Pet Insight Interview
Brad Kriser, CEO, Kriser’s
Brad Kriser founded Kriser’s in 2006 with the goal of creating a positive and educational retail experience for consumers. After founding The Barking Lot in 2000, Kriser realized an opportunity to meet a growing demand for all-natural pet products, thus prompting Kriser’s.
How has Kriser’s evolved since you founded the company in 2006?
In many ways it’s stayed the same. We’ve had a mission and a goal that we’ve stuck to and stayed true to for all these years which is to create a place of education, a place where you get a great customer experience and you can come to and feel comfortable with absolutely everything that’s in the store, knowing that it’s best for your pet.
The only real difference we’ve had, is when we started, we were all pet and now we’re just focused on dog and cat. We have a small footprint in our stores and to be able to have the breadth and depth for each of the categories made it difficult. More importantly, to be able to speak to the customer and be an educator for all of those different pets, it was a little bit too much for a small staff to be experts on all of those different things. It would have been a disservice to our customers, and to our goal, if we didn’t know what we were talking about.
How has the pet industry changed as a whole since 2006?
The pet industry has definitely changed quite a bit. There’s been such massive growth in the pet industry from both the retail side, from online to the product side to distribution consolidation. It’s also become a lot more sophisticated since 2006. There are a lot more investment groups that have become apart of it, and people are asking how to raise the bar and expectations of the different companies. Along with now there’s the ability they have to get a lot more people that are not just passionate about pets in the business, but that are also very smart business people, which has helped to evolve the pet industry to help us continue to grow. The pet industry has survived the recession and grew during the recession. There’s really no retail out there that was able to do that. The humanization of pets continues on and on, and pets are truly a part of the family. Consumers treat them in some ways better than they treat themselves. It’s wonderful to see how important pets are to their lives.
Pets have always been a part of my life, and that’s what drove me to become part of this. I was in the internet world, then the corporate world and working for other people. I received my MBA, always knowing that I would go into my own business. It was one of those situations where I woke up and said, ‘I’m just not happy with what I’m doing. I want to wake up happy. I want to really enjoy what I’m doing and have a passion for what I’m doing.’ That’s how I started working in the pet world.
What encouraged you to work in the pet industry?
Waking up and wanting to do something I truly loved and believed in. I started in Chicago back in 2000 and opened a place called The Barking Lot. We did boarding, daycare, grooming, and training and of course, retail in a 10,000 square foot building. The retail portion was extremely small between the check-in for all the services and retail, there was probably 800 square feet, and I always knew it was going to be all-natural. The amount of all-natural dog foods and cat foods at that time, you could count on both hands easily. We opened up in an up and coming neighborhood and it just started filling very quickly. It started out with almost nothing, and then it just exploded. We saw that there was an opportunity, not just in the natural pet food space, but also we wanted to recreate it and turn it into an experience for people. We wanted to create something a little more sophisticated where people enjoyed the experience and most importantly, an educational experience where you could talk to somebody about what’s best for your pets.
What specifically do you enjoy about working in the pet industry?
I really enjoy the fact that I wake up every day, and I’m making a difference in both pet and the pet owners’ lives by keeping their pets happier and healthier. That’s just a huge satisfaction that I get from all of the people that on a regular basis tell us how we’ve changed their lives. There aren’t many retail industries where you can say that exists. I really love the people that I work with – the people that are part of my team are all pet lovers. They’re all good people. They’re dedicated and wonderful people that are living our mission.
How does your experience founding The Barking Lot inform your leadership at Kriser’s?
Looking at the opportunity that was there and seeing that people wanted to learn, people wanted to be educated and people wanted something better for their pets. Just being a role model for that through strong customer service and being friendly and nice to the customers every single time. Some of the simple things that you know are there but just don’t exist in a lot of ways anymore – showing people respect and listening to what they have to say and not just pushing things at them, but really listening and starting a relationship with them and making them feel great about coming into the store. The customer is very important of course, but the real customer is the pet. Being able to lead by example – I was very active at the store level for the first number of stores. All the time being there and showing everyone just exactly what I wanted the experience to be like.
What does Kriser’s do better than its competitors?
We’re hyper-focused on the foods, brands, products, toys and supplements so that we are truly an all-natural place. There are a lot of places that sell our foods, but then they’ll also sell foods that would never make the cut. So when you come into Kriser’s, unless your dog has a specific allergy or issue, you can freely shop the store and feel 100 percent comfortable with absolutely everything we have to offer in the store. That’s one thing that we do better. We have such an amazing team that want to provide a superior level of service to the customers. They want to help them. They want to educate them. That passion they have speaks volumes. Everybody is there to be able to help the customer and give them the experience and give them the guidance that they want and need.
What are some of the opportunities the Southern California and West coast markets have to offer Kriser’s?
We have expansion opportunities in every market that we’re in – in Illinois, in Colorado and Southern California. Starting of 2014, we’ll open our first store in Houston, Texas. There are still plenty of opportunities on the West coast and in Southern California. Right now we’ll be focusing on the West coast and Southern California and continue to expand. There’s a myriad of neighborhoods and cities and areas that we can go into – Southern California is huge.
How have those markets changed in the last five years?
I can only speak to it for the last three years, it hasn’t changed too much in the fact that people are becoming more and more aware about the differences in pet foods and looking for something better. They’ve always wanted to do something good but didn’t know there were options. We’re finding so many more people coming into the stores knowing they want to do something better for their pet and knowing this is the opportunity they have to do it. It’s a more informed customer, which is really great because we can have a real conversation with them, teach them and bring their knowledge to a higher level.
What made you decide to operate in multiple markets?
The goal is to have a national footprint. To offer what we have to as many pets and people as possible. Regional is successful and they do their thing, but to really expand to the next level you have to prove you can work in multiple markets, you can manage multiple markets and you can be successful in multiple markets. In order to be able to have a national footprint it’s necessary to do that. Plus it’s exciting – it’s fun. We get to meet a lot of different people and work with a lot of different people. It can be more challenging – you have to learn how to work in different markets and have people that are not all in your background. We have great managers and district managers to be able to look over the store teams and that’s the way we make it work.
How does distributor consolidation affect Kriser’s?
So far we’ve been happy with distributor consolidation. To manage a lot of different relationships at one time can be more difficult as you move into different markets. You had to manage multiple relationships at the same time. What we like is these companies are very smart and they know what they’re doing. They’re bringing the pet market and distribution to the next level. It’s nice to be able to work with people who understand our vision and our goals and how to work with them and be a partner.
How do you work with Ken Grouf?
Ken is our president and COO. He is my cousin. He was part of the company from an advisory role back right from the beginning. He was someone I went to to talk about branding. He was the brand manager for Yahoo from 1996 to 2001. He built the Yahoo brand. Very impressive. Very smart. Very knowledgeable. He was part of six or seven different startups both on the for profit and nonprofit side. One of the things about Ken that I love and respect so much is that he doesn’t go into any business opportunity if it’s not something that’s going to have a positive impact on the world. It’s just how he feels. He’s a smart guy. He came on full time just over four years ago. It’s been a major coo for me – being able to have him there as a person, but being able to have completely 100 percent trust in someone with everything is very rare to have in business.
How does Kriser’s compete against big box chains?
Service. Service, education and experience. That’s what it is. We’re price competitive so that’s not an issue where a lot of people have this thought that big box stores because they’re big box, they’re less expensive, and it’s really not the case in our industry. You come into our stores, you get this great experience, you get this great shopping environment, but you don’t pay a premium to come in and do that. You come in and get all of that with the competitive price levels. We went on the experience. We went on being able to give great customer service. We have a small footprint so that when you come in you’re not lost. There’s always someone there to greet you immediately and help you as soon as possible in there to get you what you need.
How does Kriser’s compete against small, specialty stores?
It’s similar – it’s to provide a great experience. To not just be a place of education, but also a nice shopping environment too. We’ve worked very hard over the years to raise the bar on our stores as far as the design and décor and create a nice shopping environment in itself.
Have there been any particular categories that are driving growth?
In food, there’s definitely been a lot of changes that have evolved. The raw food market continues to grow at a quick pace. We’re strong raw food believers – I feed my dogs 100 percent raw diet. The other big change I’ve seen is grain free which is definitely becoming much more important in the market, and the amount of growth grain free has had is just absolutely tremendous. The other part of it is the freeze-dried dehydrated category, which is continuing to grow pretty well. Those are the biggest. Kibble will always be there but it’s the alternatives that people are looking for – something different and healthier. Something less processed. But they’ve come so far in being able to create better quality kibble. It’s been a really fun evolution to watch.
How do trade shows influence Kriser’s merchandise assortment?
We’re always told by our vendors what’s new and what’s coming so for us it’s nice to be able to see everybody and have more face time. But you do find sometimes the smaller companies that don’t have the access to contact everyone, you find some gems in the rough. Trade shows – I look at them with a more macro view and it helps me to look at trends, look at what’s changing in the market, what’s evolving and what are people doing. Watching the grain free trend was apparent there. Watching the trend in supplements, that has been evolving tremendously overtime. You can’t get everything you need from your food every single time. Being able to see that at tradeshows and to see what’s becoming important. Seeing the macro trends is what I really like about attending trade shows.
Which trade shows do you attend and why?
I go to three shows a year – SuperZoo, Global Pet Expo and the Total Pet Expo/HH Backer Show. Right now I would put Global and SuperZoo on par with each other. Both of those shows have evolved over time. Five years ago, I would’ve said HH Backer. That show has unfortunately seen a little bit of a decline, and they’re trying really hard to bring it back to what it was, but it’s still going to take some work. SuperZoo was the small show that’s just exploded and become very important for everyone in the industry. Global used to be a little more focused on the distributors and the manufacturers and a little less on the retailers. But that’s changed also where now it’s an important show for the retailers.
What is one of the major challenges facing the pet industry and particularly the premium segment of the market?
The biggest challenge is to make sure that as companies grow in the premium segment that they keep the quality of the products up. As companies get larger they have pressure to get bigger. A lot of them have outside financial influences, and there are pressures to get bigger and bigger to make money for their investors, but at the detriment of the product. And that’s always a fear that I have.
How has Kriser’s adapted to these challenges?
The hardest part is there’s been a proliferation of new products. There’s only a limited amount of shelf space that is there and being able to pick the products that are the most important. Making sure that you’re picking what is still going to be best for the pets that are out there with a limited amount of space. We like our footprints – our footprint averages 2,400 square feet – we like a nice, intimate setting and being able to have someone there to help you. It’s picking the right products for this growth and making sure you have the right assortment.
How does Kriser’s work with vendors?
We look at our vendors as partners. We pick companies that we believe in and that we trust. We like to work with companies that can work on a professional level with us to understand the new needs Kriser’s has with our growth and our structure. We need them to grow with the level of sophistication we need to be able to manage a business. We look at them as partners – we all share in the wins and the growth. It’s nice to see the evolution there. We’ve developed really close, positive relationships with them.
How can they become more solid partners?
Just being able to upgrade and update their ways of doing business and keeping up technology and processes to be able to work directly with us. More communication – a lot of these companies have different reps in different areas. But for us, having a single point of contact is very important. Being able to have one person to speak to so we can do things the same across the board at all stores. That’s something we look for to be able to have so we can work more efficiently with them to make things happen in a timely manner.
What can we expect from Kriser’s in the near future?
Continued growth – we’re continuing to expand and opening a new store.
Where would you like Kriser’s to be in five years?
We want to be the leader in the independent, premium pet space. We want everyone to know who we are and are able to understand where they need to go to shop for their pet supplies and be completely comfortable and know they’re doing good by their pets.