Harness supplier caves in to box stores

Thirty-year-old dog supply, feed store just can't compete anymore

Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A longtime, mom-and-pop store in Anchorage is shutting down.

Rae's Harness Shop - a dog supply and feed store operating for 30 years - will make its final sale Sept. 15, pushed out by competition from large retail chains.

The shop's owner, Patricia Rae, said she can't compete against larger retailers that have moved into Anchorage in recent years, namely Animal Food Warehouse and Petco.

The store should have closed two years ago when sales began plummeting, Rae said. But she tried to keep it alive by moving to a smaller space in the same strip mall.

"It's just not in me to quit," Rae said, tears filling her eyes.

Rae's Harness Shop went from grossing $2.2 million in revenue in 1999 to $400,000 last year, barely breaking even, she said. Six years ago, Rae had 14 people on her payroll. She has just her son and one employee working for her now. On a recent afternoon, the store was empty except for Rae and her daughter-in-law.

"I've lost my home. I've sold off my possessions. As I needed money, I kept selling off things. I've run out of things to sell. Enough is enough," Rae said.

Rae's late husband, George, started the business from his garage in 1975. He began by making harnesses for weight-pulling dogs and later for sled dogs. The custom-harness business evolved into a store that also sold dog food and other canine supplies.

The shop was a hit with mushers, skijorers and dog owners. Its walls covered with harnesses and other mushing gear, the store had a uniquely Alaska feel.

"They've always bent over backwards to help us," said Dean Osmar of Clam Gulch, 1984 Iditarod winner and father of Iditarod musher Tim Osmar.

Rae's thrived for a long time but things began changing dramatically in fall 1999.

One of Rae's best-selling items, Iams dog food, suddenly became available practically everywhere, from Carrs-Safeway to Costco stores. Until then, Iams Co. was an independent company and its kibble was sold only in pet shops and veterinary clinics, Rae said. But after Iams was bought by multinational conglomerate Procter & Gamble in September 1999, the dog food went on the market in grocery stores, big-box stores and warehouse clubs.

"My sales dropped by $35,000 a month," Rae said.

The following year, Animal Food Warehouse/PetZoo opened in Anchorage. The megastore, which also has locations in Palmer and Wasilla, became a huge competitor that offered greater selection and price competition. Then last year, Petco Animal Supplies Inc., a national chain, opened a store in South Anchorage, siphoning away even more customers.

By then, Rae was in survival mode. She moved from a large space that rented for more than $10,000 a month to a smaller storefront that cost $4,425 per month.

"When I moved into this space, I should have just closed," Rae said.

Rae's commercial landlord said she has been a "superior tenant" and described her decision to close as a "horrible event."

"She has a perfect reputation. She's worked hard," Rick Fuller said. "She just can't compete."

Rae probably owes him about $100,000 in back rent, Fuller said, but he's prepared to write it off. He feels bad that instead of coasting into retirement, Rae, 62, will have to find a job to survive.

"She didn't get out of high school yesterday. So it's a hard deal," Fuller said.

Rae said she hopes to find work as a bookkeeper.

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