A dog’s life: Only the best for fur babies

The US has the world’s highest ownership of companion animals, at around 68 per cent. (NZ is second at 65 per cent and Australia third at 63 per cent, as at 2016). According to pet insurance provider PetSecure, there are 69 million pet dogs and 74 million pet cats across the US’s 128 million households. US pet ownership has tripled since the 1970s and is still growing.

More than 90 per cent of American pet owners view their pet as part of the family. Thirty-six per cent of Americans give their pets birthday presents. Twenty-seven per cent have had professional photographs taken of their pets. The “fur baby” mentality has really taken hold in the US, leading to all sorts of trends, with besotted owners forking out for toy delivery, all-natural dogfood and meet-and-greets in pet stores.

In the US, millennials have supplanted boomers as the largest segment of pet owners, estimated at 35 per cent of total pet owners. Millennials are more experientially than product focused, technology integrated and health conscious and environmentally aware than older generations.

Fine food for fur babies

Among other things, this has resulted in pet food trends reflecting those of human food. According to Nielsen, the market for human-grade food for pets has grown 70 per cent from 2015 to 2018, with a 43 per cent increase in the sale of “natural” foods during the same period.

Given the US’s virtual invention of the retail big-box, superstore and category-killer concepts, it should come as no surprise it was one of the first countries to introduce big-box pet retail, with the two majors being Petco and PetSmart.

But times are changing, for both the retail market and the punters. And category killers – services and experiences, as much as product – have been innovating to stay on top.

As at mid-2018, pet big-box traffic and sales were down versus a year ago by roughly 8 per cent at Petco and nearly double that at PetSmart. Food/mass/club (FMC) channel surpassed specialty pet for the first time in 25 years. The veterinary channel saw significant growth in 2017-18.

And online pet retail purchases were more than US$3 billion in 2017, around 12 per cent of total pet products. Pet consumables online grew 53 per cent compared to less than 1 per cent for pet superstores and pet “neighbourhood” stores.

Earlier in 2018 Amazon announced its first private-label pet brand called Wag, exclusively available to Prime members. Preceding PrimeDay in 2018, Amazon pushed more than 80 pet brands.

In 2017 Target USA partnered with pet supplies subscription service BarkBox to increase its private-label pet supplies brand.

The big box bites back

But it’s not just about product – experience drives sales too. For instance, big-box pet retailer Petco has opened in-store “pet food kitchens” in a joint venture with JustFoodForDogs. Their first trained chef-staffed “pet kitchen” in the New York’s Union Square store, opened mid-2018, operates live so shoppers can see, smell and touch the “veterinarian-designed” recipes being prepared. The store produces just under a tonne of pet food daily, seven days a week to sell in-store and distribute to 50 other Petco locations. This follows Petco’s announcement earlier in 2018 that it had removed from sale all pet food and treats containing artificial colours, flavours and preservatives that don’t meet its nutrition standards.

Not content with food innovation, Petco also launched its pet health and wellness concept last year, PetCoach, which it acquired in 2017. PetCoach’s previously online-only, veterinary-led services have been extended to physical stores with the intent of providing “complete care experiences” and include grooming, self-pet wash, training, day care, nutrition consultations, mobile vet house calls and dog walking. In-aisle experts can check out shoppers at the point of contact, minimising abandoned purchases and labour at checkout. Only about a third of the store footprint is dedicated to stock inventory. The pilot store also features gathering spaces for educational events and interactions, and will serve as an innovation lab for the company to test and learn about what “pet parents” want and need for their pets.

PetCoach also offers a membership option with perks, like free vet visits and discounts. By offering members for a small monthly fee several free veterinary visits during the year, PetCoach will double to triple the number of average annual visits and generate incremental revenue in both the clinic and the store.

While rival PetSmart in 2016 launched a high-end luxury concept called PetSmart Pet Spa in two stores, it is yet to expand this concept further. PetSmart’s focus may lie elsewhere, with improvement to some baseline offerings such as same-day delivery of products in major metropolitan areas, and the acquisition of the popular online pet products retailer Chewy.com.

Note that Petco acquired PupBox in 2017, a subscription service for regular dog toys, treats and training customised for owners’ specific pets. The service has even featured on the television program Shark Tank.

Nipping at the heels of the big box

Pet Supplies Plus, one of the US’s largest “neighbourhood” pet store chains with 425 locations, has been innovating in the tailored range and service space, with its customers referred to as “neighbours”. Offers are customised to drive traffic and frequency based on a specific “neighbour’s” shopping pattern, whether value/discounts, experiential- or services-related. In 2018 the chain introduced a click-and-collect offer called “You Click. We Fetch”, whose online orders come with a personalised message from the team at the store of collection, a bounce-back offer for a product or service, and upcoming event information.

Pet Supplies Plus franchisees also partner with local animal shelters, non-profits and rescue organisations to host year-round adoption events and fundraisers, and donate pet food and products. Stores run pet-bonding events designed to socially connect pet parents in the community, including new pet parent education, and these are promoted on the website. A new location in Florida will provide a community room meeting space, which neighbours are encouraged to reserve free of charge to network with pet parents of similar breed dogs, host birthday parties, adoption events or community group meetings.  

ZBones in Bainbridge Island near Seattle, which specialises in raw food for dogs and cats, provides not only dog nutrition advice, puppy classes, grooming and self-wash but also serves as a dog adoptions hub and runs events such as dog show parades.

It goes without saying that leashed pets are welcome and encouraged in US pet stores, particularly for interaction with staff.

What it means for Australia

A higher proportion of Australians now live in households with a dog and/or cat than with a child. There was a 42 per cent increase on pet product spend from 2013 to 2016. In 2016 there was a marked increase in cats and dogs being viewed as part of the family, with 65 per cent of households with dogs and 66 per cent of households with cats thinking this way. Increasingly Australian pet owners view the role of their veterinarian as being to keep their pets healthy (71 per cent), not just to treat them when they are sick (72 per cent).

The trends are similar to the US, and we’re not far behind them in ownership ratios. How long until a PetCoach variant is launched here?


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