A Sunny Forecast From Global Pet Expo

Manufacturers say fervent consumer demand for products that support pet health and improve animals' quality of life are heating up sales.


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The dark cloud that was the recession seemed to be a distant memory on the Global Pet Expo show floor, as optimistic manufacturers welcomed thousands of retail buyers on the hunt for new and innovative products that will wow their customers.

 

In fact, many manufacturers expected to leave Orlando loaded with product orders and new customers, and reported that the doom and gloom of years past has finally dissipated.

 

“The economy is picking up, and people are starting to buy,” said Tony De Vos, president and CEO of Azusa, Calif.-based Cardinal Pet Products. He was equally encouraged by what he saw during a brief tour of the expo’s aisles. “Looking around the floor, you see a lot of new faces,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the number of booths I see and by the attitudes of the people here today. It has changed from when everyone was blaming the economy for [poor sales]. I’m not hearing that much today.”

 

Industry insiders attribute much of pet retail’s current strength to consumers’ fervor for natural products. This is especially pertinent when it comes to food. “Natural” is indeed a key sales driver that many companies in the food market are concentrating on.

 

“There is an enhanced focus on natural and organic products,” said Paul Cooke, vice president of industry relations for Nestlé Purina. “What has happened is that the value equation has changed—consumers are not necessarily looking for what’s inexpensive; they are looking for value.”

 

Consumers, of course, still want to get a fair price on the items they purchase, Cooke noted, but impassioned pet parents these days are paying far more attention to quality, value and product enhancements that contribute to the quality of their pets lives. For this reason, he added, Purina has poured a great deal of time and capital into developingproducts that leverage the company’s wealth of knowledge—information the company has gleaned through exhaustive research and feeding trials.

 

Retailers also benefit from partnering with well-reputed companies with high standards of quality because consumers essentially demand that they do.  Michelle Schell, director of marketing for Long Beach, Calif.-based Redbarn Pet Products, pointed out that pet owners—and thus retailers—are more discerning than ever. “Retailers and consumers are becoming educated, and they are challenging manufacturers to step up their game,” Schell said.

 

Nutrition-savvy customers are looking to feed their pets the best their budgets will allow—and often this means made-in-the-USA, limited-ingredient diets that either help pets with specific issues or boost their overall health. This demand is largely being fueled by young adults who are delaying parenthood, as well as empty nesters who find themselves with more time and space on their hands. In both instances, these consumers are becoming quite serious about pet care. “It all goes back to the humanization of pets,” said Schell. “They are reading labels for their animals more than they are for themselves. We’ve come a long way.”

 

Keeping in mind shoppers’ increased tendency to scrutinize labels, Redbarn recently rebranded and redesigned its packaging to make it cleaner and easier to read. “It’s a more natural, evolved look,” she said. “We are evolving with the consumer.”

 

Food, however, is not the only category that generated a lot of attention on the show floor. The toy segment is offering a more sophisticated array of options that appeal to pet owners’ sense of fun, and their desire to make their pets happy. Leslie Yellin, executive vice president of Moonachie, N.J.-based Multipet International, said that although pet retail—particularly the toy category—has been challenged by a harsh winter that has left millions of people homebound in many regions of the country, sales should blossom with the coming of warmer weather. “Come spring, people are going to want to get out and spend time having fun with their pets,” she said.

 

Yellin explained that consumer demand in the pet category often centers around durability. “There’s definitely a trend for tough toys,” she said. “The world always wants indestructible dog toy, but dogs don’t want to play with a rock—so we have come up with a phenomenal product line, the Gorrrilla line.”

The line was designed to be durable and entertaining over the long haul, and Yellin projected that, by the end of the week, the company wouild have commitments from vendor partners for shelf space in up to 10,000 retail outlets, due to its popularity. 

 

 

Felines Fueling Growth

Another segment of the market that manufacturers said is simply exploding is the cat category. “We are seeing a healthy boom in the cat industry,” explained Yellin. “And we’ve been asked by retailers to grow the segment.”

 

Multipet has responded to the call for more cat-related goods with a host of products that add a good dose of “fashion and pizzazz” to the segment. Aside from the company’s full line of new catnip products—including the Catnip Garden Catnip Cup, as well as catnip bubbles, mist, pouches and more—it showcased cat offerings designed to grab pet owners’ attention. “We have really stepped up our game, and by keeping in mind what draws the female consumers’ eye, we have hit a home run,” Yellin added.

 

Steven Shweky, president of New York-based Fetch…for pets!, has also noticed the cat segment’s meteoric rise in popularity. “There has been an uptick in cat,” he said, adding that his company will be investing in product development in the category. “The [segment] is usually very stable, so it is unusual to see such a sudden increase in cat.”

 

Fetch…for pets!, however, is already ratcheting up excitement with its portfolio of recognizable brands that have crossed over from the human-product arena to pet. The company’s booth boasted a multitude of brands, from Hello Kitty to Burt’s Bees to Bio Silk. “They add credibility [to the pet retail market], especially with first-time shoppers who see these brand names and ‘get it,’”  Shweky said. “It opens doors.”

 

Growth in pet retail, in general, is tied to consumer demand for products that address pets’ health needs, Shweky added. Like other manufacturers, he pointed to one of the hottest categories in pet today, in particular—natural. “The health and wellness segment, it seems, is growing faster than ever, with a strong trend toward natural,” he said. Shweky has high hopes for the company’s all-natural, grain-free Bistro Bites, which have been gaining traction in specialty retail.

 

Still, manufacturers warn that although the buzzwords of the day—whether they relate to healthcare, natural diets or playtime—may get people into the stores, long-term growth will depend on manufacturers’ consistent focus on quality, efficacy and the ability to back up product claims. “The challenge for manufacturers today is that they have to produce quality,” said De Vos. “And hopefully, as an industry, we can support those companies that are making good, quality products.”

 

This article originally published in the official Global Pet Expo Show Daily on March 5, 2015.

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