Washington Times February 12, 2005

By Donna De Marco

Valentine's Day isn't just for love-struck humans anymore. The pink-and-red gift-giving day has pet owners dishing out more money for posh pooch extras and fancy feline goodies. More than 9 million pets will receive Valentine's gifts from their owners, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. It's no surprise pet parents are pampering Fido or Fluffy with heart-shaped beds, Swarovski Crystal collars, pink sunglasses with rhinestones and gourmet treats. "We reward [our pets] like we would reward humans," said Bob Vetere, chief operating officer of the association. Now, manufacturers and retailers are reaping the benefits of a pet owner's affection.

Bisket Baskets and More, an Internet gift-basket company in Colorado, had nearly 100 orders for its Valentine Dog Gift Basket early this week. The $125 basket, which comes with a bone or heart-shaped plush toy, is loaded with gourmet biscuits including some of the company's exclusive products. "Valentine's Day is very big," said owner Gail Bohall. "It doesn't quite measure up to Christmas, but it's growing every year."

In the United States, 69 million households own at least one pet, from cats and dogs to reptiles and fish. That's up about 5 million from 2002. The $34 billion industry, which includes food, care, supplies and accessories, has doubled over the past 10 years, the association said. Women buy the majority of pet products.

About 37 percent of Americans are spending more on their pets in general than a year ago, according to "How America Shops 2004," a survey conducted by WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consulting firm in New York. "There are human attributes associated with pets," said Candace Corlett, principal at WSL Strategic Retail. "They're our companions and soul mates." Pets are an important part of people's lives because they fill a void in a world in which people rely on computers and technology and less on face-to-face interaction, Mr. Vetere said. "As we become less dependent on interpersonal skills, and we become more insulated pets fill a very important need for connection," he said.

The smarter manufacturers know targeting the pet owner is big business whether it's a designer trying to catch the eye of a shopper who is buying a purse for herself or a chocolate-hungry customer who picks up a gourmet treat for a pet at a chocolate shop. Coach's pet product line has been around for five years. The company's Web site offers collars and leashes ranging from $42 to $68. Burberry, known for its red, camel, black-and-white-check pattern, sells such products as a dog collar for $180, a leash for $165 and a ceramic bowl for $60. "It's a new indulgence," Ms. Corlett said. "We don't question spending money on something new, fun and exciting."

In 2002, a consumer spent an estimated $215 on accessories for his or her pet, according to a report by Unity Marketing, a market-research firm in Pennsylvania. That's more than double the $97 spent on pet extras in 2001.

Behind Christmas and Halloween, Valentine's Day is the third-busiest time of the year for Alexandria's Fox & Hounds, which designs and distributes pet products to pet boutique shops and mass retailers. Just about anything pink, red and heart-shaped from glitter dog collars to ribbon harnesses are popular this time of year. Fox & Hounds sells a pink collar with pink Swarovski crystals and charm for $64 to $94 depending on the size. There's a black patent-leather collar with rows of crystals in clear, pink or green ranging from $44 to $98. Fox & Hounds introduced a leopard print and a denim heart-shaped bed two years ago. The popular beds retail at around $30. A more luxurious sable plush heart-shaped bed costs as much as $58. "It's an obvious shape for your loved one," said Robin Kershner, president and chief executive officer of Fox & Hounds.

And forget about plain old Puppy Chow from the grocery store. Valentine's Day has turned into a day to treat pets with gourmet tastes. For example, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory sells dog bones dipped in a white chocolatelike coating ranging from 50 cents to $1.50 each, depending on the store. It's not actually chocolate, which is harmful to dogs.

Even mainstream pet stores are marketing their merchandise to the pet lover this time of year. Petco's Valentine's Day store includes peanut butter, heart-shaped gourmet cookies for dogs for $2 and heart-shaped bowls and coordinating place mat for $25. CafePress.com, which has a section on its Web site dedicated to gifts for pets and pet lovers, sells a variety of dog T-shirts from an "I Love You" shirt to a Love bug shirt with a lady bug on it that cost between $17 and $20. Petsmart's offerings include a valentine-themed "Heart Breaker" T-shirt for $9.99, valentine-themed bandanas for $6.99 and a four-pack of valentine toys for a cat at $3.99.

Ms. Bohall, who has four pets, isn't surprised pets are spoiled, particularly this time of year. "People see pets as family members," she said. "They have emotions and feelings."