Evolving Canine Nutrition

The “natural” movement has swept the dog food category, offering improved health for pets and bigger profits for retailers.


If only there were some magic perfect natural diet for dogs hiding out there somewhere... But we all know better. Despite a growing list of natural and high-quality foods on the market, individual dogs each have their own unique rate of metabolism, dietary preferences and digestive sensitivities. Apparently, natural isn’t simple in retail.

Pet owners have choices. Indeed, pet owners have demanded more choice in natural dog foods in recent years. Dog food manufacturers have responded with gusto and they have, along with distributors and marketers, done a better job of informing and educating consumers about nutrition and quality.

This market development activity creates unique opportunities and challenges for retailers. You have an opportunity to serve a unique market of pet food consumers–people who are motivated, informed and willing to pay higher-than-average prices. Your challenge is to stay informed about your store’s products.

If you’re going to sell natural dogs foods, you’re going to have to keep up with your customers, and you can bet they’re doing their homework. Consumers want to know details about the ingredients panel (protein and fat content, as well as other ingredients), whether the ingredients were sourced in the U.S. or elsewhere, where the company is based, who the parent company might be, and recent changes in formula or manufacturing processes. Are the processing facilities owned by the company, or is the food contract manufactured?

Retailers need to know what’s on the ingredients panels of all the foods your store carries. Know which has high protein, low fat, low residue and high fiber. Know that canned food, as rich and yummy as it appears, has lower protein by volume than dry kibble (because it’s mostly water). Raw diets –both frozen and freeze dried–offer really interesting options for many pet owners, and for that you also need to understand the importance of calcium and other dietary supplements that might be necessary for optimum nutritional absorption.

You even need to make sure you understand exactly what “natural” means, in terms of industry definitions. Does it mean “organic?” Is it “holistic?” Customers can be opinionated. You need industry standards and precise definitions.

Choose Wisely
Growing consumer demand for natural dog food has opened tremendous opportunities for new companies to enter the market. At the same time, this consumer movement has driven established food makers to introduce new natural lines touting superior ingredients–free-range beef, wild-caught salmon, and more variety of nuts and berries than any lone wolf could find in a single forest.

Pet owners looking for diets finely optimized to meet the individual nutritional needs of their dogs will find shelves filled with added choices–senior, senior plus, senior plus large breed, puppy large breed, low fat, small bites, small breed formula, etc. Meanwhile, retailers face an unending task of displaying new SKUs and helping customers work through the fine distinctions that characterize each.

Also driving choice is the idea that a dog shouldn’t necessarily eat only one food its whole life. Natural dog food customers are open to new ideas about nutrition and food sources, so the notion that a single processed kibble from the same bag day in day out contains all the health a dog needs all its life seems a bit silly to many people. Dogs are omnivores, generally speaking, and so they need variety. This idea helps to drive the growth of new food companies offering a wide array of formulas, including raw diet.

For retailers, new lines of foods help meet the needs of customers searching for options while also creating opportunities to draw new customers who are just learning that they have more choices than they once thought. The challenge for retailers is staying one step ahead of the information that supports the SKUs food manufacturers offer.

Value of Natural Choice

Anyone in the pet food business today already knows that rising costs have forced price increases. This creates enormous anguish among people who want to provide the right nutrition for their pets but struggle to make ends meet. For the retailer who is committed to his customer, these are times that call for creative thinking.

Help your customers see the value of their purchases. Food prices are climbing across the board, and families are being forced to plan their food budgets with increasing care. This includes the family pet. The goal of providing healthy nutrition, however, doesn’t change. Help your customers understand that their pet food purchases represent not just a (rising) cost, but also a commitment to their dogs’ overall wellbeing.

You can instill confidence in customers who are being besieged with persistently bad economic news by offering something of value each time they enter your store. For example, employees empowered with knowledge about the foods you carry can share that knowledge with customers and make recommendations. Customer service, even at the simplest level, is always a good investment toward your bottom line. And customers do value personal attention.

If you’re not already doing it, demand that your distributors and food suppliers provide all the free food samples you can get. These help retailers cultivate new customers and open new channels to market for the distributor and manufacturer. And when you place something free in the customer’s bag, they leave your store happy. Store discounts and frequent buyer programs also become increasingly important in times of economic stress.

The natural dog food industry today continues to grow amid increasing consumer demand, even in economic doldrums. You have to ask yourself why that is. What motivates a dog owner to seek out and pay for a natural diet? It isn’t the packaging and sure isn’t the price. It’s an expression of personal values as much as it is a testament to the relationship between human and dog.  Tap into that and your natural food business will flourish.

Dan Headrick is a writer and marketing executive. He and his wife, Pam Guthrie, owned and operated Wag Pet Boutique in Raleigh, NC, from 2003 to 2010. The store received numerous community and industry awards.

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