Why Pet Retailers Must Build Emotional Connections With Pet Owners

For Sustained Sales Growth, Pet Retailers and Manufacturers Must Build Emotional Connections with Pet Owners

Pet retailers and manufacturers currently face enormous competition for share of mind and share of wallet. This is, in part, tied to larger retail trends: shorter business cycles, fickle consumers and a changing definition of retail. “Retail” today means more than physical stores; it refers to the total experience created by brands, from stores and products to digital touch points and service.

But the pet industry has additional dynamics that include changing relationships between people and their pets and generational differences among pet owners. While staying competitive in price, product mix and weekly promotions, pet retailers and manufacturers must put more effort into creating deeper emotional connections and advocacy among pet owners.


The proliferation of options at retail has led to a classic case of commoditization, with interchangeable products forcing intense price competition. Many pet owners don’t recognize a significant distinction between mass retailers, and willingly buy food and pet products from multiple sources.

Connecting with first-time pet owners and nurturing a lifelong relationship is the most lucrative model, and pet brands must pursue it vigorously. Every time a retail pet specialist makes a personal connection with a pet, it dramatically increases trust and perceptions of quality. Dual competitive pressures, however, can distract from this course, as mass retailers like Target and Walmart aggressively challenge price and product assortment and niche retailers like Chuck & Don’s offer a more service-based model.

The growth of Internet sales is another key factor for pet food retail — even for brick-and-mortar operations. The percentage of Internet shoppers doubled between 2002 and 2008 (from 14 percent to 29 percent) according to an American Pet Products Association survey of pet owners. Content is critical to maintaining online leadership, especially in search rankings, but the volume of pet information available online has exploded and just posting articles is no longer a strong differentiator. Online content — from personalized opportunities to real-time advice — must be responsive and empathetic to the needs and concerns of the pet owner.  


Through our extensive experience in the pet category — and our personal experiences as pet parents — we understand that pets are members of the family. And quite honestly, everything is better with pets. They are the spark for our best memories and our warmest emotions, and they add meaning and purpose to our lives. That’s partly why pets are a priority in the lives of most American families — behind spouses and children, but ahead of friends, jobs and hobbies.

Even as we navigate the most electronically connected world ever, many people still feel isolated and lonely. Today 20 percent of Americans report having only one confidant, and 25 say they have no one to talk to.[1]Pets can fill this relationship gap: 70 percent of pet owners say their pets understand their feelings better than most people.[2] This deep, emotional connection to our pets — humanizing them, in effect — is more than just a trend; it is a long-term societal shift. 

The humanization of pets presents a significant opportunity for pet brands. Treating pets like people affects a range of consumer behaviors. Nearly 50 percent of dogs sleep in their owners’ beds[3]; 68 percent of owners buy their pets birthday or holiday gifts[4]; 60 percent say they travel with their pets[5]; and 14 percent have created Facebook accounts for them[6].

Unsurprisingly, this shift has deeply influenced pet care. Americans’ are increasingly looking at pet well being through the same holistic lens through which they view their own health. “My care = my pet’s care.” Dogs used to visit a vet once a year for a wellness exam and a heartworm preventive. Now they have dog day care, dog walkers, organic food, stimulating puzzles and their own TV network. Pet insurance, senior care and hospice are on the rise and the use of homeopathic remedies for pets has increased 400 percent since 2000[7]. Professional photo sessions at the end of pets’ lives capture the emotion of the unique relationships owners have with their pets.

It’s safe to say that the expectations of a good pet owner are rapidly changing, along with the services and experiences pet owners expect pet brands to provide. Aligning pet products and services with those available in the human world is a smart way to foster advocacy.


As pet ownership declines among older Americans, it is on the rise among millennials, or Emerging Pet Owners. Emerging Pet Owners differ from previous generations in ways that create opportunities for sustained sales growth and increased loyalty toward retailers and manufacturers.

Pet owners 18 to 34 years old are 38 percent more likely to buy holiday and birthday gifts for their pets and 55 percent more likely to pamper them with toys, diets and other services than owners over age 55. Yet, they are 29 percent less likely to take them to the vet for regular checkups.[8]

This means that there are significant differences in both the amount Emerging Pet Owners spend and what they spend it on. The average pet owner spends about $75 per month on their pet, yet 18- to 34-year-old pet owners spend significantly more: $108 per month, or about $400 more annually than any other group.[9]However, because they are less likely to spend on vet checkups, they are spending disproportionately more on food, gifts, toys, treats and emerging pampered pet services. This opens up a valuable opportunity for pet brands to develop strong relationships with this new generation of pet owners.

Amid all these pressures and changes, from increased competition to shifting demographics, pet retailers and manufacturers are fortunate to have a constant reminder of what remains at the core of their business: dogs, cats, parakeets, ferrets — and, of course, the people who love them. To capture the attention and loyalty of pet owners, especially millennials, brands must take a cue from the wagging dog that comes in every weekend with her owner: recognize and honor the strength of that bond and put it at the center of everything they offer.


[1] McPherson, et al. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review. June 2006; vol. 71, no. 3:353-375.

[2] Mintel Marketing to Pet Owners, 2012

[3] American Pet Products Association, 2010–2012

[4] “Is it Crazy to Treat Our Pets Like Kids,” USA Today, 2011

[5] PetRelocation.com, Summer Pet Travel Survey, 2011

[6] Mintel Marketing to Pet Owners, 2012

[7] American Pet Products Association 2011–2012

[8] Mintel Marketing to Pet Owners, 2012

[9] Mintel Pet Supplies, 2012