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Petco launches PetCoach, a higher-end store centered on pet services

Sprocket gets groomed by Nicole Pierce, at left, while Lucille gets groomed by Crystal Brown, at right, in the Grooming Salon of the new Petcoach store.
Sprocket is groomed by Nicole Pierce at the salon of the inaugural PetCoach store in San Marcos, Calif.
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Leaving behind its big-box roots, Petco is opening a new kind of retail store where animal-friendly amenities such as dog baths, play yards and treats fit for humans are meant to win over picky pet owners who would otherwise snub the mainstream brand.

Called PetCoach, the pilot store in northern San Diego County — unveiled this week — is the old pet store reimagined.

Instead of a smattering of products, services such as veterinary care, grooming and dog day care not only dominate but also dictate the entire experience. Food, clothing and toys are also available, but they’re displayed by task, meaning customers could come for the care but find a relevant product — or five — in the process.

PetCoach is the brainchild of Brock Weatherup, a Petco Animal Supplies Inc. executive who runs the firm’s new initiatives arm. In April 2017, Petco bought Weatherup’s PetCoach app, and he moved from Philadelphia to be near Petco’s San Diego headquarters.

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When Petco bought it, PetCoach was just an app that presented people with a cheap way of getting their pressing pet questions answered quickly by experts. Now it has taken on a physical life of its own.

“The whole premise of this was, could we bring this high level of education and validation all together … and make it physically viable?” Weatherup said. “So you would be excited to walk in and go, ‘This doesn’t exist anywhere else.’”

Veterinarian Christie Long speaks to a customer in the Animal Hospital of the new PetCoach store.
Veterinarian Christie Long speaks to a customer at the animal hospital of the new PetCoach store.
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

PetCoach looks like this: Upon entry, customers will see the animal hospital on their left, where resident veterinarian Christie Long presides over a clinic that can handle 90% of standard vet services, save for surgical emergencies. To the right is the grooming section visible to curious onlookers, along with an adjacent self-wash room with all the amenities that allow for a proper dog bath. In the center, a full-scale dog daycare and training facility will watch over pets and teach them to mind their manners.

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Toward the back of the store, a curated selection of vet-vetted food is punctuated by a JustFoodForDogs pantry. The refrigerated section represents the first fruits of an extensive human-quality food partnership announced in May with Los Alamitos-based JustFoodForDogs.

If Petco succeeds in its mission, pet owners will subscribe to a new model at PetCoach where a $9 monthly membership, inspired by REI Co-Op’s program and Amazon Prime, nets customers discounted goods and services — and secures their repeat patronage.

The membership model is a fresh idea meant to help Petco navigate its way through a pet product industry that has become bifurcated, where boutique shops have won over discerning customers and bargain hunters opt for better value from the likes of Amazon, Walmart or PetSmart’s Chewy.com.

“Look, I think we’re catching up on some things,” Weatherup said.

Petco, he said, is trying to get up to speed digitally (launching store pickup for online shoppers, for instance) and leapfrog its competitors. The latter is where the mostly unrecognizable Petco concept store comes into play.

PetCoach, where the picky pet parents go
In the self-wash area of the PetCoach store, customer Debbie George bathes her border collie-German shepherd mix.
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The roughly 12,000-square-foot PetCoach location has so little in common with a traditional Petco store that you might enter and exit without realizing that Petco is behind the retail endeavor. That’s by design, said Miro Copic, a San Diego State University marketing lecturer who inspected the location during its soft opening.

“Not having a direct link to Petco, that’s a great way to get people who shop at PetSmart or boutique stores to try this out,” he said.

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In other words, PetCoach is for the pet snob, as in the growing number of people who refer to their animals as fur babies or family members, and who are willing to pay a markup for quality over quantity. Presumably, that starts with buying better food.

Americans spent more than $29 billion on pet food last year, according to the American Pet Products Assn., a trade group for pet product manufacturers.

“Interest in high end, premium pet food and treats continues to be a key driver for increased spending in the pet food category,” the trade group said in its annual pet industry report.

That helps justify the JustFoodForDogs tie-in at PetCoach’s inaugural store.

Petco’s bet is that the more judicious food buyer will want more regular vet checkups, particularly since the membership program includes five visits to the store’s animal hospital per year. He or she may then take an interest in regular dog care, whether that’s walks booked through PetCoach’s also-new dog-walking app or visits to the day care facility. And because a self-wash costs just $2 for members, a bath seems like a likely next step.

Customers in the new PetCoach store examine the extensive selection of Just Food For Dogs in a frozen food display case.
Customers at the PetCoach store examine the selection of Just Food For Dogs in a frozen food display case.
(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s a clever solution … for a business model that has been killed” by the competition, SDSU’s Copic said.

Still, nothing is permanent at PetCoach. The pilot store will serve as a training ground for fresh ideas and a graveyard for bad ones, Weatherup said.

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“What has launched today will not be the same thing [you see] a year from now,” he said.

Petco has plans to open two additional PetCoach venues in San Diego County over the next six months, and possibly more around the country depending on their reception. So, love it or hate it, PetCoach is ground zero for the embattled retailer.

“The slate is completely blank,” Weatherup said.

jennifer.vangrove@sduniontribune.com


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