Tomlinson’s Feed is a family-owned retail business with 16 brick-and-mortar locations in Central Texas. The company is 75 years old with a fourth-generation owner-operator. Amid the pandemic and the onslaught of online behemoths, can such a business transition to 2021 consumers?
I asked that to Kate Knecht, the owner-operator. She told me, “We soft-launched our ecommerce site in late December 2018. We spent 2019 operationally ironing things out. Then came 2020. It was March 12 or 13, overnight our ecommerce business quadrupled. It was a challenge, but we met it.”
Knecht is a seasoned and tech-savvy retailer. She and I recently discussed the dynamics of a family business, migrating online, selecting providers, and more.
Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about your business.
Kate Knecht: Tomlinson’s Feed has been around for 75 years. It’s my family’s business. I’m the fourth-generation owner-operator. We have 16 brick-and-mortar locations in Central Texas, plus an ecommerce site.
My brother and I operate the business with our parents. He and I keep the business fresh and relevant. Each of us came back into the company about eight years ago. Since then, we’ve both been involved in revamping all of our technology — internally and externally.
My main project in the past couple of years has been ecommerce. So innovation, technology, marketing, team development — all that falls under my umbrella.
Bandholz: You’re the fourth-generation owner. You must have cousins. And how does it end up in your line?
Knecht: My grandfather bought the business in 1971 from Mr. Tomlinson, who started it in 1946. My grandfather and my great-grandmother operated it together. My father and uncle grew up in the business. When they were adults, my dad wanted to return and help my granddad. My uncle chose another path, just as prosperous and successful. We’re all very close. That’s how it wound up in our line.
Bandholz: Are the family dynamics challenging?
Knecht: I don’t recommend it to everyone. My brother and I grew up working in the business, except for a couple of years when we were both in California.
I give a lot of credit to my dad. He’s very patient, very level-headed. Many individuals who have run a business for 30-plus years might consider themselves king of their castle. My dad is not that kind of personality. He’s open-minded and eager to hear our ideas. He lets my brother and I duke it out when we disagree. He also helps us set the direction of the business. So I’m grateful that he sets the tone.
Bandholz: I hope to build a multi-generational business with Beardbrand. I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs who build for two years, sell it, and move to the next thing. But there’s something about having a business that lasts generations. It can make an impact on a community.
Knecht: Exactly. I grew up working in the business. I was out on the sales floor early on slinging that dog kibble. Then I went to the University of Texas at Austin and moved to California, where I worked in tech startups for about two years. I got over that pretty quickly.
My brother and I, within a year of each other, told our parents, “The industry is exploding. You guys are on the precipice of what could be really huge growth. You have a big opportunity here.” My parents said, “Well, that sounds really nice. Why don’t you come do it yourself?” So my brother and I came back in 2012. It’s been a family affair ever since.
In 2012 we had eight or nine locations. It’s now 16. We’re presently focused on ecommerce before we add more physical stores.
Bandholz: You and I met over a year ago. You were talking about moving into ecommerce then, before the pandemic. Did that help Tomlinson’s overcome the brick-and-mortar lockdowns during the pandemic?
Knecht: Absolutely. It set us up for success. None of us saw this coming. We soft-launched our ecommerce site in late December 2018. We spent 2019 operationally ironing things out. Then came 2020. It was March 12 or 13, overnight, our ecommerce business quadrupled. It was a challenge, but we met it.
Our clientele remained the same. We’re are focused almost exclusively on our local geographic market, which is unique for ecommerce. The pet business has massive players such as Chewy and Amazon. They offer deep discounts and free shipping.
That’s not the business we’re in. We’re focused on our geography. We do have exclusive brands that we sell nationwide, but we charge for shipping. We pass the full freight to the customer, except for locally. We fulfill all of our local delivery operations in-house.
Bandholz: What is your ecommerce platform?
Knecht: Shopify Plus. We have a different point-of-sale provider for our physical locations. It’s called Teamwork Commerce. We use Teamwork for inventory management, order management. It’s our single source of truth. It integrates with Shopify Plus, Klaviyo, and other platforms.
We operated on a point-of-sale inventory system for 20-plus years. Around 2017 I finally had a breakdown. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, in tears, with my family, saying, “We can’t do this anymore. This is not the future for us. We have to move to something else.”
It was a difficult decision. My dad said, “If you feel that strongly, then go figure out how to do it. But do not underestimate the magnitude of screwing this up.” So, no pressure! I then set out on a two-year journey of interviewing providers. We landed on Teamwork, and the rest is history.
We’re glad we chose Teamwork. No solution is perfect, but we’ve been happy. It’s allowed us to scale and grow with physical stores and ecommerce.
Bandholz: Does your ecommerce site offer the option for local pick-up?
Knecht: Yes. Local customers see the option on our ecommerce site for free curbside pickup, free same-day delivery (if the order is placed before 5:00 p.m.), or free next-day delivery. Once placed, the order flows directly into our point-of-sale system. The store staff sees it. They go on the sales floor — out into the store — and pull the order. Then they scan it into our POS and mark it as pick-up ready.
We also integrate with a delivery logistics platform called Onfleet. So the order pings in Onfleet. If you’ve designated local delivery, one of our drivers comes by, picks up the order, and brings it to you.
Bandholz: I assume your stores have different inventory.
Knecht: That’s right. Again, if you are local, you enter your delivery address, and the site will show inventory from all stores within your radius — essentially all of our stores. If you want curbside pick-up, you can pick your store and then see, on the thumbnail, what’s available there.
Shopify will show with little icons if the product is available for local delivery or curbside pickup at whatever location you choose. That was custom development. We paid quite a lot of money to Fuel Made to build it for us.
Our storefront is entirely Shopify. We integrate with some of Teamwork’s real-time-availability APIs. But everything a consumer sees on the ecommerce storefront is Shopify.
Bandholz: What are the lessons from your tech rollout?
Knecht: Patience. You can’t underestimate the magnitude of a mistake. The providers can offer best practices, but ultimately we know our business and what’s best for it.
Bandholz: Is your vision to grow bricks and mortar or shift more to online?
Knecht: One of the perks of a family business is calling our own shots. We want to do what our customers want. How can we better serve them — whether it’s a physical location or online with more features? So our growth strategy is, “Where, when, and how do our customers want us?
Bandholz: Do you sell on Amazon?
Knecht: Absolutely not. I have not shopped at Whole Foods. I have not bought a thing on Amazon in over three years. We want to own the relationship with our customer. It’s critical to us. We’re certainly not giving it away to a predatory company.
Bandholz: You mentioned Klaviyo. How’s that going?
Knecht: We switched to Klaviyo from Mailchimp in the spring of 2020, when Covid was starting. Teamwork had launched a Klaviyo integration that made the switch more compelling. It’s been great. We love it. We’re working with Fuel Made on building better automation.
Bandholz: Where can listeners learn more about you and Tomlinson’s?