The pandemic has kept us apart from loved ones and friends, heightening our need for social interaction and touch. Since dogs provide us with much of what humans crave, like companionship, friendship and snuggles on demand, it’s no wonder the pandemic has heralded in a boom of new dog owners.
No one knows this quite so well as Olivia Irvine, customer care manager at London’s leading dog grooming specialist, Purplebone, where she’s been working for the past six years and now manages everything across two sites, one in Notting Hill and the other on Hillgate Street in Kensington. Purplebone was founded by couple Julian Victoria and Jacob van Nieuwkoop as a retail and grooming parlour 11 years ago, after they were disappointed with the existing grooming options available for their four dogs.
Life at Purplebone is as fun and full of excitement as you’d expect as bulldogs and bernedoodles (a popular Bernese mountain dog and poodle cross), cockapoos and cavapoos, lurchers and labs trot through the salon’s doors daily for a range of treatments, from a simple wash and tidy to an allover puppy groom to a blueberry facial - a favourite with bulldog clients.
It’s the go-to destination for the much-loved dogs belonging to a slew of celebs like the Beckhams, the Lampards, the Barlows, Alan Carr, Lily Allen, Middle Eastern royals, as well as the rest of us mere mortals. Irvine works alongside eight grooming staff - including two new hires since the pandemic started - to accommodate as many as 35 dogs a day across both locations.
If you think grooming is an indulgence for over-pampered pooches, think again: Purplebone helps to care for dogs’ health, with ultrasound teeth cleaning, nail grinding, and, most crucially, detangling knots and ridding skin of any debris that’s burrowed in, a common - and potentially problematic - issue known as matting.
“Matting is probably the most important aspect of dog grooming,” Irvine tells us. “Since lockdown, I’ve come to realise dog grooming is a necessity - it isn’t a luxury.”
Most owners don’t consider their dogs’ coats and hair type when purchasing pooches, but they should: breeds like cavapoos and cockapoos, susceptible to matting, can experience extreme discomfort as a result. When knotted hair gets too tightly wound, it can pull on the dog’s skin, leading to rashes, scratching of the area and debris getting pushed further into the skin and causing a whole host of other issues.
There’s no shortage of comedy stories when your clients are on four legs: some dogs come in for love, lavishing their masked groomers with kisses throughout their sessions. Others, especially larger breeds like Great Danes, come to party (“they start off timid but by the end they just want love and loads of cuddles. They go mad, they run around,” says Irvine), while some particularly gifted groomers are able to encourage their dogs to snooze right on the grooming table. Fun fact: groomers are talented dog whisperers, but not-so-skilled when it comes to handling doggie accessories.
“Groomers are absolutely terrible with putting on harnesses - they cannot figure it out for the life of them,” Irvine says.
When the pandemic forced Purplebone’s doors to close on March 19, 2020, in some ways, the business was ready for it: the grooming service had gone cashless using Square six months prior to the first lockdown. Clients save their card on file, it’s charged remotely and it minimises contact between clients and staff.
“Square had a huge influence on that: going cashless seemed unrealistic at the time but people are a lot more open to it now. It’s a lot easier,” explains Irvine.
“When we came back, I realised how useful the contactless reader was. The fact that we could take everything out to them, and they could still pay - really big for us,” Irvine says. Square’s contactless reader allows her to multitask: one client can be collecting and making payments outside, while another is shopping for treats indoors.
The Square Register is another bonus: not only is it sleek and lovely to look at, but it’s user and client-friendly, too.
“The client can see everything that I’m doing, and that’s a huge benefit with Square,” explains Irvine.
In lockdown 1.0, Purplebone’s role turned educational: the team sent out helpful emails to clients to guide them through brushing and grooming at home, and made some informational online videos. Irvine spent her days answering phone calls and helping clients remotely.
“I care about these dogs. It’s really important that clients had the support from us to teach them from afar,” she says.
When the salons reopened in May, the strictest safety measures were in place: PPE, splitting staff out between both locations and carefully marking out all areas for social distancing.
The biggest change, however, was for clients, who were no longer able to come into the salon to drop off their dogs, but had to wait outside, which required patience and trust on their part.
Purplebone’s role in the community also shifted: in the first lockdown, it wasn’t considered an “essential” business, for grooming or retail. Purplebone also sells a range of chewing treats, as well as three different shampoos and a conditioner, to both local and international customers.
From the second lockdown, Purplebone has been deemed “essential” - no surprise when the business had to launch a temporary service called the “Covid-19 groom,” to help dogs suffering from severe matting, who needed their hair completely shaved off for their own welfare.
The pandemic hasn’t just been responsible for a dog ownership boom. It’s changed how humans rely on pets: for many of us, our dogs have become our reason to get up each morning, or to leave the house for a walk every day. It’s not just dogs who are dependent on humans, anymore: we’re much more reliant on our pets for emotional support now.
“Personally, my role has changed,” explains Irvine. “I now find myself on the educational side, calming a lot of our clients. If the owner is nervous, the dog is nervous.” Irvine has also noticed a lot more separation anxiety in puppies who are used to being home with their owners 24/7, and who haven’t had a chance to experience much alone-time or socialisation with other dogs.
Purplebone has more new clients than ever before, and those clients return more frequently for treatments now that they realise what a difference it makes.
“A lot of our clients came back and said: ‘I didn’t realise how hard your job was’. People did think of us as a luxury, but now there’s a greater appreciation for our groomers,” Irvine notes.