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Dave Ratner of Dave’s Soda & Pet City celebrates 40 years

By Jim Kinney | jkinney@repub.com

AGAWAM – Dave Ratner was a little late for an interview meant to celebrate 40 years of Dave’s Soda & Pet City.

He was in his office, on the phone with a customer from Northampton who hadn’t been able to find a particular item during repeated trips to his store. The next step, Ratner said, was to get on the phone with the manager, find out what was going on and get the item delivered to the customer’s house.

“I want people to be waited on,” Ratner said. “I insist that bags be taken out to people’s cars.”

Ratner, 63, started out in June 1975 selling soda from a former gas station on Route 9 in Hadley. In a story he loves to tell, he felt he needed a dog to help him meet women, so he got a beagle, and Bentley the bagle needed food. Ratner saw that there were only a few companies in the business and there was a demand.



40 years of Dave’s Soda and Pet City
Dave Ratner owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet City has been keeping the local pets well fed and entertained for 40 years.


“So I went back to my office, which was a phone in a bathroom, and got on the phone with 9 Lives and Purina,” he said.

The business grew. He added high-end brands like Iams and Eukanuba when they came out, added locations and now has 150 employees in seven locations and his own brand of Dave’s pet foods wholesaled across the country. He also has his own pet-centered television show.

Ratner has served on the National Retail Federation board of directors and sits on the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association Board of Directors, positions that put him on par with executives at Home Depot, Walgreens and Target.

Soda is now just 2 percent of his business and he only has soda in just three stores. He can’t compete with supermarkets on big-name brands, but specializes in hard-to-find gourmet sodas and forgotten favorites not widely distributed anymore.

Tab, the diet soda stillĀ  made by Coca-Cola but supplanted by Diet Coke, is the biggest seller.

“You can’t find it anywhere,” Ratner said. “People come in and buy cases of it.”

Mostly his business is dog and cat related. He sells birds, fish et cetera and supplies related to them, but that business has fallen off as children seem more captivated by electronics instead of an aquarium.

He considers himself the luckiest man in the business world to have entered the pet business just as it took off. Consumers started treating pets as members of the family.

“The lucky part is that pets were to become the most important things in the world. I didn’t know that was going to happen. That was society changing,” Ratner said. “People trust us to help them feed beings they love more than anything else in the world. That’s a big responsibility.”

Americans are expected to spend $60.59 million on pet food, medication and supplies and on the purchase of animals themselves in 2015. That’s up from $58.4 million in 2014 and from $17 million 20 years ago in 1994.

Of that $60.59 million, $23.4 million is spent on food alone.

The problem for Ratner is that Wall Street took notice of all that growth and investors have poured money into nationalĀ  retail chains focused on pets.

The Internet is also a big competitor. Once, it was common for customers to order only expensive, but light, items from the Web. Ratner would see people come into his stores and check out all the aquarium filters and heaters, then go on their phones and order one from someone else.

But now, some are even ordering pet foods and treats online.

He counters with service, his own line of Dave’s pet foods and by having stores in good locations. Springfield-based Big Y Foods often recruits Ratner to its shopping plazas.

The products he sells don’t really overlap with Big Y, and Big Y knows that Dave’s generates traffic.

“What do you want if you are developing a shopping center, you want the right mix of stores to draw in all the customers,” he said.

Having a Dave’s near a Whole Foods, like the store in Hadley’s Mountain Farms Mall shopping center, is nearly ideal.

“That’s our customer,” Ratner said. “We are after the same type of people.”

He also likes locations with training areas for use by obedience experts and do-it-yourself bathing tubs so people can give Fido a bath without messing up their own bathroom.

Ratner’s own brand of Dave’s Pet Food is also an asset. He wholesales it to independent pet retailers around the country having just signed deals with stores in Oregon.

“Our motto is good food at a reasonable price,” he said, adding that he advertises that some flavors mean “less gas” for the pet.

He comes up with the recipes and flavors and works with manufacturers and canneries to get the food into production.

The most popular flavor: plain chicken and rice. It’s a bland diet vets often prescribe for dogs with upset stomachs.

“It used to be that if your dog was sick, you’d have to go home and start cooking chicken and rice,” Ratner said. “We put it in a can.”

 

Posted in Articles, Retail on July 14, 2015 by Dave Ratner.

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