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Pet Owner Habits: Predicting What Sticks

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The consumer habits of pet owners changed dramatically in 2020. One research firm delved into which trends have staying power past the pandemic, and how those will affect veterinary practices.

Brad Seipel lives in a world of charts, graphs, and percentages. As senior vice president of M/A/R/C® Research, he had a front-row seat to watch how 2020 has reshaped marketplaces across the U.S. economy, including the veterinary community.

M/A/R/C® Research recently conducted an online survey among U.S. pet owners to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 health crisis on the animal health industry. Seipel dug a little deeper than the traditional questions. He believes that what will happen beyond the immediate impact will be just as critical to the livelihood of veterinary practices, both now and long-term. Seipel shared some of M/A/R/C® Research’s findings in an interview with Veterinary Advantage.


Increase in online spending

Of the pet owners surveyed, 32% ordered more products online as a result of COVID-19. While that may not be surprising, what comes next should have veterinary practice owners paying attention. Of those who ordered more products online, 92% plan to continue online purchasing after the pandemic has ended.

The pandemic and shelter-in-place orders essentially gave pet owners an opportunity to test online purchasing for their pet products. The verdict? They liked it. Seipel said the respondents were people engaged in the veterinary world. Pre-COVID, they would take their dog or cat to the veterinarian regularly. “Some of the responses that we got from pet owners were that it was cheaper than they were expecting, or easier.”

For a long time, the veterinary world put up a wall of sorts when it came to online ordering. Veterinarians preferred giving their script out, in the hopes of retaining their business in-clinic. “This is a situation where because of COVID, we’ve seen Pandora’s Box being opened up,” Seipel said. “Now, I think it’s probably something that pet owners expect to see from veterinary clinics. Increased online purchasing is probably here to stay.”

Stockpiling

The research also revealed a consistent amount of people continuing to stock up on pet products and supplies. “One of the things that has been very clear has been pet owners’ concerns about the virus, or about how their finances are going to be affected,” Seipel said. In the early days of the pandemic, consumers were following transmission rates very closely.

“As you see peaks and spikes, you see spikes in that concern from pet owners, both from getting the virus and a concern about finances as a result of the virus,” Seipel said.

In Wave 1 of the virus, Seipel said 19-20% admitted purchasing more of their pets’ medication than normal to have on hand. The overall percentage of pet owners purchasing more of their pets’ medication than normal to have on hand amid the pandemic was around 16%. “So again, a very steady percentage of people saying that they’re keeping more of my pet’s medication on hand than normal, given the current climate. People buy more because they’re worried they may have to go back in quarantine.”

Hyper-vigilance

Veterinarians have reported a hyper-vigilance in conversations with clients about their pet’s health, Seipel said, In Wave 1, about 26% of people said they noticed things about their pets, like itching or sleeping less, that they hadn’t noticed before. Part of it was proximity. People that usually went to work at an office were now home most hours of the day, and thus with their animals most of the day.

The veterinary world is seeing this manifest in a lot of different ways. Certain prescription medications are doing better than they’ve ever done before, Seipel said. Veterinary visitations were on the rise as soon as they were able to reopen.

Photo of woman walking a dog representative of pet owner habits.

New pets

Pet ownership exploded during the pandemic. The combination of spare time and a desire for companionship were the primary drivers behind adoption. The repercussions of that pet ownership explosion, however, is that those new pet owners have underestimated the responsibilities that come with the new pets. For instance, 36% of first-time pet owners feel it will be difficult to care for their pets once the pandemic has ended, and 58% of first-time pets indicated they plan to re-home their pets after the pandemic.

Seipel said veterinarians should be very involved in what happens next. “The challenging part is that pet ownership is harder than people thought. This is a unique time. Right now, it’s hard to get an appointment at your veterinary clinic because it’s so busy. It’s hard to get a veterinarian on the phone because they’re so busy.”

The touchpoints of working with a new pet owner are different. Generally, clinics have a new puppy program where the veterinarian and vet tech spends a lot of time answering questions and offering guidance to the pet owner. Curbside just can’t provide that level of support.

“That’s concerning because we did see a staggering amount of those new to pet ownership say that they have plans to rehome the pet after they go back to work,” Seipel said. “It’s something we definitely want to try to avoid as an industry.”

Putting it all together

What do these trends mean for veterinary clinics? For starters, convenience factors are going to have to take a greater emphasis with the products and services veterinarians offer their clients. The rate of veterinarians moving over to online pharmacies and home delivery will need to increase in order to compete with retailers.

It also means that veterinarians are going to have to work hard to support pet owners during this time in a different way, Seipel said, like finding ways to better communicate and engage with new dog or cat owners. “The new adoptive population definitely needs some support.”

The world has changed, and a certain amount of consumer behavior has forever changed with it. Veterinary clinics will need to be smart about how they adjust to that dynamic. Veterinarians are going to need to be open to listening to the market and having things like curbside service or online shopping potentially available long term. “I think the market is going to demand a different level of convenience, a different level of touch,” Seipel said. “Having service offerings that make it easy for pet owners to engage with their veterinarian will be key.”

Photo credit 1: istockphoto.com/ AndreyPopov

Photo credit 2: istockphoto.com/mustafagull