Nutrition Goes Natural

Four pet specialty retailers that specialize in natural nutrition discuss how they help to ensure the good health of their customers’ four-legged loved ones.


The natural pet food category, which offers a variety of pets nutrition for their diverse lifestyles, generally continues to be in good condition despite the recession. The robustness is attributed to several factors, including the repercussions of the 2007 pet food recall and pet owners becoming more knowledgeable and interested in healthy food for themselves and their pets.

The big pet food recall changed a lot of pet owners’ views about big box-big brand pet foods, says Tracy Werner, president of Natural Pet Market in Wheaton, Ill. “Even if customers don’t eat natural or organic products themselves, they  have wanted them for their pets.”

The recession has lowered sales a bit compared to last year, but not by much, says Werner. “New people still come in every week to start their pets on healthier foods. However, we have started offering a few lower-cost brands.”

Demand for natural and organic pet food products became particularly strong when the pet food recall happened, says Randy Klein of Whiskers Holistic Pet Care in New York City.  She and her husband Phil opened a store in Manhattan in 1990, expanding to a second location in Queens in July 2008.   “People who are involved in improving their own health became more aware of pets’ health. They started looking at what ingredients are in pet food and also where pet food came from.”

Although interest in organic and natural foods and treats is still good, Klein says that some pet owners have forgotten the extent of the recall. “We  don’t carry any of the major national pet food brands.”

Laura Amiton, owner of one of three Healthy Pets Northwest stores in Portland, Ore., agrees that there has been a greater demand for natural and organic food and treats since the recall. “Pet owners started doubting the pet food industry,” she explains. However, she says that merely looking for the term “natural” on the label isn’t enough. “They should be critically thinking about what is in pet food and if the food is nutritious, or if it is junk food with a shiny label calling itself ‘natural.’”

When demand started rising, Amiton’s store carried about 20 brands of natural and organic foods and treats.  “Now we offer 50,” she says. “They are for dogs and cats as well as small animals, mostly rabbits.”

Nutrition Trends
At Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, N.J., customer knowledge of foods has been huge in helping to boost demand for its products, says owner Ken Daminger.

Out of the generally healthy natural pet foods category, there are some specific segments and brands that are doing particularly well. “The healthy treat segment has exploded in the past few years,” says Daminger. “Now people do not just feed good food, they can give pets wonderfully healthy treats. Treats for dogs and cats are the largest segment, but small animal treats sell well.”

 Frozen and refrigerated foods, as well as dehydrated foods, are gaining in popularity, and grain-free foods for dogs and cats are all the rage now, Daminger says. “By eliminating  the grain, many owners feel their pets are getting the closest diet to what nature intended.”

Frozen foods are popular at Whiskers, which carries several brands, including the retailer’s private-label items that are prepared by a chef and available in freezers in both stores. “We have the largest selection of frozen foods for dogs and cats in New York City,” says Klein.

All four retailers also offer supplements. Demand for supplements appears to be generally driven by the ailments for which they were developed to help prevent. The most popular include those for joint, skin and allergies. At Whiskers, supplements have their own section and are grouped together by the benefits they promote. Signs on the shelves indicate the various advantages the products offer, making it easy for customers to pick what they want for their pets.

Selecting New Products
The four retailers are definitely selective when it comes to offering new items.  “They have to meet such criteria as no chemical preservatives, no meat by-products, no corn,  no artificial flavors or colors, and no sugars,” Amiton says.  “We talk to salespeople and monitor reports on new natural and organic items in Whole Dog Journal and other pet publications.”

Whiskers also does a lot of research before taking on a product, says Klein. “We look at the ingredients on labels and talk to sales reps. We ignore pitches that claim we will make a lot of money with a new item; we are most concerned about  what will make pets happy and healthy.”

New product selection factors at Natural Pet Market include the quality of ingredients, company honesty and integrity, return policy, price point, and product uniqueness, says Werner. “We’re also concerned with packaging–is it green?”

The natural pet food retailers pursue a variety of activities to make their stores, products, and knowledge of pet health care well known, including running ads in local publications and hosting seminars at the store.
“We let the veterinarians in our area know exactly what we carry,” says Daminger. “They can be a great resource for your business.”

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