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Business Observer Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2020 2 weeks ago

Area businesses connected to dogs and cats see surge in business during pandemic

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From veterinary centers to pet supply stores, companies are handling fluctuations in business with different strategies.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Sarasota Veterinary Center finished a major renovation in February — some spot-on timing. The project increased the number of exam rooms at the facility from three to six. “It was just in time,” says Dr. Dave Smith, owner of Sarasota Veterinary Center and co-owner of Parkway Veterinary Center in Sarasota. “We basically doubled in size, and that helped us handle the rush of new patients.”

Smith says his centers started seeing impacts from the pandemic in March. That’s when the uptick began, and it continued to climb in April, May and June.

A variety of businesses connected to dogs and cats, from veterinary centers to pet supply stores, are seeing more demand during the pandemic. Potential reasons behind the spike range from people spending more time with their pets to more people becoming pet owners. For a host of pet-related companies in the area, the pandemic has been a busy time — and the uptick could continue in the months ahead.

Persistent Demand

Smith saw substantial increases from April through June, with sales up 26% to 40%. In July and August, business started to drop, but sales were still up 14% to 20% at both locations. He attributes the decrease in recent months to some pet owners going back to work and not noticing certain issues or not having as much time to visit the vet.

Courtesy. Dr. Dave Smith, veterinarian, owner of Sarasota Veterinary Center and co-owner of Parkway Veterinary Center says doubling the number of exam rooms at Sarasota Veterinary Center helped him handle the rush of new patients.

During the pandemic overall, sales have increased across the board, not just for specific services. Smith is noticing more of one particular issue, though — dogs with anxiety. One reason? “The dog spent all day, every day with you at home,” he says. “Then you went to work and left him at home. We’re seeing more of that in the last two months than we normally see.” 

Tricia Bolds, president and CEO of Sarasota-based Gulf Coast Pet Supplies, has been busy since the beginning of the pandemic, too. “We started seeing bulk purchasing happening in March,” she says.

The company, with around $2.4 million in revenue in 2019, sells healthy and natural pet food along with treats and supplies online and through a brick-and-mortar store. The company is up 30% for the year. To keep up with demand, particularly online, Bolds has worked longer hours and on weekends. “There’s definitely been some extra time put in, but for a 30% increase in sales, I’ll take it,” she says.

During the COVID-19, Gulf Coast Pet Supplies received orders for multiple cases or bags of dog food at a time from people who didn’t want to leave home. As the pandemic continues, customers continue to buy more than usual. “I think people are planning ahead,” she says. “They’re expecting shortages or out of stocks.” Bolds has one customer, for instance, who usually buys a month’s worth of items and now buys two months’ worth.

Courtesy. Tricia Bolds, president and CEO of Sarasota-based Gulf Coast Pet Supplies, has been busy since the beginning of the pandemic. The company is up 30% for the year.

Like Smith, Bolds has experienced fluctuations in demand the past six months. March and April were busy, May dropped off, and June and July picked up again. Generally, the week or two before school starts in August is one of the slowest weeks for the company, but this year, it was one of the busiest. “Our products are pretty in demand,” says Bolds. “The stuff I carry are always pretty good sellers anyway, but now I’ve been wiping out distribution every two weeks on certain products.”

Dog Perfect, with three locations in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota, saw a steady flow of traffic even as shutdowns impacted the state early on. Director of Store Operations Fernando Carrera says he also saw customers buying in greater quantities. Plus, customers bought tougher toys and long-lasting treats to keep dogs occupied, a necessity for employees who found themselves working from home beside their pets.

“It’s been significant, the uptick we’re seeing in business,” he says, declining to disclose specific numbers. “I think as people spent more time at home, they’re looking at their pet maybe a little differently. It fostered a stronger connection than maybe was there.” Carrera speaks from firsthand knowledge. “My wife was at home with our two little guys, and they probably got more love than ever, and they’re already spoiled.”

The pandemic hasn’t led to upward sales the whole time, though. “We saw a lot of peaks and valleys,” Carrera says. “We had some really great days and other days would be softer.”

Courtesy. Dog Perfect Director of Store Operations Fernando Carrera says the company has experienced a significant uptick in business.

Business is ticking up now, and the salon side in particular has more traffic. In addition to food and supplies, the company offers dog grooming, dog training and a self-serve dog wash.

The pandemic also led people to reevaluate their dogs’ diet. “We had more people asking in-depth questions,” Carrera says. “It has caused people to sit down and think: ‘I’m eating this way. Could this benefit my dog?’” To address those questions, Dog Perfect hired a senior nutritional specialist in July who offers one-on-one sessions with customers.

Dog Perfect also helped drive more business by being nimble and adding curbside pickup and delivery programs. Carrera says, “We had to adapt very quickly because there was demand for it.”

Foster Connections

Veterinarians and other pet-related businesses have some theories to explain the rise in business.

“Initially, we attributed it to the fact that people were staying home, spending more time around their pets, noticing things about their pets and saying, ‘Oh boy, I need to go to the veterinarian,’” Smith says.  

As the pandemic wore on, his team noticed something else, too. People were buying and adopting pets, especially puppies. Smith says that’s a trend not just in this part of Florida but across the country. It led to increased business for Smith, and he’s heard that’s been the case for vets around the U.S., too. 

Smith says he’s heard from a handful of people that they can’t find a dog, but that’s likely because they’re looking for a specific breed. Most people are able to buy or adopt one, he says.

At the Humane Society of Sarasota County, people interested in adopting dogs or cats must make an appointment to visit to ensure social distancing.

Marketing Coordinator Alissa Jackson says that requirement and a construction project at the facility have led to fewer people visiting and lower adoption numbers in recent months. In March 2019, for instance, the organization had 159 total adoptions compared to 111 this March. In August 2019, it had 140 adoptions, with 105 adoptions this August.

Jackson says the numbers also point to the fact that the organization can’t host events to showcase animals during the pandemic. Once the threat of COVID-19 lessens, and the facility is complete, she says, the Humane Society expects normal adoption numbers to resume and even increase.

Beyond adoptions, the Humane Society has seen an uptick in its foster program. The program encourages volunteers to temporarily take animals home that are undergoing medical treatments or are too young to adopt. Jackson says that because people are spending more time at home during the pandemic, the program has gotten a boost. It has 80 foster volunteers, and 39 are actively fostering an animal.

Look Forward

During the pandemic, Smith says the biggest challenges for Sarasota Veterinary Center, with 17 employees, and Parkway Veterinary Center, with nine employees, have been staffing and avoiding burnout. The pandemic also led to increased costs, from overtime to personal protective equipment to cleaning supplies.

Courtesy. Tricia Bolds, president and CEO of Sarasota-based Gulf Coast Pet Supplies, says sanitizing products are being promoted to pet owners.

At Gulf Coast Pet Supplies, the pandemic also meant contending with some product shortages. Earlier in the pandemic, some suppliers couldn’t process animal parts used in pet food. “Meat plants were having a shortage of employees due to COVID-19,” Bolds says. “As a result of the shortage, they didn’t have time to process the parts. We were told parts were being thrown away. Animal food meat is going to come second to human meat.” That meant Bolds faced some out-of-stock situations.

On another supply front, though, Bolds hasn’t even come close to running out. She and her family come from the janitorial and sanitization business, so she has access to products for that industry. In February, seeing the pandemic coming, she ordered sanitizer, toilet paper and disinfectant. “You have to think ahead,” she says. Since then, she has sold more than 500 cans of Lysol, and she still has cases of toilet paper.

Courtesy. Dog Perfect Director of Store Operations Fernando Carrera is looking forward to festive months ahead.

Bolds says sanitizing products are also being promoted to pet owners. “I have seen some pet-safe sanitizer sprays for the pets, for their toys and for their bowls that are coming out on the market,” she says. “I think you’re probably going to see that trend for a while — keeping your pet just as safe as you keep yourself.”

She’s wondered if her company would see a slowdown with people out of work and others watching how they spend their money. “We planned for that — that we’d see a rush initially, and then it would slow down,” she says. But except for a decrease in May, Bolds hasn’t seen the slowdown she thought was coming, and in August, she experienced record weeks. Despite the financial concerns many face, she says people are still spending money in two areas: themselves and their pets.

At Dog Perfect, Carrera also looks forward to the months ahead. “As we head into the Halloween and Christmas season, I think more now than any time before, people are really going to want to be festive,” he says. “As I look at the holiday season, I get excited. I expect it to continue to uptick.”

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