Pets still a factor in economy

By: Art Garcia Telegraph Correspondent
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That all dogs go to heaven may be true but many living canines are already there, enjoying pet luxury as highly pampered pooches. Same goes for cats, birds, lizards, fish, guinea pigs, reptiles and other critters and creatures. There are 61 million pet-owning households nationally caring for nearly 400 million pets, reports marketing research firm Packaged Facts. Through the past three years of economic hard times, the pet products business has lived up to its recession-resistant reputation once again. U.S. pet industry sales are projected to reach $58 billion this year, with steady growth expected to push that figure to more than $74 billion in 2015. Despite the downward direction of the economy, it’s been a bull market for pets. “People seem to have cut back on going out to dinner and movies to care for their pets, which many of them say are like their children. They’re willing to spend the saved extra money on their pets,” said Ethan Boyer, manager of Western Feed & Pet Supply in Folsom. Going on its fifth year in business, numbers are up at Bark Avenue in El Dorado Hills. “We are doing well,” said Robin Mizell, co-owner with husband Ken. “People are foregoing their lavish trips and making sure their animals are taken care of,” she noted. “Maybe it’s a simpler kind of vacation, a camping trip where the whole family, including pets, can go. “For the dog, they may not be buying the lavish $50 leash but they’re still buying a leash or collar. They’re not not buying for their animal,” she said. “Going to the dogs” has a whole new meaning for many pet parents, despite the Great Recession. “Our business has been very strong,” said Tina Vickrey, manager of PetSmart in Folsom. “We’ve had growth every year. Some pet parents were cutting out Starbuck’s so their dogs could still go to day camp.” Besides selling pet products and food, her store also has a pet hotel. Sales of human-edible “gourmet” food have been strong. “We’ve had to bring in some higher-end food because pet parents are demanding it,” Vickrey said. Demand for organic and natural foods has “really, really increased in the past few years and those, of course, are more expensive,” she said. For pets with a sweet tooth, a small package of pet cookies sells from $5.99 to $11.99. Most higher-end foods are made of human-grade ingredients and many of the cookies are natural. “They’re a little bland,” Vickery concedes. “I’ve eaten them.” Some stores sell pet birthday cakes. Pet food ingredients can include blueberries, pomegranates, salmon, blueberry compote, brown rice, roasted turkey, pan-seared duck, butternut squash and pumpkin. Business fell “a little bit” through the recession but is “a lot better now,” said Kaitlynn Sleeth, an assistant manager at Petsmart in Cameron Park. “The big thing is people want a cheaper food but they still want really good ingredients. “We’re selling a lot of dog foods with leaner meats, like bison,” she said. The store doesn’t sell organic foods but it does move “a lot” of natural grain-free varieties, with no corn or wheat but mostly sweet potatoes and rice, as well as different meats, such as venison and fish. “Most of our customers tell us their pets eat better than they do. They spend more money on their pets than they do on their own food,” Sleeth said. Petsmart’s top-selling food is Taste of the Wild, a grain-free diet priced for dogs at $8.99 for five pounds to $37.99 for 30 pounds. Lee’s Pets & Supplies in Shingle Springs offers gourmet foods for rabbits and guinea pigs and for dogs and cats food with pheasant, fresh water trout and yak milk. Bark Avenue in El Dorado Hills no longer sells $1,100 pet beds but now carries and “sells a lot” at $80, said co-owner Mizell. Some cat trees are price-tagged at $250. The store also sells dog chews, toothbrushes, toothpaste and sprays that help combat bad breath and tartar. Also available: stylish doggie dresses made of material standard under human wedding trusses. Cost: $60.