Mall business


DOG_BAGShopping centres are at the heart of most suburbs but are they good places to position veterinary practices? Frank Leggett investigates.

Convenience and exposure are the key words when it comes to a vet practice located in a shopping centre. Not only is it in a prime position with plenty of exposure and passing trade, it’s also easy for customers to park and pick up pet products. While it sounds idyllic, there are few catches to be aware of, ranging from retail rental prices and plumbing costs to the difficulty of expanding as the practice grows.

Located in the Northgate Village Shopping Centre northeast of Adelaide, Pet Universe Northgate is well positioned with excellent exposure—it’s in a stand-alone building on the corner of the car park, bounded by two major roads. Principal vet Chris Lee and his business manager wife Claire had been running a thriving practice in Broadview since 1999 when they noticed that many of their clients came from Northgate, just a kilometre down the road. “When the new shopping centre was about to open, we knew that if we didn’t get a practice in there, somebody else would,” says Claire.

Initially, the building was too large and too expensive but they solved the problem by fitting the whole accredited hospital into half of the 282-square-metre building. It includes two consultation rooms, a sterile theatre, prep area, and separate dog and cat wards.

“It was just a concrete floor, glass walls, window frames and roof. We were able to fit out and style it exactly as we wanted,” says Claire, who ensured the design complemented the Broadview practice.


Claire and Chris soon realised that the busiest time of the week is on a Saturday when customers do their shopping. This inspired them to start a grooming business at the practice. “People drop their dogs in for a clip while they go off and do their weekly shop,” says Claire.

Principal vet Dr Garry Edgar has also seen the value of running a practice in a shopping centre. He was already running his Wembley Veterinary Hospital in Perth’s western suburbs when he opened nearby Greenwood Veterinary Clinic, located in the Greenwood Village Shopping Centre, a year ago. “When people pop in to buy their groceries, they often come in and book appointments, ask questions and buy products,” he says. Realising this, he expanded his stock with premium diet foods, toys and other items although he admits there’s only limited space in the five-metre-by-seven-metre waiting room. Dr Edgar decided to open the Greenwood clinic after discovering that many of his clients were based in this area. “We had about 260 clients living in Greenwood,” he says, “so we were able to market directly to them.”

The 126-square-metre site was vacant and the redesign, which included a full surgery suite, followed the same style as the Wembley practice. “It was a very odd shape so the layout took some creative thinking but it all came together really well,” says Dr Edgar.

The shopping centre has long hours so he had no trouble running the practice 8am-7pm weekdays and most of the day on Saturday. However, the practice is closed on Sunday.


One of the positive aspects of working in a shopping mall is that the employees often receive a discount on goods or services purchased within the centre. “The centre management is also pretty proactive with the marketing. You can do a Facebook campaign and share that through the shopping centre’s website and Facebook page,” says Dr Edgar. The practitioners at both Greenwood Veterinary Clinic and Pet Universe Northgate see a huge potential for future growth.

A similar situation has occurred for a practice in Queensland’s Moreton Bay region, which opened nearly two years ago. Married vets Drs Slade Walker and Annika Oksa Walker were keen to expand after successfully running a mixed practice, Old Mill Animal Hospital, in nearby Dayboro. When they spotted a 170-square-metre site between a florist and a pet shop at Murrumba Downs Shopping Centre, they snapped it up.

“We’re lucky that there’s a Coles and a really big medical centre so it’s a bit of a hub of the suburb,” says vet nurse and practice manager, Amanda Barker. “We get a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, I was just down here and saw your sign.’”

The Murrumba Downs site was just an open rectangle when the Walkers took on the lease but they had some inside help when it came to the fit-out: Annika’s architect mum designed a contemporary interior with innovative concepts, giving the clinic a day-spa feel. Cameras are set up so clients can see their pets when they’re in hospital overnight. “They can dial in and actually see their pet snoozing away in its beds,” says Barker.

“We also have separate entrances for dogs and cats, and separate waiting areas so no animals get stressed. We’ve done it in a way that’s modern and chic so clients feel really relaxed as well. In fact, it’s so modern with lounge chairs, rugs and lamps, it looks a bit like an Ikea catalogue!” The practice also has a consultation room, a wet prep area and sterile surgery, radiology room, separate cat and dog wards, and a new grooming room.

Like the other two practices in SA and WA, VetMD has had no pressure from centre management to extend their hours to match the shopping mall. ”However, since we’ve been getting busier, we’ve also extended to open on Sundays,” says Barker, who adds that the practice is already looking at expanding. “We initially took more space than we needed, but we’re now in the process of fitting out a grooming room. There’s also a vacant shop next door, so we’re thinking about expanding our services into this site.”


While all three practices are very positive about operating in a shopping centre, they mention a few complications. High visibility in a major thoroughfare means a higher passing trade but the increase in rent can neutralise the benefit. “You are paying retail rental prices so you have to factor that in,” says Claire Lee of Pet Universe Northgate. “Obviously it can be more profitable running a practice you own but you’ve got to balance that with where you need to be positioned to get the clients you want.”

She also points out that a clinic requires a lot of extra infrastructure compared to a retail shop. “A vet practice is quite plumbing-intensive, especially if you’re putting in a full hospital. You can’t just up and move once the practice is established. It’s important to get a good rental deal because you’re going to be there for the long haul.”


Another difficulty is the lack of outdoor areas, particularly for dogs. Shopping malls tend to be vast, cavernous, indoor spaces.

Luckily for VetMD, there’s a park down the road. “That solves our problem but I’ve seen this issue in a lot of other shopfront clinics,” says Amanda Barker. “We’re also lucky that our centre management lets us fence off the back area, so we can put patients out there to relax and catch some sunlight.”

Despite these difficulties, running a practice in a shopping mall has many advantages, ranging from easy parking, secure location, plenty of passing trade and convenience. It’s also a safe environment for staff and clients with minimal vandalism and centre security.

While the initial set-up and high rent can be slightly overwhelming, the chance to build a successful practice with a wide client base is a very attractive proposition.


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