The Biz

The first visitor you’re liable to come into contact with at Blaze-n-Skyy Pet Boutique & Wellness Center is “Blitz,” a spunky Pomeranian in a designer sweater.

Whether sporting sweaters and nonslip doggie socks, riding in a swanky Dooney & Bourke handbag, lounging on a $300 canine sofa bed, or munching on organic, gourmet treats that may cost as much as an entree at one of Asheville’s finer human-dining establishments, Blitz is emblematic of a relatively new breed in town—the pampered pet.

Posh pooch: There are any number of ways to spoil, pamper, treat or accessorize your canine these days — and dog-crazy Asheville is becoming a prime spot for pet boutiques of all stripes. Photo By Jonathan Welch

“Dog owners are crazy,” says Adelaine Lockwood, who owns both Blitz as well as the store, located at 62 Wall St. in downtown Asheville.

But Blitz is not your stereotypical snooty lap dog—just a lucky dog whose loving owner happens to own a high-end pet boutique. And in dog-crazy Asheville, the rich aren’t the only ones spoiling their pets, says Tom Flora, owner and “pawprietor” of Three Dog Bakery on Battery Park Avenue. A chain with stores in the United States, Canada and Japan, Three Dog features assorted gifts aimed at discriminating dog lovers. But Flora’s specialty is a dizzying array of slobber-inducing, oven-baked dog treats and cakes that draw customers ranging from “rich tourists to the people who hang out in Pritchard Park,” he reports.

Top dog

No-frills pet owners and those who don’t own pets may roll their eyes when passing a shop like these, but they reflect a growing nationwide trend.

Last year, pet owners spent $41 billion on their charges, according to the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. That surpasses the gross domestic product of all but 64 of the world’s 194 countries, according to an Aug. 6, 2007, BusinessWeek cover story. “People are no longer satisfied to reward their pet in pet terms,” said APPMA President Bob Vetere. “They want to reward their pet in human terms.”

The 2007 figure is twice the amount shelled out on pets a decade ago, and annual spending is expected to hit $52 billion in the next two years, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer-research company based in Rockville, Md. That’s more than Americans spend on movies ($10.8 billion), video games ($11.6 billion) and recorded music ($10.6 billion) combined.

A cursory glance at the financial pages suggests that the U.S. economy is turning rancid as the stock market, the housing market and other key indices continue to tank. But Fido doesn’t read The Wall Street Journal—he just piddles on it.

And this year, “pet parents” will be upgrading their purchases—especially as boutique items increasingly make their way into major retail chains, says Laura Bennett, author of a recent report on 2008 trends published by the Pet Products Association.

“People will continue to spend above and beyond on their pets as the population ages and pets take the place of children at home,” she predicts. “And some luxuries are not so unusual anymore—how often do you see a dog dressed up to go out these days?”

Local pet owners have plenty of choices for high-end and specialty pet items. For starters, there’s Funky Mutt and Waggers Dog Depot in Asheville, Bone-a-Fide Bakery & Boutique in Black Mountain, and Bling Bling Boutique in Hendersonville. Stores such as PetSmart and Target are also getting in on the action.

For richer and for poorer

Besides just plain loving their dogs, Lockwood cites a number of reasons for the growth in pet boutiques. Some people—regardless of income—see their pets as their children and spoil them accordingly. For others, their pets have become something akin to fashion accessories, which helps explain why doggie clothing, fashion collars and harnesses are among Lockwood’s best-selling items—and why she finds it harder to keep merchandise for smaller, more-easily-toted dogs in stock.

“Oh, I’ve got lots of stories; I’ve got tons,” says Lockwood. One recent customer, a female tourist who came in around Christmastime, said she and her family had been devastated by the loss of the family’s Boston terrier. The incident was especially touching to Lockwood, who’d recently watched Blaze, her German spitz, die from disease. After the two women cried together, the customer announced that she intended to surprise her preschool-age daughter with a new puppy from Santa.

“She pretty much bought about $250 worth of stuff—without even having the dog yet. But she wanted to make it special,” says Lockwood.

Another customer “came to the store five weeks before she got her dog, just like an expectant mom,” Lockwood recalls. “She pretty much told me, ‘Why don’t you go around the store and get anything my puppy will need.’”

Yet another, whom Lockwood describes as “a girly girl,” has a dog that doesn’t like the feminine styles mama picks out for her. “The funniest thing is, when the [dog] comes in and [the customer] puts a shirt on her, the dog walks ‘tripod’—with one leg up—as if something is wrong with her.”

But one of the most poignant stories, says Lockwood, involves a local elderly man, Henry, who lives on disability and carries his little pooch, Chucky, with him practically everywhere in his motorized wheelchair.

“His dog is very, very picky about food” and only likes a certain treat—duck breast, which also happens to be one of Lockwood’s priciest bagged goodies. Henry also bought a nice collar and harness “and a special blanket so they can cuddle up together on his wheelchair.” Henry, says Lockwood, gladly spends a portion of his disability checks on his boon companion—even if Henry himself sometimes goes without.

“Some of my customers will come in with money and say, ‘This is for Henry.’ They’ll put in $20, $18—anything so Chucky can get supplied. So if you ask me if it’s just that people have too much money, I don’t think so.”

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