Keeping Grain-Free Going

Consumer awareness of grain-free dog foods and treats is high, but this doesn’t mean pet specialty retailers can kick back and let the products sell themselves—retailers must educate, promote and discuss.




Although grain-free dog foods and treats are hardly flying under consumers’ radars anymore, there is still work for pet specialty retailers to do if their customers are going to fully realize the benefits grain-free formulas can offer. One of the biggest misperceptions that needs to be addressed is that the designation “grain-free” automatically signals a high-quality food, says Robert Downey, president of Annamaet Petfoods, Inc. Located in Telford, Pa., the company makes a line of holistic, natural dog and cat foods, as well as meat-based, grain-free baked treats and other items.

“Just being grain-free doesn’t ensure superiority,” says Downey. “Every ingredient comes in about four different quality levels. For instance, not all chicken or salmon product sources are equal. But in following AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) terminology for ingredient names, these sources may look the same on the ingredients list.”

This is an important distinction because ingredient quality is one of the primary contributing factors to efficacy, says Heather Acuff, product development manager for Nulo Pet Foods, Inc., an Austin, Texas-based manufacturer of grain-free dry and canned foods for dogs and cats. Of particular concern is whether ingredients like white potatoes, tapioca, starch or other high-glycemic/high-carbohydrate ingredients are being used instead of grains, which Acuff says is a common practice.

If pet specialty retailers fail to make a concerted effort to review ingredients and learn about the grain-free products they’re considering (as well as the manufacturers), they run the risk of filling their shelves with an inventory that doesn’t deliver to pet owner expectations. This is unfortunate for the canine and the customer, as well as the business.

Additional Sales Barriers
There are other misperceptions pet specialty retailers should be prepared to address if they want to maximize the sales potential of the grain-free category. One of these is the mistaken idea that grain-free products are only for animals with special dietary needs, allergies or sensitivities, says Chris Meiering, director of innovation for Zuke’s. Headquartered in Durango, Colo., the company makes natural dog foods and treats. Although grain-free foods are excellent in helping to minimize exposure to allergens that can result in digestive issues and skin irritations, Meiering points out that these products are well-suited for a much wider audience.

“Grain-free foods and treats are easier for dogs to digest, which does make these products a great choice for pets with sensitive stomachs,” he says. “They’ve also been found to provide benefits like healthier skin, shiny coats, more energy, less shedding, better breath, fewer stools and helping dogs feel fuller quicker. But the grain-free foods and treats we have in our lineup provide whole-food nutrition and sustenance to dogs of any age or breed, whether or not they have a grain allergy.”

Ward Johnson, co-founder of Sojos, a provider of raw, grain-free, shelf-stable, freeze-dried foods and treats located in Minneapolis, says some of the misperceptions around the kinds of products Sojos offers are that raw is too hard to prepare or too expensive. Pet specialty retailers may also believe these products are too onerous to carry, requiring extra accommodations, such as refrigeration. All of these concerns are unwarranted, says Johnson.

“Dried foods don’t require expensive equipment like frozen raw foods,” says Johnson. “And they offer significantly higher margins than kibble or canned food. Even so, because the customer isn’t paying for water, freeze-dried foods are actually quite affordable.”

Raw foods are rich in naturally occurring nutrients and enzymes, particularly when compared to traditional, processed pet foods, says Johnson, adding that more and more pet owners are exploring the benefits of raw foods and treats. Still, going from conventional formulas to raw can prove intimidating to some consumers. Freeze-dried raw foods and treats can make this transition less daunting, which is why he encourages pet specialty retailers to add these options to their inventories, dedicating sufficient space to them and promoting them in high-traffic areas of the store.

Retailing to Sell
It’s important that retailers ensure their team members are well-trained and ready to successfully introduce their customers to the clear nutritional advantages of leading grain-free and freeze-dried foods, Johnson says. “Alternative diets, including raw freeze-dried and grain-free diets, are on a trajectory to become a major player and a legitimate challenger to the long-standing dominance of processed kibble and canned foods,” he explains.

Grain-free foods and treats enable pet specialty retailers to tap into a high-demand product category that delivers healthy margins along with steady growth, says Acuff. Offering a good selection and taking pains to educate pet owners on the products builds credibility and fosters a strong relationship with customers, she says. And as with anything else, rapport and trust start with conversation.

“We encourage our retailers to have an open dialogue with their customers, helping them understand how to make the best decision for their dog’s diet,” says Meiering. “We recommend asking questions that will help retailers get to know the dog’s nutritional background and any diet sensitivities. The more they understand what hasn’t worked in the past, the likelier they will be able to point them in a direction that could work better.”

When a customer comes in wanting to try a new food, it’s important to query them on why they want to explore other options, says Acuff.

“Is it because their pet has food allergies, or is it another solution-based need?” she asks. “Or, is it because they’re looking for something lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein? Understanding their interest helps better position the grain-free products and which brand would be most appropriate.”

Along with age, breed, activity level and weight of the dog, Acuff suggests asking if a particular event or need has prompted the interest in a new food, and what qualities the owner considers most important in a food or treat. Additionally, retailers should ask if there are any other factors, such as the pet’s health, home environment and lifestyle, to take into account.

Pet specialty retailers need to ensure that whatever they stock enhances their credibility and promotes trust, says Downey. “Retailers should focus on promoting brands that work so the customer keeps coming back,” he says. “Retailers should look at the backgrounds of the companies they’re doing business with and promote those companies.”

And don’t forget green-focused consumers, he adds. Sustainability is huge right now, and that trend isn’t going away (Downey says that currently, 72 percent of Americans say they consider the environment when shopping). Offering products from eco-friendly companies will enable pet specialty retailers to appeal to these consumers, who will likely become very loyal to the store.

Also, help manufacturers help you. “With the growing number of grain-free pet products on the market today, pet specialty retailers are evaluating grain-free products based on ingredients and the nutrition being delivered, rather than the treat or food merely being on-trend,” says Meiering.

Since this requires education, utilize the support manufacturers have to offer (for example, Zuke’s provides its retailers with ingredient, nutritional and sourcing information and online education and support). Explore what manufacturers are able to provide and take full advantage. 

Additional sales-boosting strategies include cross-merchandising these products within other categories, creating grain-free sections within the store and calling attention to these areas, posting educational signage, using endcap displays and placing treats in impulse-buy areas, such as by the registers or at the front of the store. Don’t forget trial sizes, free samples and money-back guarantees, says Acuff, describing these as effective tools for overcoming consumer hesitation to try something new.

And don’t miss the opportunity that puppies present, says Johnson. “There will never be a better time to build long-standing customer relationships than the first few months of puppy ownership.”


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