Retail

Chewy launches virtual vet visits as pandemic fuels pet boom

Key Points
  • Chewy is launching a telehealth service that connects pet owners to a licensed veterinarian.
  • Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said the company had already started to think about a pet telehealth service, but the pandemic led to greater need for it.
  • The service is free for customers who are part of the company's Autoship program, which automatically ships deliveries of food or other pet goods.
Chewy's "Connect with a Vet."
Source: Chewy

Many Americans have had a virtual visit with a doctor during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Chewy is launching a telehealth service for pets.

Starting Wednesday, the online pet product's customers can get advice in real time from a licensed veterinarian about their dogs or cats. The service, "Connect-with-a-Vet," is free for customers who are part of Autoship, the company's subscription program that automatically ships deliveries of food or other pet goods.

Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said the company had already started to think about a pet telehealth service, but speeded up its development as the pandemic created a greater need. More Americans are adopting and fostering pets during the global health crisis. At the same time, vet clinics have faced temporary shutdowns, reduced hours or limited pet visits per day to allow social distancing. And even if people can go to the vet, some feel it's more safe and convenient to talk to one from their home.

"It was one of the irons in the fire, but clearly, the pandemic has accelerated our effort," he said.

Chewy began testing the virtual vet visits in Florida and Massachusetts in May. Vets offer guidance and can refer the pet to an emergency clinic if needed, but won't diagnose a condition or prescribe medication. Singh said the service is geared toward common concerns, such as a puppy eating chocolate or a cat with itchy skin.

"It causes deep stress anyway when your pet is ill, but when it happens at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday evening, you're just a notch shy from panicking," he said.

The service will be available though Chewy's website in 35 states. Vets are online weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. Singh said the company plans to add video to the service, expand it across the country and serve pets beyond cats and dogs. It may also add more hours, depending on demand.

He said the service will deepen loyalty among customers, who may add more to their basket because of having the brand top of mind or have one more reason to keep up their subscription. He said it will explore ways to monetize the service in the future, such as charging pet owners who do not have Autoship for vet visits.

Chewy sells a wide variety of products, from dog beds to medication. Its market has grown during the pandemic, as Americans spend more time at home and seek out companionship. Pet adoption rose by 60% in the first quarter alone, according to a research note in September by Bank of America analyst Nathaniel Schindler.

Investors have bet on the company profiting from the pet boom. As of Tuesday's market close, shares have risen more than 130% this year, bringing the company's market value to $27.9 billion.

Chewy had 16.6 million customers as of the second quarter that ended Aug. 2. It does not release the number of customers who are part of Autoship, but they drive nearly 70% of its net sales.

Singh said the retailer continues to see strong demand for pet products, despite the recession. He said new pet owners need supplies, such as dog beds and crates. And he said consumers are actually spending more in some categories, such as treats and toys, as they spend more time with their pets.

"We treat pets as family, so that is not a category that you generally cut spending in or you think about cutting spending in," he said. "When you're rationing budget, that's likely the last category on your list that you do it in."

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