Wealth of potential in the rise of the ‘Gucci poochie’

Americans’ growing obsession with giving their pets the best is unleashing major growth and diversification in the petcare industry, says Polly Devaney

There is no denying that the US is a nation of animal lovers. About 63 million households (60 per cent) own some kind of pet and there are 117 million dogs and cats in the country, with dogs being the most popular. In the two years to 2000, the US pet population increased at a faster rate than the human growth rate, increasing by three per cent – the human population rose two per cent. According to Euromonitor, the US market for pet food is worth nearly $11bn (£6.6bn), while the market for pet products is valued at $17.2bn (£10.3bn).

One of the advantages of being in the US pet products and services business is that it is almost recession-proof – Americans treat their pets as a family member and will not scrimp on caring for their four-legged friends. Animal Voices is a California-based pet product marketing and public relations company. Company founder Friday Forsthoff says: “We are seeing a trend for more niche product areas as well as developments in marketing to pet owners.”

Americans are becoming well known for treating animals like humans. In response, the big players in the US pet food industry – Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Mars – are increasingly fighting the battle for a share of the mid-market on product quality and health benefits rather than price. Pet foods with nutritional supplements are now mainstream, while high-end brands offer “human-grade” quality food.

A new trend towards low-calorie pet food is now emerging aimed at owners who have less time to exercise and play with their pets and who worry their pets are at risk of becoming obese. But one of the more bizarre developments is “shareable treats” for human and dog consumption, closely followed by dog bakeries.

Nutritional supplements is just one of the many categories traditionally associated with human consumerism that are finding their way into the petcare industry. There are also cosmetics and toiletries for dogs and cats, including cologne sprays, bath wipes and aromatherapy candles.

The pet products and services market increased 5.4 per cent in 2001 and growth is expected to continue, making the sector worth $19.7bn (£11.8bn) by 2006. Many of the products tap into pet owners’ desire to treat their pets like humans. Americans’ desire to show love for their pets often manifests itself in shopping, and a Gallup Poll showed that 65 per cent of owners gave their pet a Christmas present and 24 per cent celebrated its birthday. Trixieandpeanut.com is just one of a host of US retail websites that offers “designer” pet products. Its range includes pet carrying bags, pet apparel such as raincoats, cardigans and T-shirts, and pet jewellery, which includes a sparkling rhinestone tiara. Not surprisingly, the site names a host of celebrity clients who “adore” the designer canine gear.

Not to be left behind, the US travel industry is also keen to cash in on the pampered pets tendency, and has launched a range of products and services to cater for their every whim. The Travel Industry Association of America found in a 2001 survey that 29 million Americans had travelled with pets in recent years and the number looks set to grow.

More hotels are offering to accommodate pets, often in special luxury beds, and since the quarantine laws were relaxed in the UK, Virgin Atlantic has started flying cats and dogs from the US to London. Pets even get frequent flyer miles.

For discerning celebrity pooches, The Beverly Hills Hotel is likely to prove a popular destination this summer as they will be greeted by name and find water bowls, dog biscuits and a special bed in their rooms. Down the road in the Beverly Wiltshire, doggy room service will bring them special meals and dog biscuits served on a silver tray. In Chicago, dog owners can even take their pets on a “Canine Cruise” on Sundays over the summer months. The cruises were launched after tourism collapsed in the wake of 9/11 and people were not prepared to fly to a holiday destination. They have proved popular with dogs and their owners. Luckily the ship includes a paper-lined bathroom.

And for those dogs whom travel isn’t an option but are left “home alone” while their owners go to work, there’s always “doggy daycare”. Set up to meet the needs of owners who don’t want to come home to a stressed-out dog and rampant destruction of the house or yard, or neighbours complaining of barking and howling due to “separation anxiety”, doggy daycare, as the name suggests, works like children’s daycare. It’s a trend sweeping across North America. Dogs are dropped off on the way to work and collected after their person has done their daily grind.

At Biscuits & Bath dogs’ daycare in New York City, there are five floors devoted to canine indulgence. It includes four exercise areas, a lap pool, a grooming salon, veterinary care, a boutique, a Lullaby Village for snooze time, and an immaculate kitchen for food preparation. There is even something on offer for their owners, with classes, lectures, events and a café. Dogs are supervised 24/7 and get leash walks every few hours. Daycare sets the owners back $35 (£21) with an overnight stay costing $55 (£33) – dog hotels is another fast growing niche segment.

At Every Dog Has Its Day Care near San Francisco, pets can indulge in a variety of spa and grooming services as well as a wide range of nutritional services and products. But what about the owner stuck in the office, missing his best buddy, you may ask? Well, many of these facilities offer a doggy Webcam and speaker telephone so owners can watch their pooch play and even give him a reassuring shout while at work. And if all that fails, there’s a wealth of dog psychiatrists to choose from.

It seems that with pets increasingly being treated like people and more human luxury products finding their way onto the petcare market, in the US it really is a dog’s life – and one that many humans would be more than happy to lead.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business writer

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