Trips Abroad: Critter Hut

Thu, 09/05/2013 - 2:00pm

Walk into the Critter Hut pet store and you’ll soon be greeted by friendly people, including Kit and Bob Champlin, who have owned and operated the store for the past 38 years.

But it’s very likely you could meet Harley first. Just follow the sound that’s a cross between a screech and squawk. That’ll be Harley, a Macaw parrot who on this day is perched on the shoulder of Jackie Landini, his vibrant gold and blue plumage trailing down to her wrist.

Jackie, Critter Hut’s manager, nuzzles Harley’s beak with her nose and laughs. “Bob and Kit insist we have a ‘romantic relationship,’ and he is for sure very protective of me. He’s also very popular. Folks come by just to check in on Harley. He’s our mascot. Part of the family,” Jackie said.

At Critter Hut, “family” is more than simply an expression of closeness. Although the attentive, well-informed staff is a close-knit group, Critter Hut is definitely a family business run by Bob and Kit and their three sons, Chris, William and Jeffrey.

“We’re pretty close to retiring,” says Bob, “and the boys will take over.” He smiles. “Of course, when they were young it was forced labor, but they’ve all grown up in the business. They’re more than ready. And we’ve got a terrific staff here in Narragansett and also in the North Kingstown store.”

Forty-odd years ago the Champlins didn’t see themselves operating a pet store. Both had studied music. Kit studied voice and Bob was a music major at Swarthmore and the New England Conservatory of Music.

“This whole adventure was a hobby that just got out of hand,” explains Kit. She chuckles as she recalls the store’s modest start: “Bob had always wanted a fish tank, so I resurrected my 10-gallon tank from my mother’s attic. Soon we added a 15-gallon and we kept going up,” Kit said.

Bob recalled that “soon we had 50 tanks in our basement. I raised angel fish and sold them to pet stores. That’s what got us into the business. Fortunately, things fell into place and we were able to buy Critter Hut where I had worked part-time,” said Bob. “And it’s fish that I still enjoy. Fish are a lot more interesting than stacking bags of dog food.”

But wait. Is a fish a critter? Yes, indeed. They’re vertebrates. But you knew that, right? What may surprise you, though, is that, at Critter Hut, fish are more profitable than dog and cat food. “The profit margin for dog and cat food is pretty thin,” said Bob. “The pet food market has fluctuated over the past few years. For example, we did benefit from the dog food recall among the big-box stores back in 2007, but now we’re in competition with online sales. They buy large supplies at a deep discount plus they don’t have the overhead we have.”

However, Kit observed that “after the 1999 and 2007 recalls, we built a reservoir of trust with our customers. They have more confidence in our advice than they’d had with the big stores. We provide reliable information based on extensive experience.”

The Champlins and their staff take pride in their reputation for good customer service. One Block Island resident recalls being told one evening that she’d missed the store’s last delivery to the ferry. However, she was asked about the degree of urgency and when she said it was urgent, without hesitation the Critter Hut folks made a special delivery to the boat.

As Kit and Bob contemplate retirement, both agree they’ll miss the customers. “They share their experiences with us,” said Bob. “We’re like bartenders. We listen to stories about people. We enjoy stories about cats and dogs and canaries and gerbils.”

Critter Hut has a store in the Super Stop and Shop Plaza on Point Judith Road, where Harley lives (789-9444) , and another in North Kingstown on Route 1 at 6637 Post Road (886-9494). The Narragansett store hours are Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. ; and Sunday, Noon - 5 p.m. The North Kingstown store is open from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. on Monday, 10 a.m. - 7 a.m. from Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. - 7 a.m. on Saturday, and Noon - 5 p.m. on Sunday.