Tapping Into Trends

Pet specialty retailers need to stay up-to-date on what’s in demand in nutrition to create compelling inventories that best serve their customers’ pets and their stores.




Thanks to the internet and social media, customers are more educated and vigilant than ever, particularly when it comes to pet foods and treats. You can’t blame them; it wasn’t so long ago that news about pet food recalls was everywhere. Still, it keeps pet specialty retailers on their toes and highlights the necessity of staying informed—not just about nutrition trends and what customers may be looking for, but about product specifics and ingredients as well.

Lonnie Schwimmer, founder of Koha Pet Food, a Del Ray Beach, Fla.-based provider of wet canned food for dogs and cats under the Koha Super Premium Pet Food brand, notes a definite uptick in inquiries from pet owners. 

“We’ve noticed, over the last several years, we’re getting a lot of emails from people asking about various ingredients,” he says. “The volume has really grown. I personally try to respond, or my sales manager does, and I find I’m spending hours every day responding to consumer inquiries.”

He’s not the only supplier to notice the recent growth in pet owner engagement. Rashell Cooper, marketing director for Redbarn Pet Products, a Long Beach, Calif.-based manufacturer of Redbarn Rolled Food, grass-fed bully sticks and other natural chews, says pet owners are increasingly educated about ingredients, are making more informed decisions and are choosier about what they will accept.

“Our research suggests natural products with easily understood, whole-food ingredients will continue to be a huge selling point for customers,” she says. “Today’s pet parents are looking for the following trends in their pets’ food—made in the USA, natural and grain free. When pet parents spot these, they respond positively.”

On Trend
Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Company, agrees the interest in domestically manufactured products is intensifying. Caru, headquartered in Vero Beach, Fla., offers a complete line of stews and treats for dogs. He says the company is also responding to a swing away from products with fillers, additives, artificial ingredients, gluten, grain and so on. Customers also prefer minimally processed foods and are looking for novel proteins, such as duck, rabbit and wild boar.

Schwimmer, whose company launched the first kangaroo wet food, has also seen a growing interest in non-traditional proteins. Novel proteins are trending, he explains, because dogs haven’t been exposed to them as long as more conventional proteins. In some pets, this long-term exposure results in protein intolerances, leading to skin and digestive problems, loss of energy and other troublesome symptoms. These issues are also why people are seeking out “cleaner” food and treat options, he adds.

Consequently, the market for limited-ingredient foods is really taking off—a trend that’s only going to grow, says Lucy Postins, CEO and founder of San Diego-based company The Honest Kitchen, which provides dehydrated, raw whole foods for dogs and cats.

“It’s really about embracing the less-is-more philosophy—minimal processing, minimal ingredients and grain-free,” says Postins, citing industry POS figures reporting limited-ingredient diets account for $674 million in annual sales. “Limited-ingredient diets are hugely popular with dogs and cats that have multiple food sensitivities and therefore need to avoid various ingredients.”

Sustainability is another trend in play, says Robert Downey, president and CEO of Annamaet Petfoods, Inc. Located in Telford, Pa., the company produces natural and holistic dog and cat food formulas, providing both grain-free and formulas made with whole grains.

“It’s becoming a major concern for people worldwide, with 71 percent of Americans considering the environment when they shop,” he says. “Also, as a society, we’re becoming more health-conscious, and that is certainly now affecting how we view our pets. People are looking for products made with meat and fish fit for human consumption.”

But not every concern resonates with every pet owner, which is why another trend is “the call for variety,” and more nutritional choices, says Bryan Nieman, brand director for Fromm Family Foods, a Mequon, Wis., manufacturer specializing in premium foods for dogs and cats. In fact, Nieman describes this as one of the most “prominent nutrition trends” the company is seeing. 

“This is certainly becoming a more mainstream trend as more and more brands are creating diets with exotic main protein sources,” Nieman says. “This trend is important as it challenges manufacturers to continue innovating and adding to product lines. It also opens up brands to provide mealtime options and solutions for a variety of needs.”

Clearing Up Confusion
Pet specialty retailers should be aware that although consumers have become more knowledgeable, there are still some misconceptions about certain kinds of foods. Consider raw, freeze-dried or dehydrated diets. Ward Johnson, cofounder of Sojos, says there’s growing awareness of the benefits of these minimally processed foods, but pet owners still have some reservations. Sojos provides raw, shelf-stable foods and a variety of freeze-dried raw meat and oven-baked dog treats.

“For many pet parents, the leap from kibble or canned to raw can be intimidating,” he explains. “Particularly with frozen raw and homemade raw, there are concerns about time-consuming prep, cost and safety. That’s why it’s important for pet specialty retailers to be ready to introduce freeze-dried alternatives that combine the shelf-stable convenience of their customers’ current kibble or canned foods.”

When it comes to limited-ingredient diets, some pet owners worry their dogs won’t be getting adequate nutrition, says Postins. This is why staff education is so important.

“I don’t think many customers, or some retailers, understand the variation you can have in the quality of ingredients available for pet foods,” says Downey. “Every ingredient comes in at least four different quality levels. As manufacturers, we’re required to use AAFCO-approved ingredient names, many of which are outdated and certainly self-limiting.”

Clearing up these and any other questions about non-traditional types of foods and treats will not just help boost sales, it will enable pet specialty retailers to expand their toolbox of solutions that could make a meaningful difference to customers and their pets.

Postins encourages storeowners to teach team members about allergies, food intolerances or restrictions and other common ailments, since they will need to query customers about these issues. Staff should ask about the dog’s age, breed, weight, sex, activity level and any special health-related needs. Also inquire about what the dog is currently being fed, especially what kind of protein is involved.

Demonstrating this kind of engagement and concern brings a real competitive advantage for stores. “One of the reasons customers have decided to do their shopping at a pet specialty retailer is because they value their nutritional expertise,” Pettyann says.

The intimate buying experience pet specialty stores can create is very valuable. “These stores are often incredibly educated about the brands they carry and are very knowledgeable about pet nutrition,” says Nieman. “This knowledge and ability to become very hands-on with customers cultivates a relationship built on trust and loyalty.”

Key to generating sales is creating a clean, bright, visually appealing and organized environment where products can be easily found and understood, says Nieman, suggesting retailers make good use of POP materials, shelf-talkers and other resources. Cooper recommends creating innovative displays made from natural materials that support the product characteristics. “Also, using an endcap featuring different products as a product-of-the-month and moving nutritional options to the front of the store all work to aid pet specialty retailers,” she says.

Placing non-traditional products, such as shelf-stable raw foods, in high-traffic areas will grab attention and provide store staff with an opportunity to discuss and educate, says Johnson. “In addition, assortment is one of the key drivers of customer satisfaction, and to that end, we recommend stocking the full line of foods and treats to ensure all preferred SKUs are readily available.”

The assortment provides a powerful way to differentiate the store from mass merchants, says Pettyan. Carrying an array of nutritionally superior foods and treats, ones not found elsewhere, will draw customers looking for something beyond the ordinary. “Plus, healthful, functional products justify a premium price, which means higher margins,” he adds.

Downey seconds this tactic. Pet specialty retailers need to find products that, first of all, they have faith in, but also those that can’t be found in every store. “They need to establish house brands to maintain proper margins and increase customer loyalty, as opposed to promoting products that can be purchased at big box stores at a much lower price.”

But one frustration pet specialty retailers are experiencing is “showrooming,” says Schwimmer. This issue—where customers shop the store, check out the merchandise, pick store associates’ brains for information and then turn around and buy online, sometimes right there in the store—is “killing pet specialty retailers,” he says. To counter this, Schwimmer says they’re poised to incorporate online ordering on their website.

“But, this will also include pet specialty retailers in the order,” he explains. “So, a customer can order online—and the food will only be available on our website—and a nearby store that carries our product would handle and ship the order. This online component will benefit retailers since we’re creating sales they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

With this component, pet specialty retailers can feel comfortable spending time educating customers and either make the sale right there or online, says Schwimmer, adding that they’re planning a big marketing push to promote product awareness. 

However, a superior customer experience may provide some defense against showrooming. “Pet food and treat shopping is still very much a personal, tactile experience for most,” Cooper says. “Pet retailers must use the opportunity to encourage an experience that is clean, fun and capitalizes on the immediate bond that a pet and owner share when treating or feeding. This is simply not an experience that can be replicated in an online transaction.” 


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