As industry expands, closure of PJ's Pets and Pets Unlimited stores stands out

TORONTO – Pet parents — those doting cat and dog owners who will shell out big bucks for organic food, doggie daycare or even spa treatments — are driving a booming industry in Canada.

But shoppers looking for bargains or specialty products and services are pushing out mid-size chains from an otherwise growing market.

Take for instance PJ’s Pets and Pets Unlimited, which operate under separate banners but are one company. Late last month it announced it was closing 27 of its 39 Canadian stores.

Over the past three fiscal years, the company reported annual multimillion-dollar losses between $3 million and $6.9 million, according to a March PwC report to the Quebec Superior Court after it filed for creditor protection.

The report partly attributes the red ink to increased competition from larger pet retailers and retail stores. It also blames the low loonie as well as the company’s decision in 2011 to stop selling puppies in some stores following some public pressure.

That’s in contrast to an overall positive outlook for Canada’s pet shops.

“The industry is growing and we are seeing growth among both the major and the smaller players,” said Britanny Carter, an IBISWorld industry analyst.

Following years of growth, pet store industry revenue in Canada is expected to jump an additional 3.6 per cent this year to $2 billion, according to a recent report by the market research firm. Three major players — PetSmart, Pet Valu and Global Pet Foods — make up more than 40 per cent of the market share.

Many of the remaining shops are small, independent ones with fewer than four employees, according to the IBISWorld report. Some, like PJ’s Pets and Pets Unlimited, are mid-size operations with multiple locations.

They all face competition from grocery stores that increasingly include a pet supplies aisle and discount retailers like Walmart.

Those big outlets attract customers by offering lower prices than smaller industry players thanks to advantageous economies of scale, Carter said. They also offer convenience for those looking to pick up pet supplies while they shop for food and household goods.

Large pet store chains are able to compete by providing “a one-stop shop for all their pet care needs,” Carter said. Some PetSmart locations, for example, boast grooming, boarding, day camp, training and veterinary services.

Smaller chains and boutique shops must also carve out innovative ways to lure in customers such as offering dog training classes or risk being pushed out of the market, said Carter.

An inability to stand out may be what led to the PJ’s Pets and Pets Unlimited closures, she added.

“What it seems the company has failed to do is truly differentiate,” she said.

PJ’s Pets and Pets Unlimited didn’t return messages for comment.

Mid-size operations such as PJ’s Pets and Pets Unlimited are at a disadvantage, said David Hardisty, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“They get kind of caught in the middle,” Hardisty said.

When buying for pets, people look for a company they trust, he said.

The brand recognition that comes with being a big chain gives them an edge, while boutique stores play well to those who crave a neighbourhood feel and want to support local businesses, he said.

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