It’s hard to imagine running a retail business during the pandemic. But there are some businesses that have been trudging through, making the best of it while trying to cater to the needs of their customers. Of course we’ve seen some businesses close temporarily. Others have closed for good. Still others have transitioned in ways that give renewed life and hope to their operational models.
During the pandemic, David Holingbaugh Jr., who managed a “closing” pet store in Kenmore, decided that it was important to ensure that the legacy of a 60+ year family-owned business was honored. When Holingbaugh learned that the longstanding owner of the Niagara Aquarium had decided to close, he began to draw up a plan to reopen an updated version of the store, with a new name and overhauled look.
“After a few months closed, some long days, and a significant facelift to the store itself, I made Buffalo Pet Supply,” Holingbaugh explained. “Because pet stores are deemed ‘essential,’ the former owner stayed open during most of the pandemic, and did well considering, but eventually decided that it was time to close.”
The really interesting part of this story is that over the course of the last three years, Holingbaugh has been in the process of figuring “a way out” of the pet store business, to do something completely different with his life. You might say that the pandemic and the closing of the business changed the way that he viewed “this next step in his life’s path.”
“Retail wears on you,” Holingbaugh told me. “I thought that I was ready for something different. But with pandemic, somehow everything fell into place. I had some savings, so everything that I put into the place was out of pocket. The businesses needed a significant facelift, and I stocked it myself. Now, it’s like walking into a different world.”
I asked Holingbaugh if there was an “aha moment,” when he realized that he had to open up his own pet store. “Yes, it was when I walked in one day, and everything was 70% off, and the store was bare. That’s when it hit me – I can’t let it go. I needed to do it for the neighborhood, and the loyal customers.”
Along with a new look on the inside of the building, Holingbaugh said that he made some operational changes. One of the biggest, was shrinking the building’s retail footprint in half, from 3000 sf to 1500 sf. “It was too big,” explained Holingbaugh. “Back in the day, the original owners wholesaled fish and supplies. When they stopped wholesaling, that all became retail – they kept expanding. So we did away with the saltwater tanks, and even shrunk the fresh water section. Even though we cut down the fresh water tanks by 20%, we still have 80 tanks! As for the saltwater tanks, there are so many close-by saltwater-specific stores that I figured that they tackle that part of the business better than we do, so now we just send our customers to them. By streamlining the tanks, I was able to cut overhead – there were between 10-15 employees that catered to saltwater, which was not profitable.”
While Holingbaugh streamlined certain aspects of his business, he fortified others. Over the years, the store made a name for itself selling pet rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and reptiles (and all of the supplies that go with them). The ‘small pet’ section was an area where Holingbaugh could compete against, and even beat, the large box stores, located nearby. “We listened to what the customers were looking for, and concentrated on those areas, so that they would not have to drive out of the neighborhood for their pet needs.”
Holingbaugh told me that he was afforded the opportunity to keep the original name of the business, but at the end of the day, with all of the updates, he felt that a new name would signal that there were exciting changes underway.
More than anything else, Holingbaugh is excited that the shop will remain a small family-owned and operated business in the neighborhood. “My sister Stephanie works here with me,” he noted. “In 2021, we’re hoping for a successful year, which would mean remaining in the black. Small retail is not easy, so if we can break even the first year, I will be very happy.”
In the future, Holingbaugh would like to convert the remaining footprint of the store (1500 sf) into a dog grooming business, under the same name. “That might be a little past the 2021 mark,” he told me [laughing].
As for Kenmore itself, Holingbaugh said that he hadn’t seen any noticeable changes as of late. “I love the neighborhood, and the customers. At this point, we’re reaching out to new customers that might not know that we’re here, or what we sell.”
To me, this is the perfect example of ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same.” Especially during a time of pandemic, there’s something very comforting in that sentiment.
Masks and social distancing precautions remain in effect