Purchasing for your Poodle: Consumerism Unleashed
A refugee from the Sudan is in a grocery store in Fargo, North Dakota. Orphaned by war, traumatized by loss and violence, and having survived most his life on minimal rations, this young man, Peter, is understandably amazed by the endless of aisles of brightly packaged foods.
Holding a can of Purina dog food, he asks, “What's this?”
The New York Times reporter assigned to write a story about these relocated “Lost Boys” from the Sudan (NYT Magazine, April 1, 2001) replies, “Um, that' s food for our dogs.” She cringes at what that must sound like to a “man who had spent the last eight years eating porridge.”
“Ah, I see,” answers Peter. According to the reporter, Peter replaces the can on the shelf and pushes his grocery cart a few more steps. He then turns, looking quizzical, and asks, “Tell me, what is the work of dogs in this country?”
Dogs have no work in this country, of course. Perhaps there are a few hunting dogs, seeing-eye dogs, guard dogs, sled dogs, or what have you. But increasingly, the most important job of a dog is to consume pet food and overpriced gourmet biscuits, as well as be serviced by doggy day-cares, massage therapists, and dog psychiatrists.
True, they are also wonderful companions for many people, and help get their “owners” (or pet guardians as you are now legally required to say in Berkeley, California) out for walks – which is probably a quality of life improvement for the typical sedentary American human. But dogs in this country are most interesting (judging from media commentary) for their contribution to the explosive growth of the pet industry – currently at around $23 billion a year in the United States.
As the New York Times reported on November 19, 2000: “If the word of advice for `The Graduate' in 1967 was ‘plastics,' in 2000, think ‘dogs.' There are 55 million pet dogs in the United States, and 43 percent of owners celebrated their dogs' birthdays with a wrapped gift. So says an American Animal Hospital Association 1999 Pet Owner Survey that also found that 84 percent of pet owners referred to themselves as their animal's mom or dad.”
Not that you shouldn't bond with your pet. But in typical American fashion, intimacy is best expressed through purchases.
Can't be with your dog for an overnight? Buy him a stay at Paradise Ranch in Sun Valley, California, where $50 gets him a night in a human-sized bed along with a real person – a “body buddy” – to cuddle up with, because your dog may not be accustomed to sleeping alone!
Feel guilty about leaving your dog home alone all day? Stop on your way home from the office and pick up a box of gourmet dog biscuits to show your love. If you're among the super-rich, visit one of the designer pet shops that offers entire collections of furniture, objets, pillow-beds (with pockets for breeds that like to burrow), dog carriers and dog jewelry. Prices for sweaters (available in cashmere) start at about $125 and escalate from there (L.A. Times, November 8, 2000).
Having a hard time juggling the responsibilities of pet ownership? Get help from the likes of Pet Chauffeur in New York City – “a five-minivan livery service with six drivers on call to drive the city's most well-heeled dogs to their increasingly hectic weekly rounds of acupuncture, swim therapy, massage and grooming appointments.” Or for only $25-35, settle for a day of play, lunch and nap-time at Dog Day Afternoons in Boston (pick-up and drop-off included).
Aware of all the goods and services your dog could potentially need in a lifetime, PetsMart wants to position itself to capture a larger percentage of the total cost of ownership, which it estimates to be about $15,000. So the company plans to provide a “coordinated suite of medical, training, grooming, preventative and ancillary services as well as food, toys and educational products” designed to rev up credit card use among “pet enthusiasts” over the lifetime of their pets.
“Looking at our business through the lens of total cost of ownership more than triples the size of the total potential market we can address to $100 billion,” says Bob Moran, president, North American Stores (Progressive Grocer, June 2000). The pet entrepreneurs are thinking big and going global. Purina is in the midst of an $11.2 billion international merger with Nestle. And for good reason: The U.S. (with only a small percent of the world's population) represents almost half of the $53 billion global pet industry. Just think of all the gidgets, gadgets, and services that all those pets beyond U.S. borders are not consuming!
Meanwhile, a Sudanese man in a Fargo, North Dakota, grocery store learns an important lesson about life in his new home: consuming IS the “work” of most of us in this country – dogs included.