A sign of the times Pets Plus closes its doors

The closing of Pets Plus may mark the end of a chapter in his history of Secaucus in the 1990s, and to owners, Bob and Pat Larsen, this may spell a fundamental change in Secaucus.

In some sense, the closing of Pets Plus in the Plaza section of town reflects that old adage: “You don’t know what you’ve had until you’ve lost it.”

For the last two weeks, customers have streamed through the doors of the store, taking advantage of the going-out-of-business sale (billed as a retirement sale) that has emptied the store’s window displays and shelves for the first time since the doors opened in 1987.

A week before Bob and Pat Larsen closed the doors on the pet shop for good, they did more business than in any week since they opened the doors.

“If people had come in like this all the time,” Pat said. “We wouldn’t be going out of business.”

“It has been so busy, I’ve hardly had time to breathe,” Bob said.

For Secaucus, this is more than just the closing of a store. Numerous stores have closed in Secaucus over the decade and a half since the Larsens first opened. But Pets Plus, along with Marra’s Drugs, Papa’s Travel, Family Video, Bill’s Jewelers and others in the Plaza have become symbols of Old Secaucus’ struggle against a changing economic reality. Larsen was among the founding members of the Plaza Center Business Association and helped in the fight to keep customers from slipping away to shopping malls, thus preserving a thriving business in the center of town.

Larsen, along with other key business owners, was responsible for establishing the town’s Rag-a-Muffin parade in Secaucus and a yearly turkey giveaway. By closing their doors, the Larsens are saying they have lost the fight and that Secaucus as a little town with successful mom-and-pop stores is a thing of the past, thanks to competition from the Internet and bigger chains.

Even during a week in which Internet stocks seemed to be plunging, the Larsens claim the low prices of Internet and catalogue purchases have done them in.

“People can buy some things cheaper on the Internet than I can buy them,” Bob Larsen said.

Another serious blow was the change of policy by Iams pet foods company to start selling its products in supermarkets. Larsen said Iams accounted for a huge percentage of his sales, and people coming in to purchase dog and cat food inevitably made other purchases.

A change of habit

Although Bob was an avid fish collector since he was 11 years old, he didn’t get into the pet business until 1987 after 21 years operating a coffee truck on the south end of Secaucus. He worked for part of that time for Van’s Coffee until the owner of the fleet sold the trucks off to his drivers, then brought the route and truck, and eventually built a small fleet of his own. While the truck allowed Pat to stay home with the kids for a long time, she eventually got as wrapped up in the business as Bob did, taking on some duties in about 1983. But Bob said he didn’t particularly like having other people work for him, and the labor burned him out – getting up 4 a.m. every morning. Yet it was the insecurity of the van business that made him seek another career. He said he felt continually at the mercy of the corporations he served.

Bob and Pat opened the doors to Pets Plus in November, 1987. While pets seemed a significant leap from retail food work, Bob said he had the idea floating around in the back of his head for years.

He opened business here in Secaucus because his coffee business had been here, and he knew people.

“When we sold the truck, we knew there was no pet store in town,” he said.

Shortly after opening his doors, the Larsens and other business owners in the Plaza got hit with a rude surprise when the state Department of Transportation began reconstructing the Plaza. The massive changes wiped out most of the parking in front of the store, one of the circumstances Larsen said contributed not only to a decline in his sales, but in sales to all the Plaza businesses. With several shopping malls in town and easy access to others, patrons abandoned the center of town, he said. Bob claims he lost 20 to 25 percent of his business because of the parking, and if that wasn’t enough, the recession of 1990 added to his woes.

Bob credited his ability to survive to creative business practices, among which was the formation of the Plaza Center Business Association. Through this, local businesses set up events such as the sidewalk sale and lobbied Town Hall to improve parking. This group successfully pressured town hall to install additional parking meters on several side streets. Plans to restore some parking were under consideration by the town, but too late to save Pets Plus.

The business climate changed

Yet Bob said parking wasn’t the key reason for his closing the doors to the store. Business started to turn sour in 1995 again and did not recover despite the Larsens’ purchase of their building – and effort to cut overhead. His long-term plan was to eventually give up the building and rent the whole building as a kind of retirement fund.

But with Internet and catalogue sales taking away business, and the move to market Iams in the supermarket, hopes for the future dwindled.

Bob said the future for small stores in Secaucus is growing dimmer. Wal-Mart will be coming in just down the road, dragging more customers out of the town’s central business district, and forcing others to perhaps begin reevaluating their position. In selling the building and closing the business, he ended those plans in search of a new career.

At 55 years old, Larsen has to start over, and ironically, he has just typed up a resume for the first time in his life “It’s a whole new world to me,” he said.

Larsen said he is going back to the same interests he had as a kid, seeking to make use of his large body of knowledge about fish in order to make a living.

For years, he had given customers free advice, even when they made purchases in the mall store. He said he hopes to help the fish industry in its effort to renew interest in collecting fish and hopes to do talks area as part of the industry campaign.

“I looking to talk at schools, clubs, Scouts and others in an effort to educate and encourage kids to take up the hobby,” he said. “In the past I gave away advice. Now I hope someone will pay me for it.”


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group