Wolves of Wellington (Photo: Supplied)

Cashing in on the fur baby economy

Boutique collars, handmade toys and speciality treats packed with the best ingredients you could ask for. What’s driving the new pet economy? Jihee Junn talks to the small business owners cashing in on the pet care craze.

New Zealand is a nation of animal lovers, so much so that there are almost as many pets as there are people.

More than half of Kiwi households are home to at least one pet, and the amount pet owners spend on their furry companions every year is pretty staggering. In 2011, the total spend on products and services was estimated at $1.6 billion. In 2016, that number went up to $1.8 billion. It was also reported that same year that pet insurance had roughly doubled in popularity in the four years prior (Southern Cross Pet Insurance says it had more than 20,000 pets covered in 2017).

On the other hand, that sort of spending isn’t so staggering when you consider most people think of their pets as part of their family — their ‘children’ almost — whose health and wellbeing are just as important as their own. ‘Pet parenting’ as a concept has really come to the fore in recent years, especially among millennials who almost view it as “practice” for the real deal. Logically, this makes sense: young people are choosing to have kids much later on, and taking care of a pet is a little less daunting (both financially and morally) than taking care of a living, breathing, miniature version of yourself. 

Source: Companion Animals of New Zealand, 2016

Not surprisingly, a plethora of small businesses have emerged over the years in an attempt to cash in on this $1.8 billion industry. One such business is Auckland-based start-up Feed My Fur Baby which sources and delivers locally-made dog food on a subscription basis. Founded by Amy and Ben Rennell in January this year, the idea came to the couple (who have two young children together) when they ran out of food one night for Jack, their eight-year-old Labrador/German Shorthaired Pointer cross.

“The next morning, the dog’s following me around wanting to be fed, and I’m busy trying to to get the kids ready for school and trying to get ready for work,” Ben Rennell recalls. “I had to pop out to the supermarket to get the food and I just thought ‘this is crazy, this happens all the time!’ I thought ‘why isn’t anyone in NZ doing pet food subscription?’”

Feed My Fur Baby co-founder Ben Rennell and his dog Jack (Photo: Supplied)

It’s a valid point, really, especially when you consider that pet care products constitute the single biggest ‘trigger’ for trips to the store. And besides, it’s not like you’re never not going to need dog food, in the same way you’re never not going to need toilet paper or tampons

“Subscription works best for consumer goods that you have a regular need for, and pet food is a large ongoing need, especially if you have a big dog,” he says. “I guess you could say we’re a bit like My Food Bag, but for pets.”

But it’s not just convenience FMFB have tapped into: customers are asked to submit their dog’s age, weight and lifestyle so that a customised ‘feeding plan’ can be generated, calculating how many calories a day your dog needs and how many scoops of food that equates to. FMFB is also heavily focused on sustainability, using as many natural fibres and as little plastic in its packaging as possible — non-essential for some, but a deal breaker for others.

Jack eyeing up his food (Photo: Supplied)

Another business that’s made the most of the pet parenting boom is accessories company Wolves of Wellington. When Indy the Husky pup came into co-founder Gretchen Hamlen-Williams’ life in 2014, she quickly realised there weren’t a whole lot of options out there when it came to leads and collars. At the time, she’d been toying with the idea of starting some sort of e-commerce company with her brother, Josh. So in 2015, they started importing overseas brands into the New Zealand market, servicing customers who wanted accessories that were a little more ‘premium’ and ‘special’ for their pet. Since 2017 though, Wolves has shifted its focus to designing its own products following a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $13,000.

Hamlen-Williams believes that the main reason why so many pet care brands have proliferated in recent years is because of the internet — that most disruptive of forces in our modern business climate. E-commerce allows anyone and everyone with a computer, bank account, and half a brain to set up a storefront to sell their goods, while social media has equipped these brands with the power to tap into relevant communities instantly and, most importantly, for free.

Wolves of Wellington’s sibling co-founders Gretchen & Josh Hamlen-Williams with their dogs Indy the Husky and Willow the Malmute (Photos: Supplied)

“The pet industry in the last three years has been crazy [with] all these e-commerce businesses popping up. Before, it was pretty much just Animates which had really stock standard, boring products for quite a high price. You had to pay something like $40 or $50 to just get a plain black collar,” recalls Hamlen-Williams. “Now, it’s so easy to set up an online store, or to sell on Etsy or Trade Me.”

“Then you have social media, particularly Instagram, which acts as such an easy advertising option. You don’t have to pay a lot of money; in fact, you don’t have to pay any money at all. In the first two years of our business, we had zero advertising, and we still don’t really [have any now]. When we did our Kickstarter [to launch our own brand], it was all pre-existing customers more or less from social media. Again, there was no advertising for it. We just had an easy pool of people to reach out to.”

Wolves of Wellington now make its own designs following a Kickstarter campaign in 2017 (Photo: Supplied)

In addition to the plethora of startups that have emerged from the e-commerce boom, established companies not traditionally part of the pet sector have also been cashing in — New Zealand King Salmon set up its pet food brand Omega Plus more than two years ago, while Garage Project has been making the most of its brewery’s mash leftovers by using it to launch a line of premium treats. Even fashion designer Karen Walker works into her repertoire the occasional dog collar every now and again.

The influencer economy hasn’t been immune either, because pet influencers are a very real and sometimes, very lucrative thing. Doug the Pug (3.6 million followers) is a viral sensation, while Bodhi the Shiba Inu (360,000 followers) will do paid posts for big name brands like Samsung. In New Zealand, Luka the Cocker Spaniel has posted about Pedigree Dentastix to his 6,000+ Instagram followers in the past, while Kyro the Pomsky (2,000+ followers) is another popular pup on the ‘gram, albeit somewhat sullied by the occasional presence of his owner. Louis the French Bulldog is another familiar online face who you’ll generally spot hanging around Auckland’s Ponsonby area.

Pet influencers locally and abroad

“Even if they’re not a ‘pet influencer’ in the sense that they do sponsored posts or they get free products, a lot of people run their pet accounts like an influencer account where they’ll say ‘I tried this product and this product’ and tagging businesses because they want to get their dog’s picture reposted,” says Hamlen-Williams. “Plus, social media also works as a very good medium for word of mouth referrals as well, which is really good for businesses — or bad, if your products aren’t great.”

Last year, Hamlen-Williams and Mai Young, co-founder of subscription box treat service Bark Bag, started the Canine Collective which is made up of a group of small e-commerce businesses selling dog-related goods. Its primary purpose is to give these online shops a physical retail presence. This usually takes the form of pop-up markets in Auckland and Wellington, with anywhere from 12 to 16 brands selling their goods at each one.

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“We try to make it so that there aren’t too many brands in direct competition with each other, so we rotate it,” she explains. “And that’s only a fraction of the number of businesses in New Zealand’s pet industry. They just pop up all the time.”

Instagram favourite Louis sporting a Supreme getup (Photo: Instagram/@louisthefrenchiefrench)

As a nation of animal lovers, our love and devotion to our furry companions show no signs of abating anytime soon. There’s a reason why we pamper them with the best food, the best clothes, the best accessories and the best healthcare. And apparently, according to the Rennells, pets really are good “practice” for the real thing.

“We had Jack before we had kids and this was where the ‘fur baby’ branding comes from,” says Rennell. “When I look back at all our photos from the last eight years, Jack’s in all our photos. He genuinely was our fur baby! He genuinely was our first child.”


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