This will be Beau’s first Christmas.
He doesn’t know it yet, but the 8-month-old Australian Shepherd will get a brand new toy on Christmas morning.
It’s an especially sturdy one that his owner, University City resident Justine Ulrich, hopes he won’t be able to tear apart in a matter of minutes. And then he will be treated to a day at doggie day camp a couple of days later.
As for her cats, who will also get special holiday treats, Ulrich suspects they are now a bit more clued into the holiday based on their past experience.
“I think my cats know because they attack the Christmas tree every year,” she said.
Regardless of whether they understand what the fuss about Santa Claus and the like is all about, pet owners such as Ulrich are reserving more space under the Christmas tree for their furry friends.
It’s not just toy stores and shopping malls that are drawing in large crowds for the holiday shopping frenzy. It’s also become a growing business for pet stores as more animal lovers indulge their pets and those of family, friends and neighbors.
The aisles near the entrances and cash registers of pet stores already are full of Grinch-themed pet apparel, collars that jingle, bow-wrapped rawhide bones and squeaky toys in the shape of monkeys and alligators with Santa hats.
Stores geared for humans are getting in on the action, too. The holiday designer gift collection at Target and Neiman Marcus, for example, includes a $29.99 pet bowl and $39.99 pink sparkly dog collar and leash by Oscar de la Renta.
“This has always been a busy time, but it continues to grow and get bigger,” said Jeff Jensen, co-owner of Four Muddy Paws, which has locations in Lafayette Square and Edwardsville. “Pets are a big part of people’s lives now. They’ve really progressed from being a pet in the house to being a family member.”
Pets, of course, are now a fixture in many families’ holiday cards. And pet photo nights with Santa abound this time of year at area shopping malls and other locations.
In addition to dog and cat puzzles and treats with holiday icing, Jensen’s stores also sell pet-friendly, self-adhesive holiday wrapping paper. It is made with soy-based ink so pets can safely rip apart the paper without fear of ingesting chemicals or tape.
“This is a last-minute business. It really picks up in the last 10 days — it’s kind of similar to the cosmetic business,” he said. “As we get into these five or six days before Christmas, it’s busy all of the time.”
Consumers are expected to shell out an estimated $52.9 billion on their pets this year, which includes the holidays, up 4 percent from last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, a nonprofit trade group.
As for the holidays, the association is expecting people to spend more on their pets this year since overall consumer spending is expected to be up. The group also notes that the holiday pet retail segment does pretty well even in tough economic times. According to its survey, about 53 percent of dogs and 38 percent of cats will receive holiday gifts this year.
Indeed, cats seem to get the short shrift around the holidays.
“Kids come in and shop for the neighbor’s dog,” said Teresa Miller, owner of Chesterfield-based Treats Unleashed, which has five stores in the St. Louis area. “But I don’t see as many people shopping for other people’s cats.”
December is Miller’s busiest month, as sales double what she does in a typical month the rest of the year. The stores begin seeing an uptick in traffic the week following Black Friday.
“People hit the malls during Thanksgiving weekend, then they remember their pets,” Miller said. “It ramps up slowly until about (today), when it’s full-on chaos — but really fun chaos — especially as kids get out of school.”
Pet owners tend to make bigger ticket purchases around the holidays, she said, as they buy things such as beds to keep their pets snuggly and warm in the colder months. And they are often on an interminable quest to find toys that can withstand their pets’ not-so-gentle handling.
“People are always looking for things that their dogs can’t chew up,” she said. “There’s nothing indestructible, but we have sturdy toys.”
Some folks take the holiday shopping so seriously that they will shop with their pets one day and then come back later without them so they can buy presents for them and not ruin the surprise, Miller said.
The pet world is not so different than the human world in that customers are increasingly asking for toys made in the U.S., as well as all-natural treats and eco-friendly products made of recycled materials, she added.
And then there is that other kind of last-minute shopper common in the human world: the perennial procrastinator.
“We always have the last-minute shopper — the person who forgot aunt so-and-so’s dog is coming to Christmas,” Miller said.
Without fail, she invariably has someone banging on the door as they are closing on Christmas Eve to pick up that 11th-hour gift for the pooch.