(last updated July 2019)
Pet numbers have been declining. In the two years to 2016 numbers fell by 12% to 57 million and this fell further to around 54 million by 2017. This is thought to be due to the ageing population, fewer children and more expensive housing resulting in people living in rented accommodation, often with restrictions on pet ownership. The most popular pet in the UK is the dog, with 24 percent of people owning one. Despite the fall in number of pets, the amount spent on pets and related products continues to rise year on year. In 2016 the value of the market was £4.47bn, rising to £4.7bn in 2017. According to Defra in a report published in February 2017 there were some 2,300 licensed pet shops in the UK.
The launch of two large chains of pet superstores in the late 1990s, Pet City (which became PetsMart) and Pets at Home, led to a shake up of the industry. For many years the small local pet shop had been more or less unopposed - suddenly there was a new and very important source of competition. It's no coincidence that the number of small local pet shops began to fall during the 1990s, even though pet owners were spending more and more money on their animals every year.
The superstores moved away from the 'small and smelly' image of the pet shop and popularised ranges of exciting new products. Pet owners can now buy almost anything for their animals, from special perfume to gourmet foods and homeopathic medicines!
Pets at Home went on to buy out PetsMart, creating a single - and very successful - retail giant with over 440 large stores throughout the UK. They floated on the stock market in early 2014 and look set to keep expanding, opening more stores and increasing the number of in-store grooming salons and both in-store and stand-alone vet practices. By 2017 the company had over 430 vet practices and over 290 grooming salons, with turnover from these activities growing rapidly.
E-commerce has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity in recent years. More and more people go online to buy things like pet accessories, and the leading pet retailers all have their own e-commerce (and mobile commerce) websites. Rules were introduced in 2010 to prevent unlicensed online retailers selling veterinary medicines over the internet - all such retailers must be registered with and approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.
Pet owners themselves changed during the 1990s and 2000s too. Although dogs remain the most popular pet, there has been a bit of a trend towards owning 'lazy' pets - ones which don't need walking, need less feeding and can be left alone for longer periods. These include everything from cats to exotic pets like reptiles, spiders and insects. Recent years have seen pet owners spend more and more money on pampering their pets. Pet healthcare and wellbeing have also become very important to owners as part of the trend towards 'humanising' pets.
Prices have been held down by strong competition and have not kept up with inflation in recent years. The economic downturn of the late 2000s and early 2010s made it difficult for some animal owners to afford to spend large sums on their pets. In a small number of cases, owners abandoned their animals simply because they couldn't afford to keep them.
The pet care market is generally resilient and despite the slowdown in the economy and the economic uncertainty following the vote in June 2016 to leave the EU, it is forecast to carry on growing until 2021. There has been a trend towards products aimed at the health and welfare of pets, with sales of natural products and treat experiences booming.
Low prices and strong competition from large pet superstores and internet retailers - and from the supermarkets - have made things quite tough for the small local pet shop, particularly those that have failed to move with the times by doing things like setting up a website to reach a wider customer base and counter the loss of footfall. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely for now that the giant superstores will corner the market completely - there are still opportunities for smartly run local pet shops to win customers by offering sound, friendly advice and good quality products.
Recent animal welfare legislation set a minimum age limit of 16 years for anyone buying an animal from a pet shop in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland the age limit is 12 years. In April 2010 the government introduced welfare codes of practice for owners and keepers (including pet shops and breeders) of dogs, cats, horses and certain other animals to help them meet the requirements of animal welfare legislation.
During the mid 2010s the government took the decision to introduce compulsory microchipping for dogs throughout much of the UK - it was introduced in Wales in April 2015 and in England in April 2016 (it's already compulsory in Northern Ireland, and Scotland is likely to follow suit at some point too).
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is a good way of staying in touch with the latest developments. The Pet Industry Federation (PIF) represents various different types of pet business, including pet shops (the Pet Retailers Association is a division of the PIF). You can find out more about the PIF on their website.
The Pet Product Retail Association (PPRA) also represents pet shop businesses in the UK.
Subscribing to a trade journal is another excellent way of keeping up to date with developments in your industry. Pet Product Marketing is a trade journal which contains many features and articles of interest to pet shop owners. Pet Business World journal (PBW News) covers a wide range of topics about pets, pet product and aquatics retailing. You can find out more about these publications on their websites.