British pet shops face US dogfight

Animal passion: Fur to fly as American chain plans invasion
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The Independent Online
NIGEL COPE

Britain's pet shops were facing a big dogfight yesterday when it emerged that one of the largest operators of out-of-town pet stores in the United States is considering opening shops here.

Top executives from PetsMart, which has 260 branches in America, are due to fly into London from Phoenix, Arizona, to brief City bankers on their plans. PetsMart is keen to expand into Europe, with Britain and France seen as the most likely targets, though it is unlikely that any stores will open before next year.

If the company does enter the UK market, the fur is sure to fly in what is already a competitive sector. The company styles itself as a "category killer" - a kind of pets' version of Toys 'R' Us - catering for animals' food, toys and other gifts.

They offer veterinary services, grooming parlours, dog-wash facilities and obedience classes as well as tanks of colourful fish and shelves full of books and videos.

An attack on the UK would bring PetsMart face to face with two British companies which have been opening warehouse-style pet stores for the past few years. Pet City has 35 stores and is opening a further 20 this year. Pets at Home has 16, mostly in the North-east and Yorkshire, and hopes to have 30 to 40 stores within two years.

Neither company seems worried by the prospect of a US invasion. Giles Clarke, the founder of Pet City, said: "I don't think it will affect us. It is a big market and American retailers don't always find it easy to transplant ... Don't forget - we are here. They don't have anything yet." Pets At Home founder Anthony Preston said: "They may provoke interest in the concept and expand the market for everybody."

The UK is an attractive prospect for the Americans as we spend around pounds 2.5bn on our pets every year. Much of that is on pet food but the so- called accessory market of pets' presents, designer clothing and training aids, is growing.

But the two markets differ. The US market for reptiles, for example, is 13 times that in the UK. Here, Pets at Home sticks to standard favourites such as rabbits and budgies. Pet City is more adventurous, with tarantulas and chipmunks, though its best seller is still the humble hamster. The hot accessory of the moment is the Hamster Moon Glow Ball, an exercise wheel that comes in two sizes and glows in the dark. Even the Americans don't sell those.

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