by Gigi Wood

CORALVILLE – If only dogs could talk.

Then they could tell their owners their wants and needs, from when they need a walk to what treat flavors they like.

Although dogs cannot speak, their owners spend a lot of time deciphering the nonverbal cues that dogs do express in order to make their canine friends happy. And that means big business for the dog industry. Americans were expected to spend $47.7 million on their dogs in 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Households spend about $64 a year annually on treats and another $40 a year on toys for their dogs. A local business is hoping to earn a portion of that market share.

Woofables, a gourmet dog biscuit retailer at 1801 Second St., Ste. 270 in the Clock Tower Plaza in Coralville, recently changed ownership, and the new proprietors are looking for new ways to appease their canine customers.

Alex and Laura Taylor bought the shop in October from the original owners, Kathleen Potts and Lara Moore, who had run the store for six years. The original two, who moved outside the area to pursue different opportunities, were preparing the store for sale when they first encountered the Taylors.

“They approached Laura about the business plan, to have her look at the business plan to see if there were things they could do to improve it so they could sell it,” Mr. Taylor said. “Laura brought (the business plan) home and the next thing we know we’re looking at it and saying, ‘With a little bit of ingenuity, some social networking and a revamped web site, we might be able to make a little bit of a go at this.’”

Mr. Taylor is the assistant director of the University of Iowa’s Executive MBA program, while Ms. Taylor is an adjunct marketing lecturer at the UI business school and runs her own marketing consulting business. The two have extensive experience in the corporate arena, working for companies such as Parsons Technology in Cedar Rapids.

Now, they’re dipping their paws into the small-business world with their new venture.

“Corporations move so slowly,” Mr. Taylor said. “But when you’re doing it for yourself, you actually see it and you see it work; it’s so much more rewarding.”

The business is unique in that it is an independently owned baker and wholesaler of handmade dog treats.

“It’s unique; as far as I can tell, the closest (non-franchise) bakery east of us is Indiana… and then west of us is a bakery in Colorado,” Ms. Taylor said.

The staff at Woofables bakes and decorates dog biscuits, which come in 17 different flavors, by hand each day. The store’s employees are mostly Taylors; Ms. Taylor who runs the store most days, Mr. Taylor who comes in to bake and decorate after he leaves his UI job for the day, their three daughters, Ellie, 16; Addy, 15 and Maggie, 14. Occasionally, their 8-year-old son, Ike, helps out.  

Most of the new biscuit designs are created by Julie Walters, who worked at Buckle Down Publishing with Ms. Taylor before they were both laid off when the facility closed. Ms. Taylor was Buckle Down’s marketing director.

“Julie is our creative genius and sole non-family employee,” Mr. Taylor said.

The Taylors have made a few changes to the business since taking over. First, they added a seating area to the store, so customers can sit down and talk about their dogs with one another.

“There hadn’t been any seating in the store before and enough customers hang out that we decided to try it out,” Ms. Taylor said.

Marketing efforts
They also increased the store’s marketing efforts; the previous owners had ceased advertising. For someone with years of marketing experience, promoting dog biscuits presents an interesting challenge for Ms. Taylor.

“I’ve had fun with it because it gives you a variety of ways that you can communicate,” she said. “For example, on Facebook, sometimes I’ll do some posts that are light-hearted and it’s to the dogs. And sometimes I’ll do posts that are of a more serious nature and it’s to the owners. I like it because it gives me a variety of ways to introduce something or make a sale and I can make it more cute and fun and take that approach with the dogs.”

That approach works well for the industry, Mr. Taylor said.

“We’re not selling medical equipment, we’re not selling automobile parts, we’re selling dog treats. It should be fun,” he said. “People take their pets seriously but they don’t mind the whimsy of marketing to Fido.”

They augmented the store’s social media presence on Facebook and almost instantly tripled their number of friends.

“It’s a very social business and (the previous owners) really didn’t do much to promote the viral and social; their web site was static. It was really hard to shop,” Mr. Taylor said.

When the Taylors bought Woofables, one of the first things they did was shut down the web site. They designed a new one from scratch and gave it e-commerce capabilities.

Their efforts are paying off.

“We budgeted for a loss for our first two years and I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that,” he said. “After a few months we’re at least at break-even and showing a small profit.”

Their numbers turned the corner in February, when they advertised their custom-made treats on the web site. One-pound bags of treats sell for $9.99, while a pound of the custom-made treats sell for $19.99.

“(We posted it) right before Valentine’s Day, which we didn’t even think about timing, but it ended up being perfect because we started getting these orders for a pound of treats, where every treat would say Tucker’s name on it,” Ms. Taylor said. “And then we got another order for Digger. So that dog got a pound of (heart-shaped) treats and every treat had (the dog’s name) individually written on it.”

A customer from Florida bought custom treats for dogs in California, Chicago and Massachusetts. Two of those three recipients have in turn bought biscuits from Woofables.

Last week, Woofables participated in Groupon, offering a $5 coupon for $10 worth of treats. As of March 30, 90 people had bought the online coupon.

“The big question in my mind is, ‘are those 90 people new customers?’” Ms. Taylor said. “I have a form as they come in that I’m going to fill out and capture that information, because the big question for me is how many of them are new?”

At least two of the Groupon purchases led to customers looking at the Woofables web site for the first time and ordering dog birthday cakes.

“I’m hoping I’m covering myself so that when they do come in there are plenty of things for them to try and I’ve got a loyalty card to try to turn them into return customers,” she said.

Woofables sells biscuits plain or decorated with carob-based icing. Carob is a plant-based sugar substitute. Cakes are also available and customizable; those are made with cream cheese icing.

“We eat the (biscuits) all the time,” Ms. Taylor said. “As far as our customers, we don’t have to follow FDA regulations, so we can’t promote other people eating them. Other than they don’t have sugar and salt in them, they’re perfectly fine. We try to pump them up with different flavors instead, like ginger and pumpkin.”

Woofables produces its biscuits and sells them wholesale to a variety of dog specialty shops, including Leash on Life in Iowa City and Jett and Monkey Dog Shoppe in Des Moines.

“We’ve doubled the number of wholesalers since we took over and we’ve done that simply by going to dog boutiques and asking, ‘are you currently selling dog treats?’ and if they are that’s where I’ve heard from (the stores buy biscuits from bakeries in) Colorado and Indiana,” Ms. Taylor said. “That’s when I say, ‘Did you know we’re from Iowa, you can buy locally.’ And that’s all it takes. Yes, they want to buy locally and it makes it easier for them to and they don’t have to pay as much for shipping.”

Woofables also sells dog and cat toys as well as pet-related cards and gifts.