The Future is Now
Technology is no longer limited to the human product domain. High-tech advances have hit the pet world and are changing lives for the better.
Technology touches almost every aspect of people’s lives today, so it should not be surprising that high-tech innovations are popping up in the pet world, as well. From devices that allow pet parents to stay connected to their pets while away from home to monitors that track a dog’s daily physical activities, high-tech products are increasingly in demand among pet owners. And pet product manufacturers and retailers are helping fuel the burgeoning trend.
The increasing demand for these products is largely a reflection of the ever-deepening emotional connection between humans and their pets. People are readily embracing technology that allows them to improve their pets’ lives. Still, the category’s future will largely be driven by manufacturers’ ability to develop ground-breaking products that solve old problems in new ways and innovations that outwit older, more traditional products.
One of the most life-changing technological advances to make its mark in recent decades was the advent of the cell phone. In fact, anyone born after the year 1985 might wonder how people lived without cell phones to tether them to family, friends and information ceaselessly throughout their day. Unsurprisingly, people now want that same level of interconnectivity with their pets. One example of how manufacturers are enabling pet parents to make that connection is PetChatz, a videophone that not only allows people to remotely interface with pets visually and audibly, but also gives them the ability to dispense treats and even provide their pets with a comforting scent to soothe them in their absence.
“Finally, we can connect and interact with our pets anytime, anywhere,” says Lisa Lavin, CEO of PetChatz.
PetChatz was invented by former medical technology executive Dr. Mark Kroll, co-founder of PetChatz’s parent company, Anser Innovation. “Kroll realized the potential for marrying advances in two-way remote communications technology with the unique emotional connection between pet owners and their companions,” she adds. “He considers PetChatz his ‘most fun’ invention.”
Of course, while today’s inventions—from smartphones to pet-focused videophones—are indeed fun, they can also serve a more meaningful purpose. PetChatz, in particular, is designed to lessen the angst felt by both pet owners and their companion animals when owners have to leave for hours or more at a time. “Sadly, most pet parents are not able to bring their pet everywhere with them, and we feel guilty and worry about leaving loved ones for extended periods of time,” Lavin says.
PetSafe is another company that has gone to market with a product designed to keep pet owners connected to their pets when they are away from home. The company’s Social Pet Camera & Treat Dispenser is a web camera that allows pet owners to check in on pets and remotely dispense treats. The product also features the ability to share live-video feed and snapshots on Facebook.
Technology is not a new segment for PetSafe. The company’s portfolio has always leveraged technology to offer pet owners effective products and solutions. However, the Social Pet Camera & Treat Dispenser and other products included among its pet-tech offerings represent the company’s foray into the latest wave of innovations that not only automate basic functions—like automated feeders and toys—but that also plug into digital and web-based technologies.
“From a technology perspective, we’ve actually been at the forefront for a number of years—[for example,] we were the first with a wireless fence,” says Jason Hart, director of the PetSafe brand for Radio Systems Corporation. “For us, we are now looking at connected products—products connected to phones or computers.”
As manufacturers continue to devise novel ways to apply the latest technologies to their offerings, new product introductions are sure to take off. Still, the high-tech pet product segment is in its infancy, manufacturers say, and they will have to figure out what works and what doesn’t, as it relates to high-tech goods.
“It is an area of opportunity,” Hart says. “We are just trying to find that relevant connection with the customer—what do they really need? Is it engagement? Is it increased convenience? What are they looking for?”
Although it may be too soon for anyone to have all the answers to these questions, pet product marketers already know that Millennials are a target demographic for the high-tech category. Hart points out that the while the Baby Boomer generation, with its significant purchasing power, continues to power pet store sales, current estimates have Millennials outnumbering Boomers by up to several million. So, while collectively they may still be spending less on pets today, all eyes are on this upwardly mobile generation.
Having grown up in the Information Age, this generation of consumers also tends to quickly embrace new technologies and even expects a faster rate of product advancement than previous generations. “It’s how Millennials were brought up, and it’s what they are used to,” Hart says. “If you are not proving that kind of convenience in five or 10 years from now, you might miss the generation.”
Still, manufacturers know high-tech products should not be only for the young, the technologically proficient or those who own a smartphone or tablet. Pet owners of all ages—regardless of their tech-savviness or lack thereof—are drawn to products that improve their quality of life or that of their cats and dogs. Fortunately, many of today’s tech-driven products do not require any type of technical or Internet acumen, nor do they necessarily require the use of other devices such as smartphones or computers. Fairly straightforward automated products—from feeders to water fountains to toys—have added a great of deal convenience, sophistication, efficiency, and even fun to several everyday tasks and activities.
One of the most lauded products recently in the pet market’s automated segment has been iFetch and the iFetch Too—automated ball launchers for dogs that love to play fetch. The concept is simple: when the dog or the owner drops the ball into the launcher, the toy springs into action to launch the ball, thus engaging the pet to fetch it and deliver it back to the owner or the toy itself.
According to Denny Hamill, CEO of iFetch, the idea was inspired by a comment made by his grandson. “One day a few years ago, my grandson Grant was trying to do his physics homework, but Prancer kept pestering him to play fetch. So Grant finally asked, ‘Isn’t there something we can make to keep Prancer happy while I finish my homework?’ That was the question that got this whole adventure started.”
As with the latest videophones, one major appeal of the product is that is gives people peace of mind that their pets will be happy and comforted even when home alone. “For people who are at work most of the day, they tell us that it’s a great way for their dogs to stay active and engaged, instead of just sleeping all day,” Hamill says. “And for people who are older and can’t always keep up with their dogs’ relentless energy, they tell us how grateful they are to be able to engage with their dogs in a way that’s satisfying for everyone.”
Despite the rapid rise of the latest tech-based categories in human product markets, however, the pet-tech category is uncharted territory. Pet specialty retailers will be looking to manufacturers for evidence that these innovations in the pet segment have solid sales potential and deserve the shelf space they require.
“Retailers have limited space,” says Hart. “How do you take away space from a product that is performing well to put in a product that is in a test phase? So, we are trying to build our customer data.”
The goal, he says, is to give retailers information that explains why it makes sense for them to sell these new items and how to market them. “Retailers are looking for tools that will help them move the products,” he adds.
Not only do manufacturers need to be sensitive to retailers’ shelf-space concerns, they also have to address the fact that the higher price points listed for some of these items could be off putting or intimidating. However, manufacturers are quick to point out the upside of investing in high-tech inventory.
“Pet tech is a growing segment that has a higher cost-per-square-foot shelf space,” Lavin explains. “If retailers can see beyond that, they also will see higher returns and, in the case of PetChatz, recurring revenue. For every PetChatz sold, a retailer can assume ongoing treat and scent product sales.”
She is not alone in her assessment that the category is worth investing in. Manufacturers agree that increased demand is practically guaranteed as long as people continue to love technology—and their pets.
As Hamill says, “as more people adopt technology to improve their own lives, they’ll begin to look for technology that will improve the lives of their dogs as well.”