NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The pet industry is enjoying growth at a time many other industries are stagnant or shrinking due to the economy.
According to the American Pet Products Association, roughly 73 million homes, or two-thirds of U.S. households, own a pet. The association estimates those consumers are spending more than $50 billion, up 5% from last year, on such things as pet vitamins, travel expenses, kennels and boarding, and food treats, among other things.
Small-business owners should take advantage.
"The biggest reason why the market will stand is the humanization trend that's been going on for a number of years," says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. "You see pets treated like family members. It's no longer collars and feeding bowls. It's become so much larger than that."
Some of the hottest business trends include organic pet food, computerized identification tags, touch-activated toys, digital aquariums, pet spas and pet costumes -- yes, dressing Fluffy as a lumberjack.
"You don't have to go out and invent some patentable, new concept that's technologically innovative," Vetere says. "If you have a pretty sweater that you can knit for a dog -- that's got a niche too. You can cater to both ends."
The largest segment of pet owners are baby boomers who have discretionary money to spend and whose kids have left home. "They were called helicopter parents and now are looking to hover over something else," Vetere says.
The pet segment is also relatively easy to enter -- not only is there large opportunity for product innovation, but many businesses can be started at home. Vetere estimates the industry adds roughly 200 to 250 serious businesses a year. Many small pet-related businesses don't make it past their first year, though, and approximately 80% of the association's members report annual sales of less than $2 million.
Surviving in the pet industry isn't just about creating a cool toy for Fido or filling a need such as a dog-walking service in your local town. Experts say pet entrepreneurs must understand the market they are targeting and the business logistics of their product or service.
That's especially important considering that nontraditional pet-product stores are getting into the mix, including: Old Navy, Paul Mitchell, Omaha Steaks, Harley Davidson and Home Depot, the association says.
Mark Van Wye, chief operating officer of Zoom Room, a dog training and agility franchise, says pet entrepreneurs need to be cautious in assuming just any idea will succeed in the pet market.
"You have to look a little bit within the industry to specific areas" including such straightforward services as dog grooming, he says. "As long as you're long offering evergreen services and products, you don't have to worry."