharon Jenks, who owns Truckee Tahoe Kennels, in April created a club that, for $50, gives members discounts at local restaurants, hotels and ski resorts.

For all the pet store owners, the coming months will be the telltale sign of things to come. Tibbles of Tahoe City Scraps is betting that, despite the recession, the dog days of summer will bring open wallets.

'In a tourist community, when people are here on vacation, they are more apt to buy frivolous things,' she said. 'I’m stocked up like it’s going to be a wonderful summer, so I better sell things.'

 
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March 14, 2019