Americans Can’t Stop Pampering Their Pets—Companies Want In
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Americans Can’t Stop Pampering Their Pets—Companies Want In

Firms that cater to humans adapt to the animal world. Ultrasounds for tree frogs. Telehealth for Stella.

Fri, Jan 6, 2023 8:56amGrey Clock 3 min

Attention, CEOs: If not enough people are using your product, maybe animals will.

“Have you seen the numbers? They’re staggering,” said Jenna Mutch, a vice president at portable-ultrasound maker Butterfly Network Inc., referring to the rush of Americans who have brought home pets since the pandemic began. About 23 million households did, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Spending to pamper them is one of a few areas of the economy managing to defy inflation and avoid a post-lockdown pullback.

As a result, some companies that normally cater to humans are high-tailing it to pets.

Ms. Mutch heads commercial development for a newly created unit of her ultrasound company that sells scanners for animals.

Adapting human products for animals can be complicated. There’s the matter of animals’ size. Also, their shape.

Butterfly’s ultrasound machines can scan things ranging from as small as the reproductive organs of tree frogs to chonky mammals, including polar bears, according to Ms. Mutch. “We have to be very versatile,” she said.

Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. is adding hundreds of hotels where animals can stay the night. It offers virtual “pet expert teams” to address health and behaviour issues they might have while traveling, teaming with Mars Inc., the parent of veterinary operator VCA and Purina pet foods.

Snack-bar maker Clif Bar & Co. this summer started selling a line of jerky treats for dogs. Global food giant Mondelez International Inc. took over Clif in August. More pets and growing demand for all-natural dog food prompted the move, a spokeswoman said.

Petco Health & Wellness Co. gets dozens of proposals from companies looking to adapt their products to animals, said Chief Executive Ron Coughlin. Not all the ideas are fully baked. He passed on bringing acupuncturists to the company’s stores.

Although some consumers struggling with inflation are cutting back on nonessentials, they don’t seem to put pet stuff in that category. Spending on pet food was up more than 18% in the last year, and spending on supplies rose 8%, according to Jefferies Research Services.

Mr. Coughlin of Petco is confident the spending will continue as Americans become ever closer to their animals.

“If you look at 100 years ago, pets were in the wild. Forty years ago, they’re in our yard, and 20 years ago in the house,” he said. “Now they’re in the bed.”

Rebecca Goldberg, a physician assistant in Manhattan, has a mixed-breed rescue dog named Stella. When it comes to pampering dogs, Ms. Goldberg is middle of the pack. Hers sleeps on a dog bed, eats kibble as opposed to fresh or human-grade food, and enjoys regular treats.

But Stella, 5, also has a high-end, Carhartt-brand vest to keep her warm outdoors. And lately, Stella has become a remote patient for a veterinary telehealth company called Pawp.

Ms. Goldberg signed up for Pawp as part of a temporary deal offered by T-Mobile. She gets free telehealth services for a year and pays $14 a month to cover emergency visits.

The deal was attractive, she said, because Stella has a sensitive stomach and a propensity to eat things she shouldn’t, a combination that made for frequent vet visits. “Having a veterinary clinic in your pocket is amazing,” Ms. Goldberg said.

Pawp’s founder, Marc Atiyeh, is a veteran of a few industries, none of them animal-related. Before starting Pawp he worked in fintech, finance and mobile analytics.

“There is definitely a flock of players getting into this space,” he said. “You’re getting folks who are veterans of human healthcare or personal finance.”

Peggy Roe, who oversees customer experience and new ventures for Marriott International Inc., said the chain in 2021 started noticing more people asking animal-related questions as they sought vacation lodging—“people asking, ‘Are hotels pet friendly?’ ‘What size dog can I bring?’ ”

Seeing the queries, the company surveyed customers, and of around 300 respondents, 85% said they had pets and more than half planned to travel with them. And not just dogs. Customers expressed interest in traveling with cats, birds and even fish.

“We have hotels that accept all kinds of pets—they don’t discriminate,” Ms. Roe said.

She took Riley, her newly acquired golden retriever, on a road trip, stopping at Marriott properties along the way. There were some worries. How would the stay go over with other guests—and with Riley?

“There was that anxiety,” she said. “Is this going to be good for my dog? Are our other guests going to be upset? Is the staff going to be nice?”

She realised it wasn’t enough to simply provide options for people and their animals. Marriott had to ensure the comfort of both.

“There are the people who love pets, the people who love pets and don’t want to travel with them, and people who don’t want pets anywhere in their space,” she said.

Under a partnership with Petco, Marriott will highlight home-rental properties that are especially well-equipped for pets. Travellers can buy products such as dog beds and bowls from Petco and have them delivered.

“Inflation or not,” Ms. Roe said. “People aren’t going to leave their pets behind.”


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Auto dealers across many parts of the country say electric vehicles are becoming too hard a sell for buyers worried about the range, reliability and price of these models.

When Paul LaRochelle heard Ford Motor was coming out with an electric pickup truck, the dealer was excited about the prospects for his business.

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Battery-powered models have been piling up on car lotsdealers say, as EV sales growth has slowed in the U.S. this year. Car companies have been offering a combination of discounts and lower interest-rate deals in an effort to juice demand. But it hasn’t been enough, because buyer reticence extends beyond the price tag, dealers say.

“I’m not hearing the consumer confidence in the technology,” said Mary Rice, dealer principal at Toyota of Greensboro in North Carolina. “People aren’t beating down the door to buy these things, and they all have a different excuse why they aren’t buying one.”

Customers cite concerns about vehicles burning through a battery charge faster in cold weather or not being able to travel as far as they expected on a single charge, dealers say. Potential buyers also worry that chargers aren’t as readily accessible as gas stations or might be broken.

Franchise dealerships fear that the push to roll out new models will inundate them with hard-to-sell vehicles. Research firm S&P Global Mobility said there are 56 EV models for sale in the U.S. this year, and the number is expected to nearly double to 100 next year.

“I start to think, you know maybe we should just all pump the brakes a little bit,” Rice said.

A group of dealers expressed their concerns about the government’s role in pushing electric vehicles in a letter last month to President Biden.

A Toyota Motor spokesman said the majority of dealers have become “increasingly more confident in their ability to sell Toyota EV products.”

At Ford, the company’s electric-vehicle sales are rising, including for its F-150 Lightning pickup, but demand isn’t evenly spread across the country, according to a spokesman.

Dealers say that after selling an EV, they sometimes hear complaints about charging and the vehicles not always meeting their advertised range. In some cases, customers seek to return them to the dealer shortly after buying them.

“We have a steady number of clients that have attempted to or flat out returned their car,” said Sheehy’s LaRochelle.

While EVs remain a small but rapidly expanding part of the new-car market, the pace of growth has slowed this year. Electric-vehicle sales increased 48% in the first 11 months, compared with a 69% jump during the same period in 2022, according to Motor Intelligence. Sales remain concentrated in a few states, with California accounting for the largest chunk, S&P Global Mobility data found.

The cooling growth has raised broader questions in the industry about whether car companies face a temporary hurdle or a longer-term demand challenge. Automakers have invested billions of dollars to bring more EV models to the market, and many analysts and car executives say they remain optimistic that sales will continue to expand.

“Although the rate of growth has slowed recently, EV demand is clearly moving in the right direction,” said General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra on a recent conference call with analysts. A combination of more affordable model options and better charging infrastructure would help encourage more people to buy electric vehicles, she said.

There are also varying views within the dealer community about how quickly buyers will adopt the technology.In hot spots for electric-vehicle demand, such as Los Angeles, dealers say their battery-powered models are some of their top sellers. Those popular EV markets also tend to have more mature public charging networks.

Selling an electric car or truck outside of those demand centres is proving more difficult.

Longtime EV owner Carmella Roehrig thought she was ready to go full-electric and sold her backup gasoline vehicle. But after the 62-year-old North Carolina resident found herself stranded last year in a rural area of South Carolina, she changed her mind. Roehrig’s Tesla Model S got a flat tire, but none of the stores in the area carried tires for a Tesla. She ended up paying a worker at a nearby shop to drive her home.

Roehrig still has her Tesla but bought a pickup truck for long road trips.

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I have these conversations with people who say we’ll all be in EVs in 15 years. I say: ‘I’m not so sure. I’ve tried to do it,’” Roehrig said. “I think you need a gas backup.”

Customers who want to ditch their gas vehicle for environmental reasons are sometimes hesitant, said Mickey Anderson, president of Baxter Auto Group, which owns dealerships in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado.

“We’re in the Colorado Springs market. If this is your sole mode of transportation, and you’re in a market in extremes of elevation and temperature, the actual range is very limited,” Anderson said. “It makes it extremely impractical.”

Dealers representing around 4,000 stores across the U.S. signed the letter in November addressed to Biden, saying the administration’s proposed auto-emissions regulations designed to promote electric-vehicle sales are unrealistic. The signatories ranged from stores owned by family businesses to publicly held giants such as AutoNation and Lithia Motors.

“Some customers are in the market for electric vehicles, and we are thrilled to sell them. But the majority of customers are simply not ready to make the change,” the letter said.

Some carmakers are pushing back EV-rollout plans. GM said in mid-October that it would delay the opening of an electric pickup plant by a year to late 2025. In response to weaker-than-expected consumer demand, Ford said in late October that it would defer $12 billion of planned spending on electric-vehicle investment.

Since September, dealers on average took more than two months to sell an EV, compared with 40 days for all vehicles, according to car-shopping website Edmunds.

While discounts have helped boost sales of some electric vehicles, they also have led to repercussions for some current owners because it reduces the value of their vehicles, dealers say.

“Most people don’t have the confidence to buy an EV and know what it will be worth in 10-15 years,” said Rice from the Toyota dealership.

It may take some time for the industry to adjust because it is still in an early stage of switching to electric vehicles, Sheehy’s LaRochelle said.

“We’re asking for this market to grow organically,” he said.


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