Nonfoods Talk: Putting pets in their place

A new law makes it an expensive mistake not to harness your pet in the car in New Jersey. It could mean more sales in the pet department for retailers.

New Jersey is one hilarious state, at least as far as its government is concerned.

The Garden State has long had one of the highest tax rates in the country, often because of over-regulation and burdensome fees placed on some of the most absurd things. Now, state officials may have come up with the most bizarre rule so far, yet it may actually benefit the retail industry, specifically retailers that operate pet care sections.

It seems that the state has passed a law that will require people who want to take their dogs for a car ride to purchase and use harnesses made specifically for the animal to be contained in the back seat. Failure to do so could cost the driver up to $1,000 in fines (never mind that not putting a young child in a safety seat only earns a $50 fine in New Jersey). The way the law reads, officers from the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can monitor for infractions during traffic stops or seat-belt campaigns and fine accordingly.

Noble idea, I say. Having a dog sitting on the driver’s lap or sticking its head out of the window of a speeding car is simply downright dangerous for the animal and the human occupants of the car, not to mention other drivers. Creating a device that protects everyone is a great concept.

But it will never work. First, people are not going to limit their dogs to the backseat in a harness. Second, and much more likely, the dog is not going to like it one bit. I can just see my feisty White West Highland Terrier passively sitting in a harness in the back seat while he goes for a ride in the car.

Plus, the law opens up a host of challenges. For example, what happens when a dog owner has a two-seat car and there is no back seat in which to harness the dog? Then what?
But the upside of this law is that consumers in the Garden State will have to go to retailers to purchase these harnesses to avoid hefty fines. I am told that the products can cost up to $99, though they average around $49 to $69 per harness.

This is a potential gold mine for retailers in New Jersey. Rarely do we have the opportunity to have the government practically invent and promote a product in a specific category. Now, retailers have to take the initiative and make it clear to consumers that they not only have the harnesses to contain a dog in a car, but they have the ones that will be the most comfortable for the animal.

Consumers will come looking for products to comply with the law and the merchants who carry a broad selection of harnesses, at all the various price points, will be able to garner incremental sales from a segment that simply did not get much attention in the past.

Speaking of the pet category, The Private Label Manufacturers Association sees the growing potential for private label pet products at mass retail. The New York-based association announced in August that it would include a Pet Care Pavilion at its annual trade show in Chicago in mid-November.

It is a sign that the pet care category is continuing to thrive and evolve. According to PLMA, store brands account for about 13% of pet food sales and 17.4% of pet supplies sales in mass retail outlets.

“Turning a spotlight on the growing range of pet categories is overdue,” notes PLMA president Brian Sharoff in a press release. “With retailers of all kinds increasingly attuned to what America’s 73 million pet owners want for their cats, dogs and other animal friends—whether it is in terms of nutrition and health, recreation, or grooming and supplies—it is clear that the market dynamics favor solid growth in the private label pet arena.”

Of course, this is not good news for national brand manufacturers of pet products. But like their brethren in other segments, they will have to learn how to better compete with private label and store brands to ensure that retailers continue to stock their products and consumers continue to buy them.

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