A Full, Fond, But Not-Quite Farewell from Burton

We did business in Pittsburgh for 26 years after I came to this city after being the operations manager of the Detroit Zoo. 26 years sounds like a long time, but honestly I wouldn’t have minded a few more with all of you and your pets. I found great joy in running Burton’s Total Pet – because for me it was always all about animals.

Our existence had to be based on making the health of the pet our foremost concern. There were already too many other establishments that sold high-margin “stuff” and pushed product without regard to the long-term health of the animal. It’s been difficult to run a business that had to, on occasion, tell a well-intentioned customer that they were doing a disservice to an animal.

I’ve had to refuse sales and sometimes turn customers away. Some appreciated the gesture and accepted the advice in the spirit in which it was intended. Others raised a ruckus or took to the Internet to make sure the world knew about the “ignorant” or “condescending” employees at Burton’s Total Pet. These instances were not the norm, but each one stung just a little bit.

To their credit, our managers and staff believed in our mission. I want to thank all past and present employees for their efforts in making this the store I envisioned. I’d also like to thank our loyal customers. We’ve gotten to know many of you quite well over the last 26 years. You made us more than just another retailer. It has been a privilege to serve you and I will miss our daily interactions most of all.

There have been many wonderful people that kept Burton’s Total Pet going throughout the years. We helped hundreds of young people earn while they learned. In order to work for any of our stores, our employees had to learn a little something about pet care. They chose their path, but I encouraged all of them to take this opportunity to find a passion. I’d like to mention some of our staff members by name. If you see any of them in the store during our final month, they’d love to hear that you appreciated their service as well.

Cindy Thompson – store manager, 26 years
Phil Thomas – store manager, 22 years
Ken McFarlane – store manager, 20 years
Steve DeCarlucci – store manager, 25 years
Dan Nodd – store manager, 20 years
Sharon Patrick – manager, animal care, store designer, 26 years
Chris Boyd – accountant, IT specialist, 26 years
BJay Weiss – my right hand man, operational assistant, 26 years

I also want to take a moment to remember a long-time employee that passed away a couple years ago. Bobby Thompson worked as our truck driver and resident comedian for 20 years. Bobby was a practical joker, but he’d put everything aside to help someone in need. All of us miss him dearly.

I’d also like to mention Donna Kennedy, 22-year Total Pet veteran, and Cindy Bain, 15 years as a reptile specialist.

Rufus, our African Grey parrot and McIntyre Square greeter, filled our store with laughter and terrorized everyone but Steve. Rufus will retire to my home as he’s earned some rest after so many years on the job. I hope his presence over the past 25 years has given our customers a look into the fascinating life of a bird. He will get all the attention and care he deserves.

I have many thoughts about the nature of business in 2018, but I’d like to share a specific observation that consumers should consider because it will irrevocably shape the commercial landscape. The pet business has become a major focus for investors. They keep finding new ways to offer less service alongside a poorer quality product.

In virtually every line of business, hedge funds and the bottom line have driven small retailers out of business. Internet e-tailers backed by these large cash stockpiles can make temporary price cuts and promise free shipping in order to drive “small” and “local” out of business. There are many other factors as well, but the long and the short of is that local businesses with a passion for their specialty face greater challenges every day. Make an effort to support them for as long as they’re willing to make a go of it.

As I mentioned in my shorter address, I desperately wanted to find a way for Total Pet to survive in an increasingly niche market. We worked on plans to downsize floor plans and relocate, to provide online purchasing, but unfortunately all of these plans required large amounts of capital that we just didn’t have as a local, family-owned business. Our plan all along was to decrease our store numbers and regroup with new footing. The new footing never materialized, and so we were faced with the impossible decision to keep fighting tooth and claw for every cent just to get by or close our doors. The more I fought to keep our stores open, the less time I could spend with the customers and their pets.

We were the first full-service pet store in Pittsburgh when we opened in 1993 on McKnight Road. People thought we were a national chain, but we were not. The stores were locally owned and operated. I made all of the decisions regarding the foods we carried and the items we sold, and our small staff became a family.

I was the first (and sadly the last) person to host a major local radio show dedicated solely to pet care. I did not allow advertisements because I did not want anyone to think that we were endorsing the advertisers because they had money to pay for ad space. Instead, we produced our own advertisements and paid for the show ourselves. I found it reprehensible that companies wanted to sell poor product using our reputation. That KDKA show provided one hour of pure pet care information. Our staff gave their time to produce that weekly one-hour radio program. I’d like to thank my co-host Rob Pratte for his help in making the show a success. People still recognize my voice and comment on how much they enjoyed the show all these years later.

We also published Pittsburgh’s first pet care magazine. Total Pet Magazine dealt with all manners of pet care. We even discussed cows and horses. I considered it an opportunity to share more personal and more thorough observations about topics like nutrition and food storage. Technical topics that required a bit more study than a quick in-store conversation.

I’m proud of our accomplishments. I wish we could have done more, but we perhaps limited ourselves from the very beginning because we wanted to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. I want our Total Pet customers to know that we appreciated each and every one of you. Getting to know you and your pets has been a wonderful reward for our efforts.

Even though our stores are closing I will remain a resource of information and experience for the community. I will continue to post pet care articles on the Total Pet blog. Watch for more information on Facebook in the coming weeks as we finalize details. I will continue to write these articles because I appreciate the animals in our lives. 50 years of animal husbandry experience shouldn’t go to waste.

Even though this is a bittersweet good-bye from our Total Pet family, it is not a permanent farewell. Thank you – all of you – for making Burton’s Total Pet your favorite Pittsburgh pet supplies store for the last 26 years.

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