Animals & Money: Big box discounters pushing into the pet business

When I walk down the pet aisle in K-mart, I see lots of reasonably priced dog foods -- but none I would actually feed my dog. When I was younger and poorer and had never heard of melanine, K-mart seemed fine. But then I was terrified -- along with just about every other dog owner -- by the pet food recall.

Now price isn't the most important factor; safety is. (Not that expensive brands weren't also sucked up in the recall.) So when will K-mart wise up and get some decent brands at decent prices, I always wonder.

Well, for K-mart it may never happen. But for most pet owners on a budget, it's good news that the big box retailers are finally paying attention to what the American Pet Product Association projected to be a $43 billion pet product business in 2008. You know that you've got a big business when the big box retailers crave a piece of it.

Wal-Mart made a big push into pet product last spring, betting that pets are recession-proof, while Target launched a pets department in 2005. Both have their own store brands that they call "premium."

The big box stores are trying to take a bigger part of what seems like a growing market, but since people turn to them because they are cheap, it stands to reason the $43 industry may now actually contract. Wal-Mart has a quarter of the market now -- and the top store brand pet food -- and it wants to control 30% by 2010. That's certainly bad news for tiny pet stores and a mixed bag for pet owners.

For dog owners, everything changed with the pet food recall of 2007. Now we worry about where all that cheap stuff comes from. And the big boxes didn't always do right by us and our pets. In 2007 Consumer Affairs found that some Wal-Mart toys had lead. (As a result, the giant retailer has started checking more carefully.)

Wal-Mart seems to sell a lot of pet food brands you'd find in a supermarket. My gosh, did you know that they even still make Moist & Meaty or Gravy Train? But it does have a few kinds I might actually want to feed my dog. Looking at its site, I see it has Rachel Ray, Newman's Own and FreshPet (which I see on its website answering an FAQ about whether its ingredients are all made in the U.S.: "All our major ingredients come from the US or Canada." Hmmm, major ingredients? I'd say if the ingredients are so minor, they should spend the extra bucks and get them in the U.S. so they don't freak people out with that answer.)

Wal-Mart by far has the most comprehensive pet listings. For dogs it sells 281 food items and 84 collars and leashes. Walmart offers cat owners 310 food items and 16 leashes and accessories. Target is more into accessories than supplies. Target only has 21 dog food items. But it goes deeper into dog culture with impractical categories, like pet sleepwear and dog special occasion, to things we really need like a senior pets section with 44 items.

Wal-Mart is a big enough powerhouse that when it says it wants something done, its suppliers listen. So, if Wal-Mart leans on companies about ingredients from China, that will stop. The new presence of these big box stores in the pet industry means you may be able to get some good items If you can get food you feel good about feeding your dog cheaper, great. If Wal-Mart shuts down the stores that give you that choice, not so great.
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