The Truth About Millennial Pet Owners
Stores can benefit from research about Millennial pet owners, but you’ll need more than data to better understand their shopping habits.
The Millennial customer is on everyone’s mind—how to best serve them, what kind of products they desire and how they want the products made, presented and sold. So, it should come as no surprise that market research firms around the world have been busy collecting data that delivers key insights about this important consumer demographic, including how they shop for pet products.
But does the market research correspond with what is actually being observed in pet stores across the country?
Millennials currently make up 35 percent of the U.S. adult population and occupy the key ages (18-35, currently) where one is “settling down.” But, rather than starting families with children, Millennials are instead opting for buying or adopting pets to satisfy their caretaking needs.
“Many of our Millennial customers are young professionals who seem to be waiting to have children but have pets on which they spend their disposable income,” says Heather Blum, co-owner of Petagogy—a two-store pet supplies operation in Pittsburgh. Blum says at least half of the customers at her main Pittsburgh location are under age 35. At her second, more suburban store, she says about 35 percent of her customers fall into the Millennial age group.
Given their growing prominence as a key customer base for pet stores like Petagogy, it makes perfect sense that the entire industry would obsess over utilizing and understanding the mighty Millennial buying power.
To this end, market research consultancy Wakefield Research published a slew of research related to Millennial characteristics and buying habits as they compare to those of Baby Boomers, and the findings were presented by Wakefield partner Nathan Richter at this year’s Pet Industry Leadership Conference.
Overall, the research shows that Millennials are interested in a greater scope of products, are more particular in their purchases and want the world to know all about it via social media sharing. In short: Wakefield describes Millennial pet owners as conscientious, irrational and exhibitionists.
Yet, while research like Wakefield’s is vital to understanding shoppers, it can only paint part of the picture. The rest must be filled in by going directly to the customers themselves, as well as looking at the first-hand experiences that pet specialty retailers are having with Millennials in their stores.
The Conscientious Millennial
According to Wakefield’s research, Millennials are more conscientious when making purchases and evaluate products and services in a more complicated fashion than other generations. It is an assertion that has been echoed in numerous demographic studies over the past several years and is reflected by the experiences that pet retailers are having with this up-and-coming customer base.
“Millennials are more conscious about brand and ingredient integrity,” says Josh Allen, co-owner of Dee-O-Gee, a two-store pet supply operation in Bozeman, Mont., for which Millennials make up approximately 40 percent of the customer base. “They really like brands with stories and purpose that are different than the typical ‘We donate one percent to XYZ pet-related, national nonprofit.’ They really like unique brands and stories.”
According to Allen, made-in-the-USA products and brand stories are particularly important to Millennials, who appear more concerned with sourcing of ingredients than their generational predecessors.
“They tend to gravitate to locally- and USA-made, boutique-feeling brands,” he says.
Jayde, a 26-year-old living in St. Paul, Minn., fits into this mold of the ultra-conscientious Millennial pet owner. It’s only the best of the best for her Husky/Shepherd mix, Buckley.
“Quality is No. 1 for me,” she says. “I would much rather pay more money for something and know that it is good for my dog. I spend between $120-$150 per month on food alone, and I don’t bat an eye at the cost. I budget other places to make sure that he is well cared for and healthy.”
Jayde points to BPA-free, natural, organic and hypoallergenic products as “100 percent essential.”
According to Richter, stipulations like these are increasingly important to Millennial pet owners. In fact, Wakefield’s research shows that 81 percent of Millennials say BPA-free is an essential pet product quality. Furthermore, 78 percent say natural/organic materials are essential, 77 percent say the same for hypoallergenic shampoo and 88 percent say so for natural pet food.
For Jayde, it’s a matter of keeping her dog healthy and happy. “Preventative care is key,” she says. “Spending more now saves more later.”
Mark, a 25-year-old living in Chicago, owns a Beagle named Chewie. His thoughts what types of products are essential mostly match those of Jayde, though not across the board.
To Mark, BPA-free products are a necessity due to “negative health effects,” and—because of Chewie’s previous surface reactions—Mark uses hypoallergenic shampoo. However, he isn’t insistent that the pet food he buys be natural and/or organic.
“It’s more important to me that the food is healthy and balanced,” Mark says. “Natural/organic is less important.”
Zack Grey, creator and owner of The Urban Pet, a four-location pet store in Los Angeles, says the Millennial generation of pet owners is paying closer attention to what they’re feeding and giving their pets because they are more informed than older generations.
Because of its Los Angeles roots, The Urban Pet serves plenty of Millennials. At its Silver Lake store, in particular, Millennials account for around 50 percent of sales, Grey says.
“I’m a borderline Baby Boomer, and the industry is so diametrically opposite [than] when I was young,” Grey says. “I grew up buying foods off the supermarket shelves with no idea of the ingredients or nutritional level.”
Just knowing about ingredient quality and nutrition doesn’t equate to an automatic sale, though. Some Millennials know the benefits of higher-caliber products, but can’t justify the cost.
“Although Millennial shoppers are looking for quality products, they are also price conscious,” says Blum. “We try to stock a variety of unique foods, toys, treats and accessories to satisfy Millennials who want high quality, unique products they can afford.”
Gabriela, a 23-year-old living in Brooklyn, N.Y., is one Millennial pet owner who doesn’t buy organic products for her cat or herself because of the cost. “It’s expensive,” she says. “If I made a lot more money, I would consider it.”
The first thing Gabriela considers when buying a pet product is cost, then quality. “I want the best quality for the smallest price,” she says.
The Irrational Millennial
According to the Wakefield research, Millennials will buy “discretionary products under the guise that they are nondiscretionary.” In fact, the data shows that 86 percent of Millennials are more likely to splurge on an item for their pet than they would for themselves.
Allen finds that many of the Millennials who shop at Dee-O-Gee are willing to pay for higher-quality nutrition products and services, such as the dog day care the store offers. Similarly, Grey sees Millennial shoppers at The Urban Pet gravitating toward trends such as freeze-dried and raw foods, American-made products and flea and tick alternatives, plus high end products like “nice” litter boxes and cat towers.
“While our senior customers are more conservative, the Millennials are much more open to these expenditures,” he says. “If it’s on Shark Tank, they want it.”
But not all Millennials go overboard in their pet purchases. Some take a more nuts-and-bolts approach, like 30-year-old Brian in Miami. For his Miniature Poodle JJ, he buys only the basics: kibble and a bowl, a brush, a bed and a leash. For treats, JJ gets fresh vegetables. He doesn’t have excessive toys or much in the way of dog clothing.
“I only get him what he needs,” says Brian, mentioning that he’s not likely to splurge on himself, either. He does, however, make sure he gets age-specific food for 14-year-old JJ.
Jayde, on the other hand, describes her dog Buckley as “spoiled rotten.”
“I always have loads of natural treats on hand, an overflowing toy chest and a Kong ready to be loaded with some additive-free peanut butter,” she says. “Outside of edible stuff, I love my FURminator brush and waterless foam shampoo.”
Though some Millennials might throw caution to the wind when shopping for their pets, it might be unproductive to assume that they all handle their money in an “irrational” fashion. Your store could be missing out on sales opportunities if you don’t offer a variety of price points for the more cost-conscious members of the group.
For example, to compete with the savings some budget-minded pet owners may be looking for online, Petagogy offers continuous promotions including its rotating “food of the month.”
Wakefield’s research shows that Millennials tend to behave in ways that make them “exhibitionists.” Some of the numbers that back up this claim include the fact that 90 percent of this generation is on social media networks; they share a photo of their pet three times a week on average, and 17 percent even have separate social media accounts for their pets.
Gabriela says she’s constantly sharing photos of Luz on social media. “I only got a cat so I could Instagram her,” she jokes.
Brian posts a photo of JJ about once a week, he approximates.
While Jayde doesn’t often post on social media, when she does, it’s probably to share a photo of Buckley. Mark’s dog Chewie has his own Instagram page.
“A lot of my relatives and friends ask for pictures of [Chewie],” Mark says.
Based on these social media trends, pet retailers have adjusted the way they market and sell to Millennial pet owners.
“We focus heavily on social media for [marketing to] Millennials, while we rely on email blasts and in-store signage for Baby Boomers,” says Allen.
Grey says social media is his business’s “single most important means of marketing.” At The Urban Pet, he has staff members dedicated to the store’s social media accounts, posting daily photos of customers and their pets, plus new products in the stores.
Defying the Generation Gap
Though research says Millennials are behaving in new and distinct ways, it seems that Baby Boomers are latching on to these shopping trends as well.
According to Wakefield Research, in 2014, 50 percent of Baby Boomers said they were likely to splurge on items for their pet, but today that number has increased to 61 percent. Additionally, more and more Boomers are seeing BPA-free, natural/organic and hypoallergenic products as essential.
This begs an important question: Are these ideals exclusive to Millennials, or is the movement of ultra-conscientious and splurging pet owner affecting all generations? Once again, market research data provides some but not all of the insight necessary to draw such distinctions.
Research vs. Reality
Extensive research is undeniably a vital part of any understanding of a market or sector of retail as it can give you a perspective on broader trends within a particular consumer’s demographic. Studies like the ones from Wakefield are a solid jumping off point in terms of your approach to selling and marketing. For example, any pet store could benefit from being more active on social media and thinking critically about how to compete with online retailers for Millennial sales.
But many industry experts say it is also very important to gain awareness about the wants and needs of your specific consumer base, which can be accomplished by having open conversations with your customers—and potential customers—about what they are looking for in a shopping experience.
While research speaks to general truths, it doesn’t always speak to the behaviors of those in your hyper-locality: your state, your city or your store. Data is essential to knowing what the overall, conventional wisdom is surrounding Millennial shopping habits, but listening to people in your area is key to understanding an average Millennial pet owner.