After half a century, Belco Pets will close its doors for good next week. The challenges of trading through COVID were the final straw.
Alexis Kilby-Luhrs started working at the local independent pet store 30 years ago, and she and her husband Drew bought the business 20 years ago.
Closing up shop and walking away has been an incredibly tough decision.
“We love what we do, but we’re just exhausted and feel that we’ve just had enough,” Alexis says.
“We’re strong and we’re tough and we’ve gone through so much and we’re pretty resilient. But there’s a time when our mental health has had it and I’m at that point. My husband and I are at that point.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressure on their business to breaking point.
The couple has worked hard to stay afloat during the past two years, adopting safety measures and adapting to restrictions, trading through the front door and even on a table outside when necessary.
“We’ve just had a brand new grandchild and we wanted to be able to see her,” Alexis says. “We were trying to keep everybody safe.”
They’ve rolled with the punches when guidelines changed again and again, allowing customers inside when they could under strict conditions. Staff also adhered to mask rules, even while carrying 20-kilogram bags of dog food around the store.
Like many other businesses, they struggled with supply chain issues and rising prices.
After two years of exhausting effort, they took a night off to go out for drinks on New Year’s Eve. That was when Drew caught COVID-19.
“The one time after two years we’d decided to catch up with people … We had to close the shop down for seven days and we all had to get tested. We waited six days for our results to come back … it’s really tough on a small business because we had no one to run it.”
Financial support has been available through the ACT and Federal Governments and the ACT Government has just extended its Small Business Hardship Scheme to 28 February. But Alexis says navigating the application processes while still running a business is just too much.
“You can’t keep up with all the different changes. That’s a nightmare in itself; that’s just exhausting,” she says.
“It’s just a minefield. There’s nothing that’s easy to get.”
She says governments could have done more to help small businesses apply for support.
“They had people come and check on us to make sure we were trading the proper way, but they haven’t thought about somebody coming around to small businesses and helping them get their way through the system.”
The pair has considered selling the business in the past, but potential buyers have struggled to source financing despite pet ownership rising during the pandemic.
“We’re devastated because we would have loved to pass the business on to somebody and keep Belco Pets open. It’s been around for such a long time and we’ve got such loyal customers.”
Over the years, the store has supported several charities, including bear and orangutan sanctuaries, as well as local dog rescue and foster groups.
Alexis says it’s sad they won’t be able to help anymore.
“We’ve run trivia nights, we’ve run the Paws and People fete … we’re constantly fundraising for different events,” she says.
“Each year we were probably pumping about $40,000 into those rescue [groups].”
In a heartfelt Facebook post, Alexis has thanked customers who have given them support and encouragement over the years.
As for what’s next, they’ve registered a new business called Amuze the Mob, which focuses on animal enrichment.
“I’ll be doing what I really love doing and I’ll be able to concentrate more on rescue,” Alexis says.
Belco Pets will close for good in the first week of February 2022.