During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Meagan Remmes felt a tug for companionship after she got furloughed from her job and spent long days in a quiet house. She found her answer about two weeks ago in a box abandoned near her mailbox.
She heard a whimper. Inside, she found a weeks-old puppy wrapped in a towel.
Her new rescue puppy, Locust, is one of many that have joined families through adoptions and fostering during the pandemic as Americans seek out company and find it in pets from reptiles to cats. As Americans get ready for the holidays, retailers and industry-watchers anticipate that pet boom may drive sales of dog treats, cat furniture, pet-sized ugly Christmas sweaters and other gifts throughout the holiday season.
Pet merchandise is expected to be one of the top gift-giving categories, according to a survey by consulting firm Deloitte. About half of the more than 4,000 people surveyed by the firm said they plan to purchase pet foods and supplies during the holiday season. On average, they plan to spend $90 on pet items, such as gifts for their own dog or for a family member or friend's pet.
About one in four people said they plan to buy pet toys, decor and accessories as a gift. About 15% of those surveyed said they hoped to receive those as a gift.
Walmart said it's prepared to sell more than 3 million pet beds. Chewy said it will offer gift cards and personalized mugs, blankets and bandanas for the first time this holiday. And PetSmart will carry a mix of seasonal attire — including Santa costumes for bearded dragons.
Rod Sides, vice chairman of retail and distribution at Deloitte, said pet owners need supplies for their new pets. He said historical buying patterns show that pets take priority, even when the budget is tight.
"Often, pet is a fairly recession-proof category," he said. "Folks will continue to spend for their pets, just as they do for their kids and family."
Even before the pandemic, pet care spending was on an upward trajectory. The $131 billion global industry is expected to have a 7% compound annual growth rate over the next five years, according to research by Jefferies. The U.S. is the largest market for the pet care industry — an approximately $53 billion market that's projected to reach about $64 billion over the next four years, the company said.
Steph Wissink, managing director at Jefferies, said some millennials have delayed having children and treated pets as family members. She said the explosion of new tools makes ownership easier and more convenient for younger and digitally fluent customers, whether getting automatic food deliveries through Chewy or arranging pet sitting through Wag.
Deloitte's Sides said the popularity of sharing pet videos and photos on social media has driven the need for more toys and accessories. He said pet owners also have an ever-expanding assortment of products to buy, from organic food and grooming tools to pet medications and insurance.
Wissink said other pandemic trends have bolstered pet ownership. More people are buying homes in suburban or rural areas where they have room for additional animals. As employees work remotely, they can housebreak a new puppy or take a dog for regular walks.
She said the pet boom will have a long-lasting effect on the industry that's not limited to the holiday season.
"A pet isn't a temporary investment," she said "When you acquire a pet, it's a multiyear commitment. You don't get a pet and it goes away when the Covid vaccine is out."
Before the pandemic inspired a wave of adoptions, PetSmart customers were already upgrading to higher-end food and buying more accessories, such as a bunch of different dog collars, said Stacia Andersen, PetSmart's executive vice president of merchandising and customer experience.
She said those trends have intensified in recent months, as many Americans get their first pet, adopt another one or get a specialty pet, such as a lizard. She said the pet superstore chain, which has about 1,650 stores in the U.S. and Canada, has seen more sales of starter supplies, such as kits for a first-time reptile owner.
And she said Arcadia Trail, its new private line of tents and life jackets designed for dogs, has been very popular as pet owners go on more outdoor adventures.
Chewy CEO Sumit Singh said the pet e-commerce retailer has had higher sales as people buy supplies to welcome new pets, such as crates and feeding bowls. People are also buying more toys and treats, he said.
"Pet parents have more time. All of us have more time," he said. "When you have time and there are more people at home, pets are actually getting entertained and engaged more."
Chewy's shares have reflected its pandemic-related opportunity. Its shares are up more than 141% so far this year, raising its market value to $28.9 billion.
More sales are shifting online and Chewy has an advantage there. It is known for its Autoship program, a subscription service that regularly delivers refills of pet food, cat litter and more to the home. The program drives nearly 70% of Chewy's net sales.
The company is adding new services. The growth of pet adoptions inspired Chewy to speed up the launch of a telehealth service that allows pet owners to get advice from a veterinarian about common concerns.
Meantime, specialty pet superstores PetSmart and Petco both added curbside pickup of online purchases at their stores in the spring. The privately held companies declined to share their sales numbers, but said they've already increased.
Darren MacDonald, chief digital and innovation officer at Petco, said the trend of home redecorating has spilled into the pet category.
After buying a desk and other furniture, he said, "people went out and refreshed their dog beds and their key supplies."
At Walmart stores and on its website, pet owners will find holiday merchandise like dog chews in the shape of candy canes.
Melody Richard, vice president of Walmart Pets, said the pet category "definitely does have a seasonal bump." Yet this year, she said, the retailer recognized it as an even bigger opportunity because "there are so many Covid puppies and Covid kitties."
"We already are seeing some pet holiday shopping and we're excited about that," she said.
Target said it's increased its assortment of cat scratchers that come in fun designs, like a red gift package with a bow. It has matching red flannel pajamas that come in sizes for cats, dogs and humans.
The retailer estimates that more than 70% of the households that shop its stores have a pet.
Remmes, who found her puppy near her mailbox in North Carolina, said she's looking on Etsy for a toy box for the puppy's growing collection. She said she may buy some seasonal attire, too.
"I have definitely already started thinking about working her into the Christmas card," she said.
Locust has already received an ID tag and other gifts from friends and family — and Remmes has a hunch that the puppy is on their Christmas list, too, she said. Her mother-in-law regularly calls to check in on her "grandpuppy."
PetSmart's Andersen said this year, especially, gift-giving will be a way to thank pets who have offered comfort during a challenging time. And, she added, they tend to be more enthusiastic gift recipients.
"There's nothing more fun than giving a gift to a pet because nobody is going to return it," she said. "Other than maybe they spit it out, you're in pretty good shape."