In 1971, the first lunar buggy jolted across the moon. The first episode of “All in the Family” aired. The first child got in line at Florida’s Walt Disney World. And the first issue of a new magazine called “Pet Age” was published with the goal of covering the business of pets.
Little did we know, then, that the next 45 years would truly be a new pet age—full of trends that would utterly transform the pet industry, and change, beyond recognition, the wholesale and retail industries that support it.
Who could have foreseen, back in 1971, premium pet foods, special diets, boutique retailers, LED aquarium fixtures, health monitoring cat litter, etc.? Who could have anticipated the Internet and the dominance of online shopping? Who could have imagined, in 1971, big box pet stores like PetCo and PetSmart?
Who would guess the ever-increasing degree to which pet owners would value, love and humanize the animals with whom they share their homes and their lives? Who would foresee the environmental and humane concerns that would change how retailers deal—and in many cases now, don’t deal —with animals?
Who could have imagined that high-end pet owners would spend as much as $100 (or more) for a special sweater for their little Fluffy or Whiskers? Who would have guessed that dogs and cats would not be named Fluffy or Whiskers, but more probably Bentley, Lola, Layla and Winston (among the top 10 trendiest dog and cat names for 2016, according to vetstreet.com)? Who could guess that tiny turtles in plastic terrariums would be out, and teacup pigs and pygmy hedgehogs would be in?
And who would have predicted the ultimate result: that pets and pet care are now a $65 billion industry?
It’s been our job, since 1971, to foresee as much of this as we can—by talking to inventors, retailers and the many inventive people who have revolutionized the industry by catering to new kinds of pet owners with new kinds of products. It truly is a new age for pets!
“When I first entered the industry as a tropical fish hobbyist more than 40 years ago, it was very much family run, especially on the retail side,” said Doug Poindexter, president of the World Pet Association (WPA). “Today, it’s a more than $65 billion industry with pet products in almost every retail setting you could think of.”
What was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a very loose aggregation of stores, manufacturers and trade associations has become consolidated over the last 45 years into a highly organized juggernaut of an industry.
“I think the first big change was the growth of the pet superstores which became PetCo and PetSmart and really the late 80s into the 90s is where you really started to see that change and that was also the period in which you had a lot of distributors start to consolidate as well,” said Steve King, president of Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA). “So we went from over 150 distributor members of PIDA down to half that number in the space of a decade in the late 90s and early 2000s. And part of that was corporate ownership coming in, but part of it was also the realization that the retail environment was changing and folks needed to get bigger and more efficient in order to compete in the new environment.”
One look at today’s trade expos, compared with those of a generation ago, is a striking reminder of how much the industry has changed. SuperZoo, which began life in 1951 as a regional trade show, has ballooned into an international event (headquartered in Las Vegas since 2004).
“This year was a record-breaking SuperZoo, with the most exhibitors and attendees in show history participating,” Poindexter said. “SuperZoo 2016 featured the most exhibitors of any pet retail show in North America, with almost 1,200 participating, and saw an attendance uptick, helping us remain the biggest show in terms of buyer attendance as well.”
Global Pet Expo, first held in 2005, consolidated and unified a number of different shows into a monster event that was recently named the “Greatest Show on Earth” by Trade Show Executive Magazine.
“[It] is now the world’s largest annual pet products trade show and in 2016 featured more than 320,000 net square feet of exhibit space with 6,170 buyers in attendance, more than 3,000 new pet product launches, 1,087 exhibitors and 3,218 booths sold,” said Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “Total show attendance came to nearly 15,500 people.”
These shows —now more than ever—are about education as well as commerce.
“In addition to a thriving exhibit hall, SuperZoo prides itself on the educational sessions we offer for everyone, across all retail channels,” Poindexter said. “This year, we had more than 90 sessions, which is up from 2015. We cover a wide swath of topics and had a presenter speaking directly to human resources, beyond just staffing as we’ve had in previous years. With the rapid expansion our industry is experiencing, human resources is something retailers need as their businesses expand. We also had some great speakers talking about leadership and communication, which retailers found extremely valuable as they finish 2016 and move toward 2017. We changed up our School of Animal Wellness this year as well, changing session length to 30 minutes and adding some new sessions on small animal health.”
One of the major product trends is the upsurge in demand for premium foods. This started in dog food, but has in recent years spread to almost all the pet animal categories. These premium diets include all types of higher quality—and higher price point—foods: organic, all-natural, grain-free, exotic protein, probiotic and more.
While the prevalence of premium pet diets may be thought of as a new phenomenon, the trend began several decades ago.
“That was the other big change that probably started back in the 70s and 80s with some of the first of the premium and super premium diets coming along,” King said. “Hills certainly was one of those, but Iams more than any other created a whole new category of pet specialty. They changed the equation of how people thought about pet nutrition and the ability of independent retailers in the pet specialty channel to capture a bigger part of the whole food business, dog and cat being the dominant part of that. So today we have just an absolute explosion of different types of diets, different types of ways to feed animals and make them healthy, and lots of different theories about them and nutrition that really has been developed in the pet specialty channel and that all came from those first days of creating those premium diets for folks to feed their pets.”
Some of the biggest changes to occur in the pet industry had nothing to do with products but everything to do with attitude.
“The biggest development in the industry has to be the realization that we’re better together than we are apart, which I’d say came as a ‘soft’ idea about ten years ago,” Vetere said. “After a lot of dedication, determination and patience, as an industry, we are moving in the right direction in terms of our ability to all work together and form initiatives and coalitions that may bring competitors together to work toward a common goal of growing the pet industry. This has really put the pet industry on the map.”
Vetere cited several examples of the spirit of cooperation at work in the pet industry. He noted the work of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) in fighting legislation that would be detrimental to various areas of the pet industry, such as local breed bans.
There are a number of initiatives in the business to educate pet owners, promote responsible pet keeping and expand pet ownership into the future.
“We’re commissioning research proving the scientific health benefits of pets, shaping healthcare and public policy, through the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI),” Vetere said. “We’re reaching our nation’s youth, educating early with continued growth of the Pets in the Classroom initiative from the Pet Care Trust. We are ensuring the future generation of millennial pet owners through the Pets Add Life campaign.”
Incorporated in late 1971, PIJAC has been at the forefront of fighting for the interests of the pet industry and pet owners.
“Since 1973, we’ve been involved in virtually every international, federal or state initiative addressing the importation, captive propagation, sale and possession of non-native aquatic ornamentals, birds, reptiles and small mammals,” said Marshall Meyers, senior advisor and former CEO of PIJAC in an interview on PIJAC’s website. “We support alternatives that combine regulatory and non-regulatory approaches. We want to educate people to make wise decisions and make sure that these pets can’t escape or harm the environment. It’s easier to educate than to regulate.”
PIJAC’s accomplishments in its 45 year history have been numerous and crucial for the pet industry. According to the organization’s website, these accomplishments include establishing a bird quarantine program to combat Newcastle disease, amending the Animal Welfare Act and several USDA regulations to be more favorable to the pet industry, defeating several bans on keeping ferrets in the 1980s, and establishing “the Pet Information Bureau education initiative and launching the Pet Care Trust to fund research to support legislative and regulatory positions.”
Marshall cautions that the threats to pet businesses and pet owners continue to grow and change.
“Our industry needs to accept the reality that many issues resurface year after year,” Marshall said on the PIJAC website. “They don’t simply go away and die. Never in PIJAC’s history has our staff been faced with both the volume and variety of matters it must address than it has over the past three to five years.”
One of the concerning recent trends in the pet world is the steady decline in bird ownership. But the pet industry isn’t taking this issue lying down. A new organization, the Bird Enjoyment and Advantage Koalition (BEAK), has formed to better understand the downturn in the bird segment and to work on reversing it.
“BEAK’s goal is to increase bird ownership beyond 6.7 million households by 2020 and ensure that new bird owners are aware of the needed care, handling and responsibilities of a variety of avian species,” said BEAK co-chairs Todd Regan and Brent Weinmann, in the June 2016 issue of Pet Age. “There is a need to take the time to ensure that a new bird is matched to the right type of specific home environment.”
In the 45 years Pet Age has been in publication, the pet industry underwent rapid growth and myriad changes. Just as no one in 1971 could’ve predicted we’d be using handheld computers to keep tabs on our pets when we’re at work, few today can predict what the trends and changes of the next 45 years will be. Perhaps the only prediction that’s guaranteed to come true is that people will still keep pets, and therefore, there will still be a pet industry. It’s our hope and intention that Pet Age will still be here covering that industry.