In the Driver’s Seat
Pet stylists who decide to go the mobile grooming route can reap big rewards by catering to the growing pool of clients looking for more convenient ways to care for their pets.
Professional groomers find themselves well positioned to take advantage of one of the fastest-growing segments of the pet industry—mobile grooming. Customers love the convenience and groomers love the income that mobile grooming provides, so it’s no wonder that it has become increasingly popular with both pet owners and stylists alike.
This growing popularity can easily be seen in the number of new mobile grooming vans and trailers hitting the road. For example, Wag’n Tails Mobile Conversions, one of the better-known manufacturers in this area, averages 25 new mobile grooming units each month, with no signs of slowing. That’s just one firm of several, and there’s no way to gauge how many groomers choose to do their own conversions.
So, what exactly constitutes mobile grooming? Well, it can really encompass any manner of bathing, drying and styling pets at their owners’ residences. This includes mobile grooming vans, buses, trailers and a smaller segment that is often called “house-call grooming” to distinguish it from the self-contained mobile salons.
Plying Your Trade in the Home
House-call grooming is one less expensive way to see if you might be someone who will be a good fit for mobile, as they are both very different from working in a stationary salon. House-call groomers bring their table, tools and equipment into a pet owner’s home, set it up and work right there using the client’s tub or sink for bathing. Since it doesn’t require a large investment to start up, house-call grooming is an easy way to begin and can give a prospective mobile groomer a good idea of whether or not he or she will enjoy the independence or miss the camaraderie of a shop. Of course, as a house-call groomer, you may often be talking to owners, whereas you are likely to be working completely alone in a mobile salon. Still, both methods are pretty similar.
Renee Pierre, owner/stylist at Joyful Grooming in Exeter, R.I., spent two years going from home to home as a house-call groomer prior to purchasing her current business and has some excellent advice for anyone thinking about doing the same. “The first thing is that you need to know what you are doing, and you need to know limitations as well,” she says. “Blowing out a Shepherd in the kitchen isn’t going to work.”
Many salon groomers are used to accommodating owners’ schedules and requests, but house-call and mobile grooming are such desirable services that groomers can be a little more firm with what they are and are not willing and able to do. House-call grooming is ideal for small pets with minimal shedding; this allows you to limit the resulting mess. When you are a house-call groomer, people are allowing you into their homes, so leaving it as clean as you found it must be part of the professional service—make sure you can readily do that.
“Think if it was your home and how it would seem to you,” Pierre says about determining what is too much to handle.
House-call grooming is, in great part, the art of making things possible and making sure customers understand that. For example, if a customer has a geriatric German Shepherd they want done at home, perhaps you can brush it and deshed it every few weeks, or use a velocity dryer in the yard to blow out and loosen coat but not bathe it.
Pierre specialized in special needs pets of all kinds and always worked to find out what the owner really wanted and then see if she could accommodate. She was usually able to help keep animals more comfortable, which most owners greatly appreciated.
Another important piece of advice offered by Pierre applies to both house-call grooming and mobile salons: keep it simple. “Streamline everything,” she says. “Limit shampoo choices to what you’ll need—I used only a whitener, a clarifying and a medicated shampoo. [Skip the] conditioners, as they tend to increase drying time. Use good-quality brushes and combs and pick just a couple that you like. A small cordless clipper with attachments and one larger standard corded clipper just in case.”
Grooming on Wheels
House-call grooming is only one unique niche within the mobile segment. There are many ways to achieve success. Most mobile stylists use vans or buses, but trailers are also an option. Trailers can be more spacious than vans and can provide an advantage in the case of a breakdown—you can always rent another vehicle to pull the trailer, keeping you in business while the tow vehicle is repaired. On the other hand, if a van goes down, you will be out of work and risk disappointing customers until it is fixed. Of course, maneuvering a truck and trailer on the roads and backing up can be very difficult without a lot of practice, but going this route is still something to consider, especially since the cost can be half or less than what you’ll pay for a van.
Even if you’ve settled on a mobile vehicle and know whether you want a van, bus, converted RV, ambulance or horse trailer (they’ve all been made to work), there are still other big decisions to make. Do you want a gas or diesel vehicle? Do you want your workspace to be spacious or economical?
One of the biggest considerations you must make is how to get electricity to the vehicle for grooming. Some prefer a landline that allows them to just plug in at each home. That works for many mobile groomers, but that comes with the very real possibility of overloading a client’s circuit breakers. Powerful dryers use between 12 to 20 amps of power, and some older homes have several outlets on one breaker. If you plug in your 20-amp dryer and there are three other appliances on the same circuit, you’ll be looking for the main panel and wondering how you’re going to dry the dog.
A sufficiently powerful generator can provide plenty of electricity, but not all are quiet and may attract negative attention in some neighborhoods. Inverters convert 12-volt DC power (like that in a car battery) into 120-volt AC power, like you would get from a wall outlet. The electricity is stored in batteries, which are charged when the salon is plugged into a power source or while driving. This arrangement allows smaller items to be powered solely by the inverter, saving the use of a generator for power-hungry needs such as the high-velocity dryer or the air conditioning. Ultimately, a combination of extension cord to the client’s house, combined with an inverter and generator, may provide the best results.
The nuts and bolts considerations go on and on. What type of tub do you want to use? Should it raise and lower? Should it include a bridge that allows dogs too big to lift to easily walk from the table to the tub? Should it be constructed of stainless steel, fiberglass or some other material? How big a water tank do you need? What type of bathing or shampoo application system do you need? Will you be able to use your salon on wheels in all types of weather?
To ensure that you make the right choices, learn as much as you can before starting the selection process. Finding an accommodating mobile groomer who will let you shadow with them for a few days can be a great help in this regard. Unless you are amazingly handy and plan to do the conversion yourself, your best plan is to get feedback from other groomers in situations and climates similar to yours and find a manufacturer to work with that suits you and that you trust. The top firms designing mobile units are heavily invested in making sure their customers are happy with the product and know how to make the most of it.
Fit for the Road
So, what sort of groomer is a good candidate to succeed as a mobile groomer? According to John Stockman, national sales manager at Wag’n Tails, all it takes is someone who is self-motivated and has the grooming skills needed. Of course, if you don’t like being alone most of the day, this shouldn’t be your first choice. Likewise, if you can’t get up and out the door on time, mobile grooming might not work well for you. On the other hand, anyone that is a self-starter and likes to work independently should be a good candidate.
Mobile groomers should expect to have a busy schedule, as customers will book more frequently because everything has been made so easy for them. “No one has time today, and as a mobile groomer that’s what you are providing—time. They don’t have to do anything—no driving, no loading pets in the car,” says Stockman.
According to Stockman, mobile has worked everywhere it’s been tried, and most mobile units meet their overhead by the first week of the month. The other three weeks are profit. Of course, success is made easier by the fact that the pricing of mobile grooming services range from 25 to 50 percent more than what is typically found in a brick and mortar salon.
Still, success isn’t always a given when a pet stylist decides to launch a mobile grooming business. Groomers who are new to this service model are bound to make some mistakes. Having prices that are too low and trying to encompass too big a territory are the mistakes most commonly made by new mobile groomers, says Stockman.
“The price you set affects which clients you attract,” he explains, noting that you want the customers who can afford higher prices.
Luckily, help is available for mobile groomers who are just starting out. Wag’n Tails, for example, has been providing groomers with mobile salons for more than 20 years and prides itself on offering all the backup a new business needs to succeed—from suggestions on pricing to sample phone scripts to use when quoting prices or booking appointments.
Even with the inevitable bumps in the road, steering your career into the mobile grooming lane can be a great way to succeed. In fact, the mobile groomers on the road today simply can’t keep up with all the demand for their services—to the point where most of them have a list of stationary salons to recommend when they must say no to new clients. Perhaps it’s time for you to jump in and fill that gap. It doesn’t seem that this segment of the grooming industry is slowing down anytime soon. gb