Pets inspire people to devote their careers to them, in retailing and making petfood. - Debbie Phillips-Donaldson
"The pet store has changed a lot. We used to have a refrigerator full of fresh horse meat, which people would feed their dogs and cats," said Alyce Russell, former owner of a California store first purchased by her parents in 1955.

"I remember when all dog food came from the grocery store [in the 1970s]. Today, the primary thing that gets people into pet stores is the dog food," said Bern Levine, DVM, president of Parrot Jungle Island tropical theme park in Miami, Florida, USA.

Both quotes come from a series of 2006 Pet Product News articles on pioneers of the pet industry. Their comments reflect the strong link throughout the past 50 years between petfood and the retail environment in which it is sold.

Category killers?

Walking through a pet trade show in the 1990s, the comments you heard often centered on Petco and PetSmart. Neither chain was new - Petco opened its first store in 1965 and PetSmart in 1986 - but in the '90s both companies went into full acquisition/expansion mode, quickly dominating the scene.

Their rapid growth was greatly aided by the then-hot US economy and the explosion of the pet industry overall. More people had greater disposable income and were happy to spend it on all the terrific, innovative offerings from the pet industry. This included a growing selection of premium, superpremium, natural and organic petfoods.

Petco and PetSmart were joined by huge discounters like Wal-Mart and Target, which saw the vast opportunities and expanded their pet sections. Many independent retailers went out of business, along with distributors and vendors that couldn't deliver according to the big chains' demands.

Fast-forward 10 years

Today, though there are fewer independent pet stores, the pet market is booming in the US and globally, with projections for continued growth. And the surviving independent stores, along with many new ones, are succeeding by serving niches only they can fill: natural products, live pets, expert or special knowledge, for example.

Most industry experts see the retail changes as beneficial in the long run. "[PetSmart and Petco] take advantage of the more scientific knowledge about pets and make pet owning easier," said Pete Peterson, former owner of distributor Herbert Amerpet in San Francisco, California USA, and also interviewed by Pet Product News . "That helps everyone."

Through all the changes, pets still are integral to our lives and inspire people to devote their careers to them, whether in retailing or making petfood. "You have to love what you do and be passionate about animals to survive in this business," noted Al Selmer, owner of Selmer's Pet Land in South Huntington, New York, USA. "The pet industry's enemy is not progress. It is apathy and lack of passion."