From specialty dog boutiques and groomers, to dog walkers and purveyors of dog food, the pet industry in the U.S. is enormous. Despite challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s true for our region as well, where an aging demographic, busy working families, and vacationers need the services of niche entrepreneurs, and businesses have found a way to take the edge off a seasonal economy.
According to the American Pet Products Association, pet product sales, which includes everything from pet food to grooming and vet care, is expected to reach $99 billion this year. The APPA estimates that 67 percent of U.S. households own a pet. Dogs are most popular, at 63.4 million households, followed by cats (42.7 million households), freshwater fish (11.5 million households), birds (5.7 million), small animals (5.4 million) reptiles (4.5 million) and horses (1.6 million). Doing the math, the average pet-owning household spends nearly $1,200 per year on its pets.
For local companies and entrepreneurs, business is driven by both strong demand, and business owners’ affection for our furry friends.
Jessica Thomas is the owner of Agway of Cape Cod, which has three locations, in Orleans, Dennis and Chatham. She’s also the co-founder of Paw Palooza, an annual summer festival for dogs held at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School that has, unfortunately, been cancelled for this year, due to the pandemic.
Thomas says pet and farm supplies make up about 35 percent of her business, the rest of which is garden supplies. That helps the business be less seasonal, and stay open year-round.
Pet food is her biggest seller in the pet category, and Agway offers more that 100 brands of dog and food, food for small animals like ferrets and hamsters, and horse feed. They even sell live crickets for reptiles.
With curbside pick-up, Thomas says business has been a challenge, but it was necessary as the stores were becoming too crowded.
“When you’ve got 10 cars in the parking lot and only so many phones things get backlogged,” she says. But customers have been understanding.
She’s grateful that her customers have made the conscious decision to shop local. “We’ve gotten such an overwhelming response, People say ‘thank you so much’ for being able to get their favorite dog food.”
Given the difficulty of taking orders over the phone, Agway scrambled and quickly organized an online shopping website, which offers 29,000 SKUs. Thomas says it was a massive effort, requiring 14-hour days, seven days a week.
Despite adapting nimbly to the pandemic, Thomas says she anticipates supply chain problems. Many pet items, like toys and doggie beds, are made in China. “I foresee several months down the road things getting sparse.”
“It’s been a struggle to adapt our operation, but we have an attachment to our customers and we know their names. They’re definitely passionate about their animals,” she says of her customers – and their pets.
Thomas is disappointed that the pandemic forced the cancellation of Paw Palooza, but she is determined to bring it back next summer. Perhaps no other event demonstrates the passion and love of the Cape’s pet owning community.
Benefitting the Animal Rescue League and the MSPCA, the event attracts people and their pets from as far as Providence and Boston, and beyond, and includes events ranging from dock diving competitions to police K-9 demonstrations, and much more.
Pets Inspire Entrepreneurship
Pets have inspired more than one successful entrepreneur. Eight years ago, Holly Lemieux was working as a staff accountant and had a part-time retail job. Rather than work for someone else, she decided to start Pupcakes, on Main Street in Hyannis, which started out as a small boutique selling iced-dog treats, and has since grown.
“Everyone said ‘don’t do it,’” she recalls. But Lemieux wasn’t happy working in an office, had both retail and back office skills and figured “I had the moxie to figure out the rest.”
Pupcakes now sells pet toys, treats, baked goods, and CBD oil. It also offers a grooming service. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was also a self-service dog washing salon.
“Anyone walking into a dog boutique has a great affinity toward their animals,” says Lemieux. “It’s a great business to be in.”
Deemed an essential business, Pupcakes has stayed open during the shut-down, offering curbside service for sales and grooming. Lemieux says she attracts customers from as far as Truro and Sandwich.
But just like most businesses on Cape Cod, Pupcakes is seasonal. “Off-season it’s a little saturated. There’s not enough to go around,” she explains. “Pet specialty is not on the forefront of people’s minds if you live here off-season.”
The pandemic has cut into business, she reports. While sales are down by as much as half compared to last year, by adding a grooming service she has offset losses that could have been much worse.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” she says. On the bright side, she notes, it’s been easy to park on Main Street.
Stephanie Foster of Harwich’s entrepreneurial idea came about from the legalization of marijuana and dispensaries. Her product is perfectly legal: small fabric pouches filled with catnip that she’s grown herself. Cats love them, often tossing them about and carrying them around.
I’ve always had cats and they always liked catnip,” says Foster, who sells her home-grown flowers at the Orleans farmers market on Saturdays. She had been selling lavender sachets at the market. “I started growing catnip and making little sachets for them, and I called them ‘Kitty Weed.’ It’s been fun. Cats deserve some joy in life; most cats today are house cats and just sleep a lot of the time.”
She also sells her Kitty Weed at Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis and The Sparrow Store in Orleans.
“People come back year after year to buy them,” she says. “People send me pictures and videos of their cats rolling around with them.”
The Demand for Services
It’s not just retail. The pet industry means demand for services, from grooming to waste removal. Jaime Burge started Cape Cod Underdogs, a waste removal service, in 2006, following a brainstorming session on what to do. After buying out a partner in 2011, she says the business has quadrupled. She now has three employees and serves hundreds of customers all over the Cape and Plymouth County.
“There’s definitely a need out there for it,” she says of her service, which usually involves twice-a-week visits to a residential property where she or her staff walks a grid on the lawn, removing pet waste.
Similar to dog walking services, waste removal caters to retirees who are devoted to their dogs but unable to pick up after them, as well as busy families who don’t have time.
“We fill the need for people who can’t do it or who don’t want to do it,” explains Burge, who says business is busy rear-round, and despite COVID-19, she’s still signing new customers.
Dogs Must be Walked
Cali Fornasaro is the owner of The Cape Cod Dog Walker in Marstons Mills, where she walks as many as 15 dogs a day, from fox terriers to great Danes, one at a time. After living for five years in the Caribbean, where she crewed on boats, and working at a Cape Cod boatyard, last year she decided, “I should just do what I want to do.”
She gave it some thought, and realized what she loved to do is spend time with her dog. The Cape Cod Dog Walker was born, and is now a full-time business, often keeping her busy from 9 in the morning until after dark.
Some of her customers are older and it’s difficult for them to walk their dogs. Others are busy working families that don’t have the time. Often, she walks a customer’s dog because they have a last-minute scheduling problem and are in a pinch. Summer visitors need her services too, because they’re not allowed to bring their dogs to the beach.
“People treat their pets like their children, because they are. They want to do whatever they can to make sure their pets are happy and safe,” says Fornasaro, who charges $25 for a 30-minute walk, $35 for 45 minutes, and $45 for an hour.
With everyone isolated or working at home, Fornasaro says people now have time to walk their own dogs, and business has slacked off. But the pandemic has also led to more people getting dogs, which will eventually result in even more business for her.
“If you think about it, everybody has a dog, and if they don’t, they got quarantined and decided to get a dog,” she laughs. “When they go back to work they’ll need a dog walker, but it’s going to take a while.”
Still, she says, “There’s plenty of business to go around.”
Whether a large operation like Agway, or a one-woman operation like The Cape Cod Dog Walker, it’s an industry driven by passion for pets, all the way around. Just ask Fornasaro, who plans to have her dog, Vern, a pit bull mix, be the maid of honor at her upcoming wedding.
More information: Pupcakes, 366 Main St., Hyannis, 508-827-7391, pupcakescapecod.com; Agway of Cape Cod: Orleans, Chatham, Dennis, 508-255-8100; The Cape Cod Dog Walker, Marstons Mills, 508-367-2555, thecapecoddogwalker.com; Cape Cod Underdogs, Cape Cod & Plymouth, 508-255-0522, capecodunderdogs.com