SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Sally Herships, in for Stacey Vanek Smith. And I am here today with NPR's fabulous economics reporter, Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's great to be with you, Sally.
HERSHIPS: And you have your dogs with you today. What are their names?
HORSLEY: This is Ribsy and Ms. Ellie. They are usually good about staying in the background when I'm working, but I brought them along because today's episode holds special interest for them, as well as for your dog, Nahla (ph), because we are talking today about pet sitters.
HERSHIPS: Pet sitters are in high demand these days as people are traveling more. And that is just one example of the way the service economy is bouncing back as people start to emerge from their pandemic lockdowns. TSA checkpoints are screening five or six times as many people as they were a year ago. And, of course, that means more business for airlines, for rental cars, for hotels.
HORSLEY: And pet sitters. Yeah, I thought about that myself recently when I went home to Colorado to see my 92-year-old dad for the first time in over a year. Ribsy and Ellie stayed behind in Washington, where I have a very good pet sitter. But it got me thinking about another pet sitter I know, Beverly Pickering.
DOUGLIS: Beverly lives in Hazel Park, Mich., just outside of Detroit. She has gone from having practically no customers during the pandemic to suddenly having more work than she knows what to do with.
BEVERLY PICKERING: I don't know any pet sitter that isn't overwhelmed right now and smiling about it. It's so exciting to be working again.
HORSLEY: We confirmed that with the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. That's NAPPS for short. They say business is looking up after a long dry spell.
HERSHIPS: Today on the show, a tail-wagging story about one of the many service industries that was in the doghouse for most of the past year but is now waking up and stretching from its long pandemic nap.
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HORSLEY: I first met Beverly Pickering about a year ago, during the early months of the pandemic. And at that time, the dog sitting business was rough. A big part of Beverly's job had been looking after people's pets when they went on vacation or when they traveled for business. And, of course, none of that was happening once the coronavirus struck.
PICKERING: That absolutely collapsed. I've had no customers traveling. And as far as dog walks, everybody's home and walking their own dogs.
HERSHIPS: Usually, when she was busy sitting for other people's pets, Beverly was hardly ever home. But when the pandemic struck, she found herself stuck in the house all day, staring at the walls and wondering why on earth she chose that paint color.
HORSLEY: It was hard on the dogs, too. Two of the dogs she used to walk every afternoon, they kept jumping up on their owner's couch at about 1 o'clock every day, staring out the window, wondering, where had Beverly gone?
PICKERING: So I know they don't forget us. And I wish there was some way for me to help them understand I haven't forgotten them.
HERSHIPS: Aw, Beverly. A couple of clients asked Beverly to keep walking their dogs just to be nice, even though they were home all day, and truth be told, they could have done it themselves.
HORSLEY: They threw her a bone.
HERSHIPS: But all through the long, cold winter, Beverly had to rely on pandemic unemployment benefits to pay the utility bills and cover her car insurance. But finally, this spring, her phone started ringing again.
PICKERING: When vaccinations here really ramped up, that is when the calls started coming in. I absolutely can draw a direct line from the increase in vaccinations to the increase in business.
HORSLEY: People who haven't traveled for a year or more are suddenly going to weddings and visiting grandkids. Beverly says a lot of her clients sound giddy when they call, and they all have a similar message. We're finally going someplace.
PICKERING: I have people going to California, Florida, the Carolinas, all over the country. It's travel, travel, travel. It's just exploded.
HERSHIPS: And that's the pent-up demand that forecasters have been talking about. It's suddenly becoming unpent.
HORSLEY: Like a dog that's been on a tight leash all winter and finally is allowed to chase after a Frisbee.
HERSHIPS: As more people get vaccinated and pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted, people are eager to do all the things that were off-limits for so long, like sit inside a restaurant, go to a concert, book a vacation, maybe without their dogs.
PICKERING: Travel is such an incredible barometer because people really don't do that unless they feel safe to and solvent. You know, when you see that happening, then you know everything else is going well, too. So we're excited.
HORSLEY: Beverly herself is planning a trip to northern Michigan next month. She's going to be celebrating her mom's 100th birthday. But otherwise, she's going to be sticking pretty close to home and not traveling much herself this summer. She's just too busy.
PICKERING: I can tell you that I am fully booked. I can take no more requests between now and the middle of November. So that's how far out I'm fully booked.
HORSLEY: And it's not just dog sitters. You know, rental cars, wedding venues, prime-time restaurant reservations - they are all suddenly in hot demand. And for a while at least, there may not be enough to go around.
HERSHIPS: Remember how supermarket shelves were stripped bare in the early days of the pandemic, when people were buying all the spaghetti and chocolate to bake? We are starting to see the same kind of run on services.
HORSLEY: And services, including dog sitters, are big business. In fact, in normal times, Americans spend more than twice as much money on services as we do on stuff. During the pandemic, though, a lot of services were off-limits, so we bought more stuff.
HERSHIPS: Spending on stuff has already bounced back higher than it was before the pandemic, but spending on services is still playing catch-up. As it does, there are likely to be some growing pains. The latest inflation figures from the Labor Department show the price of air travel jumped more than 10% last month. Hotel prices were up nearly 9%.
HORSLEY: Beverly has encountered some of her own service sector bottlenecks. When her business picked up this spring, she thought she could finally afford to get that new roof she'd been putting off. But when she called the roofer, he was swamped, too. He told her he had a five-month waiting list.
PICKERING: I was like, dude, I have the money. And he's like, sorry, I've got 50 roofs, you know. So everybody's coming back strong.
HERSHIPS: Well, at least our pets seem to be taking all of the surging demand in stride.
HORSLEY: Yeah. A year ago, Beverly told me she was a little bit worried about how dogs would react when their people finally started venturing out again. I mean, dogs had gotten used to having their people around all the time. Beverly figured there might be some sofa chewing or torn pillows when people started to leave home. So far, though, she says the pets seem to be adapting.
PICKERING: I would definitely say they're fine with it. I think they're like, OK, someone else is petting me. Also, I have a reputation among the pets as being a little heavy-handed in the treats. So I think they're OK.
HERSHIPS: So to recap, when pent-up demand for services is unleashed, wait times could get a little long. But keep the treats handy. And, Scott, we will get through this.
HORSLEY: (Laughter) That's right. Who's a good boy, Ribsy? You want a chew toy?
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HERSHIPS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin with help from Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Sam Cai. Our editor is Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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