BUSINESS NEWS

Southwest businesses find in-store animals can be a powerful draw for customers

Many Southwest store owners don’t come to work alone anymore, they bring their pets. Some even have their pets live in the store. And be it a chicken named Elvis, a dachshund named Bob or a tank full of vibrant tropical fish, employees and shoppers agreed that in-store pets make their retail experience that much better.

Meghan Gherity, manager of Urban Bean, 3255 Bryant Ave. S., said their tropical fish tank attracts customers. "They walk in the door and are automatically drawn to it," she said.

Because the store has a fish tank service that cleans and maintains the tank, Gherity said that employees only need to feed the fish daily. "It’s easy for us," she said. "It gives a peaceful atmosphere to the smoking room."

Area resident Carl Holmquist said the atmosphere created by the fish tank is one of the things that he really likes about hanging out at the coffee shop. "It’s more like a living-room feel," he said, "It’s really relaxing."

Gherity said although all of the employees like the fish, they try not to get too attached to the fish by giving them names. "I’ve worked here for two years, and a few have died," she said.

Liisa Schmitt manager of the children’s bookstore Wild Rumpus, 2720 W. 43rd St., a veritable menagerie of animals.

Schmitt said customers and employees are very attached to their in-store pets. The Linden Hills store has mourning doves, parakeets, two chickens, rats, two tarantulas (named Harry and Persephone), four Manx cats and a tank of fish.

Customer John Rosengren said his children like the cats the best. He brought children Alison and Brendan to the store especially to see them. "Alison knows all the cats’ names, and likes to pretend she’s a cat," he said.

Rosengren said the animals are a huge draw.

Schmitt said regardless of age, it’s interesting to watch customers with the animals. "Some people like the chickens, but some have a chicken phobia," she said. "Then we have people who come in to read to the chicken — and their children."

Schmitt said there are also adults who come into the store just to pet the cats.

She said aside from joy, the animals also provide young customers with a learning experience. As at Urban Bean, Wild Rumpus has had store animals die, but employees have used it as a teaching tool. "When our pets die, that gives parents the opportunity to start talking about death with their kids," Schmitt said.

She said that the store provides some children with their first opportunity to see some animals in person. "Some kids who come in have never seen a chicken, and some think they’re turkeys," she said.

Part-owner and store founder Collette Morgan said the whole store was strategically designed with the animals in mind. "When I designed the store, I wanted it to be kid-friendly," she said. "The animal and kid relationship is really understated."

While the store has yet to harbor a turkey, Morgan said at one time the store had a pot-bellied pig named Norman, and she even once contemplated getting a miniature horse.

She said because of the store’s non-domestic animals, it has to be licensed as a pet store in addition to a retail business to be up to code. Despite the extra license and employee chores to mind the animals, Morgan said it’s worth it.

Ralph Johnson, owner of Comic Book College, 3151 Hennepin Ave., said his in-store pets aren’t much trouble. He said when he found Bob Barker, his dachshund, in a shopping mall’s store window, he knew the dog would be perfect for his store, because he’s used to watching people shop.

Although Bob spent his first year with Johnson tethered to the pole outside the store’s front door, Bob soon earned traveling rights and is allowed to go in and out of the store as he pleases, usually picking a place to sit in the sun.

Johnson said Bob is an important part of the store and makes a real connection with customers, much more so than the store cat, Sam, who usually resides in Johnson’s house connected to the back of the store.

Bob is even listed on the store’s Web site, along with Sam the cat, as "Customer Service Representatives."

"Bob likes most customers," he said "And all the employees like him."

Johnson said Bob does especially well with women, because the majority of his customer base is male. "Bob gives women something to do while their boyfriend’s or husband’s shop," he said.

Johnson said Bob has even commanded a following. "People from neighborhood businesses always come to pet him," he said, "And he loves going to visit at the Uptown Vet."

To supplement the public’s desire for dachshund, Johnson’s store also dedicated space on its Web site, www.comicolopis.com, to Bob’s pictures. He’s shown training for the 2002 Dachshund Races held in Wayzata, Minn. and also shown in pictures of historical figures in art.

The Comic College, however, isn’t the only business with a dog as their mascot. The Southwest Journal and Skyway News offices at 3225 Lyndale Ave. S. also harbor a fish named Slim-Jim, two tadpoles and the beloved company mascot, a field spaniel named Dexter.