The pandemic was a challenging year for retail store owners. Experts forecasted that up to 25,000 retail stores would close in 2020, and changing shopping patterns left entrepreneurs wondering if brick-and-mortar was worth the correlating risks. If another pandemic ensued, what type of store would be able to survive?
Sarah Pyo and her husband, Dave Roberts, had the same question.
In 2020, they had the opportunity to take over some commercial space in Sarah’s hometown of Carlisle, Ontario after the previous tenant decided to shut her doors. A town boasting 2,000 people might not seem like the best place to start a brick-and-mortar business. But if you ask Sarah and Dave—you’re thinking too small.
Sarah watched her parents buy, lease, and operate commercial space in Carlisle throughout her childhood—her mom was the town florist. When the opportunity came for her to give back to a place responsible for so many fond memories, Sarah knew it was time to leave her mark.
Carlisle deserved a store that brought people together and celebrated the community.
There was only one way to know what type of store that would be.
Starting Carlisle Pet Foods
Sarah and Dave had an empty canvas. They had the retail space, but they weren’t sure what to do with it. They knew they wanted to solve a problem for their close-knit community and open a store that could become a much-needed hub for Carlisle.
“We asked our community what they were most interested in and realized people were frustrated with going to the neighboring town to get their pet’s food,” says Sarah. “[I thought] What if we could service everybody’s pets in the area and care for their food needs? It started with this idea, and we decided to see if we could create traction.”
Carlisle Pet Foods was born.
What remained was the question of how well it would work. Sarah and Dave knew that it would be the community that turned Carlisle Pet Foods into a long-term business, so they constantly sought the town’s opinions. If Sarah wanted their store to become a genuine part of Carlisle, she’d need the community stamp of approval from the inside and out.
The life of a retailer
The Carlisle community answered when Sarah and Dave asked what they felt was missing. Now, it was time for a different question.
When people walked into Carlisle Pet Foods, what were they looking for? There were $50 billion of pet food products sold in 2021.
For Sarah and Dave, narrowing down which brands her customers cared about was important. They knew they had to be strategic with their money and couldn’t (and shouldn’t) buy every option available on the market.
While their point-of-sale software decision was easy—Shopify POS—they left the question of what products to sell up to their customers.
“We started small, and immediately people started to show interest. Customers asked us to buy specific brands, and that’s how we initially built up our inventory,” Sarah says. As Carlisle Pet Foods became a bigger town staple, she and her husband prioritized what their customers were looking for. They acted as the middlemen between their community and the products they wanted to buy for their pets.
This approach is the reason Carlisle Pet Foods has been such a success.
“We thought we’d stay for a month, but we soon realized we had to give up our lease in Toronto because we were in Carlisle full-time,” says Sarah.
Carlisle Pet Foods quickly became a hit, and Sarah and Dave decided to make it his full-time gig. Sarah continues to work full-time at Shopify and spends her off-hours at the shop, enjoying the time she gets to spend offline and with customers.
With her office above the commercial property, she can easily pop out during lunch to check on Carlisle Pet Foods as well as the other active businesses she took over from her parents. “I get to walk out and be hit with different challenges—one tenant had a raccoon in his ceiling,” she laughs. “It’s a nice break from being behind a computer.”
Community comes first
What does it take to get attention in a small town? The answer is far from billboards or setting up Facebook ads to retarget your customers. For Carlisle Pet Foods, it comes down to supporting the local community.
“Things that are community-forward have yielded higher conversions,” explains Sarah. Carlisle Pet Foods applied for a government grant that gave them the funds to build a free dog wash behind their building. Folks who stop by to wash their dogs then stop into the store to browse.
Sarah and Dave have also invested in local events to engage their community and remind locals to stop by. They support community events like parties, food drives, costume events, and local sports teams, including a hockey team of nine-year-olds fondly named the “Wendels” after Sarah’s dog.
(Wendel Bark, named after former hockey player, Wendel Clark, has become a town celebrity.)
Using offline and online marketing tools has helped Sarah and Dave achieve a 42% year-to-date returning customer rate. Their favorite online tool is Shopify Partner Rise.ai. “I can’t speak highly enough about them,” Sarah says. Rise.ai turns Carlisle Pet Foods customers into loyalty members while keeping track of gift cards, refunds, and referrals. Sarah says their support team was a huge help in launching the Carlisle Pet Foods’ loyalty program.
Carlisle Pet Foods celebrated one year in April 2022. By starting a brick-and-mortar business inspired by and embedded in the Carlisle community, Sarah and Dave have created a Carlisle staple that will provide value and bring people together for years to come.
📌 GET STARTED: Choose from hundreds of loyalty apps in the Shopify App Store and start rewarding shoppers for purchases they make both online and in-store.
Successful businesses are built for communities
Carlisle Pet Foods has become an integral part of the Carlisle community. Sarah fondly explains, “It’s such a joy to interact with people every day. We’re people’s therapists for their pets—they just want to share what's been going on in their lives.” They’ve created a space for pet owners to get the necessities while connecting with friends and neighbors.
They’ve also used their profits to put money back into their community by supporting events and sports teams.
For Sarah and Dave, Carlisle Pet Foods was never focused on becoming the next PetCo. It was always designed with the Carlisle community at heart, knowing that the community would determine if their store was worthy of taking up space on their block.
The Carlisle community has spoken—they love the latest addition to their town.