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How the Internet Has Become the New Pet Parent


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Midway through my second decade of all things pet, I was beginning to think I’d seen it all: Pet specialty big boxes carve out a huge share of pet product sales, largely at the expense of independents, while becoming important purveyors of pet services as well. “Natural” grows from a pet specialty niche to a cross-category, cross-channel marketer must, jet-fueled by product recalls and the resultant focus on product safety. An industry revolutionized by all things human-style, from natural foods and supplements to cross-over human drugs and medical procedures to knock-offs of human toys, apparel, and the list goes on. The “pets as family” theme, drilled into the public consciousness by everything from retailer slogans to reality shows, becomes a normal mindset, sanctioning and encouraging previously at least somewhat reined in proclivities. American pet owners adopt a sky’s-the-limit spending approach to pet health and wellness, not to mention plain old pampering. Retailers of all kinds leap onto the pet market wagon, most of them carving out a respectable slice of the pie.

What’s going on now, though, might be bigger.

If you’re thinking e-commerce, you’re partly right. It’s no secret that sales of pet products are streaming online. The trend has been in force for more than a decade, but the shift is now occurring at warp speed, and the impact is broader than internet sales soaring at the expense of brick-and-mortar. E-commerce is changing a longstanding retail paradigm by accelerating the breakdown in the once sacrosanct divide between pet specialty and mass. Via mass premiumization, that breakdown, too, has been in force for some time, with Blue Buffalo’s cross-over into mass, and mass premium entries like Nutrish, among the most notable moves. But with its virtual marketplace, in one fell swoop e-commerce all but erases the pet specialty/mass distinction, making omnichannel the safest bet for forward-looking marketers and brands.

Monumental as it is, however, e-commerce is but one facet of an even larger trend that is rapidly changing how pet owners interact with products, brands, marketers, retailers, service providers and, most important of all, their furry family members. Reflecting and capitalizing on the advance of the internet, much of the innovation in pet products and services involves technology and, increasingly, “the internet of things” (or IoT). Coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, at the time a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, the term refers to “the network of physical devices, home appliances, vehicles, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and other components that enable the objects to connect and exchange data,” per Wikipedia. 

Within the pet market, examples of IoT already abound—in pet bowls that automatically reorder food for home delivery, cameras that allow pet owners to dispense food or medications remotely, and smartphone-linked trackers that monitor not just the pet’s location but also its vitals and behavior, compiling data logs and alerting pet owners and veterinarians to potential health problems. The beauty of such products is that they both automate humdrum pet care tasks and encourage pet owners to be more involved with their pets, both in the flesh and from afar. Summing up how the e-commerce/internet trend is reshaping the pet market landscape, David Sprinkle, Packaged Facts publisher and research director, observes, “The internet is the new ‘pet parent.’” I wish I’d thought of that.


David Lummis is the lead pet-market analyst for Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com. The data cited above is drawn primarily from Packaged Facts’ latest pet market report, U.S. Pet Market Outlook 2018-2019.

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