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As COVID-19 rates continue to fall and mandates lift, many retailers are breathing a huge sigh of relief as business gets back to normal. But what does “normal” mean after the pandemic delivered so many changes to both pet owners and retailers? How many of the new trends and buying patterns established during 2020 will drop by the wayside? How many will stick?

This spring, World Pet Association (WPA) reached out to retailers to discover what they are experiencing as capacity restrictions go away, supply chains normalize, and consumers return to work and pre-pandemic lifestyles.

“WPA’s goal is to provide retailers and service providers with the most up-to-date industry information that informs business decisions and maximizes current opportunities,” said WPA president Vic Mason. “From year-round engagement through WPA365’s on-demand marketplace to professional education and an extensive show floor at SuperZoo, retailers count on WPA for knowledge and connection.”

WPA’s flagship event, SuperZoo, is returning this August with professional education, nearly 1,000 exhibitors, 800 new products, and countless ways for pet pros to interact, share strategies and learn how to increase profitability.

Buying Habits

What has been made clear by retailers is that the challenges of last year have also brought in positive changes. Since spring 2020—when customers began stockpiling large quantities of food at the same time that supply chains became unpredictable—buying behavior has stabilized.

“One great thing that’s come out of the pandemic is that customers have become accustomed to ordering in advance but not hoarding anymore,” said Kathy Palmer, owner of The Fish & Bone, a pet store in Boston. “I think the universal toilet paper shortage got us all to a new place of accepting that sometimes we may not be able to count on the essentials. Now, customers are more organized but also more flexible about switching to in-stock options. They are also more understanding about shipping times.”

Craig Maggio, CEO of Friendly Pets, which has three stores in New Hampshire, agreed that customers are becoming more flexible and aren’t as reliant on online ordering as they were a year ago.

“The escalation of e-commerce has been obvious since last year,” he said. “But supply chain interruptions have driven some customers back into brick-and-mortar, which is a positive. We’ve also seen an uptick in the purchase of enrichment toys and treats for small animals as well as pet chews and treats.”

Additionally, customers are showing their gratitude to shops that remained open and went the extra mile to make sure their pets were safe and fed.

“I’m seeing a renaissance in local shopping,” said Adam Jacobson, executive vice president of Pet One Group/Pet Pantry Warehouse, which has locations in New York and Connecticut. “As a result of COVID-19 and its impact on local communities, customers are more conscious than ever that if they want their towns to continue to thrive, then they need to take action by spending money at their local brick-and-mortar stores. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in foot traffic as well as average ticket spending as our local mandates ease.”

New Products Are Even More Popular

Each year, new products drive sales as well as excitement among retailers and owners. With many pet owners working from home, they are looking for puzzles, chew toys and other activities that can keep pets entertained during Zoom calls and important projects. True to the trend that’s been rising over the past decade, unique diets and foods that promote health and longevity remain popular.

“We are seeing more customers looking for gently cooked frozen diets to feed as a complete meal or as a topper,” Jacobson said. “Many pet parents with immune-compromised animals are becoming aware that minimally processed foods can be a great foundation to holistically care for their animals with chronic health issues.”

CBD (cannabidiol) products are also flying off shelves, especially to aid anxious and arthritic pets.

“It’s getting easier to talk to customers and our team about CBD because the producers have de-mystified and distilled relevant information to a level that makes communicating the dosage and benefits more straightforward,” Palmer said. “I also appreciate the new formats, including oils, soft treats, peanut butter and, now, water-based solutions.”

Maggio added that as a buyer, he’s always seeking new and fresh products from independent companies.

“Providing offerings that can only be purchased in-store can drive traffic into our shop,” he said. “Protection from price gouging is a valuable attribute when investigating new products.”

New Generation of Owners

Last year’s work-from-home lifestyle encouraged many young professionals to bring animals into their homes, ushering in a new demographic of buyers—especially in the small-pet category.

“We’ve seen an increase in gen Z shoppers,” Maggio said. “Owning a dog or cat is not necessarily right for everyone, and we find often that the younger generations are starting with smaller pets, reptiles and aquatics.”

Younger owners tend to shop for more than their pets and are often looking for products that match their personal ideals. Jacobson noticed that younger pet owners tend to be more well-versed at reading labels and have developed an affinity for organic and altruistic brands.

“I truly feel that the new generation of consumers care about the honesty, integrity and ethos behind a brand more than being drawn to a big name,” Jacobson added.

Change Is Constant

The overarching message retailers delivered in the survey is that while pet retailers can leverage post-pandemic trends, the industry is likely to change and shift again before the year is over. The best way to stay on top is to be informed and connected.

This year, SuperZoo will be back to an in-person format, enabling meaningful conversations, in-depth training, and demos and products you can test and experience up close. Mark your calendar and register at superzoo.org today to reconnect with the pet community this Aug. 16-19 in Las Vegas.