Pet Express owners Rob and John Mellace recently took part in a select group of retailers from across the country that were called by the American Kennel Club to form a Retail Advisory Committee. Along with their sister Lucia, the Mellace brothers founded Pet Express in 1995. “It was all Rob’s fault,” says John while smiling. The oldest of the three, Rob had worked in the pet retail business for seven years before deciding to start his own business in Lynn. “Our parents were there to support us, both morally and financially,” says Rob. At the time, Lucia was in college studying accounting, while John was getting ready to start college and pursue a major in makerting and sales. But no matter how much they studied, they learned almost everything they needed to know on the job. “We worked and workd and worked,” recalls John. “We’d go to school and as soon as we were done, Rob needed help in the store, so we went straight to work.”
Things moved forward at a steady pace for some time, until the industry started changing in the early 2000s. “Around 2002, we started seeing the big chains coming in with all these premium products. Mom and pop stores started closing all over the place.”
As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Instead of going into survival mode or selling the store, the three siblings decided to invest in the business and expand. “In a time of turmoil, we doubled the space and brought in the pets,” says Rob. “We knew we had to do it right, though. So we did extensive research on the proper environment for the animals, preferring a cage-free space without those terrible wires you often see in other places.”
With the puppies came more and more clients, who appreciated the care put into the animals’ surroundings. “It’s all about the comfort of the animal,” says Rob. “We had someone come and put in custom-built units, with full ventilation systems.
By the time John graduated from college in 2003, the store was up and running at full speed. The three Mellace siblings worked day in and day out to make their business the best place possible for anyone looking for the ideal pet.
As the financial crisis started creeping up in 2008, the siblings were approached by someone working at Simon Malls. “By that time, our reputation had grown,” says John. The Simon Group was looking for a family-friendly pet store to enhance its mall in Danvers, but the Mellace siblings were worried about the move. “We asked ourselves how we could replicate our model in a mall,” says John. “We weren’t going to do it if we couldn’t do it the right way,” adds Rob. “In the end, we decided to scale it down and focus on the puppies.” So in 2009, after almost a year of negotiations and work on the store, the second Pet Express location opened up at the Liberty Tree Mall.
Little by little, Pet Express started setting the standard for pet stores in the area. IN 2011, it opened its third location at the Square One Mall in Saugus. “This time, we changed our concept,” says John. “We wanted people to walk into the dog’s world. Everything needed to be dog-friendly. We even set up a bakery where you can buy all sorts of special treats!”
The cookie-cutter model just can’t be applied to Pet Express, explains Rob, and that’s why it takes several months to plan and work on a new store, like their fourth opened in Braintree in 2013. (A fifth location is in the works, they say, but the locations is a secret for now.)
The hard work put into their stores has paid off in many ways. Most recently, the Mellace siblings were called by the American Kennel Club to join a national Retail Advisory Committee, which oversees how pet stores around the country deal with the animals’ environments, as well as counsel best practices when it comes to pet care in stores.
No matter how big the company gets, though, it remains a family business, where Rob, Lucia and John take turns doing pretty much everything.