Chicagoans love their dogs. A quick stroll down the street reveals a variety of breeds usually decked out in designer jackets and shoes. To meet the demand, Chicago is filled with dog boutiques, selling everything from plush beds and rhinestone collars to interactive toys and tasty treats in the shape of donuts.
In 2006 at the age of 26, Candace Canty entered the mix with her version of the dog boutique, Dog-A-Holics. Ignoring naysayers who warned against entering an already-saturated marketplace, Canty went on to open three stores in three years and is still growing. Two of her stores are retail-focused while her third location provides grooming and day care.
How did you come up with the idea for Dog-A-Holics?
I was working for my friend’s business, which was a bakery for dogs, and I realized that I wanted to be self-employed.
I have an art background and I figured retail was a way to be creative—with displays and customer events—and still have a job.
How did you start your business?
I wrote up a business plan and got a loan. I put together a website and starting going to street festivals and dog parks, promoting my website. Later that year, I opened my first store.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting your business?
I opened a block away from a very large competitor. I thought there were enough unique products that we could both sell, but a lot of vendors would not work with me because they felt loyal to the other store. It was very hard in the beginning, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise.
I had to find new products that had never been sold in Chicago before. As we opened our second store, those vendors gave me exclusivity in Chicago, so I am the only one in the city that carries certain products.
Another challenge was buying the wrong merchandise when I opened. I had to learn who my customers were. I had to listen to them, see what they were asking for and suggesting.
What are some of your successful marketing methods?
We’ve partnered up with some non-competing, industry related businesses, such as the Chicago Canine Rescue. Any person that adopts a dog gets a welcome packet from us with a 20 percent off coupon.
It brings in new dog owners that don’t have commitments elsewhere. If they have a good experience, they turn into very loyal customers.
I also put 20 percent off coupons in veterinarians’ offices and boarding facilities. Then I put their promotional materials in our shopping bags.
We’ve also created a whole community on Facebook and sometimes we give exclusive Facebook discounts.
What are your five keys to success?
1. Stay positive.
Having a positive attitude about the situation you are in and a positive attitude towards your employees and customers is important.
2. Stay organized.
Keep on top of everything you can, including requests from customers.
3. Be prepared for worst-case scenarios.
Be quick on your feet. As things change, you have to be able to change with them.
Last year the city ripped up a water main in front of our store. The project was only going to last three months, but it lasted eight months. No one could get to our store. To make it work, we offered home delivery and curb-side service.
Even if they don’t buy anything, you need to develop a relationship with your customers when they come into your business.
5. Get involved locally.
I’m on merchant association boards and am connected with the chamber. That way, I know what is going on and the concerns of the neighborhood.
What has been most rewarding about running Dog-A-Holics?
I love seeing dogs grow from being a puppy into to a full-grown adult. If we can help dogs that are sick get better, that is always rewarding.
How have you managed to balance work and life when running your business?
Even though I work long hours, when I come home, I’m home. I try not to work at home.
What advice can you give to small business owners?
If you are thinking of starting a small business, double check and make sure you have the things in place to do it, but ultimately you just have to go for it. Once you are in, you will figure it out.
What are your plans for the future of Dog-A-Holics?
I really want to hone-in on the service side of the business.
I also want to develop more of an online presence. Franchising is also an option.
As we grow and expand, I can see us adding a vet to our staff.