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Industrial Chic

Ruff Life Pet Outfitter’s thoughtfully planned aesthetic is a tasteful nod to Michigan’s industrial history.




In the pet specialty retail arena, among the most prominent differentiating factors between one pet store and another is often the merchandising. While some retailers choose a more pragmatic approach, others aspire to create a retail space that induces a specific and targeted consumer experience. These design-minded retailers strive to do more than just stock products on shelves. Instead, through the creative use of displays, merchandising fixtures, décor and lighting, they cocoon their customers in a world created specifically for them. 

Gary Albert is one such retailer. Owner of the Ruff Life Pet Outfitter in Petoskey, Mich., Albert has created a classic, vintage ambiance with his artful use of non-traditional merchandising pieces and an industrial chic flair. Winner of the 2015 Retailer Excellence Award for Merchandising, he recently shared with The Pet Elite some of his design inspirations and tips for how to think outside the typical merchandising box. 

The Pet Elite: How would you describe Ruff Life Pet Outfitter’s aesthetic? What inspired the visual merchandising you’ve employed in the store?
Gary Albert: The space I found for Ruff Life was once part of an early twentieth century barber shop/bath house. There are two entrances/exits: one to the street and one to Pennsylvania Park, where visitors would depart the train and enter to “clean up,” etc. History and character were preserved when the landlord updated the space in 2011 and has landmark status.

I had a blank slate when I took over the space, which included an exposed brick wall that runs the length of the 1,200-square-foot space. I chose a vintage industrial aesthetic, because there is so much inspiration around Michigan. I had lived in Chicago for 18 years before moving back to Northern Michigan, so I began looking for architectural artifacts from Chicago, and everything was outrageously expensive. So I turned my eye to Ebay and Etsy, and everything started to fall into place. I found everything for my space in Michigan with a few fixtures from Chicago. I think I found the last available book depository carts for sale and a bargain price on Ebay.

My inspiration for the visual merchandising comes from a deep and strong theatre background. There is no difference between designing a set for a theatre and designing a retail space. One is designing an experience for your audience/customer. The fun is directing where you want your audience’s/customer’s eye to go and what to discover. As with the theatre, we are constantly changing the “set” to keep things interesting.
For instance, when I designed the space, I knew I wanted a semi–circular, cement and steel POS station that also served as storage, that could contain our dogs when others are in the store and could hold plenty of POP items. It serves as the hub of the store and is faced with expanded metal for that industrial feel. 

Okay, so one day I’m staring at the largely blank wall across from my POS and was struggling with how I was going to use this space to its full potential. I was really fighting the whole pegboard thing until I was playing around with the expanded metal and a pegboard hook and discovered that it was a perfect fit. Subsequently, an architect friend suggested I mimic the shape of my POS [on the opposite] wall. I went to the local metal worker who had built my POS, and he fabricated five towers of expanded metal that hang from the wall. It literally doubled the surface space on the wall from which I could display more merchandise.


TPE: What makes a merchandising display really effective? Can you tell us about a display that you created that was particularly successful at grabbing the customer’s eye and moving product?
Albert: What makes a display really effective is its versatility. Oddly enough, two days before I opened the store, I quickly realized I didn’t have quite enough fixtures for all the merchandise I’d ordered. So, I drove to Lowe’s and purchased 75 feet of the heaviest gauge chain link they sold, and the largest eye hooks and clips that could bear that kind of weight, and my brother and I cut and hung the chains vertically from the 15-foot ceilings at various points throughout the store. I went to a sporting goods store and bought all of the carabiners I could find, in different sizes, and just started hanging merchandise: toys, backpacks, slings, whatever I could. It became the single most remarked-upon and one of the most successful decisions I made, while making the space more interesting and the customer visual experience more enjoyable.


TPE: You use a mix of conventional merchandising fixtures and non-traditional pieces such as repurposed furniture and décor. How does this add to the visual appeal and ambiance of the store? And what does your overall aesthetic convey to your customers?
Albert: I have very few conventional fixtures in my store—nothing plastic or cardboard. 
Everything in my store has to be sustainable or reusable in some way. That’s one of the main reasons I chose this aesthetic. I wanted to “discover and create” my store—not purchase it out of a retail supply catalog. As with all things, the design is ever-evolving as the need arises, I discover interesting new pieces or as trends evolve.

What I hope to convey with all of the pieces in my store—the book depository carts, the bowling alley tables with cast-iron bases, the laundry carts, the metal, the industrial artifacts to the cage lighting with the vintage-cotton electrical cords—is that this retailer cares about his customer’s experience in the store and has a deep respect for Michigan’s industrial past.


TPE: What advice do you have for other retailers that are either looking to update their store’s look or just getting started?
Albert: Have a vision. Then have the money, resources and knowledge to back it up. The streets are littered with failed businesses because there was nothing that set them apart. 
And have respect for the customer. Give them an experience they’ll remember. Give them a reason to return.

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