The Grain-Free Advantage

Grain-free dog foods and treats offer significant benefits that are not limited to fostering canine well-being but also enable pet specialty retailers to create a healthier and stronger bottom line.


As more dog owners become aware of the benefits conferred by grain-free foods and treats,  it has become more important than ever for pet specialty retailers to stay on trend by offering plenty of grain-free options. Doing so will not only ensure that customers will not leave pet stores empty-handed, it will also help independent operators maintain their competitive edge against mass outlets, most of which are enthusiastically embracing the category.

There are plenty of good reasons for the popularity of grain-free diets. For instance, they are easier for dogs to digest than many other foods, which is especially appealing to owners of pets with sensitive or easily irritated digestive tracts. They provide a helpful alternative for dogs on restricted diets or those with food allergies, as well.

“But grain-free diets aren’t just for pets with special needs,” says Barbara Denzer, vice president of marketing for Cardinal Laboratories, located in Azusa, Calif. “They also provide benefits like healthier skin and shinier coats that shed less fur. Grain-free products make canines feel fuller, which can be extremely helpful for dogs that need to lose weight, and the smaller portions help offset the cost of grain-free diets.”

It also makes cleaning up after dogs easier, she adds, since pets on grain-free diets produce fewer and smaller stools. As an added plus, these dogs tend to be less gassy—another strong selling point.

Following the Trends
Clearly, the many upsides for feeding grain-free foods are making an impression on pet owners.  Denzer reports that grain-free products currently comprise nearly 30 percent of all U.S. pet specialty store food sales, and the sales are continuing to grow.

“This makes sense, as more pet parents today think of their dogs as family members and want to provide them with the best possible diet,” she says. “Grain-free treats and foods with high-quality ingredients are also recommended by more experts and vets, not only for digestive health but for general good health too.”

Demand for grain-free foods and treats is growing, concurs Scott Whipple, co-founder of CANIDAE Natural Pet Food Company, a family-owned provider of dog and cat food headquartered in Norco, Calif. As he explains, consumers increasingly regard grains as fillers and therefore as something to be avoided. This perspective is becoming firmly entrenched as people increasingly reduce their own consumption of carbohydrates such as pasta and bread. 

There are several other trends driving the grain-free category. One of these is growing consumer awareness concerning ingredient sourcing, says Heather Govea, president of Nulo Pet Food, an Austin, Texas-based producer of grain-free recipes for dogs and cats. According to Govea, the company is fielding many inquiries about the origin, sourcing and quality of specific ingredients.

For this reason, transparency is key, says Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Kent Pet Group, a Muscatine, Iowa-based pet food manufacturer. “Consumers want to understand exactly what is in their pet’s food,” she says. “Quality is also key, so it’s important to know that all grain-free diets are not the same.”

Another trend that is fueling grain-free demand is mounting pet-owner focus on higher protein levels, along with the inclusion of novel proteins, such as rabbit, bison, kangaroo and others, says Todd Wigert, vice president of independent sales for Natural Balance Pet Foods Inc., a pet food manufacturer based in Burbank, Calif.

“There has also been an increased demand for different formats beyond dry and canned varieties,” says Wigert. “Freeze-dried, dehydrated and raw inclusions are growing in popularity. Pet specialty retailers should pay attention to these trends because the availability of these products on their shelves will help maintain store credibility.”

What else? According to Jennifer Berglund, marketing director for Solid Gold Pet, LLC, a Greenville, S.C. provider of holistic pet food, the company is paying attention to a number of trends including a growing interest in the customization of pet food and functional ingredients that actively support pet health and well-being. 

“From growing forms such as dehydrated and raw to new unique recipe combinations, pet food offerings will continue to grow and become more robust to meet consumer demand,” says Berglund. “The customization of pet food, where formulas are tailored to a pet’s unique health needs, will continue to advance.”

Solid Gold is taking note of  the continuing influence of human trends, as well. It’s become evident over the past several years that human food trends are now shaping trends in pet food and will continue to spark future innovations as more discoveries are made in human nutrition, says Berglund, pointing to the growth of grain-free pet products as an example. “You’ll also see an increasing number of specific products addressing a distinct dietary need,” she predicts.

Getting up to speed on these trends will serve pet specialty retailers well, says Govea. “Superior product and nutrition knowledge in a consultative environment is what sets pet specialty retailers apart,” she explains. “Paying close attention to emerging consumer trends and staying ahead of consumer demand will ensure the health of a pet specialty retailer, as well as differentiate [it] in the marketplace.”

Identifying the Need
Despite the spike in consumer acceptance of these products, there are several misperceptions that pet specialty retailers should be poised to address when helping customers find the most appropriate grain-free options. One of the most significant misperceptions is that every dog should be on a grain-free diet, says Berglund. For some dogs, a grain-free diet might be essential. But for others, it may not be necessary, which could spell relief to some pet owners since these diets do tend to come with a higher price tag.

“The decision to put a pet on a grain-free diet should really be determined based on the pet’s unique needs,” says Berglund, who encourages pet owners to discuss going grain-free with their veterinarians before doing so. “Age, breed, activity levels and general health are all key factors. It shouldn’t be assumed that it’s right for all dogs.” 

Whipple suggests that retailers ask customers if the pet has any weight concerns or other issues such as dry itchy skin, which can indicate food sensitivity.

“Also ask what they’re looking for in a food, what matters to them when it comes to pet food, and why they came into the store that day,” he says. “Based on that [information], the retailer can help the consumer make the right choice for them. It’s also important to understand why [a customer is] asking for grain-free and to address those needs in order to educate the consumer.”

Other erroneous beliefs—sometimes held by customers and retailers alike—include thinking that grain-free and gluten-free are the same thing, more protein is always right for every pet and all carbohydrates are bad, says Wigert. 

In fact, different forms of carbohydrates vary in their nutritional profiles—some low-glycemic carbohydrates like chickpeas, lentils and sweet potatoes provide good nutritional value and won’t cause the spikes in insulin production that other higher-glycemic carbs such as white potatoes or tapioca do, says Govea. She cautions that in some grain-free formulas, grains are often replaced with higher-glycemic ingredients, which is why not every grain-free formula is by definition low-carbohydrate.

“The biggest misperception around grain-free products is that they are all equal, when many of them are full of inexpensive, high-carbohydrate ingredients that don’t offer the optimal nutrition to a pet that can be found through choosing low-glycemic ingredients,” Govea explains. “It comes down to strong retailer education and being able to guide the consumer around their nutritional decisions.”

Inspiring Stronger Sales
Although many consumers have become more aware of these products, store associates shouldn’t assume a bit of education isn’t required. In fact, says Govea, because grain-free items are more expensive to produce and therefore are often a little pricier, customer education is actually required if pet owners are going to be nudged away from their current grain formulas.

Consequently, staff education is essential, says Broders, who cautions pet specialty retailers to make sure their staff is fully up to speed on the products the store carries. “Take advantage of educational seminars offered by manufacturers,” she says. “If manufacturers offer a feeding program for retailers, try the foods out.”

Pet owners also tend to listen to other pet owners, she adds. Kent’s website allows consumers to review its products, and Broders suggests that retailers check out these reviews so they can share the feedback with their customers.

One effective sales-boosting tactic is offering trial-size packages that enable customers to test out a new product without investing a lot of money, Broders says. Offering samples or a money-back guarantee are other strategies that are worth considering.

Other marketing avenues to consider include:

• Creating store displays featuring popular grain-free foods and treats, says Wigert. Employ marketing materials like signage and posters to help direct customers to the products on the store shelves, making them easy to find. Don’t overlook cross-merchandising opportunities, he adds.

• Holding special events, like “grain-free week” or “treat happy hour,” during which the store offers product samples, suggests Wigert.  Storeowners can tout these events on social media to get the word out and boost attendance.

• Having displays and endcaps that showcase an entire product line in one place. Featuring the line prominently will increase the chances that customers will take notice and select a grain-free option, says Whipple. “We’ve found that the majority of the time, consumers base their purchases on what they see displayed,” he says.

• Keeping the customer at the center of key merchandising decisions and exploring ways to enhance the shopping experience, says Berglund. She emphasizes the importance of clear messaging through in-store signage and the strategic use of off-shelf placement to highlight innovative products. “The focus of any of these tactics is to help create an easier, more seamless shopping experience,’ Berglund says.

Although the plethora of grain-free foods and treats can make it a little more challenging to identify the best choice, retailers and customers are lucky to have so many options, says Wigert. For one thing, this gives employees an opportunity to partner with customers in the decision-making process, which is a definite plus.

“Conversation, education and awareness about formulas and ingredients are vital to helping each pet parent make the right choice for their pet,” Wigert says. “If the retailer can be sure to focus their questions specifically on learning more about the pet’s age and lifestyle, then the retailer can make an educated recommendation to the consumer. This will help build a bond with the pet parent, foster store trust and loyalty, and motivate repeat business.”


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