A Short Leash for Pet Luxuries

If the economy falters, purveyors of chichi products for animals will find themselves in the doghouse. Pro or con?

Pro: Hairy Ventures

Businesses may have to learn the hard way that selling frivolous pet products and services makes them vulnerable.

Many of the new offerings bring absolutely no benefit to the animal itself. Although they may give the owner a thrill, a $300 crystal necklace and $1,100 silk taffeta dress serve as little more than an annoyance to the hapless Siamese obliged to wear them. Many a dog has stood by its empty bowls, barking for more food or water, but it’s a safe bet that very few loiter inside an owner’s walk-in closet, whimpering longingly at a Kate Spade bag or Brioni suit.

If the economy stumbles—and the July 26 stock-market drop is not a good omen—middle-class folks will stop contemplating that $300 designer dog bed and pick up a $39 no-frills version, according to Jacob Jacoby, Merchants Council professor of consumer behavior at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

"Your dog can tell the difference between Eukanuba and cheaper food, but it can’t tell the difference between an expensive collar and a simple practical one," says Jacoby.

In the not-too-distant future, manufacturers may be saying goodbye to this luxe silliness and hoping their equipment is capable of producing cotton shoelaces or socks for human feet. And smaller suppliers can bid their truffle-scented cat toys farewell in anticipation of the sheriff’s sale.

Con: Perpetual Heavy Petting

The future of luxury pet products looks as steady as that of wine or cosmetics. All of these items qualify as superfluous; people could easily live without them—but they don’t want to.

According to Standard & Poor’s industry analyst Michael Souers, a recession would be more likely to cause cutbacks in expenses such as energy and home furnishings. "People are going to pamper their pets and kids, and some consider their pets children," he says.

And wherever there is quality, consumers will come, regardless of the economy. "People who are affluent tend to spend at a more even level," says Jason Asaeda, a retail analyst with S&P Equity Research. "So as long as retailers can offer unique or new products of high quality, the need will always be there."

True, a cat may find catching mice more exciting than receiving a fuchsia silk collar, but if such a purchase makes the human buyers feel more contented with, and excited about, their furry companions, so be it.

Let’s remember, many of the owners who treat their canines or felines royally actually have adopted their pets from animal shelters—a humanitarian act that’s a boon to society. If lead crystal water dishes make owners happier about having pets, maybe they’ll decide to rescue even more animals from unfortunate circumstances. —r.r.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Sue

Probably the same people who buy a $5 chocolate latte at Starbucks will go on buying truffled catnip and crystal water bowls for their cats. These kinds of luxury pet items are bought by people who are least likely to feel a downturn in the economy.

Erin Walsh

I think it's interesting that when you go into the chic, upscale pet boutiques the priciest items are geared toward the smallest of dogs. How often do you see a German shepherd with a Coach collar, let alone wearing a Burberry dog sweater? I think this speaks to the owners of larger breeds vs. smaller, in general, who tend to realize that exercise and good nutrition make for a happier companion than the latter. While I do believe there's a market for luxury pet services--especially in the line of pet massage therapy and upscale doggy day care chains--the non-essential clothing and accessory purchases for dogs are just plain silly.

Sue

I agree with Erin on doggy day care. That's one service that's actually worth the money in terms of relieving owner guilt.

Terrie

I think companies that produce other luxury items in addition to pet accessories will continue to find a market. But retailers and boutiques that only offer upscale pet items--like the canine bakery in the next town over from where I live--might find themselves struggling in a serious economic trough.

tim

The $52 billion a year would be better spent on providing health care for America's poorest.

What society treats its pets with such luxury while at the same time dumping its psychiatric patients on skid row in Los Angeles?

In the past there was a fiery labor leader, Walter Reuther, who would have lambasted our country's rich for spoiling their pets while at the same time trying to cut wages and health care for those who actually perform the real work in our country.

MJ Reynolds, itsMyPetClub.com

I have pets, and they are worth every penny I spend on them because they bring such joy into my life. Every day.

I have a lot of fun shopping for my pets, and I make sure they have regular health checkups, just like me.

I also care very much about people. I advocate health insurance for everyone in this country, and I get involved with things like the American Heart Association's Walkathon. My pets participate, too!

Sharon

I don't think it's pet owners' responsibility to fix the health-care issues America has. I am not rich, but I choose to spend money on my pet so that he eats well. The money that America spends on flat-screen TVs, cellular phones, iPods, SUVs, house renovations, and any other material items could be better spent as well, so why unfairly target pet owners?

random

"The $52 billion a year would be better spent on providing health care for America's poorest."

But this isn't federal or state tax money being spent on pets. It's people's own net incomes, and it's not the government's or anyone else's business how people choose to spend their money. Whether they throw it on a new collar for Fido or give it all to charity, it has to be their choice. I'm not saying we have to agree with their choice, but we should respect their right to do so and let their conscience dictate their spending habits.

Shure Pets Rep

Unless you are a pet person, you have no idea how much we pet lovers love our pets. I have a whole zoo-crew of critters, and I love to pamper each and ever one of them. It brings me great pleasure to pamper them and spend my hard-earned money on them. That's my choice.

Alan Jones Kennelwood Pet Resorts

Treating our pets well and loving our pets makes us all better human beings. Cruelty toward animals is a behavior that many violent criminals exhibit early in their criminal careers. Pet owners who love their animals and provide care and attention are not likely to fall into this category.

As far as Sue's comment that day camp relieves owners' guilt, it does a great deal more than that. Some of the outstanding benefits are that the pet becomes well socialized and is more confident and used to being around other humans and animals, making it a good canine citizen, one not likely to bite someone or get into fights with other pets. It also allows the pet to get a great deal of good-quality exercise, reducing the likelihood of obesity. Day camp and daily interaction with other canines and humans provides stimulation that a pet left alone at home all day is simply not going to experience; it helps the pet to become a smarter and better companion animal.

Jim

For those of you who feel money spent on pets could be better spent elsewhere, I will gladly do an analysis of your spending habits the last year or so and identify money that could be freed up for the greater good.

Andy

Although I find the items in question superfluous, those well-to-do people who buy them obviously do not. People who have enough money to purchase these things will probably continue to buy them even in an economic slump. Luxury items for the wealthy never seem to suffer the same declines in sales as compared to the stuff bought by the average Joe.

Bella POOCH.com Consultants

Luxury pet boutiques as well as good old PetSmart and Petco will continue to thrive in this niche as more and more Generation-X and younger people turn to having pups instead babies. Dogs are the new kids to a lot of people out there, specifically to two distinct markets: Gen-Xers and baby boomers.

Middle class to upper echelon will spend what they have or what it takes on their pups, and if they happen to be Westie size or smaller, all the better as they have fabulous collections of designer and couture clothing to choose from that is manufactured as far away as Belgium and as near as our own backyard.

We have been predicting it to climax this year--it has, and smaller boutiques are closing their doors. Then again, eight out of 10 of our startup boutique clients are first-time business owners, and the SBA alone states that a first-time business owner has a 70% chance of failing in the first year.

Many designers are selling both wholesale and retail on their Web sites, making it easier to reach the consumer crowd, so in our professional opinions as designer reps and startup luxury pet-boutique consultants, the market will continue to grow (there are designer, leather collars for larger dogs from Italy, Paris, and Canada now available). Luxury pet boutiques that are located in affluent neighborhoods and high-traffic retail shopping areas that provide "one-stop shopping" will continue to pull in $30,000 to $50,000 gross per month, and designers will continue to expand their product lines to meet the demands of both buyers and consumers. And all furry children need at least the basics:

- leash/collar and/or harness
- tags
- food and water bowls
- pet pillow
- dog food
- dog treats
- toys

Pet insurance is nice, and dog parks are becoming increasingly popular. And think of all the luxury hotels that accept dogs:

- All Starwood properties (Sheraton, Westin, W Hotel, etc.)
- Ritz Carlton
- Hotel Monaco

Celebrities are also helping to fuel the market by parading their pups around in T-shirts, designer collars, coats, sweaters, shoes, and pet carriers.

There are a total of 70 million households that own a dog.

Even more interesting--70% of dog owners travel with their dogs and wish there were more services available to dogs (cafés that allowed dogs in, etc.).

Brad White

Yes, our pets are worth it--we built a company around them.
Brad White
President
Midnight Pass Inc.

Anthony Bromley, President

The pet industry is not scratching the surface. There is going to be a boom in hotels, insurance, pet will and pet trust, and also pet bags and novelties.

Sharon

I hope people keep spending--I just launched a business to promote Democratic candidates on dog products, called Dogs 4 Democrats. What better way to get people to converse and connect over such an important issue than using their dogs to break the ice? My dog currently sports an "I heart Obama" collar, and you have no idea how many great conversations I have because of it. Dogs are the best way to a person's heart.

Amy Ammen

Thirty years ago, lavishing luxury goods on pets and hiring doting caretakers would have seemed outlandish. Today, fawning over and eagerly emptying our wallets for our pets is largely accepted.

Whether dogs are better off is less clear. Granted, it's great that we have options such as dog walkers, doggie day care, and plentiful dog parks. But there can be unintended consequences to relying on these forms of social interactions--including the proliferation of unresponsive, obnoxious, detached, and neurotic dogs. We are simply too busy to care for our dogs the way we used to: Having bought into the notion that we just need to make our dogs "good and tired," many of us have drifted away from the traditional dog/owner experience, and end up overusing romps at the dog park and visits to doggy day care.

The fact is, education is as critical to a dog's well being as entertainment and exercise are. It requires actual interaction with an owner willing to put in the time to learn and apply proper dog-training skills.

So go ahead--open your wallet for good nutrition and superior medical care. And if you adorn him with jeweled collars and designer sweaters, great--but don't fool yourself into thinking it will make him "feel the love." The best and perhaps most overlooked way to pamper, adore, respect, and value your dog is to take the time to teach him to listen and behave.

Oh, and one more thing: Avoid anyone walking a dog with Neuticles.

Amy Ammen
Author
Hip Ideas for Hyper Dogs


todd

I agree--our pets are indeed worth it.
Todd Thedinga

Amy Canton

My husband and I are in our late 20s, and our two "doggie kids" make us a family. I think certain "luxuries" definitely make them better, more rounded dogs. I have dogs that aren't afraid of, or aggressive toward, babies, children, the elderly, wheelchairs, other dogs, cats, or any number of other situations, because we think that responsible pet owners take the time to socialize their pets. We both work a lot of hours, and our use of doggie day care isn't to relieve our guilt or tire out our dogs--it is to further their "good dog education." Debate on bejeweled collars all day, but dog-friendly options like day care, boarding, and dog walkers are no longer a frivolity--they are a need.

Monica

I think if you have this type of money to spend, why not adopt some more pets and save a life at the pound?
Monica

Dr.MOHANKUMAR SHETTAR

Spend on human beings living on Earth without food and water for ages in many poor countries. Help them.

Dr.Mohankumar Shettar
Bengalooru
India

John Childers

"The best and perhaps most overlooked way to pamper, adore, respect, and value your dog is to take the time to teach him to listen and behave."

I saw a great example of this with a New Zealand sheepdog trainer/breeder. His comment was, "People shouldn't have children until they learn to raise a dog."

Pete

I own a dog day-care and boarding facility in Atlanta and find that my customers love their dogs as much as their children.

Our customers are warm, loving people and don't mind spending a little more to make sure their pets are taken care of well and are safe.

We also offer all natural and holistic foods and treats. Our customers don't feed their dogs Ole Roy--they use safe and healthy products.

Amy

Luxury is a relative thing. Some think that a new collar is a luxury, while others purchase massage sessions for their pets as a luxury. Pets still have not attained the status of humans across the board, and it behooves us to remember that there are still a lot of neglected animals out there who need our help.

mcmelion

Boo to your pro section. That Jacoby guy clearly is no animal expert: Eukanuba as the better food in the comparison? Hell no. Eukanuba is the cheap food. And it's made by Iams--the only company to still use inhumane testing on animals.

If you want real good pet food, buy all-natural or organic. Try Nutro's Ultra--same price as Eukanuba but actually uses chicken, not byproduct or corn as protein, or Newman's Own (Yes, Paul Newman and his organic garden make healthy pet food) or Castor and Pollux at Petco (great size pieces for small and medium dogs,100% natural, no byproducts and one of the very few not affected at all by the recall, unlike Eukanuba).

mcmelion

P.S. I am a proud mother of a very spoiled pound puppy. In response to a comment made about overspending instead of adopting more: There are two reasons for this.

1) Some people may feel they only have the time and/or finances to really care properly for one animal, and therefore are doing the right thing by only having one they can care for properly instead of several who suffer.

2) This is my case: I am a renter, and finding housing in Los Angeles with one dog is extremely hard, and most places will only accept one. Until I own, it would be irresponsible of me to adopt another. But I do my part in educating people on adopting over shopping.

Judy Gards

I love my dogs, but all the glamour is just not needed. People need to wake up and realize all their pets need is a good walk, helathy food, and some play time.

Tamyka Smith

I have to agree with both sides. I think it is crazy to spend money on pets the way that people are spending today. It makes no sense. I also think that the money people spend on material items is just as bad. We as Americans spend money on the silliest stuff, and we always have an excuse for it. I myself tend to go into debt every year at Christmastime for my children, and I use them as an excuse for my crazy spending, but the truth is we are all very selfish, because there are people who really need the help. But we are so focused on our own needs and we love to shift blame so that we forget about what we are really here on Earth for, which is to love and care for one another. So the next time you want to buy some outrageous pet gift or material item, take that money and spend it on someone or some family you know will need it more.

Fiona

People may be spending huge amounts on superfluous things for pets, but sadly many pet owners are unaware of the huge amount of veterinary research that blames feeding pet food for giving pets cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, etc. People love their pets and so buy them things while simultaneously feeding them pet food that is likely to end up giving the pet serious or even fatal illness. It is time the pet food companies and the vets who sell this terrible food were made fully accountable for the illness it eventually causes.

Rocky

Well, nothing wrong with taking care of animals, good for you. But why only dogs, all you so called animal lovers? Why don't you have snakes, rats, buffalos, vultures, and eagles as your pets? All you dog lovers are actually not animal lovers--you just want a wagging tail, because it makes you feel better about yourselves. Spend whatever you have as you want, but a day will come when each of you is answerable to God for every penny you spent.

Honest

I believe that the amount of money that people are spending on pets is a huge problem. If we took the money that we spent on pets, we could send thousands of children to college and provide food and shelter for battered women. These are things that would truly benefit society. I realize I am at risk of alienating myself from about 75% of the American public who are pet owners, but we need to take a step back and realize that this pandemic of treating pets like people cannot continue.

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