A New Breed

Pet specialty retailers can cultivate the next generation of pet owners by reaching out to kids inside and outside the store.


In the not-so-distant future, the pet industry may find itself selling to a dwindling audience. 

While industry studies continue to report a healthy rise in pet ownership among U.S. households, many experts are concerned that this growth may not be sustainable over the long term as baby-boomers–the demographic group widely considered most responsible for the recent boom in pet ownership–continue to age. As this generation makes the transition from empty nesters to senior citizens, keeping up with the responsibilities associated with owning a pet will become more difficult, and in many cases, impossible.

“If baby boomers are driving much of the industry’s growth–especially the spending side of it–at some point, you’re going to see that market drop off,” says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association (APPA).

With the inevitable decline of the pet industry’s biggest audience looming, industry observers say it is imperative that a new generation of animal lovers be indoctrinated. However, turning today’s youth into future pet owners is a task that is far easier said than done. At no point in history have pets faced more competition for kids’ attention. The Internet, iPods, television and a seemingly endless number of extra-curricular activities are all distracting youngsters from the simple pleasures of pet ownership.

“Currently, kids don’t seem to be turning [toward pet ownership] because of all of the distractions available to them,” says Vetere. “I think it’s incumbent upon us, as an industry, to nurture this segment and convince them that they really do want the companionship of a pet.”

The challenges facing the pet industry in cultivating a new generation of customers are by no means insurmountable. While the times have changed and distractions abound, children continue to have a particular affinity for animals. This can eventually be parlayed into pet ownership, provided the effort necessary to make this conversion is put forth.

Vetere says that APPA, along with the Pet Industry Distributors Association (PIDA), is doing its part by reaching out to kids through the Pets Add Life (PAL) public relations campaign. “We’re going to run some of the Pets Add Life [advertisements] on Nickelodeon, and even Disney has gotten in touch with us,” he says, explaining that the PAL commercials will be animated to make them even more interesting to kids.

When it comes to reaching out to young people, however, there is probably no segment of the industry more important than pet specialty stores. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood pet store is where many children are first exposed to the wide variety of companion animals available. These retailers have a unique opportunity to interact with young people, educating them on the many benefits of pet ownership and enticing them into becoming life-long pet lovers.

Kid-Friendly Merchandising
The first place that pet specialty retailers should look when considering how they might be able to do their part in cultivating the next generation of pet owners is within the four walls of their stores. While it might seem counterintuitive to the idea that one must sell to the audience with the most spending power, retailers should focus on the bigger picture, not necessarily just the immediate sale, when devising a merchandising scheme. That’s not to say that merchandising with kids in mind can’t be profitable–as any parent can testify, there are few purchasing influences as compelling as a determined child.

There are two basic components to merchandising to children. First, a retailer must stock products that kids will find appealing; and second, they must display those products where their target audience will see them.

“When you’re designing your store, you really have to think about eyes at the two and three foot level,” says Owen Maercks, owner of East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif. “I’ve been in stores where everything of interest is displayed chest high and above–for little kids, that just doesn’t work. Always design your store so that there is something of kid interest at kid level.”

Doug Poindexter, president of the World Wide Pet Industry Association (WWPIA), agrees and points to grocery stores as a good example of how to successfully merchandise to children. “If you go into a supermarket, you’re not going to find the kids cereals where mom and dad can see them,” he says. “Trix and Lucky Charms are not on the top shelf, they’re down where the kids can grab them. That same type of consideration should be made when merchandising a pet store.”

Selling Pets
When considering merchandise that will appeal to children, it’s important to note that there are few products that will grab a kid’s attention like a live-animal display. However, carrying livestock in the store simply is not feasible for many retailers, as caring for these animals can represent quite an expense.

In fact, many industry experts worry that a seeming decline in the number of pet specialty stores that carry live animals could be one of the biggest long-term threats facing the industry. Of course, there’s the obvious fact that putting pets in the hands of the public is essential to a healthy market for the products used to care for these animals. But in addition, as mentioned earlier, the neighborhood pet store is often where children are exposed to the full breadth of companion animals that make good pets–where else is a kid likely to run into a leopard gecko or sugar glider?

“Anytime you minimize exposure to animals, it builds a negative environment,” says Poindexter. “You want to make sure that kids are exposed to pets and learn about them. That’s one of the main reasons why we do our America’s Family Pet Expo, to get pets in front of the public and help them learn how much fun pets can be.”

Bill Bright, owner of The Fish Nook Pet Center in Acton, Mass., sells animals (reptiles and birds) in his store, and he keeps them at lower levels so kids can go right up and interact with them. This is a tactic that Bright’s daughter Robyn, who is also Pet Business’ bird columnist, says not only acclimates the animals to handling by humans, but also sells more pets.

“I have talked with stores who put their animals (often birds) behind glass, and I have found they don’t sell as many as the retailer down the road who has the animals more accessible, like my dad,” she says.
Robyn says that her father even goes a step further and lets groups like the Girl Scouts come in to tour the store. “We give them information about the different pets and let them hold them,” she says.

When Poindexter owned his own pet store, he took a similar approach to engaging young people. “I would always contact the local grammar schools and offer them a field trip to the store to learn about animals and how to care for the animals,” he says. “It was a great way to peak their interest in [pets] and give them a little bit of an education. Maybe that eventually converts into a sale, but more importantly, it creates an interest in the kids.”

Maercks agrees that drawing a young audience into the store simply for the entertainment value of the live animal displays, rather than to make an immediate sale, can pay off in the long run. “If you go to our Yelp.com reviews [Yelp.com is a website where customers can rate various retail establishments], you’ll notice that maybe 70 percent of the reviews are just about visiting,” he explains, noting that even if a visitor walks out of the store without making a purchase, a seed has been planted.

Reaching Outside the Store
To cultivate the next generation of pet owners, retailers don’t necessarily have to wait for kids to come to them; they can reach out and engage children by conducting pet presentations outside the store, whether it’s in the classroom, a Scout troop meeting or a local recreation center. This is an area in which Maercks has spent decades polishing his technique and has reaped numerous rewards.

Based on his experience, Maercks says that once a retailer has developed a quality presentation, success is sure to come from word-of-mouth. “Scout leaders talk to other scout leaders, so we got more and more people saying, ‘Hey, our Scout troop wants what that Scout troop got,’” he says, noting that retailers can expect the same type of results when working with local schools.

While Maercks admits that reptiles are particularly suited to pet presentations targeted toward kids, he believes the outreach concept can be translated for any pet specialty retailer. “Even if you don’t have a single snake in your store, you can still put a show together with bunnies and chicks and puppies–a little petting zoo for preschoolers,” he says. “You have to look at what you’ve got as a resource and work with it. If I had a full-line store and had no reptiles, I would still be doing what I do, I would just go out and get myself a pygmy goat.”

Putting Pets in Classrooms
Class pets are another way in which young people can be educated on the joys of caring for companion animals. That’s the concept behind the Pet Care Trust’s (PCT) Fish in the Classroom and Pets in the Classroom programs, which are sponsored by industry organizations, including APPA, PIDA and WWPIA.

According to PCT executive director Steve Hellem, both of the programs are two-pronged efforts. On one side, the program sponsors provide funding for vouchers that are given out to participating schools and can be used to purchase class pets and the products needed to care for those pets. On the other side, the organization provides educational resources for the teachers participating in the program, so they, in turn can pass this knowledge on to their students.

Retailers can institute similar programs by approaching local schools and providing the pets and products on their own. However, it is important that retailers go a step further, like the Pet Care Trust, to provide sound information on the proper care and handling of the animals donated to classrooms.

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