INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Be the pack leader

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INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Be the pack leader

There were 30-plus energetic Yorkies battling for attention when we visited a breeder's facility in Sarasota, Fla. during this year's spring break vacation. While my daughter begged to take five or six of them home with us, I quickly explained that I had purchased just one $75 pet pass from Airtran Airways, on which we were scheduled to leave Sarasota the next day.

Then, just as I'd imagined would happen, the smallest puppy of the litter, a male sitting quietly by himself in the corner of a newspaper-lined pen, captured Catherine's heart. Thus, Guido officially became a member of the family, and we headed back to the beach to pack for our early-morning flight.

Dropping a small fortune for a three-pound canine with spiked hair, sharp teeth, and a perky, high-pitched bark was only the beginning, of course. Seven months later, our home in Ohio has all of the latest and greatest items in pet gear. The array includes such indispensable items as a $150 doggie stroller featuring a detachable carrier approved by the airlines; an assortment of squeaky toys, each of which has been named (Yogi, Bow-Bow, Mr. Elephant, Mr. Turkey); designer leashes; doggie T-shirts (his favorite is a red turtleneck sweater featuring the words "Chick Magnet" on the front); and a pint-size Navy pea-coat with gold buttons.

And did I mention the pet meds and vitamins, organic treats and chews, puppy-training pads, Scooby-Doo Snacks, Stinky Pet Spray, and numerous other pet-pampering items that occupy an entire section of our kitchen cabinets? I can assure you that my household has contributed generously to the $41 billion U.S. pet economy, which is predicted to exceed $52 billion during just the next two years.

While I'd like to say that I was able to meet all of Guido's wants and needs at my local supermarket, unfortunately I can't. I've made the trips to PetSmart, where the kids and I easily load up our "grocery cart"; plus we've purchased vitamins, high-end shampoos, and doctor-recommended Lean Treats effectively merchandised in the retail section of the local vet's office. And, by the way, those glucosamine supplements, at $19 a bottle, seem to be doing wonders for the joint problems of Buddy, our 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier.

While independents across the country are capitalizing on the growing pet market by devoting increased attention and shelf space to a department that generates an estimated 40 percent or more in gross profit, some consumers say supermarkets are still falling short when it comes to meeting demand for pet products.

Recently, I consulted the most passionate group of pet consumers I know -- members of my own extended family -- as we traveled to Cleveland to attend a Browns game. (And, yes, for those of you wondering, our season tickets are appropriately located in the famous "Dawg Pound" at Cleveland Municipal Stadium.) During an hourlong discussion, my impromptu focus group offered a few ideas on how supermarkets can better serve those oh-so-devoted pet owners:

--Plan special events to let consumers know that your store is pet-friendly. Appeal to the emotions of pet owners by organizing pet talent shows that include a variety of categories, including best-dressed cat/dog, smallest/largest pet, best bark, pet and owner who most resemble one another, most beautiful eyes, most unusual pet, etc. Secure a sponsor for the event, present prizes and trophies, and feature photos of the winning pets and their owners in the next week's print advertising, or in posters throughout the store.

--Offer professional advice/assistance. Invite a local veterinarian or vet tech to set up an information station every other Saturday or Sunday in the pet department, to answer customers' questions concerning their animals. Provide a pet scarf or toy that features your store logo as a giveaway item. Establish an internship program with a local university that offers a vet tech degree.

--Meet consumer demands for pet fashion and safety. This can include colorful collars and harnesses; retractable leashes for both dogs and cats, featuring reflectors or battery-operated lights for those who walk their pets in the evenings; and a variety of pet clothing such as T-shirts, sweaters, and sports jerseys.

--Personalize it! A family friend who's set up shop on eBay reports that anything that can be personalized with a pet's name on it is a No. 1 seller: pet clothing, collars, picture frames, dog dishes, calendars, pet carseats and carriers, Christmas stockings and ornaments -- you name it. And don't forget to promote birthday cakes in the bakery to celebrate Fido's first!

--Introduce your very own "pet pharm." Eli Lilly's Reconcile is recognized as an effective treatment for separation anxiety in dogs, and Pfizer offers an anti-obesity drug, Slentrol, for canines that have put on a few pounds. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey, pet supplies and over-the-counter medicines represent a $9 billion market. Supermarkets should focus on capturing their fair share.

During the past decade, Americans have more than doubled the amount they're spending on their furry friends, in an effort to become what Phoenix-based PetSmart, whose total sales for fiscal 2007 topped $4.2 billion, has termed better "pet parents."

While for obvious reasons it's not practical for most grocers to offer grooming services at $75 a pop, or, like PetSmart, to offer overnight pet birthday parties in your supermarket, perhaps the best way to increase sales is more simple: Walk the aisles of your store and ask a few of those 20,000-plus weekly customers, 12,600 of whom happen to be pet owners, to share with you their particular pet peeves.