Jan 11, 2019

Petco Closes Drs. Foster and Smith

Petco is shutting down Drs. Foster and Smith pet supplies. For now, LiveAquaria remains open, but I've heard reports that they are being forced to cut their staff already. Sources say any hard goods ordered through LiveAquaria will now ship from Petco warehouses. The DFS retail store in Rhinelander will also be closing.

photo credit Reeftools.com
Drs. Foster and Smith Awards

It's easy for some to say that this is all business as usual. That Petco has every right to buy a small company then shut it down 2 years later. That it's normal and acceptable for Petco to buy DFS only for the market share and to dissolve a competitor. We don't know what butterfly effects the closing of DFS will have on the pet industry, but with less competition, the big box chain stores will freely raise their prices. With nowhere else to shop, they won't need to compete with small businesses who have better, more easily accessible customer service. Big box chain stores cannibalizing independent businesses like DFS could eventually lead to less distribution and production of the niche and higher end products that we rely on in the reef aquarium hobby.

DFS was founded in 1983 and is located in a very tiny town in northern Wisconsin called Rhinelander. When I worked at DFS about 10 years ago, it was the largest employer in all of Oneida county with about 600 employees. Their famous customer service and web design team earned them many awards over the years. I am originally from the east coast where people are a little less friendly. The people of Rhinelander introduced me to the concepts of work ethic and excellent customer service. DFS was built on the backs of the people of this town, and they are the ones who will suffer. With less money being brought into the town, other businesses in Rhinelander could struggle and fail. Petco is exactly following the plot of the movie Tommy Boy except without the comedy or happy ending.

The day I left Rhinelander back in December 2010, it was negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit for a high. This place is so remote, the nearest shopping mall and airport are more than an hour away. We rejoiced when Kohl's put a store in our town so we had another place to shop besides Wal-Mart. Everyone in Rhinelander knows each other because we all work or used to work for Drs. Foster and Smith. It is common to see pickup trucks driving around with empty recycled instant ocean salt buckets in the bed, and most of the residents sport DFS or Liveaquaria shirts even on their days off. DFS was such an integral part of Rhinelander for so long, I don't know what Rhinelander will look like without it.

It’s been tough for me to come up with the words to describe how I feel about this. Although I worked in pet stores as a kid, I consider DFS to be the real beginning of my career in the pet industry. It was where people like Kevin Kohen recognized something in me and pushed me hard to excel and succeed. Many of the friendships I formed there are still strong today, even though we are half a country apart. 

DFS Employee and vendor goofing off together
As hard as this has been for me, I’m sure it is harder for some of my friends back in Rhinelander. Angelo Guerico served Drs. Foster and Smith for 17 years. I had the pleasure of working in the cubicle next to his when we worked in the Tech Support department. Angelo has an almost supernatural ability to charm and calm angry customers, and I learned a lot just from passively listening in on his calls. He is one of the most talented customer service people in our entire industry, and now he has to find a new job in a remote location where jobs are scarce. My friends Karen (who should be going on about 12 or 13 years of service now) and Shasta are still employed at LiveAquaria, but their hearts are breaking from having to watch their long time friends and coworkers lose their livelihood.

There is nothing we as consumers could have done to prevent the sale of DFS to Petco. Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith were ready to retire and live their dreams in the mountains of Montana fishing from their luxurious log cabins. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had supported DFS more, since I suspect Petco’s plan all along was to buy DFS simply to eliminate competition. If you care about this hobby, please support your independently owned local aquarium shops and small businesses whenever you can. Without them, all we would have left is Petco, a big box chain that is too big to cater to us more advanced hobbyists. We would only have access to common livestock and cheaply made, overpriced aquarium products for entry level hobbyists.

If you lost your job at DFS and we used to work together, I would be happy to help you in any way I can. Feel free to use me as a job reference. You all earned and deserve a glowing recommendation.