Cheapism: Best national pet stores for your budget

American households spend an average of $500 a year on their pets.

Spending on pets reflects a common sentiment: that furry or feathered companions are considered part of the family. 

American households devote an average of $500 a year to pets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including food, supplies, and services such as grooming and boarding. Many pet owners wouldn’t dream of cutting back -- spending remained relatively steady even during the recent economic downturn -- but they may be able to get more for their money depending on which national pet store chain they frequent: Petco or PetSmart. While the red-and-blue brands may seem more or less indistinguishable, a side-by-side comparison by found marked differences in price, as well as other elements of the two businesses.

Pricing. In a survey of online prices for pet essentials such as dog and cat food, a birdcage and an aquarium, seven out of 10 products cost less at Petco. The SeaClear 20-gallon aquarium, for instance, is listed for $125 at Petco, compared with $145 and up at PetSmart (depending on the color). The final bill for all the items came to $425.44 at Petco compared with $461.40 at PetSmart. Services, too, tended to be a bit cheaper at Petco: $110 vs. $119 for a six-week dog training class, for example, with special rates for rescues and frequent discounts on top of that. Winner: Petco. 

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Extra Services. Although Petco wins on price, PetSmart offers a broader assortment of services. In addition to training and grooming, it provides veterinary care through Banfield Pet Hospital at many locations. Medical services at Petco are limited to vaccinations and other preventive care through periodic clinics. PetSmart customers can also board their dogs at a PetsHotel for $32 a night at many store locations or send a pet to Doggie Day Camp. Winner: PetSmart.

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Loyalty Programs. Both retailers have loyalty programs that promise benefits including coupons and in-store discounts with a free membership. The Petco Pals Rewards program also grants members $5 to spend at the store for every $100 in purchases. Just be sure to use the so-called Reward Dollars within 45 days. Winner: Petco.

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Online Presence. Petco and PetSmart both continually run sales on their websites, but deals seem easier to come by at Petco. The store automatically applies discounts at checkout, instead of requiring consumers to use a coupon code, and its rival’s markdowns often apply only to members of the PetSmart PetPerks loyalty program. On the Petco site, online shoppers can drill down to products for specific animals, rather than sift through broad categories such as small animals or reptiles, making for easier navigation, although a few reviews excoriate the retailer for shipping delays and out-of-stock inventory. Online reviews indicate that PetSmart irritates customers by listing numerous products on its site that turn out to be available only in stores. Winner: Petco.

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Full report on Petco vs. PetSmart