Unconditional Spending

An industry flourishes as people love their pets more than ever before

September, 2006

One poodle, excuse me, I mean one tiny toy poodle — as her doting owner quickly points out — one tiny toy poodle tells the whole story. Just take his name: In French, he’s called Petit Roi Louis, after King Louis XIV, the French king whose extravagance is best exemplified by the Palace of Versailles. In English, he gets by with the moniker Baby Louis.

And babied he is.

After all, his owner, excuse me again, his mother, as she calls herself, operates The Groom Room, a business quite accurately described on the sign outside the Ewa Beach storefront as a day spa and salon for pampered pets. Jeannine Camp loves pets, absolutely, and she provides a venue for like-minded “pet parents” to lavish services on their animals that many people would consider splurging if they did it for themselves.

Here, at the Groom Room, dogs get Pawdicures, yes, the dog equivalent of a manicure, where their nails are clipped and filed, and then an oatmeal paste is used to scrub the paws clean. Next the ear hairs are plucked and the dog is treated to an all-natural shampoo and a massage.

After that, if the owner wants, the dog receives a haircut, of which there are multiple styles. There is the smoothie, a buzz-cut that helps in the hot weather. Then there is the lion cut, both the traditional style of tight trim from the ribs down, and the summer lion cut, which goes from the shoulders down. Not to mention the fox cut, poodle-feet cut and puppy cut.

After that, dogs get the equivalent of a scented hot-oil treatment, which is massaged into their coat. Camp holds up her Baby Louis to show the results. He smells like a perfumed debutante. Really, he does. For pet parents, like Jeannine, there is also the option of hair dyes and what she calls foo-foo bows. Baby Louis sports it all, with pink, purple and green legs, and purple and pink ears. Oh, and fancy foo-foo bows.

In the front of her shop, there is the coup de grace: Outfits. Lots of them. Like a fireman costume and a ballerina tutu. Next to the outfits, there is Hawaiian Heirloom jewelry to hang on a dog collar.

It’s at this point in the interview, that Camp points out, “We seldom refer to them as dogs.” What do they call them? “They’re our babies,” she says

All of this is to say people are willing to spend serious money on their pets. A grooming and haircut, for a five-pound dog at the bustling Groom Room, costs about $45. The cost tops $100 for large dogs. Hair dye can double and triple the price, depending on how many colors you want and how complicated the style.

And while Camp’s treatment of her Baby Louis might seem over-the-top even to other pet owners, high-end grooming is only one — albeit very colorful — sector of a rapidly growing industry. From birthday presents to dog sitters to CAT scans, more people are spending more and more on their pets today, dogs perhaps most of all, whether they call them Petit Roi Louis or plain old Rover.

We Are Family

The revenue numbers are staggering for anyone who doesn’t own a pet. In 1994, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), $17 billion was spent on pets in the United States. In 2006, APPMA estimates Americans will spend $38.4 billion on their pets.

That’s more than a 100 percent increase in 12 years.

The total includes money on food, medications, veterinarian care and animal purchases, as well as grooming and boarding services. The bulk of the spending is on food (from standard brands to organic) and veterinary care (from vaccinations to knee surgery).

But why are people spending more and more on their animals? Bob Vetere, COO and managing director of APPMA, says one reason is increasing ownership, as people recognize the positive impact pets have on their lives. Studies show a marked reduction in stress in people who own pets. “That’s why you see fish in a dentist’s office,” he says. Add to that an increasingly segregated modern world, filled with cubicles and long commutes, leaves people ripe at the end of the day for the kind of unconditional, warm attention a pet gives, he says.

At the same, two demographic groups with higher than average discretionary spending are also driving the increase in both ownership and spending: They are the empty-nest baby boomers buying pets to put a little warmth back in the nest and young professionals who are waiting longer to get married and have kids.

FASHION FORWARD: The display of dog outfits at the Groom Room in Ewa Beach.

“They are almost serving as substitutes as a spouse and children that left the home and people are considering them actual family members,” says Brian Ianessa, spokesman for California-based Veterinary Pet Insurance, the largest such provider in the country. As members of the family, people are caring for pets like humans, even when it comes to health care. Ianessa remembers when he first started with VPI and received a claim for a guinea pig that had bladder stones removed with laser technology. They even gave the guinea pig anesthesia.

Such trends make room for companies such as VPI. Ianessa says VPI charges on average of $25 per month to avoid the “can’t-afford-it factor” when making critical decisions about medical care, like whether to pay for chemotherapy for their pets. Ianessa says VPI has about 700 active policies in Hawaii and reimburses anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent of vet costs.

Small businesses are popping up too, for dogs, in particular, like dog boutiques, dog bakeries and dog day care, across the country and in Hawaii. This phenomenon has not escaped large players in the retail industry. Big chains like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe’s are trying to figure out ways to get a bigger slice of the pet industry, especially in the lucrative food sector, says Vetere.

In June, the bastion of business journalism, the Wall Street Journal, ran a piece on the strength of pet company stocks. “I must get three or four calls a month from investors to come give presentations,” Vetere confirms. “I hate to use this, but it is as recession proof as there is.”

Blue Collar Be Gone

There are no comprehensive revenue numbers on the pet industry in Hawaii. The only hard number we found on sales is from the 2002 Economic Census, which reported that pet owners that year spent $32.8 million on pet products and services. The pet industry locally is still somewhat under the radar as far as economic studies, though clearly it is there.

Take a Hawaiian Humane Society report number on pet ownership. Citing Ward Research, the Humane Society reports that, on Oahu, dog ownership alone increased from 24 percent in 1993 to 40 percent in 2005. Overall, 56 percent of Oahu households, that’s 160,000 homes, have a pet.

Any scan of the yellow pages today will demonstrate the range of new businesses opening to tap the growing market. Owners of Doggy Day Care, Michelle Jim and Anna Doell, saw the need as they called around to get a grooming appointment. “You would have to wait weeks to get an appointment with a groomer,” says Jim. They opened Doggy Day Care to groom dogs, but more so to baby sit them during the day for professionals who worked long hours or just felt too guilty leaving their dogs at home during the day. A year and a half after opening, business is booming. A day runs about $25 for a dog, though most clients get discounts, because they buy 20-day passes for $200.

For bigger players, like Ricky Baker, chief operating officer of Pet’s Discount, the locally owned and largest pet outlet in Hawaii, business is very competitive, but remains strong. Baker says one part of the business that does very well is puppies. Imported from rabies-free Australia, puppies range from $1,000 for dogs such as beagles to $3,000 for a French bulldog.

In the veterinary sector, Lissa Kam, owner of Ohana Veterinary Hospital, says, as on the Mainland, the level of care continues to become more sophisticated in the Islands and more people are seeking it out. “Ultrasounds are becoming commonplace,” Kam says. She estimates owners spend about $300 to $500 per animal per year on vet care. But complex procedures, such as cataract surgeries or cancer treatments can run several thousand.

Every local business or expert interviewed tied the economic growth and developments in Hawaii to one common point: Pets have gone from the backyard to the bedroom.

They are family, today, whether you dye their hair, buy them birthday cakes or just lavish them with toys.

“Dogs are no longer a working-class animal,” says Camp, in between visiting the various dogs in her shop that are getting their hair blown dry or styled or maybe just getting a massage.

“Instead of chasing sheep, their job is to love us up,” Camp says, as she cuddles the fresh-scented, four-colored Baby Louis.


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