Soon every dog will have its day

Birthday cakes for pooches and much, much more. PETsMART is coming
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It May be hard to believe, but there appears to be a nation that is even dottier about its dogs than Britain: the United States. According to market research, 40 per cent of US dog owners celebrate their pooch's birthday with a party.

Armed with this information, a retailer from Phoenix called PETsMART has equipped its stores with "dog bakeries" which, among other things, supply cakes complete with the name of the hound in piped icing.

And thanks to last October's acquisition of Pet City, the UK chain set up by Majestic Wine Warehouse co-founder Giles Clarke, PETsMART is bringing such treats to Britain's pets. Under a pounds 200m expansion programme announced last Friday, the bakery - along with grooming parlours, veterinary surgeries and thousands of products - will soon be available at stores around the country.

The launch of the programme was marked by the opening of a flagship store in Swindon that will, it is claimed, be the largest pet superstore in Europe. And under the proposals there will be 88 such emporia in Britain by the end of next year. Clearly, the company is convinced it can persuade us to pamper our pets even more.

Meanwhile, PETsMART is spreading its format around the globe. Up to 1,000 stores are expected to open in continental Europe over the next five years, while 400 are planned for Japan and another 70 for Canada. The US home base currently stands at 331 outlets and is due to grow to 1,000 over the same period.

It is a bold initiative, even for a Nasdaq-quoted company that last year enjoyed a turnover of $1.5bn (pounds 940m). But chief executive Mark Hansen, a retail veteran, believes the 10-year-old company is riding a wave. According to PETsMART estimates, there are nearly 7 million pet dogs, 7.2 million pet cats and 24 million pet fish in Britain. And with owners spending an average of pounds 150 a year on food and accessories, the total UK market is said to be worth about pounds 3.4bn.

While Mr Hansen accepts that people own pets for a variety of reasons - ranging from sheer pleasure, through companionship to help with bringing up children - he maintains that many also want to treat them as members of the family, and will therefore make the effort to buy food and other supplies from stores that are clean and attractively laid out. "A PETsMART store caters to the person who's a highly involved pet owner," Mr Hansen says.

The concept is also obviously designed to appeal to children. Acknowledging that a key aim is to produce "the Wow! factor", as in "I didn't realise they had that", Mr Hansen says he and his team have had great success in introducing such features as photographers to take pictures of customers with their beloved pets, obedience classes for dogs and educational centres where children can learn how to take care of animals.

Another novelty is that, despite the supermarket size of the stores, dogs and cats are not sold, though smaller pets are. This is a response to the fact that so many of these animals languish in shelters under threat of being destroyed.

Instead, PETsMART runs an Adopt-a-Pet programme, allocating space in the stores to allow local rescue centres to bring in dogs and cats with the aim of finding new homes for them among the public. In the United States last year more than 100,000 dogs and cats were adopted in this way, and the company is extending the scheme to the UK by linking up with such organisations as the National Canine Defence League, the Cat Protection League and Battersea Dogs Home.

Mr Hansen believes the combination of ethical concerns and a retailing professionalism not usually associated with the sector will prove a winning formula. Clearly a fan of market research, he says his philosophy is based on the finding that 70 per cent of shoppers are women.

Accordingly, he wants the products presented in such a way that - while as cheap as anywhere around - they look clean enough to "be taken home and put in the kitchen".