Local Businesses Thrive On Pet Popularity

By Jenny Callison, posted Aug 4, 2023
Aaron Breasseale, manager at the Pet Supplies Plus store at Independence Mall in Wilmington, said the COVID pandemic boosted the pet supply industry. (photo by Madeline Gray)
Fluffy and Max are riding a wave these days. Not only do more U.S. households include a pet than in years past, but pet owners are spending more money on their furry, scaly or feathered companions than they did even a few years ago.

As of 2023, 66% of U.S. households (86.9 million homes) own a pet, according to a survey by Forbes Advisor that the personal finance publication reported in July. That percentage is up from 56% in 1988. And those pets are taking a bigger bite out of owners’ wallets: Last year, Americans spent nearly $137 billion on their pets, Forbes Advisor reported, a more than 10% increase from the $123.6 billion they spent the previous year.

The enforced stays at home during the COVID pandemic fed Americans’ appetite for animal companions. Seventy-eight percent of the pet owners surveyed by Forbes Advisor said they acquired pets during the pandemic. Local pet businesses are seeing the results.

“There was definitely an overall bump in the [pet] industry during COVID,” said Aaron Breasseale, manager of the new Pet Supplies Plus store at Independence Mall. “Now, it’s not like it was in 2021 and 2022, but it’s more than it used to be. Business increased during COVID because people got a new pet, or people were home with their pets more.”

Breasseale said that in 2023 the company has not seen the rapid growth of the two previous years but is maintaining the same level of business. And to retrieve customers during the pandemic, the company upped its e-commerce game and began offering curbside pickup.

“That business really took off,” he said.

Early this year, Lowe’s Home Improvement snuggled up with Petco to pilot a store-in-store concept. The companies initially tested their Lowe’s + Petco model with pet products and services at 15 locations in the Carolinas. One of those was Lowe’s Surf City store. The company announced recently it is expanding Lowe’s + Petco to a total of 300 stores by year’s end. At 75 of those stores, monthly Petco Vetco Clinics will offer microchipping, vaccinations and preventive care as well.

“Focusing on rural communities across the country, this expansion offers a new convenience to shoppers, providing access to pet supplies and veterinary care along with everything DIY and Pro customers need for their home improvement projects,” the July 20 news release stated. 

In addition to the Surf City location on U.S. 17, the new concept will be available at Lowe’s stores in Porters Neck and in Southport.
Among specific trends Breasseale observes at Pet Supplies Plus is the willingness of owners to provide premium food for their pets.

“Overall, pet care, even just in the last five years, has really changed,” he said. “Natural foods came out 10 to 15 years ago and now outnumber traditional, conventional-brand foods, which has led to those conventional brands to come out with their own natural food versions. 

“Fresh and frozen food has taken off here recently. This [Independence Mall] store in particular has six refrigerators and freezers of dog and cat food: frozen cooked, frozen raw, frozen dog bones, frozen broth. Our other stores have only one or two freezers or coolers. That reflects the change in that trend since those stores opened and that’s a new big trend we are trying to accommodate.”

Specialty pet food is the name of the game at Aunt Kerry’s Pet Stop off South College Road. The store has built a following over the past 17 years of pet owners who want or need natural foods for dogs, cats and other domestic animals. 

“These are foods with limited ingredients and not a lot of filler; we’re trying to emulate what the animal would be exposed to in the wild,” said store associate Thomas Holmes. “We try to deal with smaller companies – some of these companies will not sell to big-box stores.”

A trend in the natural pet food world is whole prey diets: using as much of the feed animal as possible, Holmes added. That might mean creating treats from pig snouts, for example. Raw food is also becoming very popular.

Customers at Aunt Kerry’s are people whose pets have special dietary needs or are just plain picky eaters, according to Holmes. Some come to the shop at the recommendation of a veterinarian. 

Because the store buys only from small companies, their vendor relationships are very congenial, Holmes said, explaining that if a pet doesn’t tolerate a particular food, or won’t eat it, the customer can return it to Aunt Kerry’s for a refund. The food vendor will eat the cost, and Aunt Kerry’s donates the unused food to an area animal nonprofit.

Spending on pets extends beyond toys, treats and daily sustenance. Grooming, training and boarding are in high demand. Pawville, now with eight area locations plus one in Georgia and one in Florida, offers those services as well as retail sales of food and supplies. In 2022, Pawville landed on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. for the second year in a row, with the business ranking No. 3,602 after recording 143% growth in three years.
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