A New Wave of First Aid

Natural first-aid products are on the rise, but retailers and manufacturers will have to battle some consumer misconceptions to make the most of the category.





Advances in science have yielded a slew of first-aid remedies and treatments for pets that work wonders on a broad range of conditions and ailments. But, these days, a growing number of pet owners are looking for products that harness the power of Mother Nature to treat the occasional scrape, itch or bug bite.

Fortunately, the first-aid category has aligned well with the natural trend. And pet product manufacturers are meeting the demand head on by offering consumers a healthy crop of all-natural products.

“This preference towards all-natural products, like so many others, started with people’s increased concern about what they put into their own bodies, and this has logically evolved into concern for their loved ones—their pets, as well,” says Andrew Groth, director of operations for PetzLife, which manufacturers natural flea and tick shampoo and topical treatments for pet owners looking to avoid conventional insecticidal treatments.

Armed with a steadily growing arsenal of information supplied by the media and on the Internet, people have become increasingly wary of the products that fill their bathroom medicine cabinets and emergency kits. They are questioning even common, everyday ingredients and remedies, such as antibiotic creams and flea-and-tick treatments. So, whether driven by fear or well-founded new knowledge, customers are scrutinizing their purchases.

Scott Stier, executive director of operations for Vet-Aid—which makes enzymatic products designed to treat wounds and skin conditions naturally—says consumers are looking to avoid products that might be toxic in any way to pets, children or themselves, even if it means abandoning traditional treatments and remedies. “The trend is that many pet owners are moving away from harsh and questionable chemicals, and looking for safe and healthier alternatives for treating their pets,” he says.

The search for the latest and greatest is certainly not a new phenomenon in retail—capitalism owes a great deal to people’s desire to find products that are newer, more effective or possess some combination of desirable, exciting traits. But the growth in the natural market is due, in large part, to a relentless flood of scientific findings about how various product ingredients affect people, pets and the environment. In fact, research seems to regularly unveil previously unknown hazards associated with common products, and Elana Hoerter, co-owner of Mad About Organics, says that is a good thing.

“It is a time for re-education,” says Hoerter, whose company makes natural, holistic pet supplies. “In the past, we were made to believe that chemical-based products were the only products out there that worked. But now, with the help of technology, customers have a much larger database to reference and help educate themselves on many more natural and organic options.”

Still, although demand for natural products is on the rise, manufacturers and retailers have some obstacles to jump before they can realize the category’s full potential. For one, pet owners are concerned that natural alternatives won’t work as well as their conventional counterparts, notes Brian Reardon, business unit manager for ProLabs, which launched three all-natural products last fall—Skin Soothe, Breath Refresh and Clear Ear.

“Natural products tend to give pet owners a sense that they are safe, but they can often raise the question of how effective they really are, as well,” Reardon says.

In fact, it can be a tricky proposition to come up with remedies that are both all natural and effective, and many of the traditional products that have lined first-aid section shelves for years are long known for their potency, making it hard for natural products to compete.

“I think first and foremost, consumers want products that work,” Reardon adds. “Related to first-aid type products, the general expectation of any purchase is that the outlay of your money will help to solve a current problem or prevent a future problem. You’re not just buying a product, you are buying a solution.” 



Weeding Out Imposters

Adding to the pressure on manufacturers to get this category right is the fact that consumers’ reservations about natural pet remedies are often twofold. Not only do they have qualms about whether they will work, many pet owners, especially those accustomed to seeking out natural products, question whether the products are as natural as manufacturers’ claim.

“All natural and/or holistic products are viewed very skeptically by the holistic community,” Groth says.

The holistic community isn’t alone. Even today, with so many consumers actively seeking natural products, mainstream customers often reserve a good amount of skepticism for products boasting to be natural, organic or holistic—perhaps, with good reason. Some manufacturers, hoping to tap into the demand for natural products, have used clever marketing, as opposed to true product innovation, to lure discerning customers to buy products that do not necessarily live up to companies’ claims. Unfortunately, many unsuspecting customers have fallen for the hype. The market has a way, however, of weeding out the imposters, Groth adds.

“Word of mouth travels very fast in our information-rich society, and very few products last long with false claims,” he says. “Only those products that are proven effective survive on the market these days.”

The good news is that manufacturers have made plenty of progress in developing products that are as natural as they are effective, and consumers find fewer instances in which they have to choose one attribute over the other. Still, while pet owners are an increasingly savvy group, the market offers far more products than any one person could possibly be familiar with. This, coupled with the fact that many natural-product suppliers are smaller, lesser-known companies, means retailers need to help raise customers’ awareness of products in this category.

“Our biggest struggle is just getting the word out to the public that our products exist, which is hard to do sometimes when we are on a shoestring budget, unlike the large companies that spend more on marketing than we make in a year—[although] hopefully, not for much longer,” Hoerter says.

She adds that training sessions with store staff members can help them to understand the benefits of these products and enable them to better connect customers with products that suit their needs.

Effective merchandising and having a product assortment that suits the clientele can also help propel sales in the category. Manufacturers recommend placing natural first-aid products in both the natural product and the first-aid sections of a store to spur sales.

“Retailers know their clientele and understand the need for a natural products section,” says Reardon. “If a natural-products section has been established within the store, then first-aid items would certainly be an important part of the set.”

Hoerter concurs that co-locating natural first-aid products with other natural products can be beneficial and can help customers to find them quickly. But she also sees value in merchandising natural alternatives within conventional first-aid set to help raise customer’s awareness of their existence.

“Having the natural products mixed in with the traditional products allows the customer to know there is a healthier option on the market to choose from,” she adds. “It may also help them understand the products usage.”  PB

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