Stylish collars, leashes feeding growing pet market
PET PROJECT: Up Country founder Alice Nichols with her new puppy, Minnie. She started the company 30 years ago, growing it to a 30-person firm.
PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
By Rebecca Keister
“This is good. Did your husband write it?”
That was the response Alice Nichols received when she presented her business plan to a consultant for what is now an internationally successful pet-accessory company with products designed and manufactured locally.
The year was 1984 and, Nichols said, things were very different then.
“I was so insulted,” she said. “This was a long time ago and people didn’t take women as seriously. Things have totally changed.”
Much has changed for Nichols in the nearly 30 years since she founded Up Country, which is housed in an East Providence studio with 30 employees.
In that time she’s taken the company from a single-woman startup with a couple of cute products to one that has produced items for well-known retailers such as Crate and Barrel, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.
“Everybody thought the collars and leashes were really cute but they felt it wasn’t a practical idea. I always felt that [it] was,” Nichols said. “I had no idea, however, how big this would be.”
Getting to the beginning is half of Nichols’ story.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, she moved to Massachusetts to attend Wheaton College in Norton for her undergraduate work and then ventured to Washington, D.C., to attend American University Washington College of Law.
That ended up a brief venture.
Nichols had by then met her future husband, Jack, and with him in New York City, something to had to give.
The family – they have two sons – settled on Providence. Nichols went back to school at Brown University and earned a master’s degree in modern British and American history.
She started work on her doctorate – which she still hopes to complete – but found the demands of motherhood fit better with teaching.
Nichols had six designs for dog leashes and collars based on the theory of transforming utilitarian objects into mini works of art by adding colorful patterns.
Friends and other people she approached thought no one would buy the then-$8 or -$9 leashes, calling them too expensive and extravagant for pets.
That meant investing in machinery and employees, so she did. From there, the company progressed in being able to respond quickly to market trends and build on its made-in-America reputation.
Up Country started making cat collars, then harnesses and pet beds.
Up Country products are sold in retail stores worldwide, including locally at Plaid and Stripe on Providence’s East Side and the Shaggy Chic Pet Boutique in North Kingstown, and through its online catalog. They sell, too, to groomers, boarders and veterinarian offices.
The company also sells treats, toys and pet-related gifts.
She sold the products anywhere she could, including at industry trade shows where she quickly realized the pet business was male-dominated.
At her first show, she said, she was one of three women with exhibitor booths.
“People didn’t take a woman as seriously,” she said. “I would be interested to know how many [women are in the industry now] but I’d say it’s at least 50 percent. Women have brought style to this industry.” •