Stewart from We Love Vets Tesside walking three dogs

Holding his own in the North

Stewart opened his branch at Teesside in April 2019 against a backdrop of local industry collapse, high unemployment, political uncertainty and low income. But “Stewart the dog man” as he is known locally, hasn’t let any of that get in his way. In fact, his branch has expanded, and his prices are nearly double the average in his area. So how did he do it?

Unemployment in Stewart’s area of Teesside has hit local businesses and families hard. For customers with less income to spend on pet care, it’s about making every penny count. But the unexpected impact on Stewart and his branch is the dramatic increase in local competition. Many people previously employed in the local steel industry are now becoming independent dog walkers, undercutting Stewart’s prices:

“I am absolutely swamped here with one-man-band businesses who are looking to make money rather than put the pets first.”

Stewart describes how he witnessed a van unload 15 dogs at once for a dog walk recently with only one dog walker supervising. With some walkers charging as low as £7 per hour in Teesside, making up the shortfall in earnings means walking more dogs at once to make it financially viable. But some walkers are taking it to extreme levels where control of the dogs isn’t possible, welfare is compromised and ultimately, it’s not safe for the dogs or the walker.

Despite this local pressure, Stewart refuses to budge on price or on policy. He remains true to the We Love Pets mantra of never pack walking and has adopted a strategy which is working:

“I sell a professional, comprehensive service, 7 days a week.”

When Stewart is out on walks, he’s always networking. By listening to customers and understanding the local pricing situation, he’s realised that he stands out by offering a happy medium. What his customers really want is education. They want to know some basics of dog training and puppy socialisation. When a customer has completed a puppy care package, Stewart upsells the dog walks as reinforcement of their basic training with him and his team. Three of his regular dog walks came to him as pups and have remained loyal to Stewart. It’s a learning journey for pet and owner and Stewart facilitates that:

“If you’re focused on price, you’re not focused on your pet.”

A shared approach to being a pet owner is key. When a customer cares about their pets as much as ours do, the benefits of having a professional service sell themselves. For Stewart, it’s been a winning combination of good old fashioned hard work plugging away marketing locally and a confidence that “What we’re doing is going to be right.” Stewart has distributed over 60 thousand leaflets in his area and puts a lot of time into raising his profile on Facebook too. In just under a year, Stewart’s branch has expanded to cover all Teesside postcodes which is a phenomenal achievement.

Stewart’s reputation of local dog whisperer is down to the added value he brings to dog walks and visits, his passion and his overall educational vision:

“When your dog goes out for the first time, it’s like a child’s first days at school. They only know what they’ve been taught at home. When I take the dog out, I’m helping him learn about the world and I’m giving constant feedback on how they’re doing like a teacher would.”

Being able to convey this message face to face is crucial in obtaining the customer’s trust and showing them how We Love Pets is different. Stewart always wants to meet customers in person, whether it’s a dog walk or home boarding: “It’s essential that customers know that there is a person who owns this business and is at the end of the phone. I won’t board a dog who I’ve never met.”

For Stewart who took early retirement from his career as a Court Officer, it’s been a dream come true to work with dogs through being a We Love Pets franchisee. And even though he may be on the senior side, his drive certainly hasn’t mellowed with age:

“Yes, this is a business, however, this is also my life. I’ve got to be the best.”