Investing in the Future

Without a concerted, wide-scale effort, the pet industry risks losing ground with today's technology-driven kids-and tomorrow's customers.


Pets and kids are a match made in heaven. Advertising agencies and manufacturers certainly know it—and always have—and so have the producers of countless children’s educational programs through the years.

Want to sell a box of cereal that neither smells or looks particularly tempting? Put a tiger on the box, or a frog or a rabbit, and use that animal to make Saturday-morning-worthy cartoon television ads. Want to teach kids the value of being a good friend? Put a giant bird, or perhaps a purple dinosaur, on the job. It is a formula that has been proven to work.

Interestingly enough, the pet industry, which should have a natural advantage with this demographic, may be way behind the curve, as the allure of owning a new pet continues to face competition from the million other things that today’s kids find entertaining.

The baby boomer generation has been great for the pet business, but with time, the industry will no longer be able to count on even this loyal customer base. The future, of course, lies with younger generations. If today’s five and 10 year olds fail to develop that connection with animals and the desire to own one, the pet industry will face an impoverished market and a rapidly dwindling customer base that will no longer be able to support an industry thriving with perpetual product innovation and an abundance of small, independent retailers.

Many suspect that the suppliers and stores that are likely to be most vulnerable to this fate will be those that specialize in small animals, aquatics, herptiles and exotic pets—basically, any category other than cats and dogs.

Fortunately, there are some pioneering industry insiders striving to make sure that bleak future never comes to pass. Their sights are set on reaching upcoming generations of potential customers and making sure that pets find a way into their hearts and minds—and eventually their homes.
The road ahead, however, may be a little bumpy.

Changing Market
While the pet product industry is by no means showing signs of imminent demise, there are a few trends that could spell trouble for pet retailers. It is a common observation—and frequently, a complaint—that children and teens today often spend an alarming amount of time on gaming devices, laptops, smartphones or other electronics. That is, of course, when they are not watching television. Even the concept of owning a pet went high-tech about a decade ago with the advent of digital pets—little electronic devices that beeped and bleated to let owners know when it needed to be “fed,” “walked,” or “petted.” The impact of these developments, many fear, will be most damaging to retailers that sell animals such as gerbils, lizards, frogs and fish—pets that, for a long time, held a special place in people’s hearts as “starter pets.” Kids, it seems, have become short on attention and desire for old-fashioned pastimes such as caring for a small animal. 

“We know that the starter pets that we traditionally associate with younger children—that segment of the industry has not been growing,” says Steve King, president of the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA).

Manufacturers see the trend too. Companies such as Penn-Plax, which produces pet supplies across various categories, including small animals, aquatics and reptiles, are aware of what is at stake. Paul Demas, project manager at Penn-Plax, says the company has always made it a priority to appeal to kids, but it also understands the challenges the industry is facing. “In a world where video games, iPads and other electronics reign supreme we unfortunately see less and less children having an interests in pets,” he says.

The country’s changing demographics could also mean a shrinking customer base for pet specialty retailers in the future. As demographics evolve, differences in cultural-based attitudes toward pets will influence pet ownership. Even geography makes an impact—kids growing up in compact apartments in urban areas are likely to have a different take on animals than their counterparts in the suburbs or in rural environments.

Some of the change that will affect how pet retailers do business in the future—and whether there will be any business to do at all—however, is coming from within. These days there are fewer pet stores selling the proverbial puppy in the window and live animals, in general. More stores are specializing in supplies, food or even upscale, luxury items for pets. The motivation to sell live animals may also continue to wane as animal activists cast more scrutiny on that segment of the business and state legislatures across the country continue to tighten the reins on what is and isn’t permissible in pet retail.

You may or may not see this as a bad thing, depending on where you stand on the issue, but having no puppies in the window—or rabbits, guinea pigs, kittens or even snakes—may mean less business for everyone involved.

“If everyone is just selling dry goods, then where are they going to see or be exposed to pets and have a place to get that hamster, rabbit, guinea pig, bearded dragon or that first goldfish—or whatever the case might be,” says Doug Poindexter, president of the World Pet Association (WPA), an industry organization that hosts the annual SuperZoo trade show and America’s Family Pet Expo, a consumer show held in California and Washington every year.

“I know, as a former pet store owner, that if I didn’t have animals in my store, a lot of the people who were walking by would have just kept walking by,” he says. “Because I had the cute kitty in the window or an aquarium in the front, it drew them in, got them exposed to pets and got them thinking about them.”

Poindexter is among the growing number of people in the industry involved in initiatives to make pet ownership top of mind again for kids. The most far-reaching of these initiatives is The Pets in the Classroom program. Established by The Pet Care Trust—a non-profit organization funded, in large part, by various industry organizations, including the WPA—The Pets in the Classroom gives grants to pre-k through eighth-grade classroom teachers that allow them to buy a small pet—a small animal, reptile, fish or bird—and pet-care supplies for the classroom.

King, who is also the executive director of The Pet Care Trust, reports that the program is already responsible for placing pets in about 9,000 classrooms, and he predicts the year will end with more than 10,000 classrooms hosting pets. The ultimate goal is to have 30,000 classrooms participating, bringing pets into the lives of one million students.

“I think it’s bound to have an impact simply because it’s really the first effort that anyone has undertaken to reintroduce these pets to a new generation of pets owners,” he says.

The program works in basically two ways. A teacher, after getting approval from the program to participate, can use a voucher at one of the participating big-box or chain retailers to buy a pet and all the supplies. The retailer then applies for a reimbursement. Or, a teacher can purchase a pet and supplies at any independent pet specialty retailer in his or her area, and then request reimbursement. The only thing The Pets in the Classroom team ask of retailers is that they promote the program and distribute or post the promotional materials that are available through the program.

“Exposing kids and making them aware of these animals and what they can mean in their lives in the classroom, we think, will translate to more kids asking their parents to buy pets for them to have at home,” King says.

The program puts pets in the hands of students who otherwise would have never gotten to spend time with these animals—kids who have never had pets because their parents either never considered having one or do not believe they have the time, money or living space to care for one.

“Both inner-city schools and charter schools and schools that may cater to more of a minority population—and that sometimes don’t have the resources that more affluent suburban schools may have—really have taken advantage of the program,” says King. “That’s going to allow kids from a wide variety of [ethnic and cultural] backgrounds and socio-economic backgrounds to experience a pet that they don’t have in their own home or that has not been part of their background culturally.”

He adds that the low cost involved with buying and caring for many of the pets in the program makes them a perfect fit for many families.

On the Frontlines
Still, one program alone—as forward thinking and valuable as it may be—cannot be held solely responsible for getting kids and their families into their local pet shops or for cultivating young, new hobbyists. “On all levels of this industry, we need to do what it takes to get children involved and keep them interested,” Demas says. “From the manufacturer to the pet store, we need to be involved and that means also appealing to parents who are on the ‘frontlines’ so to speak.”

Penn-Plax’s child-friendly portfolio of products is a testament to the company’s understanding of how important the demographic is to its business. Its lines of licensed Nickelodeon-character products, such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer aquatics kits, are designed specifically with kids’ interests in mind. But even product lines that do not bear any likeness to TV characters often take children into consideration. Penn-Plax’s reptile segment is a good example.

“Reptiles have that ‘cool’ factor that really appeals to children,” Demas says. “We as manufacturers need to make sure we are offering products that will help them succeed in maintaining their pets. If they fail we fail.”

Retailers will also have to get in the game, working at a grassroots level to inspire and educate upcoming generations of potential customers.

“Everything has changed—we are living in a digital age and kids are doing a lot of different activities, but it also doesn’t mean it’s an either or,” says Allison Ellis, an expert in children’s media and a youth marketing consultant.

Although kids seem to have more recreational choices than ever before, that does not mean they do not love animals at least as much as generations past, and Ellis says there are many things retailers can do to appeal to that natural affinity for animals. This even holds true for stores that do not carry live pets. She advises retailers to start thinking of non-traditional ways to generate foot traffic, and this may mean partnering with other businesses or individuals.

A children’s book author, for example, could be a good draw, she says. “Can kids bring their pets in for story time? That would be fun, as long as the retailer allows pets,” Ellis says. “There are not so many kids’ book stores now, so a pet store might be a great fit.”

If having pets in the store is not option, she adds, consider hosting an event offsite—perhaps at a community center or a nearby school—and tie in an educational angle to maximize the value of the program for kids and their parents. Retailers can team up with a local animal expert who can talk to kids and orchestrate a “show-and-tell” presentation. The objective for the retailer is to create publicity for the store and promote pet ownership without giving the impression of a hard sell for any particular product or service.

Try “something that’s not a push type of marketing, because people are kind of tired of that,” Ellis says.

Beyond Retail
Retailers that do sell animals have an inherent advantage that they should leverage for all it is worth. Jungle Bob’s Reptile World in Long Island, N.Y., for example, has become more than a pet store—it is a destination where kids can see, touch and experience animals.

“Recently, I am almost hesitant to call it a pet store,” says owner Bob “Jungle Bob” Smith, who has been building his reputation as the go-to person for information on herptiles since he took over the business.

The store is stocked with an assortment of live herptiles and pet supplies; and recently, the inventory spilled out into the backyard. Now dubbed the Outback, the yard is home to various animals and plants that customers can observe in a much more natural setting than the typical animal cage or enclosure. The animals on display at Jungle Bob’s range from typical pets for sale, such as bearded dragons and tree frogs, to animals that are best viewed and kept in the store like alligators and super-sized snakes—it is enough to keep the sales floor bustling, even if many people are just there to look.

“Not everyone who walks in your door is going to buy something,” Smith says. “Be prepared for that.”

While the store’s exotic menagerie is in and of itself a living, breathing billboard, Smith also hosts a variety of events and educational lectures, both in the store and out, that get people talking about his business. For example, parents with little ones may enjoy story time for toddlers, complete with live representatives of the characters in the books being read. Story time may not be a big moneymaker, but it creates foot traffic and makes an impression on young minds.

“We read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and we show them a caterpillar,” he says. “We read The Mixed-Up Chameleon, and we show them a chameleon. It’s [inexpensive], and the moms come in. And, they are built-in future customers.”

Young kids who haven’t yet been taught to fear snakes, spiders and other species that make many adults squirm are particularly open to learning about and even touching these animals.

“I find that particularly in younger kids, there is a spark there,” says Smith. “Parents have a negative attitude toward snakes, spiders and scorpions. So, we are also dispelling all these myths and responsibly selling reptiles.”

Smith, known in his area by for his cowboy hat and his “Jungle Bob” moniker, also gives plenty of children who have never set foot into the brick-and-mortar location a chance to get up and close and personal with wildlife. He presents his show at a variety of venues that may include a backyard birthday party with 20 kids or a camp where he’ll entertain—and educate—hundreds of kids during four to five presentations back to back.

“That’s what I think the future of this business should be—not just peddling dog leashes,” he says. “It should be a lot of education and experiential things.”

Smith’s latest endeavor is speaking at senior citizen homes to adults who often know little to nothing about the animals he brings to these exotic show-and-tell sessions. He charges half his usual rate for such engagements, but is rewarded by the attendees’ keen interest, as well as the goodwill the service generates.

“Here are people in their 70s and 80s who never dreamed a person like me existed,” he says. “They missed Steve Irwin on TV., and the last thing they remember is the old Mutual of Omaha shows in the 60s with Jim Fowler and Marlin Perkins.

 “They just think it’s the greatest thing, and they all have kids and grandkids. So everything we do correlates back to the business.”

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