'Pet parents' are expected to spend $99 billion on pet care this year, and Walmart has a plan to dominate the segment with pet insurance and dog walking partnerships

  • Walmart just announced the addition of a number of new offerings to its suite of pet services, including pet-sitting and insurance.
  • Business Insider spoke with Melody Richard, the vice president of the retailer's pet category, about the boom in the pet services industry. 
  • "Pets have truly become part of everyone's family," Richard told Business Insider. 
  • And that development — especially among younger shoppers like millennials and Gen Z — means that there's opportunities for major spending spikes in everything from products like costumes and toys to pet insurance.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Melody Richard is just 12 weeks into her role as merchandising vice president of Walmart's pets category. But a lot of the category's main concerns are familiar territory for the executive, who is both the "pet mom" of four four-legged friends — a Russian terrier and three neighborhood cats — and the former vice president of the retailer's baby category.

"It's been very clear from talking to my team or the suppliers — or just talking to pet parents — that pets have truly become part of everyone's family," Richard told Business Insider. 

Basically, more and more consumers — especially young millennials and Gen Z-ers — are treating their pets like babies. 

"I think about my niece who has a cat — she celebrates his birthday, she celebrates his milestones," Richard said. "We celebrate with her. He'll get a present from me — as his aunt — at Christmas. There's that level of engagement with that generation."

And these "pet parents" are spending accordingly, not just in the realm of cute Halloween outfits for dogs or high-tech cat toys, but also in terms of healthcare, insurance, and overall pet wellness. The American Pet Products Association, a pet industry group, estimated that spending on pet products and services would hit $99 billion in 2020, up over $3 billion from 2019.

Walmart just announced its foray into brand new pet services and even pet insurance, with partnerships with Petplan and Rover. Petplan is a pet insurance company based in New York City that's been around since 2003. Rover is a pet services online marketplace that was most recently valued at $300 million in 2016. 

The Arkansas-based retailer is no stranger to the pet business, with a customer base that includes 90 million pet owners. The business currently stocks 1,800 pet products, and hosts a number of in-store vet clinics. Last year, Walmart kicked off Pet Rx, a service focusing on prescriptions for pets.

But Richard said that part of the timing around the company's new pet-related ventures ties back to the pandemic. Adoption rates are currently exploding, with Americans weathering the coronavirus by rescuing an animal in need. 

Shoppers stuck indoors this Halloween made up for the lost fun by posting pictures of their pets decked out in festive costumes — a trend that Richard believes will continue with holiday sweaters as winter sets in. Social media as a whole has sparked the rise of "fur-fluencers," pet parents who showcase their pets on Instagram and other platforms.

Meanwhile, Walmart's partnership with Rover is poised to provide dog-walking and pet-sitting needs for a post-COVID-19 world, when pet parents may be itching to travel and get out of the house for longer stretches. 

On the health and wellness side of the pet business, Richard said that the company has seen the increased premiumization of products for pets, with a new emphasis on healthy and natural pet food. She said Walmart is looking to meet pet parents' needs when it comes to keeping pets healthy. But she said the company found that consumers in the United States are especially underserved when it comes to one health-adjacent category.

"98% of Americans don't have pet insurance," Richard said. "It's very different in Europe — Europe is much more developed in that space."

Richard said that such insurance can help pet parents better afford emergency veterinary expenses.

"I've already had a few text messages this morning from friends and family saying, 'Oh wow, I do need to get pet insurance,'" Richard said. "People usually don't think about getting it until it's too late when they're getting the bill."

Richard said that her team at Walmart hopes that pet parents will think of Walmart when it comes to both their own health, and that of their furry friends.

"We want to be that trusted companion for every pet parent," she said. "We're going to provide you support for your everyday needs for your pet. We're going to help you have fun and create special Instagrammable moments with your pet. And then we're going to be there to support you on those health and wellness journey with your pets."

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