Pet shop workers, from entry-level clerks to store managers, are involved in the daily upkeep of a pet store; they sell pets and pet supplies including food, medicine, toys, carriers, and educational books and videos. They work with customers, answering questions and offering animal care advice. They keep the store, aquariums, and animal cages clean, and look after the health of the pets for sale. They also stock shelves, order products from distributors, and maintain records on the animals and products.
Pet Shop Worker Career History
Can you imagine George Washington with a pet hamster? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that—the hamster was not even domesticated until around 1930. But picturing George alongside his faithful steed is not a problem at all. Just as successful horse trading was important to the development of Indian villages for thousands of years, horse trading proved a staple of American business from the first colonies to the cities of the early 20th century. Though the horses in the stables of the early Americans were well-loved by their owners, they weren’t exactly considered “pets” or “companion animals.” Horses were relied upon for transportation, industry, and farm work. But these horse traders, with their sense of business and knowledge of animal care, are early examples of the pet shop owners who found thriving business on the town squares across the developing country, alongside the apothecaries and general stores.
Though domestic cats in the United States only date from around 1750, they were first domesticated (along with lions and hyenas) around 1900 b.c. in Egypt. In the years before that, cats were considered sacred (perhaps explaining the royal bearing of many of today’s pampered house cats!). Dogs as pets predate cats; ancient carvings and paintings depict a range of breeds, and Egyptian tomb paintings feature greyhounds and terriers.
Pet Shop Worker Job Description
The soft barks of the puppies being groomed in the back of the shop; the trills and whistles of the birds in their cages; the bubbling of the fish tanks—these sights and sounds combine to make a visit to the neighborhood pet store unlike any other shopping experience. But running a pet shop calls upon the same business skills required for the operation of any retail establishment. Pet shop workers are in the business to sell to customers; many pet stores employ cashiers, sales and marketing people, managers, and bookkeepers. Pet shop owners may also hire pet groomers, animal caretakers, and animal trainers. A pet shop must have a staff that loves animals, is knowledgeable about pets and their care, and is good with customers.
The top priorities for pet shop workers are animal care and customer care. Though the size of the pet shop will determine how many duties are assigned each worker, most pet shop workers take part in preparing the store for opening; they make sure the shop is clean, the shelves are in order, the aisles are clear, and the cash register is ready for sales. Cages and fish tanks are cleaned, and the animals are fed and watered. Though some pet shops continue to sell dogs and cats, most buyers for those kinds of animals purchase directly from breeders, or select animals from shelters and the Humane Society. Today’s pet shops generally specialize in birds, fish, and small animals such as hamsters and mice. Once the animals are taken care of, the pet shop workers see to the needs of the customers. “At a small pet shop, you begin to think of your customers as your friends,” says Max Paterson, a high school student who works for a pet shop in Ohio. “I once tried to count how many questions I answered in a day, and when I got past 250, I stopped.” Customers rely on pet shop workers for animal care advice, and expect them to be knowledgeable not only of the pets for sale, but of the food, medicines, and other supplies, as well. “The biggest benefits I’ve received from the job,” Paterson says, “are the relationships with the customers, and the huge dictionary of tropical fish I’ve developed in my head.”
Pet shops may offer a variety of services, including pet grooming, dog training, and animal boarding. They may also offer animal vaccinations. A store manager is often responsible for organizing the various services, interviewing and hiring store employees, dealing with distributors, and maintaining records of sales and animal health.
Kathryn Chambliss manages a small pet shop, The Fish Peddler, in Alabama. “This job is a natural outgrowth of my hobby,” she says. “I have been breeding and showing dogs since I was a teenager. My children were always bringing home pets and injured animals for me to take care of, and I have always been very active in promoting responsible pet ownership and animal care issues.” Both Chambliss and Paterson emphasize that working in a small pet shop is very different from working in the larger, discount, superstores. “We cannot match their prices,” Chambliss says, “so we have to be better than they are in terms of service, friendliness, and working with the customer.”
Pet Shop Worker Career Requirements
For pet store work, you will need to develop a good business sense, ability to work well with customers, and knowledge of animals and their care. In high school, accounting, marketing, and other business related courses are valuable, as are math courses. You’ll need math for both money management and for figuring proper feed and medication amounts for the animals. The sciences are important for anyone working with animals. Knowledge of chemistry will come in handy when preparing medications and chemicals for the aquariums. Biology will introduce you to the biological systems of various kinds of animals. Geography courses can also add to your understanding of animals by introducing you to their natural habitats and origins.
A business club, such as Future Business Leaders of America, will introduce you to area business owners, and help you develop skills in advertising, marketing, and management. Agricultural clubs and 4-H clubs can teach you about animal care and responsibilities.
You can easily get work at a pet store without any college education or special training. As with most retail businesses, pet shops often employ high school students for part-time and summer positions. Store owners usually hire people with a love of animals, and some knowledge of their care, for entry-level positions such as clerk, cashier, and salesperson. For management positions, a pet shop owner may want someone with some higher education. It is also easier to advance into management positions if you have a college degree.
Though any college degree will be valuable for higher-level pet shop positions, you’ll want to take courses in marketing, accounting, merchandising, and other business-related areas. Some pet shops also like to hire people with veterinary tech training. Students pursuing a pre-veterinary sciences degree often work part time in a pet shop to gain experience with animals and their owners.
Because of the wide availability of retail work, you would be better advised to pursue a paid entry-level position at a store, rather than an internship. But belonging to a business organization as a student can offer you valuable insight into marketing and management. DECA, an association of marketing students, is an organization that prepares high school and junior college students for retail careers. There are many local chapters of DECA across the country, and annual leadership conferences. Some DECA chapters also offer scholarships to marketing students.
“It takes a great deal of respect and love for animals,” Max Paterson says about working in a pet shop, “a person who can help customers even when there are lots of them, and someone who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty every now and again.” As with any retail job, you must be prepared to serve people on a daily basis—you should be friendly and outgoing, and prepared to answer questions clearly and patiently. Though most of your encounters with these fellow animal-lovers will likely be pleasant, you must be prepared for the occasional dissatisfied customer; dealing with angry customers requires you to remain calm, and to settle the dispute diplomatically. You must remain informed on new products and animal care; customers will be asking you about the right size cages for particular birds, or how many fish a tank can hold. In answering such questions, your first concern must be for the well-being of the animals, not for the biggest profit. Some customers may even be testing you with their questions, making sure the store’s staff is reliable. Kathryn Chambliss says, “I like just being around the animals, and people who like animals. I like helping people choose the right pet for their lifestyle. I like designing water gardens, and helping customers select the right mix of plant and fish for a beautiful addition to their home.”
Depending on your duties at the pet store, you’ll need analytical skills; you’ll be analyzing data when ordering new products, choosing vendors, and examining sales figures and invoices. In whatever position you fill at the pet store, it will be important for you to manage your time well to deal with customers while keeping the store orderly and the shelves well-stocked.
Exploring Pet Shop Worker Career
With the number of volunteer opportunities at animal shelters, zoos, and other animal care facilities, you can easily gain experience working with animals. You may also want to spend a few days “shadowing” some pet shop managers, following them throughout their workday to get a sense of their duties. Max Paterson, before going to work for the pet shop, spent a lot of his spare time there learning about the animals and the products for sale. “The first step was creating a trusting, customer/owner relationship,” he says. “From there, I began asking if he needed some odd jobs done for a few bucks, and in doing these jobs, and just hanging out at the store, I began to pick up on all he was saying to the customers. Soon, I too knew enough to help customers.”
Pet store workers work in pet stores—from “mom and pop” establishments to large chains such as Petco and PetSmart.
After spending so much time at his local pet shop, and learning so much about the business, Max Paterson was able to step into a job. “I now work regular hours,” he says, “and have often been left to watch the store on my own.” Experience with animal care can help you get a job in a pet store, but such experience is not always required. A pet shop owner or manager may be prepared to give you on-the-job training. You can check the classified ads in your paper for pet shop jobs, but a better approach is to visit all the pet stores in your area and fill out applications. If you don’t hear back from the store right away, follow up on a regular basis so that the manager or store owner gets to know you. That way, when there is a job opening, the manager will have you in mind.
For management positions, you should have some background in entry-level retail positions, and some college education. While pursuing that education, you can take part-time work in pet stores or other retail businesses. Though any retail experience is valuable, experience in a small pet store will involve you directly with many of the main concerns of a business; in a larger pet “megastore” your experience may be limited to a few duties.
The longer you work in one store, the more responsibilities you’re likely to be given. After starting as a cashier, or stock person, you may eventually be allowed to open and close the store, place orders, create advertisements, order new products, and deal with distributors. Experience in the many different areas of one particular business can lead to advancement from an entry-level position to a management position, even if you don’t have a college education.
As a manager, you may be allowed to expand the store in new directions; with the understanding of a store and its clientele, you can introduce such additions as an animal training program, sponsorship of adopt-a-pet and animal-assisted therapy programs, and new product lines.
“This is not a business that will ever make us rich,” Kathryn Chambliss points out. “Most of the time, the store generates enough in sales to pay bills, and very little else.” Entry-level pet shop workers earn minimum wage, and even those with experience probably won’t make much more than that. Though the average store manager makes under $30,000, there does seem to be the possibility of salary increases in the future. In order to attract more experienced store managers, store owners are beginning to reward managers for their varied responsibilities and extra hours. The size of the store also makes a difference; stores with larger volumes pay their managers considerably more than stores with volumes of less than one million dollars. The size of the store also determines the number of benefits for a full-time employee. In smaller stores, pet shop workers may not receive any health benefits or vacation pay, while a bigger store may have group health plans for managers.
A clean, healthy pet shop should make for a very comfortable work environment. But to keep the place clean and healthy, workers in this field handle animals, clean out cages and fish tanks, and prepare medications. They also sweep the floors of the store, and dust shelves. A pet shop should also be well-ventilated and temperature-controlled. During work hours, pet shop workers usually stay indoors and don’t venture far from their assigned workstations.
Working in a public place devoted to the care of animals, some pet shop workers find themselves taking on extra responsibilities. “Every day,” Kathryn Chambliss says, ” I have at least one person bring me an abused or uncared-for animal. I provide foster care for baby animals left at the Humane Society, and I try to raise them, wean them, and find them homes. It is tragic that there is so little responsible pet ownership in this country.” Though pet shop workers do their best to educate customers and to prepare them for pet ownership, they must still deal with the fact that many animals in their community are without good homes.
Pet Shop Worker Career Outlook
The larger pet stores, which can afford to offer special pricing, inexpensive grooming facilities, and free training programs, are taking much of the business away from the smaller, traditional, “mom and pop” pet shops. This trend is likely to continue, but small stores will survive as they promote a more personalized and knowledgeable assistance not available from the larger stores. The pet retail industry, in some form, will grow along with the retail industry in general.
The puppies and kittens frolicking in the windows of corner pet shops are becoming a thing of the past as animal activists have made the public increasingly aware of “puppy mills” and other unregulated animal breeders. Groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) fight for better regulation of animal sales practices and animal care in pet shops.
Holistic pet care is also changing the industry—non-chemical remedies, natural foods, and vitamin supplements for animals are gaining more acceptance from store owners, animal breeders, and veterinarians. And, as with every industry, computers have influenced the way stores keep records of business, sales, and animal health. Pet shop managers will be expected to have some computer skills, and a basic understanding of bookkeeping software.