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Human nature: How treating pets as people is driving a retail boom

Demographic changes have shifted the way New Zealanders treat their companion animals. Kiwi shoppers increasingly want to treat their fur babies to a human-like level of consumer goods indulgence, and specialist retailers have eagerly sprung up to service these pampered pets.

By Jenny Ling | August 18, 2019 | News

She unashamedly lavishes her dogs with the best pet supplies and treatments around and just had them measured for handmade wool coats for winter.

Kerikeri photographer Janette Walker has spent thousands on specialised food, toys, clothing and vet bills for her “fur babies”, French bulldog Frankie and terrier cross Lula.

She once spent $2000 on surgery for Frankie, to help him breathe better due to breed-related difficulties and has taken him to an animal skin specialist for his skin problems.

Because Frankie gets cold in winter, Walker recently forked out $120 for a handmade wool coat - and of course Lula had to get one too.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Walker inherited the dogs eight years ago from her daughter who was flatting while attending university, they got standard dog food bought from the supermarket.

But when she noticed Frankie’s skin issues, she looked around for food that would help.

Both dogs now enjoy “hypoallergenic itch buster” biscuits containing wild, New Zealand caught fish made by Northland Pet Food. They also get venison treats.

Walker says she spends at least $80 each month on food, toys and treats for her dogs, on top of routine dog registration fees and vaccinations.

“Over the last four years the cost to look after them has increased,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s a squeeze [financially] but they’re my fur babies so they get the best. I am a big softie with them. We love them to bits, they’re part of the family.”

Walker is among a growing number of pet owners who pamper their pets.

I too, am guilty as charged.

My rescue dog Ruby also gets Northland Petfood’s Itch Buster Hypoallergenic biscuits, along with regular treats and fresh fish and chicken from the supermarket.

Being a mischievous terrier cross who seems to get into trouble fairly regularly, I’ve also forked out for pet insurance.

She has a raincoat for winter, a cooling mat for summer, and a heap of toys, baskets and blankets.

Clearly, the pet retail industry is big business. 

And we are a nation of animal lovers. 

Pet owner Janette Walker with her pampered pooches Frankie and Lula. Photo: Flash Gordon Photography.
Greg Harford, CEO of Retail NZ.

Small animals are big business

The latest figures available from the New Zealand Companion Animal Council show there are over 4.6 million companion animals in the country.

Sixty-four percent of Kiwi households have at least one pet, more than almost anywhere else in the world.

According to theCompanion Animals in New Zealand 2016 report,cats are the most popular companion animal, with 44 percent of households sharing their homes with at least one cat, followed by dogs at 28 percent.

That equates to 1.1 million cats per household, about 700,000 dogs and over half a million birds.

Kiwi pet owners are placing a growing importance on their health and wellbeing, with total expenditure on products and services estimated at $1.8 billion, up from $1.6 billion in 2011, the report says.

These products and services cover everything from food to pet insurance, grooming, treats and luxuries.

There has been a major shift in pet retail in recent years, both in consumer attitudes and the burgeoning retail market which is growing frantically to meet that demand.

Specialised pet retail chains have sprung up around the country including Animates and Petstock, which cater for all creatures great and small from dogs and cats, to reptiles, fish, birds and chickens.

As well as supermarkets, retail giants like Kmart and The Warehouse stock large amounts of pet care products, and there is a plethora of New Zealand-owned and global online stores.

Most veterinary practices now boast an impressive array of items for sale, and even $2 shops have got on board, with many selling cat beds and dog baskets, toys and accessories.

Pets are people too

The sheer variety of pet care products on offer is mind-boggling.

Greg Harford, CEO of Retail NZ, who represent the Pet Industry Association, has seen a “big change” over the last two decades, not only in the amount of items available in pet shops, but also the services that some offer such as in-house vets, grooming, exercise, and puppy schools.

We are increasingly humanising our pets, he says, and this is clearly visible in the pet retail market.

Animates even has dog and cat fashion categories touting beaded pearl collars, knitted jumpers, scarves and cowboy costumes. Harford has also seen shoes for dogs to protect their paws from burning on hot pavements.

“Twenty years ago, pet stores were mostly small independent businesses,” Harford says.

“Animates and Pet Centre have really changed the game, providing large one-stop shops for customers and customers are responding to that.”

Harford - who has “a houseful of pets” including two dogs, two cats, and chickens and fish - says pet owners are increasingly treating their furry friends as part of the family.

“‘Pets are people too’ is the message,” Harford says. “Most dogs probably do not sleep outside in a kennel these days. Most sleep inside, many of them on their owners’ beds. They’re treated as part of the family. People want to be able to look after their pet in the same way they would look after their child.”

Though the market seems already saturated, Harford says there is plenty of opportunity for firms to further expand.

“The pressure of competition has prompted strong competition in new players domestically and offshore,” Harford says.

“Small businesses are popping up all the time in the pet food space. There’s a whole range of new products and services coming into the market.

“The world has changed a lot in the last little while. The food choices now available for pets are far greater than when I was growing up.

“There are huge opportunities for retailers and manufacturers to service that kind of customer demand.”

Pet parents and premiumisation

One retail chain who has taken up the opportunity and made significant inroads into the Kiwi market is Petstock.

The Australian chain launched in New Zealand in 2015, acquiring Petmarket stores on Constellation Drive on Auckland's North Shore and in Cambridge, followed by Four Seasons Pets in Glen Innes and Takapuna.

It now has 11 stores across New Zealand, with the Constellation Drive store boasting a purpose-built veterinary centre catering for most surgical procedures and overnight hospital stays.

Along with pet food and products, Petstock provides a dog wash facility, dog grooming service and puppy training school in its stores, and the company plans on rolling out more vet clinics.

But perhaps the biggest pet retail giant of them all is Animates, which has nearly tripled in size over the last seven years.

The first store opened in Christchurch in 1995, and the chain is now jointly owned by Australian specialty pet care firm Greencross with New Zealand healthcare and animal care provider Ebos Group. 

There are now 43 Animates retail stores, 18 vet clinics and 28 grooming salons and DIY dog wash services throughout New Zealand.

CEO Rod Gibson, who left his role of general manager of Foodstuffs Own Brands in March to head Animates, says the “humanisation of pets” has allowed high growth areas in the sector.

“Pet parents” have a better understanding of the need for good nutrition, he says, which has led to a premiumisation of pet food in the whole market.

This is reflected in the much wider range of pet food available such as natural and grain free diet formulations.

There has also been more investment in health services such as vet care, preventive and rehabilitative health care, and growth in services like grooming, dog wash, cattery and training.

Innovation with products incorporating technology such as GPS tracking, monitoring or advancements in parasite control with vet products, and the rise of the urban farmer with the likes of chicken care are other growth areas, Gibson says.

“With the pet and the parent in mind, Animates will continue to surround them with everything they need.

“We will continue to see more movement in the pet care and specialty industry to create better overall health of our pets through areas of preventative health care, continued advancements in nutrition and making the best products more convenient through omni channel approaches.”

The company cited 25 percent growth from 2013 to 2014, with its total revenue growing from $62 million for the 2014 financial year to $71 million for the 2015 year.

Animates CEO Rod Gibson.

Making a dog’s breakfast of it

Pets are now a significant part of the family, and it seems we’re increasingly placing our human values upon them.

Nielsen research from the US shows discerning consumers are seeking fresher and more natural ingredients in pet food.

Owners now lean toward pet food options that address the same health concerns that are influencing human foods, such as gluten and GE free, less fat and refined sugars, and less preservatives and artificial colours.

We’re spending more on pet food with human-grade products, like ancient grains, butternut squash, free-range chicken, blueberries and juniper berries.

There are products selling breed-specific food for miniature schnauzers, german shepherds, pugs, poodles and chihuahuas.

Latest figures from the New Zealand Petfood Manufacturers Association showNew Zealand's cat food market has a value of $243.7 million, while dog food is worth $185.3 million.

In the prepared pet food market, supermarkets dominate with around 85 percent of sales, with the rest split between vets, pet shops and the rural sector.

To cater for this, smaller, boutique pet food businesses like Brodie’s and Northland Petfood have exploded into the market.

Meal deliveries for pets

Aucklander Anne-Marie McKenzie spotted a marketing opportunity to supply naturally sourced pet food while researching foods to help her dog Brodie, a Springer Spaniel Poodle cross who she bought as a puppy.

After noticing Brodie had a few health issues including a recurring ear infection and digestive problems, she tried a range of diets and found he responded best to raw food.

“He used to have a chronic ear infection, itchy skin and digestive problems for the first year when we got him as a puppy. 

“We’ve been feeding Brodie on a raw food diet over the last five years and his ear infection and bad breath have cleared up, his digestion has improved, he’s itching less and has a shinier coat.”

McKenzie launched Brodie’s Raw Pet Food Delivery and boutique grooming service in 2017. 

Based in Orakei, she now provides online sales of frozen raw food, plus dried treats and natural supplements for cats and dogs.

All her products are premium quality New Zealand meats and fish, with no grains, fillers, chemicals, or preservatives. 

She also provides a home delivery service, and personalised options in the form of weekly menu bags, pre-packed meal bags based on the pet’s weight, and tailored menus based on the pet’s age, weight, activity level and food preferences.  

McKenzie says over 90 percent of her customer base is on weekly, fortnightly or monthly purchase plans, and sales are growing organically at a steady 15 percent monthly average for the last 12 months.

McKenzie, a former marketing manager at New Zealand Winegrowers for 21 years, says people's concerns and preferences of their own nutrition are directly impacting what and how they feed their pets.  

People are also more environmentally consciousness and there is a growing demand for organic, and ethically and humanely sourced products.

As with most other categories, busy lives and a need for convenience is driving more and more people to shop online for their pets.

And subscription-based purchases mean owners don’t have to remember to shop at all.

Overall, people want to feed better quality food to their pets to aid their health and enjoyment, McKenzie says.

“There’s a trend in Millennials delaying having babies, or they can’t afford to have them, and treating pets as fur babies.

“If they have such a vital role in the family, they want to look after their health, wellbeing and enjoyment.

“It mirrors the way we’re looking at own nutrition - we try to eat more healthily, and get away from high sugars, carbs and preservatives. 

“If we’re focusing on that ourselves there’s a natural progression to care for our beloved pets in that manner as well.”

Another key trend in the Companion Animals in New Zealand report was around pet insurance, which roughly doubled in popularity in the past four years. 

Now 10 percent of cat owners and 19 percent of dog owners have insurance for their animals.

But the New Zealand Veterinary Association says pet insurance rates are still low compared to other developed nations, such as the United Kingdom.

Last year it partnered with Southern Cross Pet Insurance and called for more owners to insure their pets so they have more options for treatment and care should their pet get sick or injured.

Southern Cross Pet Insurance General Manager Anthony McPhail says pet insurance is still in its infancy in New Zealand, although owners of cats and dogs are becoming more aware about its benefits.

"In the past year, the number of pet lives we insured grew by 28 percent to more than 27,000, so it’s clear that Kiwis are beginning to see how pet insurance can improve their animals’ lives.”

Brodie’s Raw Pet Food Delivery owner Anne-Marie McKenzie.
Animal behaviour expert and vet Elsa Flint.

Spoiling them rotten?

Animal behaviour expert and vet Elsa Flint, who runs Animals with Attitude in Auckland, believes the growth of the pet retail category is positive from the animals’ point of view.

“It encourages people to take better care of them. People enjoy being able to do these things for their pets. 
 

“Increasingly pets are people’s fur babies and they’re important in people’s lives. But the downside for some animals is that it’s taken to extreme, like when toy dogs are dressed up and carried everywhere and never get a chance to be dogs and go running in the fields and roll in dung.”

Flint says pets should be part of the family; they need to have a comfy bed and feel they belong, and they need to be fed properly. 

Even though pets will survive okay on cheaper food, premium foods are better researched and provide better quality and nutrition. 

“As more research and information comes to hand, people are becoming more aware of dietary issues in relation to themselves and they’re more aware of their pets too,” she says.

“Some animals have digestive problems so it’s good to have those alternatives.

“But it is a bit overwhelming for people; with so many products to choose from they must walk into these big stores and think where do I start and what really is good for my pet?”

Overall, the retail sector is helping provide animals with better quality of care, as owners are considering them more as individuals, with needs and preferences, Flint says.

“I can’t see too many downsides other than confusion,” Flint says. 

“It’s the same thing for people, we don’t just have a few things available anymore... but it’s good to have choice.”

There are interesting long-term challenges in pet retail, Harford says, which “go to the heart of pet ownership”.

The first is the changing housing market, where skyrocketing house prices around the country mean more people are likely to rent.

With many landlords not keen on pets in their rental properties, it can be a distinct disincentive for people to own pet, he says.

There are also increasing restrictions on pet ownership by local and regional councils, Harford says, such as Environment Southland’s proposed Southland regional pest management plan [currently under consultation] which aims to make the town of Omaui cat-free by banning new domestic cats in the area.

“All that makes it harder for people to be responsible pet owners,” Harford says.

“There are definitely some challenges. All that potentially decreases demand for pet ownership in the first place, and that then would have a longer-term impact on the pet industry.”

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 762 June/July 2019.

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