Americans are spending more than ever on their four-legged friends, and savvy central Indiana entrepreneurs are among those cashing in.
Consider the array of doggy day cares, pet-sitters and Fido-friendly bakeries--even poop-scooping services--that have sprung
up in recent years. Not to mention the canine cardiologists, pet photographers and other specialty businesses all vying for
a piece of the $40-billion-plus pet industry.
Would-be entrepreneurs rarely pitched pet-centered business ideas even five years ago, said Sharon O'Donoghue, director of the Central Indiana Women's Business Center, which helps people bring their business ideas to fruition.
Her first client with a pet-centered business idea--for a combination downtown care center and pet snack bakery--came in for help in February 2005, but since then, O'Donoghue has worked with at least 15 others who have pet businesses up and running.
And "a lot more folks have ideas but haven't started yet," she said.
It's no wonder, as more Americans are becoming pet owners. The percentage of U.S. households with pets has jumped from 56 percent in 1988 to 63 percent in 2007, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc. And the spending has more than kept pace--up from $21 billion in 1996 to $38.5 billion in 2006. The association predicts spending will be $40.8 billion this year.
"People are considering their pets more as family members rather than just animals," said veterinarian William Sommerville, president of the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association. "The bond has changed."
That's especially true, observers say, for young professionals who don't have children or for empty-nesters looking for companionship.
The change in attitude--and spending habits--is difficult to quantify on a local level, but anecdotal evidence suggests central Indiana has not been immune to the trend. A slew of small businesses have sprouted here in recent years, offering everything from dog washing to hand-knit pet clothes.
Carmel-based Pet Angel Memorial Center has seen business thrive since opening in fall 2004, owner Coleen Ellis said, and she's working to franchise the concept.
She works with about 100 families each month who usually spend $200 or more on memorial packages for deceased pets. Most "pet parents," as Ellis calls them, come to her for cremation services and guidance on a way to remember the pet.
"People think because it's a pet, you should be over the grief within a couple of days," Ellis said. And when that's not true, she "helps people make sense of the grieving process."
Pet Angel offers several exclusive products, including memorial jewelry that can include the ashes of a cremated pet or a small memorial stone with a built-in urn so the pet owner can bury a pet's remains in the yard but also easily relocate it if need be.
Ellis said she doesn't expect the strong growth to slow anytime soon. In fact, she fields questions from others interested in starting a similar business frequently enough that she's working to build an international chain of Pet Angel franchises.
"Our goal is to make sure the model is very tight first," she said. "It's going to be a nationwide and probably international franchise."
She said she expects a Canadian location to be the first to "join the team" with more spinoffs "up and down the West Coast." She said she's fielded calls from 40 people interested in the business and would expect those who follow through to be up and running within the next year.
"Given the growth in pet expenditures, this is a question of when a business will take off, not if," she said.
Another local business, Deb Meno's Puppy Playground at 5266 E. 56th St., also has seen strong growth. Since starting in fall 2004, the day care facility has grown from six dogs a day to as many as 65. The business also offers boarding and training services.
Though Puppy Playground faces competition from other small day cares and the advent of big chains like PetSmart breaking into the field, Meno is shopping around for a second location. She said independently owned businesses will prevail because they can deliver the individualized services pet owners want.
"My clients really do see their dogs as their children," she said. "It's a trust thing. They want someone who knows which is Bo's favorite toy and that Buddy needs a nap after lunch."
Other businesses have more to worry about from franchised competitors.
Sarah Galvin quit her post as a deputy prosecutor and founded her business, Stanley's Pet Services, in February. For a $10.50-per-visit fee, her company will clean up pet waste once a week. Incremental fees are tacked on for more frequent cleanups or more than one dog.
Galvin's going up against national chains, like Pet Butler, that have local franchise owners doing the same thing. Likewise, many local pet bakeries are going head-to-head with chains like Three Dog Bakery that have strong area franchise operators.
Though new, Galvin's company has enough business already to keep an employee busy 30 hours a week while she hits the phones and attends pet events to drum up more business.
"It's a chore that people don't have time to do," Galvin said. She said many of her clients pay for a nicely manicured lawn and don't want to skimp on also having it be sanitary.
No one is predicting that Americans' fascination with their pets will end anytime soon, but O'Donoghue cautions eager entrepreneurs not to rush into anything. Other factors could slow the booming industry.
Discretionary spending of empty-nesters could be squeezed by skyrocketing health care costs, for example, and young professional couples could face tougher debt loads fresh out of college.
"Today's doggy day cares could be like yesterday's scrapbook shops," she said, and fall out of favor.
The way to protect a small business, she said, is for an owner to make sure to revisit her plans to stay relevant.
"Owners need to understand why people are buying from them, and how are [the owners] going to stay ahead of the latest trend?" she said.