Animals & Money: Pets may be recession proof, but pet luxuries?

If there is one upside to the economic downturn, it is the downfall of what was once assumed to be the resilient market for luxury pet goods. Dog and cat lovers are used to having ridiculous, often useless products foisted upon us. But in the last few years we have also had to endure a parade of come-ons for a keeping up with the Jones' dog approach to pet ownership. Happily, that may end.

In 2005, Paw Luxuries Magazine proudly launched as "the only magazine devoted to the world of high-end pet products and luxury pet services." Somehow before that us dog and cat people had to get along without "a stylish photographic essay, showcasing dazzling designs from the trendsetters of the pet world." And we'll have to find a way to get by without it; Paw Luxuries is gone. (Though The Pet Elite and Luxury Pet Living survive.)

No doubt, we're all spending more on our pets as they've become a bigger part of our families. When I was growing up, my dog Peanut was lucky to get an occasional rawhide stick. Now my dog Jolly has an assortment of meat-based treats -- like Dr. Becker's Bison bites (which are like a meat Pringle). He's also a senior with arthritis, so he has coats and even beds for all weather.

But what sellers of luxury pet goods fail to understand is, I'm willing to spend a lot of money on something I think will make Jolly comfortable or happy or even amused. I'm not interested in spending money to get a dog status symbol or fashion statement or piece of dog cuteness.
Those home-made dog biscuits that are popping up in twee stores nationwide? Jolly spits them out. He prefers the more down-to-earth liverwurst -- even if the tube is cut up and frozen to make it last longer. Hotels that offer special pet beds? No thanks, says Jolly. He knows the pet beds are a ruse to make sure he doesn't jump on the bed. He likes the Red Roof Inn just fine.

The pet industry itself is absolutely booming and, I think, recession-proof. The American Pet Products Association had a $17 billion industry in 1994, a $41.2 billion one in 2007, and predicted about 5.3% growth for a $43.4 billion industry in 2008. But these predictions were made pre-recession. And the category most likely to include luxury goods -- "Supplies/OTC medicine" -- was up only 5.1%.

BusinessWeek ran a pro/con debate on whether a recession would sink the pet luxury business. That was way back in July, 2007, when a recession seemed remote and far gentler than we are experiencing. The pro-collapse side argued that when you're broke you're not going to pay more for frilly stuff (like a designer dog bed) when you can't tell the difference anyway. The everything-will-be-fine crowd says rich people aren't like the rest of us -- they have the money to keep on buying.

The boutique, scatter-shot industry is hard to gauge. Some shop owners tell reporters and each other they're doing great. PetSmart stock had respectable earnings in November. Same store sales were up 5%. But the stock now trades under $20 after spending much of 2007 above $30. And investors are worried about competition from big box retailers.

In Spring Wal-Mart announced it would make a push into pets as a hedge against the recession. Wal-Mart already has a quarter of the pets market and hopes to make it to 30% by 2010, BusinessWeek reported. I think Wal-Mart understands people cutting back in the economy better than the average pet boutique. I'm not a big fan of Wal-Mart, but I would shop there to get something I thought Jolly needed or wanted if I couldn't afford it elsewhere.

Those who predict luxury pet products are recession-proof I think miss something essential about pet families today. Yes, we treat our dogs and cats like our kids. Yes, we we're willing to buy ridiculous things for them. But, we're not complete idiots. And also, as members of our family, our pets go through our economic ups and downs with us. Instead of giving them extra luxury goods, we can just give them extra time. That's free and it's what they really want anyway.

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