Pet supply retailer Mutts & Co. prides itself on being what the big-box stores aren't
It’s safe to say that our pets hold a special place in our hearts, but over the past year and a half the bond has grown—they’ve become our coworkers, CEOs of the house and beloved family members.
As such, our furry friends have apparently gotten some extra special treatment since the switch to remote work. In 2019, we spent $97.1 billion on pets, which jumped to $103.6 billion in 2020, and is expected to climb to $109.6 billion in 2021, according to the American Pet Products Association.
For Mutts and Co. owners Deborah and Mark Vitt, the uptick in pet-related purchases has been reflected in their sales, but they’ve been committed to delivering high-quality pet supplies for nearly 15 years.
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Mutts and Co. is a local pet supply store with 70 employees and seven locations across central Ohio with a focus on offering all-natural food and treats, toys and more for cats and dogs. It was founded by Deborah in Dublin in 2007 after moving to Ohio from California with her husband and realizing that there was a gap in the market.
In California, Deborah says, there was a more widely accepted holistic approach and pet stores had already adopted natural food and treats. In Ohio, that was missing.
And Deborah already had experience in the business world—she spent time working in New York for Gap at Old Navy before being recruited to The Limited in Columbus, where she met Mark, and then was recruited by Gap, again, to work in California. The two eventually moved back to Ohio. Mark worked at JPMorgan Chase, while Deborah dedicated herself full-time to founding Mutts & Co.
While she felt comfortable opening the store with her corporate background, much of her reasoning came from a passion. The duo has committed to raising rescues and fostering dogs, and Deborah spent over a year researching the market. But even so, they both shared a large concern: the store opened at the peak of the mortgage crisis. Still, they felt sure that the pet supplies market would survive, Deborah says.
“It was a little bit of a scary thought as to know whether that was the right time—when people were losing their 401(K)s and unemployment rates were so high,” Mark says. “But we found that people still gravitated to their pets and would even cut back on their own spending just to be able to accommodate the good things for their pets, their four-legged family members.”
Mutts and Co. not only survived, but it thrived. In 2016, Mark was able to join Deborah full-time as their Westerville, Upper Arlington and Hilliard stores were opening, which served as proof that the store was more than an anomaly, he says.
Aside from the food, treats, toys and health supplies that are available at the pet store, it also offers professional grooming services that only allow one dog at a time on a schedule like an actual salon, to ensure dogs aren’t stressed sitting in cages for hours leading up to their haircut. There’s also a walk-in, self-grooming option that features separated washing bays to avoid clashing with other dogs. Everything needed is provided, customers just do the work, Mark says.
The specialized, focused premise of their grooming services is just one aspect that makes them stand out as a family-owned pet store when compared to big-box retailers, Deborah says, but largely, they pride themselves on being what those major companies aren’t: personalized, knowledgeable and rooted in community.
For example, talking about the Petcos, PetSmarts and Chewys of the world, Mark is quick to point out a story he was told by an employee, who joined the team after working for a much larger pet-supply retailer: When a customer comes into the store, she was told to limit the conversation to 90 seconds. But to him and Deborah, that should be just the start—there’s no clock on customer engagement.
“We want to ask questions, we want to know about their pets, about them as people, we want to know the age, allergy concerns and activity level of their pets,” Mark says. “The first 90 seconds should be us asking questions to them, and then we can really start to understand what their needs might be.”
Dublin store manager Patricia Morrison values the personalized approach, noting that she’s had the opportunity to get to know pets and the people behind them, oftentimes watching furry friends grow up, get a new sibling and reach milestones.
“It’s our willingness to really dig in and learn about all the products that we carry, and how they can and will benefit pets,” Morrison says. “And having the ability to take the time to dig in with our customers and have those longer conversations about nutrition, and why something might be better.”
Roots in the community are another aspect that makes a local pet store stand out from its competitors. Mutts & Co. has several partnerships—in particular, Morrison loves selling the birthday treats offered for dogs, which are made by Amy Nutter with Beehive Bread Co., a small-batch bakery in Powell that has been making pup-cakes for the pet store since the beginning of this year.
“I think it’s a great little story about two small businesses, family owned, local, teaming up to work together,” Nutter says. “Rather than buying something from a large factory, they chose to go local, and it benefits them, it benefits us.”
Her pup-cakes come in a variety of colors and are made as simply as deserts for humans, she says, just with different ingredients. She restocks the stores about once per week.
Other major community partnerships include the Rascal Unit, which brings its mobile wellness clinic to the company’s seven locations 26 times a year on a rotating basis for low-cost vaccines, and local rescues like I Have a Dream, Humane Society of Delaware County and the Powell Animal Welfare Society.
The store also partners with rescues for adoption events. Before the pandemic, Deborah enjoyed hosting the Fetch a Friend adoption program with rescues across central Ohio, which took over a year of planning, but with restrictions, it’s been put on pause.
Following COVID guidelines, Mutts & Co., also closed its grooming services from March to June in 2020, but even so, the Vitts felt prepared to handle the challenge of a pandemic—after all, their business was founded amid chaos.
Deborah had originally built the company website with the ability to handle curbside pickup and delivery, and since the pandemic, they receive about 12 to 15 online orders per day and can ship to 48 states with supplies from their fulfillment stores in Lewis Center and Westerville.
And instead of seeing a decrease in business, sales increased, and the demographic of their customers also became more focused, leaning more toward millennials who likely recently adopted—Mark calls it the pandemic puppy syndrome. His observation has proven to be true across the U.S., with 32 percent of pet parents being millennials, according to the American Pet Product Association’s 2021-2022 survey of pet owners. Baby boomers fall behind at the second highest share of 27 percent.
“These are young folks who are maybe getting their first pet as a couple,” Mark says. “Before they start a two-legged family, they start a four-legged family. These are people who are saying, ‘I’m going to start it right, and do everything correctly from the start.’”
They’ve also noticed an uptick in more occupying and interactive toys and long-lasting treats, and an increased concern for pet health, now that people are working from home and can notice things like anxiety and skin conditions, Mark says.
Success has even allowed Mutts & Co. to grow this year, with its seventh location in Grove City opening in July. The location may be one of the strongest symbols of COVID-19 adjustments—it features the store’s first Doggy Drive Thru, allowing customers to pass through and grab food, treats, toys and more without getting out of their car.
The Vitts are also diving into the wholesale sector with their two product lines, Pet Foundry, an apparel, candle and pet bed company, and Boneanza Treat Co., their own treat line imported directly to their stores from South America that feature chemical-free dog treats.
Boneanza Treat Co. and Pet Foundry aren’t currently available at stores outside of Mutts & Co., but they hope to go that route in the future, Deborah says. A portion of sales will also be donated to nonprofits that Mutts & Co. has collaborated with in the past.
As Mutts & Co. expands and Deborah and Mark brainstorm new ways to grow their passion for pets, they make one thing known—they are committed to serving the community.
“We are proud to be central Ohio’s largest family-owned pet supply store,” Mark says. “We are super thrilled to be part of central Ohio. We’ve started here, we are exclusively operating here, we have continued to grow here, and we want to continue to grow here.”
Mutts & Co.
Company: Pet supplies store offering natural and holistic food, treats, health supplies and toys for dogs and cats
Locations in: Dublin, New Albany, Westerville, Upper Arlington, Hilliard, Lewis Center and Grove City
Founders: Deborah and Mark Vitt
2020 revenue: Would not disclose