The Ethical Pet Shop: Part 2 — Employees are Key

Earlier this week, I talked about two traits of an ethical pet shop. But, of course, the full picture could never fit in a single post; so, today, we’ll look at one more very important feature of an ethical pet shop, and will continue to explore this subject in the future. Every pet owner has the opportunity to make a tangible difference in animal welfare by purchasing those things we all need, like litter and pet food, from an ethical retailer. Without further ado, the third feature of the ethical pet shop:

3. The ethical pet shop treats its employees well, equipping them with knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that enable every employee to uphold the core values of the business.

It’s not very difficult to tell the difference between a pet store that hires warm bodies willing to work for low wages and a pet store that hires knowledgeable, pet-passionate individuals, who believe in the mission and principles behind the business. An ethical pet shop should treat its employees well and focus a fair amount of time and resources on their development. The owners or management of any business can only be in one place at a time, so owners with an interest in operating their business ethically must train every employee to uphold and believe in the ethical standards upon which their business model is based.

In addition, a business is first and foremost a member of the community in which it is located. Responsibility to that community is a defining trait of ethical business in all industries. Henry Ford’s business model included paying his employees well enough that they could afford to buy the products they made, and that business model catapulted Ford to the top of the auto industry during Henry’s life. Unfortunately, the prevailing corporate culture in America has turned away from making quality products and  paying employees well enough that they can afford them, and toward importing cheaply made products and paying employees so poorly  that they can’t afford anything else!

An ethical pet shop understands that it is in its own best interests to buck that trend. Few small businesses can compete with the big box pet stores in terms of pricing, but a well-run ethical pet shop can far exceed most chain locations in knowledge, customer service, and value-added services like grooming, all of which are dependent upon employees.

I worked for some time in the pet supply industry, and here is a list of just a few of the disasters I witnessed in big-box retail locations, all of which could have been prevented by making better hiring choices or by investing more time and resources into employee training:

  • An employee advised the mother of a boy who owned a corn snake accustomed to frozen/thawed meals to feed a live mouse because the store was out of stock of frozen mice. He sold a customer whose snake was accustomed to frozen/thawed pinkies a live adult mouse, and did not mention the risk of injury to the snake or the necessity of remaining in the room with the snake while it ate. The mouse killed the snake, and the distraught mother came in the next day in tears about having had to tell her little boy that she fed his pet a meal that killed it.
  • A groomer used coal tar shampoo on a cat. Coal tar is toxic to cats. The pet store paid a several hundred dollar emergency vet bill, and the cat suffered permanent negative health effects.
  • An employee recommended a shock collar to an owner whose dog suffered from fear aggression when approaching other dogs on walks. The dog turned around the first time it was shocked and, terrified, bit the nearest thing: Its owner’s leg.
  • A male employee aggressively defended the practice of dog fighting as “Just another form of entertainment,” and decried its critics as racists, in front of several customers, who chose to take their business elsewhere.
  • A cashier lifted his shirt and exposed his nipple piercings to two female coworkers while making lewd comments. The store, which was understaffed, disciplined the cashier with only a talking-to, and he continued to behave inappropriately.
  • A manager was in a relationship, against company policy, with an hourly employee. She became pregnant and chose to terminate the pregnancy. Upper management disciplined the manager for the relationship only by forcing him to pay for the woman’s health care, and by transferring him to another store, but he was allowed to keep his job.
  • An employee sold a fiddler crab to aquarium owners new to the hobby, but very enthusiastic. He did not mention that these crabs are aggressive and will eat any fish slow enough to be caught.  The crab was returned two weeks later, having eaten or killed over $100.00 in freshwater fish.
  • A guinea pig was adopted to a woman with a known history of failing to provide vet care for a very sick pet and relinquishing it for adoption rather than taking it to a veteriniarian. She had relinquished her last pet, with terminal adrenal disease, to the same store location.
  • Two parakeets were sold as live food for a caiman, despite store policies stating birds would not be sold as food for other animals.
  • An owner in over her head relinquished two pregnant pet mice to a store for adoption, and was promised that they and the babies would get good homes. An employee, who did not want to deal with the headache of having babies born in the store, gave the pregnant mice to a snake owner as food for his snake.
  • A hamster with a rectal prolapse was allowed to sit for over two days with his intestines outside his rectum because the employee cleaning cages failed to inspect the animals for injuries. By the time he was taken to a vet for euthanasia, the tissue was necrotic and sloughing off in places.

Preventing such disasters isn’t terribly difficult; it’s just more expensive than hiring anyone who wants to work long hours for low wages and providing only minimal training. However, the dividends of a human resource management program that succeeds in recruiting and developing talented, caring employees are significant. Customers will return often to a store where an employee helped them by suggesting the perfect pet food, advising them successfully on a behavior problem, helping them locate a pet for adoption at a local shelter, or simply by providing consistently courteous and knowledgeable service. I’ve put some thought into the things that make my favorite pet stores excel in the areas of human resource management and customer service. Here are my suggested best practices:

  • If the pet store sells live animals  (see Part 1 for why most shouldn’t),  every employee must be empowered to refuse a sale if they feel the home is not suitable or that the prospective owner would not provide adequate care.
  • Only applicants who are truly “pet people,” not just “pet owners,” should be hired. Prospective employees who will be successful in the pet supply retail field will likely already have some sort of pet in whose care they go above and beyond. For example, dog owners who participate in canine sports, or reptile owners who’ve built extensive caging systems to give their pets enormous amounts of space and an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible.
  • All employees should be paid a living wage and, if possible, provided with health care benefits. Peace of mind against one’s finances goes a long way toward improving mood, and, by extension, improving the service provided to customers.
  • Ongoing training should be provided to employees. Standouts in this area are stores that hold seminars, send employees to local events with a paid day off to attend, bring in guest speakers to talk to employees, and host their own community events. Incentives should also be available to employees who improve their own pet knowledge, for example by attending a dog training expo or obtaining a pet nutritionist certification.
  • Tangible rewards, such as a paid day off or a pizza party, should be provided to employees who receive letters of thanks from customers or who are “caught” doing something extraordinary. For example, one standout ethical pet shop in my area has an elderly customer who recently acquired a disability and can no longer drive. An employee now delivers dog food to her on the employee’s lunch break once a month, and returns with a check. This was done on the employee’s own initiative and not required or suggested by management or even by the customer.
  • Every employee should be empowered to ask a customer to leave the store, and to notify security or police if a customer who has been asked to leave does not do so. “Customers” who verbally abuse employees or exhibit other bad behavior, like continually demanding discounts or returning used items that can’t be resold, cause undue stress for employees and fellow shoppers. In addition, they generally can’t be considered customers, as the bad apples who behave this way generally cost the store money!
  • A policy of job rotation and enrichment should be in place, so that every employee understands most or all tasks involved in running the business, from opening and closing procedures to ordering stock, training new employees, caring for any live animals present, and even doing the books. Employees who have a sense of ownership in the business and understand their role in its success are happier and more motivated.
  • No unethical or abusive behavior towards animals should be tolerated. Any employee caught mistreating an animal, lying about caring for an animal when the animal hasn’t yet received care, or advocating abuses like dog fighting, should be separated from the company immediately.


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