Pet industry veteran Mark Hirschberg, president of Multipet International, discusses the positive and negative impact of the rapid changes being experienced in the pet industry.
After more than 30 years working in the pet industry, Mark Hirschberg, the president of Multipet International, has a unique view of what is happening in the pet industry.
What this veteran sees is an industry on the cusp of change—some very good, and some not so good. But the end result, he says, should still be a healthy industry and one that will continue to remain relatively recession-proof as consumers continue to treat their pets as part of their core family.
“The pet industry has changed more over the last three years than it did in the 20 years before that,” Hirschberg says, sitting in his office at the company’s headquarters in Moonachie, N.J. “A lot of private-equity money has come into the industry in recent years, and that is changing the way this industry is operated. We definitely have more big conglomerates today than ever before, and that hurts the industry in some ways and helps in others.”
The pet category has long been famous for the personal touch between suppliers and retailers, and the direct interaction between these parties that has made it feel very much like a cottage industry. “I’m worried that is going away,” Hirschberg notes. “I’m worried that the close relationships between all sides of this industry will not take place, and the entrepreneurial attitude that shaped the pet industry has faded a bit.”
Hirschberg quickly adds that the new money coming into the pet category is a big plus, as it is helping suppliers launch items and giving them the funding to support their products in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Yet, not every pet product manufacturer depends on an infusion of investment capital to grow their brand, and Multipet is a perfect example of this. Well known for its wide selection of pet toys, the company expanded into the treat business with the acquisition of Old Mill Pet Products earlier this year.
Still, Hirschberg is not surprised that the investment community is showing a historic level of interest in the world of pets. “The pet industry is the seventh largest industry in the United States,” he says. “I think, in the past, a lot of people did not take it that seriously. Now, everyone is taking it very seriously.
“Why not? This is a category on the rise for many reasons. Pet ownership is on the rise, and more consumers consider themselves pet parents as opposed to just someone who owns a dog or cat. Adoption rates are up, and there are even more service dogs. Best of all, people are living healthier lifestyles, and they want their pets to live them too.”
The industry is not totally out of the woods, though, he says. The growing presence of internet outlets is messing around with the business models of many traditional retailers, and Hirschberg worries that it is going to impact margins to the point that some merchants will no longer be able to compete.
“Really, the only way to fight back is to offer what cannot be offered on the internet,” he says. “That is service and expertise. Pet retailers need to make sure that their staffs are trained to answer any customer questions or comments.”
Having the right merchandising approach will not hurt either. “First, retailers need to make sure that their store looks like it just opened up,” Hirschberg adds. “It has to be clean and have a great selection of products across multiple price points and the proper signage in-store to catch the customers’ attention. It all works together.”