Critters N’ Things (11 Commonwealth Ave., Mount Pearl) is a family business that has moved a handful of times within a small area of the city, growing as it went to incorporate more aspects of the pet supply industry, starting with pet food and now including pet grooming, training and hosting pet-themed birthday parties.
Eight months ago, the business quadrupled in size, moving from a 2,400-square-foot spot on Edinburgh Drive to a nearby 10,000-square-foot location on Commonwealth Avenue. The increased operating costs were an eye-opener for owner Mark Winsor.
“It’s like owning a house; the bigger you go, the higher your bills,” he explained. But he said he felt it was a necessary risk in the face of growing competition from big box stores.
Who opened Critters N’ Things, and when?
My parents opened it up back in 1986. My father always had a vision for the pet industry. He actually worked for a pet food company, and he always wanted his own pet store, so he decided to open it up one day, and my mother got involved and then it became a family business.
How did you get involved?
Back in … when was it? When they had the store, I got involved. I wanted my own dog, so I got my breed. I had a Borzoi, a Russian wolfhound, and I started showing dogs. And when I started showing dogs, people would ask me to show their dogs and handle dogs for them. I always had mentors who showed me this. And in 1989, I did a dog-grooming course and I helped out with the store. I volunteered, actually, a lot of my time. My parents didn’t really pay me to work in the store. Back then, we weren’t making much money when we first started out, so I always used to just go in and volunteer. But in ’89, I said, hmmm — there’s only one other groomer in the city, at the time. Back then, when the pet industry wasn’t growing … the pet industry was nothing back then when they started out.
So back in ’89 I did the grooming course, and then I did grooming. Then I just grew and grew and grew.
Are you the owner now?
I’m the owner now, yes.
When did you take over?
I took over about 2011. They just didn’t want anything to do with the business — they wanted to retire from the business, so they retired. And from there I did obedience, learned obedience behaviour, and different dogs, different breeds’ behavioural issues. I pursued more training away. I did a lot of training, actually, from different places in Canada and the U.S. I started when I was young, and just knew what I wanted in life. I knew MUN wasn’t meant for me at the time. I knew where my heart was going to lead. …
I opened up a kennel, which is on Pearltown Road, called Markwin Pet Resort. Because I knew we’ve got a retail store; we sell dog food and cat food. But then, OK, we’ve got the grooming. But then I knew dog boarding wasn’t big, because people never had the money to spend on their dogs. Not like they do now. People are having less families, more dogs. That’s just the way it’s going. You get a lot of people who don’t want to have kids, and they have animals. So that was back in … what year was that? Back in 1998 I opened up the kennel on Pearltown Road.
(Moving to new location) was a hard transition. It’s like anyone starting out in business. It takes five to eight years to see where you’re to, so this is like starting a new business over again for me, because of the size, and making sure I’m not going to go in debt (laughs).
Your primary competition is the big box stores coming in, isn’t it?
It’s box stores coming in, it’s all these new businesses coming in. I don’t know if you want to post that in the paper.
Well, yeah, this is why I’m asking.
It’s the new box stores coming in, yeah. But it’s not just affecting me. It’s actually affecting a lot of smaller independents, too, right?
Do you feel that Critters N’ Things has been around awhile so it’s a little more established, then?
It is established. We do have our clients that come here regularly. We do get people that come in from out of St. John’s and Mount Pearl. They do come in from the surrounding areas, and they do come in here.
The way it’s going now, in our economy, it is so busy. For an example: if you lived down at the east end, and you had to get dog food, and just dog food only, would you pick going to the east end or would you drive all the way to Mount Pearl? It’s almost like that’s the way it’s going now. People don’t want to drive across the city, you know? So I’ve got to work harder and provide that service. I’m providing that extra service. Like when a customer comes in now and says they’re a senior or have a disability, the staff members are trained: would you like the food lifted out?
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You mentioned earlier that people are spending more on their dogs. Why do you think that is?
When I was in the pet business when I started, people would only get their dogs done once a year. And diets — people would feed them Old Roy. I can’t down a dog food, but Old Roy would be one because it’s not a very good dog food. It’s like in anything: what you eat is what you are. Nutrition has come a long way, and I think people are becoming a lot more educated. You have a lot more of associations out there, like Humane Services, SPCA — they’re making more public awareness.
It’s just the way the economy is going. People have an animal — now, if you tie it up, you’re the worst person in the world. You’ve got to have a fenced-in garden. I think it’s just the times. The times are changing. People aren’t having children like they used to, so they get a dog, and then they get another dog.
How many people work here?
We have about 10 people at this location.
Let’s talk about your location — how do you like it? You’ve been here eight months now.
I love the location. We can offer a lot more here at this location. I used to do the dog training at Pearltown Road, but now I’ve brought that here. We can sell a lot more different diets. There’s a lot more variety in the store that we sell. Our grooming salon — we have a state-of-the-art grooming salon. Now we can deal with dogs that are geriatric pets, older pets that have disabilities. We have a hydraulic grooming table, so it goes right to the ground and goes back up. We have a walk-in tub, which makes it easier on the groomer and on the dog, too.
What about Mount Pearl — is it a business-friendly city? I mean in terms of regulations, getting licences, red tape, taxes, that sort of thing.
Maybe it’s just my personality — I’m pretty easy to get along with — but you’ve just got to follow the guidelines. If there had been issues, I would definitely proceed and tell them how I feel about it, but I’ve never really had many issues. … But putting a whole business together, yeah, it was tough.
It wasn’t easy, making sure that timing was down for everything. I’m dealing with government services, I’m dealing with wheelchair accessibility — it’s not easy opening a business, but like everything, everything has a step and a place.
What’s the busiest time of year for you?
Usually Christmas is busy. Busiest time is probably Christmas, and usually January and February are busy, believe it or not.
Are puppy mills a problem in this province?
There are some puppy mills. That’s a really touchy topic. Not for me, but for people in general, but there has been people selling them in retail stores, but they don’t do that anymore. But there are puppy mills here, yes there are. People do it out of their homes. … The problem is there’s no legislation. As long as the dog is housed and there’s food and water, as long as it’s sheltered — you can have a beagle and tie it down outside. People don’t agree with it, but there’s nothing you can do about it, as long as there’s enough chain and enough food and water. The SPCA and all the different organizations are trying to change that. I think if people get a dog, there should be more rules.
I realize you just moved into a new location, but what do you see in the future? Have you ever considered another location?
I’ve thought about another location, but right now this is such a big, big project for me. Just seeing people come in, seeing people happy, helping them out with any dog training tips we’ve got, just making sure that we can provide the customer service, the consistency. … It’s always nice to see our local clients come in.
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