Dave Shaw jokes that the reason he’s in the pet business is that he earned a history degree and didn’t know what else to do.
In all seriousness, the New Jersey native appears to have made a good career decision. Not only is Shaw’s Pet Nutrition Center in Lake Ridge thriving, but so is the industry as a whole.
According to the American Pet Products Association, spending on pets increased 5.3 percent nationwide from 2010 to 2011.
Americans spent nearly $51 billion last year on everything from grooming and boarding to the over-the-counter medications for their furry companions.
In fact, Shaw has been so successful that after just two years, he’s opening a second location in Burke.
“We are really kicking butt,” Shaw said. “We are busy beyond what we had planned for. It has succeeded beyond anything we had thought.”
Part of the reason for the industry’s success is the recent specialization of pet products and services. Shaw’s pet expertise and high-end pet food — which isn’t sold as much at larger chain stores — keeps the Pet Nutrition Center humming.
In his 40 years in the pet industry, Shaw has worked for stores where he said no one under 25 knew anything more than how to “put stuff of the shelves and ring up customers.” While the industry has changed somewhat to cater more to the big-box stores, Shaw said dog food suppliers still work with independents first because that’s who traditionally had the knowledge. Even some of the large national pet retailers are trying to go the niche route.
Companies like Petco have launched a series of smaller stores called Unleashed, including one in Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center in Woodbridge. Location has been crucial for the Lake Ridge-based Pet Nutrition Center. Not only do many Lake Ridge residents have a bit more disposable income, but Shaw said there are no stores nearby quite like his quaint 3,000-square-foot specialty shop.
What’s good for me …
The move toward pet store specialization has coincided with the alternative health product movement in the United States.
Americans have become more aware of what they are putting into their bodies, as well as their pet’s bodies.
According to APPA, the high-end pet food trend started a few years ago.
From 2010 to 2011, growth in sales of over-the-counter pet medications was three times higher than the increase in spending for standard veterinary care.
Alternatives to surgery, such as acupuncture, have also become popular. Several vets in Prince William County now offer that treatment option.
“There are all sorts of methodologies of taking care of yourself, and you can find a counterpart for that on the pet side,” APPA president Bob Vetere said.
Pet insurance is also expected to grow, according to APPA. Including veterinary care figures, $450 million is spent on pet insurance now and that is projected to hit $500 million by the end of this year. Some insurance companies like Aetna have experimented with providing pet insurance in the more urban areas. There are also specialized pet insurance carriers like the aptly named Veterinary Pet Insurance.
Taking extra special care of your pet may also be a generational thing. Baby boomers who have no children at home to dote on anymore, have turned their attention to their dogs or cats, said Vetere.
Man’s best friends
As the business of pets has changed, so has the attitude of businesses toward pets. According to Dominic Bergeron of Lake Ridge, businesses all over Northern Virginia have begun to cater to the dog-and cat crowd. That includes everything from retail stores to pet-friendly hotels.
Married with three dogs and no children, Bergeron estimates that 85 percent of businesses in Old Town Alexandria are pet friendly.
Nathan’s Dairy Bar in Manassas provides ice cream for dogs in Styrofoam cups called “pup cups,” said Bergeron, who brings his dogs with him no matter where he goes.
“A lot of people are starting to realize that people love dogs and are bringing dogs with them,” Bergeron added. “The mentality has changed towards dogs.”
Bergeron’s enthusiasm for pets has also helped Prince William County move closer to having its first dog park— a commonplace amenity in many other Northern Virginia localities.
For years, animal lovers and the Prince William Park Authority couldn’t find a spot, partly due to neighborhood safety concerns expressed by some of the nearby residents.
Lake Ridge Dog Park organizers had a wildly successful fundraising walk early this spring before Occoquan Supervisor Michael C. May contributed more than $27,000 of his magisterial district carryover funds in August to help with expenses and right of way acquisition.
Placing a priority on pets may have been just a recent government phenomenon in Prince William. However, people all over the country were still doing their best to make Fido’s life comfortable even during the lean years of the recession, according to Vetere.
“People were making changes in their own lifestyles just so they could hang on to the family pet,” he said.