It’s not David versus Goliath, or George Bailey versus Mr. Potter — not yet. But when international pet chain Pet Valu opens its doors next month in Copps Hill Plaza, there will be competition.
Local pet shop owners have faced the Canadian-based company’s announcement with responses varying from accepting to hostile.
“My initial reaction was, How much pet business is there to go around?” said Ron Rucolas, the president and owner of Ridgefield Pet. “But that is the free enterprise system and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ridgefield is a brilliant target market and I’m sure they did their demographic research and that’s why they’re coming here.”
Connie Packard-Kamedulski, owner of Animal Fair Pet Shop, understands why Pet Valu has targeted Ridgefield, but fears the move will be one more example of “a corporate giant coming in to town to knock out the local, independent owners who’ve been here for dozens of years.”
Ms. Packard-Kamedulski said she has known about Pet Valu leasing the space since January and is unsure the two locally owned pet stores in town could afford to have customers going to the competition.
The movie-rental giant Blockbuster closed in February 2011, freeing up the 4,662 square feet for Pet Valu to lease.
“Their biggest impact may be their location and their size,” Mr. Rucolas said.
When it opens its doors next month, Pet Valu will occupy the fourth largest space in Copps Hill Plaza behind Kohl’s, Stop & Shop and Rite Aid, according to Equity One, the shopping center’s developer and owner.
“We are excited to have our first Connecticut store be in Ridgefield,” said Pet Valu’s marketing director, Amy DePaoli. “There’s a great demand in the area and it’s the natural progression for our company to grow in the Northeast out of the mid-Atlantic.”
Pet Valu opened its first store in Markham, Ontario, in 1976. It now has more than 300 stores in both Canada and the United States, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.
On March 1, 2011, Pet Valu signed the Humane Society of the United States Puppy Friendly Pet Store Pledge, agreeing that “the company commits to not sell puppies, but instead to support local pet adoption programs.”
Ms. DePaoli confirmed the company does not sell live pets and that its corporate philosophy is geared toward supporting shelters and other rescue organizations.
“We feel there are so many animals out there that need homes,” Ms. DePaoli said. “It’s our mission to inform pet owners on how to feed their animals.”
Ms. DePaoli described Pet Valu’s stores as having a “boutique feel with natural and holistic supplies.” In addition to having a wide variety of food and other pet supplies, she said, the Ridgefield store will have bakery cases with cookies for dogs as well as two or three self-wash stations.
“These stations have been a huge hit and they have a great low price of only $10,” Ms. DePaoli said. “We supply the customer with everything — the shampoo, the water, the brushes, the dryer — and they leave the mess behind for our staff to clean up.”
She said the Ridgefield store will open in mid-April at the latest with five to six employees, and the company will host a grand opening event two or three weeks after opening its doors.
Ms. DePaoli confirmed that Pet Valu will be “opening more stores in Connecticut throughout the year” with hopes of expanding into Long Island within the next year.
Joe Dent, the U.S. vice president of Pet Valu, did not respond to interview requests.
Ms. Packard-Kamedulski said her research about Pet Valu has led her to worry about the company’s intention in Ridgefield.
“They’re the third largest pet chain in North America, and their direct aim is to have major expansion into this area,” Ms. Packard-Kamedulski said. “As a community, this is the time where we need to make a stand — we either want chain merchants or independent-owned stores in our town.
“In 2001, there were five pet stores in town. Twelve years later, there are only two, and I think that says a lot.”
Mr. Rucolas, who has owned Ridgefield Pet for 22 years, shared similar sentiments when discussing local ownership versus corporate competition, but doesn’t fear his business will grow obsolete.
He cited Bissell’s Pharmacy as an example of a local business that has withstood corporate competition and has thrived.
“It’s easy to stay competitive when you have that local touch in your service — good service is almost always met with customer loyalty,” Mr. Rucolas said. “At the same time, Ridgefielders need to continue to support local business to ensure this town doesn’t become a ghost town.
“I went to Farmingville and I have been a town resident for my entire life, and I have never seen anything like how town looks right now — everything’s empty.”
Despite the company’s expansion and the decline of locally owned businesses, Mr. Rucolas remains confident that his store’s model is unique and will help him prevail.
“Most pet stores aren’t like us; we are pretty diverse in the services we offer,” Mr. Rucolas said.
He said he couldn’t imagine Pet Valu’s having a similar business model to his store, or that the company’s goal is to eliminate all form of competition.
Ms. DePaoli said her company’s business model isn’t to drive locally owned stores out of business.
“The pet industry is booming, so there’s enough business out there for everyone,” Ms. DePaoli said. “We want our head-to-head competition to be limited. If there’s a product we don’t have, we would be happy to point our customers right down the street. We hope the mom and pop shops feel the same way about us as we enter this new market with the vision of being a community partner.
“Everyone wants the same thing, and that’s the greater good for all pets.”
She said the company makes its employees go through a rigorous online training program through the University of California-Davis, where they earn a certificate in nutrition.
As for the local pet store owners, Mr. Rucolas and Ms. Packard-Kamedulski are optimistic their businesses will survive based on service, selection and loyalty.
“Pet Valu won’t be able to provide the level of service and the level of selection,” Ms. Packard-Kamedulski said. “We know our customers and we know what they want, and we are dedicated to taking care of them. I expect many of my customers to look at Pet Valu, but they will come back.”
Mr. Rucolas said his philosophy hasn’t changed since he heard about Pet Valu’s plan. He tells his employees, managers, customers, and townspeople the same thing — you can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do.