The amount of money spent annually on pets in the United States has undergone an astounding increase in the last decade. Pet experts point to the Baby Boomer generation, the largest in United States history, as the transformative force in an industry that ballooned from $34.4 billion in 2004 to an estimated $58.5 billion this year.
Coming to terms with the reality that their children were entrenched in lives of their own, Baby Boomers not only obtained pets, but they showered, and continue to shower, those pets in such opulence that it has reached a human scale, according to the American Pet Products Association, a leading industry analyst.
Clothing and jewelry, car seats and strollers, travel bags and bedding — dogs and cats aren’t just pets anymore, they are family members who are pampered with an array of expensive amenities.
“Being known as helicopter parents for all of the ‘hovering’ they did over their children, Baby Boomers were looking for some type of companionship to replace the children,” said Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the APPA. “Pets began taking that place.”
While the pet market has mushroomed with new products and luxuriated staples such as collars and leashes, the core industry remains centered around the basics — food and veterinary care. Though birds, horses, fish and reptiles are included in the industry, the big money in the pet business comes down to man’s best friend and his feline counterpart. According to the APPA, there are 179 million pet dogs and cats in the United States. For perspective, that’s 56 percent of the total human population of 319 million, as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Globally, according to the APPA, the pet industries in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada are healthy, but when it comes to pampering, no country tops the United States. Economic forecasts by the APPA and market analyst Ibis World predict the pet industry will continue to grow. As it does, big-box retailers, grocery stores, online retailers, vets and mom-and-pops will fight it out for their piece of the pie.
Food and Grooming
At the behest of their daughter, Jan and Bill McQuade cashed in their retirement accounts and moved to Fayetteville to open The Whole Pet in 2012. Founded on the twin pillars of food and grooming, the 3,400-SF business at 2423 N. College Ave. is doing what it’s supposed to do — providing quality niche products and services to educated buyers who don’t like to shop at Walmart and Target.
So far, the Fayetteville market has been good to the McQuades. Year-to-date, 2014 sales are as much as 34 percent higher than they were in 2013, thus lending truth to their daughter’s enticements a few years ago.
“She told us Fayetteville was a doggy town and that it’s a small-business town,” Bill McQuade said.
When they arrived in Northwest Arkansas they did so as seasoned pros. The McQuades started out in Fort Smith in 1973 with a grooming business called Happy Tails. They eventually moved into food sales and, after a few trials and tribulations, opened up a second store in Van Buren before opening the third in Fayetteville.
Over the years, Jan McQuade established herself as a master groomer, while Bill McQuade, a vocal and at times contentious presence in the pet industry, is the nutrition guru. The McQuades famously dumped food brands Iams and Eukanuba, Purina Pro Plan, Nutro, and Science Diet not long after they were purchased by corporate interests.
“Any company that’s going to push fruit loops is not going to make a good dog food,” Jim McQuade said.
The McQuades have since stocked their shelves with Orijen, which can sell for more than $90 for a 28.6-pound bag, Nature’s Logic, which uses Arkansas poultry, and perhaps the most controversial of all dog foods — frozen raw diet.
Bill McQuade admits the products in his store are expensive. But the Fayetteville clientele is willing to pay the price, and besides, he said, when they shop at The Whole Pet they know what they’re getting — dog food that’s made with real beef, lamb and fish, not kibble processed with the industrial byproducts from the corn and poultry industries.
“It’s expensive, but that’s where we get into nutrition,” he said. “You’re buying nutrition.”
Three Hundred Yorkies
Locally and nationally, there are plenty of bright signs showing that the pet industry is popular, competitive and constantly changing.
Jen Bielema, wife of University of Arkansas football coach Brett Bielema, and the couple’s terriers, Lucy, Ricky and Max, graced the cover of this year’s Tails of Love, an annual fundraising book by the Humane Society of the Ozarks.
Meanwhile, PetSmart, which has stores in Fayetteville and Rogers, is under extreme pressure by activist hedge fund Jana Partners to sell so that the company can be made more profitable for shareholders. In federal court, Nestle Purina Pet Care has sued rival Blue Buffalo for false advertising related to product ingredients. And on Wall Street, food maker Freshpet Inc., recently raised about $156 million in its initial public offering. According to published reports, protein giant Tyson Foods Inc. is an investor.
As the market continues to readjust as it moves upward, the heart of what drives the industry — the enduring love of pets — remains constant. Outside of vets, those who know this the best are perhaps the groomers.
One such person is Jill Cingolani. She walked away from a career in real estate to wash dogs for a living at PetSmart for $8 an hour. And she loved it. She soon became salon manager and put in five years there before opening her own shop, Vanity Fur, in 2012 in Farmington.
Even though she was under a non-compete from PetSmart, word soon spread that she was out on her own and the customers came calling.
“It didn’t take long,” she said. “People don’t come to me because I’m the best groomer. They come here because they know I love their dogs.”
She now has 300 Yorkshire Terriers in her database.
“I often joke that Farmington needs to change its mascot to Yorkie because everybody’s got one,” Cingolani said.
The region’s pet market, according to Cingolani, is “very, very good,” and she’s confident that at some point she will be able to build a home with an attached grooming salon and add a new piece to her enterprise — boarding.
“The market is not going anywhere,” she said. “People will always have dogs and they will always need to be groomed.”
Wash and Wear
Chris and Patti Deen got tired of the rat race. Rather than endure the nightmare commutes to Washington, D.C., and the soul-sucking routine of the corporate grind, the couple sold the house in Richmond, Virginia, packed up and headed to Northwest Arkansas.
In April 2013, on the strength of a $150,000 investment, they opened Bark ‘N Paws, a 2,300-SF self-serve dog wash and pet store, in a retail center off Wedington Drive in west Fayetteville.
The Deens had seen dog washes in larger metros, and thought they would work in Northwest Arkansas. The store, open Tuesday through Sunday, has five stainless steel walk-in tubs, a grooming salon, and a retail space that sells everything from beef tracheas and baked duck feet to American-made leashes. Customers are provided with shampoo, eye, ear and dental wipes, combs, brushes and towels. The stalls are also equipped with blow dryers.
Running a dog wash requires constant cleaning and 10-12 hour days, much of it spent standing. But even with the hardships, making pets and their owners happy is much more gratifying than feeding the corporate beast.
“This is like night and day,” Patti Deen said.
The Deens understand what it’s like to dote on a dog. Their children are Dizzie and Sundae, a pair of Boston Terriers. But business is business, and even if it includes furry friends, certain things need to happen if the business is to succeed.
“You have to be incredibly motivated, well-funded and organized,” Patti Deen said.
The business has been boosted by social media like Facebook, Yelp and Angie’s List, and it helps that plenty of people in Northwest Arkansas have come here from much bigger areas where dog washes are common.
“People come in and say, ‘I didn’t know you had a dog wash,’” Chris Deen said.
The Deens said they are open-ended with their plans. They could stay with Bark ’N Paws and stay in Northwest Arkansas and retire, or they could sell and move somewhere else. In the meantime, if they could find the right partner, they might consider expanding into the region and perhaps even into Little Rock.
“The model will work,” Chris Deen said.