Eric Bouffard and Tamiko Manago were suffering through that familiar Christmas ritual: coaxing their little one to look into the camera while perched on Santa's lap.
"Right here, Charlie! Look here, Charlie!" Manago implored one recent night at Westside Pavilion. The photographer shook a string of jingle bells. Finally, Charlie glanced in the right direction, ensuring the perfect holiday snapshot.
Charlie is a 5-year-old terrier mix.
"We don't have kids, we have the dog," Bouffard, 40, said with a sheepish smile. "We did this last year, and that was our Christmas card. Our whole family loved it."
In another sign of the rising status of animals in U.S. households: Fluffy and Scout are scoring big this holiday season. Shoppers scrambling to buy Christmas and Hanukkah presents are picking up something special for their furry and feathered companions too.
During November and December, the average shopper is expected to spend $30.43 on pet gifts, up 14.2% from the same period a year earlier, according to the National Retail Federation. In comparison, spending on family is forecast to increase 6.5% to $459.87 and buying for friends is predicted to rise 6.7% to $80.
Sniffing an opportunity, big-box retailers and specialty boutiques alike have rushed out gift sets, party outfits and luxurious spa treatments — all for pets. There are even pet stockings to hang by the chimney with care.
Marshalls and T.J. Maxx are running holiday commercials co-starring a lucky canine pulling a new bed out of a sparkly gift box.
Petco and PetSmart are stocking shelves with expanded lines of holiday items such as squeaky reindeer, Santa hats and pet shirts that read "Happy Pawnukkah." Local chains have also added to their assortment of pricey pet accessories and treats.
"There is a lot of momentum behind the growth in pets during the holidays," said James Russo, senior vice president of global consumer insights at Nielsen. "The pet is an important part of the family, and many people think, 'We should be buying a gift.'"
The $58-billion pet industry is working extra hard to win over besotted owners.
Wal-Mart enjoys its highest sales of dog and cat treats during the last two months of the year, spokeswoman Sarah McKinney said. "We see parents getting toys for their 5-year-old and also toys for their 5-year-old dog and cat," McKinney said. "They are definitely adding more to the basket."
Not only do more people own pets — nearly 70% of U.S. households, up from 56% in 1988 — but many are treating their cats and dogs as they would a friend or family member, said Bob Vetere, chief executive of the American Pet Products Assn.
The pets-as-people trend was unleashed by twenty- and thirtysomethings who are waiting to have offspring, and empty nesters whose critters are replacements for adult children.
"If there are no children to hover over, lo and behold there is Sparky and Spot," Vetere said. "It's who you are coming home to at night, and you can talk to them and they never talk back."
Joel Alcala, 35, plans to lavish Christmas gifts on Bella Sofia, his miniature schnauzer. Alcala normally shells out $100 a week on his pampered pooch for treats, grooming and toys. That goes up to $200 during the holiday season.
"She's my kid," the West Los Angeles resident said, pointing to the pink eyelet dress he recently bought for her. Alcala said he's also looking forward to spoiling his "grandbabies" (Bella Sofia is expecting).
Savvy retailers have realized the key to peddling pet products is playing up to sentimental humans.
A few years ago, Westside Pavilion expanded photo-with-Santa events at which pets are allowed to three nights from one after they proved a big hit with shoppers, said Vito Bello, senior marketing manager for the Los Angeles mall. Many other Southland shopping centers, such as the Americana at Brand and Santa Monica Place, also have "Santa Paws" sessions.
"People come back every year. It's become part of their holiday ritual," Bello said. "We do ask to avoid some of the more exotic animals" like snakes.
PetSmart is selling ugly Christmas sweaters for the first time, riffing off the popularity of donning eye-searing sweaters for parties, said Joice Wirkus, vice president of retail marketing. Bestsellers include one featuring a deranged-looking gingerbread man and a Fair Isle knit with goofy bears.
Like their two-legged counterparts, many dogs and cats head to the salon to get a seasonal makeover. About 2 million customers go through PetSmart's salons in November and December, up 11% from other two-month stretches of the year, Wirkus said.
Holiday grooming services include sugar-cookie-scented cologne and seasonal bandannas. Fashion-conscious owners can also get their pooch's fur enhanced with a selection of 10 nontoxic colors, or add feather accents or stencil designs to their coats — services launched this year. Local pet boutiques are enjoying the holiday cheer as well.
At Pussy & Pooch Pethouse and Pawbar, December sales can leap 20% higher than other months, said Rob Gaudio, who owns the Los Angeles chain with his wife, Janene Zakrajsek. Shoppers spend 5% to 10% more, on average, each trip than during the rest of the year, he said.
All four stores host holiday parties with champagne cocktails (for the humans) and nibbles (for the dogs and cats).
"The holidays are when they may splurge on a nicer bed," Zakrajsek said. "It's the one time of year, if someone has extra cash to spend and they've been eyeing something all year, they buy it."
That includes more extravagant meals, such as the raw meat served at the "mini sushi raw bar" at Pussy & Pooch stores.
"We plate it and present it like a gourmet five-star restaurant," Zakrajsek said. "You're having a special holiday dinner; your animal should too."
Pet stores also get a boost from shoppers without pets. About 13% of these consumers will drop cash on a pet product, Nielsen data show, perhaps knowing that the best way to parents' hearts is through their fur babies.
At Westside Pavilion, Bouffard cradled Charlie and said the "little guy" can expect plenty of toys and treats for Christmas.
He and Manago admired a shot of Charlie tucked under Santa's beard and then sprang for a photo package. Manago, a 42-year-old nurse, said they were definitely coming back next year.
"This," she said, "is our new family tradition."