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Big-box veterinary clinics redefining consumers’ concept of pet healthcare

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PetSmart started a trend in 1994 by partnering with Banfield Pet Hospitals to open in-store veterinary clinics in many of its retail locations. Petco followed suit in 2017 by partnering with Thrive Affordable Vet Care. And PetIQ is partnering with Walmart to open clinics in as many as 1,000 stores by the end of 2023.

The movement is creating what pet market analysts call an erosion of the boundaries between pet store and pet health services provider.

“One of the central challenges for the veterinary sector, as the anchor for pet healthcare, is a growing misalignment between what vets and pet owners view as pet care,” says a new report from market research firm Packaged Facts.

NEWStat asked Packaged Facts Senior Pet Market Analyst David Lummis how those views differ.

“Veterinarians, by professional training and billing practices, view pet health from a medical lens: diagnoses, tests, medications, vaccinations, surgical procedures,” said Lummis. But in this “pets-as-family” era, pet owners tend to focus on pet health in terms of food and exercise: “The top-of-mind pet health question of most pet owners [is] ‘What should I feed my pet?’ [It’s]seldom top of mind for veterinarians.” 

It’s a mixed blessing, according to the report: while these in-store clinics compete with independent hospitals by offering consumers increased access to veterinary care and pet medications, their presence also promotes the overall concept of pet wellness, reminding pet owners of the importance of caring for their pets’ health.

Still, the report says, growth of retail pet healthcare presents challenges to the business success of many traditional, independent veterinarians and to the autonomy of the veterinary profession by shifting the balance of power in favor of larger consumer-market players and forces.

Millennial pet owners in particular are turning to pet healthcare alternatives, which also include telemedicine via the internet.

Data from July and August of 2019 show that traditional local, independent veterinary practices remain by far the leading source for veterinary care. Among dog and cat owners, a little more than half (55%) of pet owners in the past 12 months report that they’ve gone to local, independent hospitals. Here’s where the rest are going:

  • Freestanding chain veterinary clinics such as Banfield, VCA, or Blue Pearl: 15% of dog owners and 13% of cat owners
  • Chain veterinary clinics located at pet specialty stores such as PetSmart or Petco: 11% of dog owners and 12% of cat owners
  • Specialty clinics: 11% of dog or cat owners
  • Emergency/24-hour veterinary hospitals: 11% of dog owners at 9% of cat owners

“The internet is doubly a threat to [the] traditional, independent veterinarian,” Lummis told NEWStat, not only in siphoning away profits from pet medication and, to a lesser degree, pet food, “but in spurring pet-product retailers to compete with the internet . . . by providing hands-on services, including veterinary care as well as nonmedical services such as grooming or boarding that are primarily or necessarily conducted at retail locations.”

The report notes that veterinarians continue to hold the trump card as pet health experts, but new fronts of competition and digital technologies are increasingly disruptive, including app- and cloud-based technologies that provide consumers with immediate and more affordable access to pet health information and consultation by connecting pet owners with veterinarians online.

The good news is, those same technologies also mean easier management and sharing of pet health information to veterinarians, and offering substantial internet-based opportunities to even the smallest independent veterinary operator.

The report concludes that, to stay competitive, independent veterinary services providers will have to both compete and partner with the internet: “Hands-on pet care will remain the calling card of the veterinary sector—but selectively and progressively expanded in scope, and supplemented by internet and digital technologies and communications.”

Photo credit: © iStock/Lord Runar