The New Humanization

Pet owners are taking pampering to the next level, and pet specialty retailers with the right approach stand to benefit.




It happens everywhere—yesterday’s cutting-edge innovation becomes tomorrow’s standard equipment. From cars to televisions to Internet-connected thermostats, hot products and features are quickly adopted by mass audiences and become grist for the next wave of fresh thinking and extreme behavior.


The same laws of natural progression hold sway in the pet marketplace. Natural products, which began to gain sales momentum around 10 years ago, have come to dominate the market, accounting for 71 percent of all pet specialty retail sales in 2016. Natural SKUs, in turn, have become the great-grandparents of new generations of increasingly healthy, often highly specialized categories. At first it was grain-free and limited ingredient diets, but now the list includes a host of new options such as freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, as well as products that incorporate super foods and ancient grains in their formulas.


As with the natural trend, many of these new pet offerings have origins in the human world, where ultra-healthy stores (think Whole Foods) and food items (from kale to quinoa) have gone mainstream. These outlets and SKUs are generally more expensive—often dramatically so—but represent a ‘can’t put a price on your health’ philosophy.


At one point, it seemed as if the pet equivalents of these developments were destined to hit a wall. Instead, they have continued to soar higher and higher. In the past, society typically assumed that people recognize an inherent difference, a natural hierarchy that dictates people are more… well, more human than pets. Today, I’m not so sure.


Consider this:  The average price per pound of dog and cat food in the U.S. pet specialty market, according to GfK’s point-of-sale (POS) panel, has gone up 24 percent over the past five years. This trend has been driven largely by natural products and their off-shoots. Grain-free food, for example, costs 26 percent more per pound than the US average. At a time when U.S. wages have largely been stagnant, spending on pets continues to climb.  


We have also seen owners try to incorporate pets into more and more aspects of their human lives—holidays, vacations, health care and more. Small dogs have grown dramatically in popularity, perhaps because they are portable and can come with their owners to more places.  


All of these developments point to a new level of humanization, one in which saying dogs and cats may sometimes be treated as equal to people seems insufficient, even potentially insulting. Dogs, cats and humans are all the same, goes this line of thinking. 


As a result, when we look at the pet marketplace, we see more and more human/animal crossover products:

•Weight control recipes (calorie counts on food packaging)

• Formulas for sensitive skin and stomach

• Vitamins and supplements

• Digital health monitors and, of course, a host of smart phone apps


With that said, it doesn’t seem all that strange that some pet retailers have or are planning to incorporate coffee shops into their stores. What could be more civilized than enjoying a cup of Joe with your furry friend…I mean family member?


The opportunity here is clear: As dog owners seek to play up their relationships with their companions, neighborhood pet shops can re-emphasize their connections with pet people. Bring owners into the store by spoiling pets and owners at the same time, with food tastings, wine and beer, meet-ups and more. It’s all about the in-person experience—something that ecommerce cannot offer. There is almost no limit to the ways you can encourage pet owners to share their special bond with you. Be creative, and make it fun for yourself, the pets and your human customers.  PB


Want to find how GfK data can help drive better decisions for your store or brand? Contact me at 


Maria Lange is Business Group Director of GfK’s Pet POS Tracking team. She can be reached at 

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