Putting A Price On Puppy Love

Here at PYMNTS, we see it all, often in the form of press releases – most of which claim to be the next big thing in retail, commerce and financial services. These days, those ideas are often associated with crypto.

But this week, the press release that we thought was pretty cool was from startup Bristly, letting us know that they had invested “the world’s most effective toothbrush for dogs.”

They also promised us a “cool video already going viral.”

We were a little dubious, since even the most dedicated dog owner in the office, a person who cooks their dogs a rotisserie chicken every other night for dinner, remarked that they drew the line at brushing a dog’s teeth.

Undeterred by this remarkably odd sample of one, we checked out the site anyway. There, we learned two things.

The first is that the video is cool – and if we could embed it, we would.

The second is that after only a few days, Bristly has raised over $175,000 on Kickstarter from more than 4,000 people. The goal for their Kickstarter round was $15,000, meaning they’ve exceeded their goal by more than tenfold and counting.

The people have spoken – and they want a better way to brush their dog’s teeth, a revelation we found surprising, but perhaps shouldn’t have.

By the numbers, commerce is literally going to the dogs.

Human beings have always had pets and have always loved them, of course, but in recent years that love has evolved to an entirely new level.

“America’s house pets have worked their way into a new place in the hearts, homes and wallets of their owners,” Michael Schaffer wrote in his book “One Nation Under Dog: America's Love Affair With Our Dogs” – and data backs up that assertion. According to VIP Petcare’s data, 84 percent of pet owners consider themselves “pet parents,” which kind of explains how the term “fur babies” came into vogue.

And where there is enthusiasm, there is also commerce – and, as it turns out, quite a lot of it.

“The humanization of pets has played well for brands and retailers that have developed or pivoted their strategies for consumers looking to treat their furry friends to the best that life has to offer,” Nielsen noted in its paper on pet care trends earlier this year.

And pet owners are willing to pay, usually quite a premium, for offering their pets the best lives possible. VIP Petcare estimates that the average pet owner spends a little over $2,000 a year caring for their fur baby, and Neilson notes that as of last year, Americans collectively spent about $69 billion on pet care. And the figure has been climbing sharply – by at least $2 billion each year – since the mid-1990s. In 2016, Americans spent $66.75 billion per year on their pets; as of 2007, pet owners spent $41.2 billion.

That’s a lot of dog treats.

Except, it actually isn’t.

When looking at the numbers, it isn’t that Americans are buying their pets much more to eat, as dog food and treat sales have been fairly flat in recent years – it’s that pet parents are buying their pets so, so many other things as well. Things like spa visits, acupuncture, glitter tattoos, non-medically necessary prostheses, subscription boxes, meal kits, rotisserie chickens and artisanal toys. One brave New York Times reporter with a new puppy who decided to embed himself deep into the pet pampering lifestyle – putatively for the cause of advancing journalism – discovered that the sky's the limit when it comes to showing fur babies the love that is their due.

But while the options may be myriad, according to Nielsen, they are all guided by a common thread – one that is also central to the owners' buying behaviors.

“Many of the trends we’re seeing in the pet category are ones we’ve been seeing in consumer categories over the past year or two: health and wellness,” Nielsen noted in its report. “Health and wellness is paramount to success in pet innovation, and pet trends are closely following human ones. In some cases, they’re even getting there first.”

Health and wellness, of course, is a wide-ranging category for humans – encompassing everything from skin creams, to cosmetics, to exercise, to apparel, to meal kits, to vitamin supplements to whatever witchcraft Gwyneth Paltrow is selling on Goop these days. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is equally wide-ranging when it comes to pets.

But some of the places where it ranges are legitimately pretty surprising. For example, according to Petplan, an insurance company for pets, pet parents dropped $62 million in 2011 on plastic surgery for their pets. Some of that surgery was for medically necessary reasons, but some was assuredly cosmetic. One such popular cosmetic procedure? The implantation of Neuticles, prosthetic testicles for neutered pets.

“Some people throw the dog in the car and have him turned into a eunuch because they don’t care. But there’s a certain segment of pet owners that do care, and that’s where Neuticles come in,” said Gregg A. Miller, who invented them in 1995.

That certain segment includes both Kim Kardashian and Larry Flynt, according to The New York Times. Fun fact, according to Miller: Kardashian did not demonstrate her normally high-end tastes when it came to buying for her pet boxer.

“They had ordered the cheapest ones possible – the hard ones, the clackers – and I thought, 'Wow,'" Miller told CNBC. For reference, a top-of-the-line pair of Neuticals retails for $469.

And while that expenditure of funds may seem a bit strange, Miller is adamant that his invention helps dogs maintain their dignity in the aftermath of being neutered. And that concern for a dog’s dignity deserves at least some credit – particularly as one delves deeper into the wild world of pet-centric commerce. It is hard to imagine, on the other hand, the recent trend of “Asian fusion” dog grooming that is apparently sweeping the streets of New York among the painfully hip and extremely rich.

The term comes care of Jorge Bendersky, a New York dog groomer who charges around $300 an hour and counts like the likes of Gisele Bündchen and P. Diddy among his clients. Asian fusion, he noted, is a dog styling method developed in Japan that has become popular stateside.

“That’s very short on the body and very long on the legs, like big bell bottoms, which gives them the opportunity to wear a dress or a sweater and necklace without messing up the hairstyle," he noted.

In fairness, it is a terrible thing to have splurged on a $150,000 collar for one’s dog, and then have it clash with their haircut.

Mr. Bendersky further told about the times that he gets a lot of demand for French “pawdicures,” pink and purple highlights in fur, and, “for that extra rock ’n’ roll edge,” glitter tattoos.

And because a day at the salon can be taxing – particularly for a dog that got an elaborate manicure – there are also spas to help pets unwind. At The Barkley Pet Hotel and Day Spa in Westlake Village, California, dogs are given the options of mud baths, detox wraps, hot oil treatments, blueberry facials, deep sea mineral mud masks and oatmeal soaks.

At Oh My Dog! Boutique Hotel and Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, canine patrons can choose to study dog yoga – which, yes, is called doga – or shop their dog-centric apparel boutique on site. For dogs that like their fashion less esoteric, more preppy, not to worry: Ralph Lauren’s Pets line features cashmere sweaters and polo shirts.

At the Stay Dog Hotel in Chicago, four-legged guests have riverfront suites and a lap pool.

And as it turns out, premium services for your pet don’t stop once they check out of the space. For example, for those who don’t want to feed their dog out of a bag but perhaps do not have time to cook their pet a full hot meal, there's good news. JustFoodForDogs advertises themselves as “purveyors of handcrafted meals for dogs,” and will deliver those handcrafted meals straight to your door, featuring ingredients like venison and squash.

It sounds pretty good – but not to worry, even if one is perhaps limited to feeding their pet out of a bag, what’s in the bag is getting better. Though the amount of dog food people have been buying has been fairly flat in recent years, according to Nielsen, the demand for “higher-quality premium food” has boosted annual household spending on pet food by 36 percent over the last 10 years.

Plus, the better the dog food, it seems, the bigger the sales revenue. Nielsen’s number also indicated that “produce-derived superfoods like blueberries, cranberries and sweet potatoes” all seem to draw pet parent spending, as do “probiotics and products with functional ingredients.” When more premium features are added, such as “novel proteins” like quail or rabbit, Nielsen reported, brands see growth in “double and triple digits.”

In fact, the growth in dog food and its relative value has been so sharp in recent years that it has sparked the interest of various big consumer packaged goods players looking for more market touchpoints as consumer interests are evolving. In April, General Mills bought natural pet foods label Blue Buffalo for $8 billion, saying at the time the addition represented a “a compelling new growth platform.”

In May, J.M. Smucker bought Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, parent of the Rachael Ray Nutrish pet food brand, for about $1.7 billion, again in the name of accelerating “the growth profile” of its pet food/snacks business, which includes such labels as Meow Mix and Milk-Bone.

The biggest news in the sector of late, however, are the rumored intentions of international CPG giant Nestle to purchase Canada’s Champion Petfoods, which owns brands Orijen and Acana, for more than $2 billion. Nestle already owns the Purina pet food line, but has identified “pet care” as a high-growth area. Orijen is a premium dog food brand with an active online following, and is likely a consumer base to which Nestle would very much like to develop closer ties.

Dogs, of course, can never have too many things bought for them, as they are loyal, smart, kind and possibly the superior form of life on this planet (but for their unfortunate habit of destroying shoes from time to time). And while we might chuckle at deep sea purification masks for dogs – who, left to their own devices, will happily root through the trash and eat whatever they find there – the truth is we can’t help but applaud the commerce world’s dedication to finding new and inventive ways to make man’s best friend happy.

But we might really have to rethink the phrase "it’s a dog’s life." These days, a dog’s life doesn’t sound so bad.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.