Delicious and Nutritious

The all-natural trend that is sweeping the pet food category is great for retailers who stay informed about the many benefits associated with this growing movement.


Choosy pet parents choose natural food. Or at least that’s how it seems, as pet owners today are more concerned than ever about what is going into the food and treats they feed their furry friends.

As a result, according to industry experts, the natural pet nutrition category is thriving, with no signs of slowing. 

“Trends come and go, but I believe that the shift towards natural treats and pet food will continue,” says Stacy Milchman, operations manager for North Hollywood, Calif.-based Pet ‘N Shape. “Through our own consumer feedback and published research it is clear that the nutritional value of pet treats and food is a very important factor when pet parents are considering what to purchase.”

This research includes the American Pet Product Association’s (APPA) 2015/2016 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, which named premium food as the most popular type of dog food purchased in 2014. According to the study, 47 percent of dog owners reported buying premium food, up from 45 percent in 2012. In the survey, premium pet food was defined as “food with nutrients, less preservatives, and metabolized more efficiently than lower-grade food.”

Natural pet food, or “food with no synthetic material but no certification process,” was the second most popular purchase. Nineteen percent of dog owners said they bought their pet natural food, compared to 18 percent in 2012.

The numbers were consistent for cat owners as well. Premium cat food was the top choice with 42 percent of respondents, up from 40 percent in 2012. Natural food purchased also increased from eight percent in 2012 to 11 percent last year.

Natural Trends
Many industry experts observe that the driving force behind this trend is the humanization of pet food. As human diets have shifted toward organic and natural foods, so too have pet foods.

“Many trends that we see in the human nutrition world make their way in to the pet side,” says James Conaway, Southern California territorial sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods. “As we learn more about our own health and nutrition we find that many of the concepts have great benefits for our pets. The desire to give our pets the best and healthiest lives we can is precisely what is driving pet owners towards natural pet nutrition.”

One example of such crossover can be found in the integration of superfoods like spinach and kale into the world of pet foods. Natural pet food manufacturer WellPet has a line of protein bars—Core Superfood Protein Bars—featuring ingredient combinations like beef and bison with blueberries.

Grain-free pet foods are also growing increasingly popular. Similar to the gluten-free food options popping up in grocery stores across the country, grain-free pet foods contain fewer hard-to-digest carbohydrates and more proteins.

“No grains means there are more protein-rich ingredients dogs love and need for an active lifestyle, enriched with whole fruits, vegetables and botanicals to create a satisfying and easily-digested meal that supports health from head to tail,” says Chandra Leary-Coutu, senior marketing and communications manager for Tewksbury, Mass.-based WellPet. 

The company’s brand new Wellness Complete Health Grain-Free recipes give dogs thoughtfully balanced nutrition, without grains or fillers, in three delicious flavors—chicken, lamb and whitefish.

Another WellPet brand, TruFood, recently introduced a line of baked pet foods with 70 percent more raw protein than typical dry food. The formula blends whole-whey protein, grain-free fiber and antioxidant-rich superfoods and probiotics to help support pets’ well-being from the inside out.

According to Leary-Coutu, while pet parents mostly feed pets wet or dry foods, alternative forms of natural nutrition like raw pet food have also emerged in recent years. Similar to Paleo diets in the human world, raw pet food is meant to simulate how cats and dogs would have eaten in the wild.

According to GfK, a New York-based market research firm, the retail sales of raw freeze-dried dog and cat food rose 64 percent, from $25 million to $40 million, over the past year. Sales of raw frozen pet food also jumped significantly from $52 million to $69 million (32 percent), says GfK’s data, which is collected from more than 11,000 U.S. pet specialty stores.

Whether it’s freeze-dried, fresh or frozen, advocates of raw pet food believe these diets offer a number of positive health benefits including shinier coats, healthier skin and an increase in overall energy. Thirty-three percent of “health conscious” pet owners surveyed by Allprovide, a raw pet food provider, stated they would be interested in trying fresh, raw food for their pets.

To address this growing desire among pet owners, WellPet recently acquired Sojos, a manufacturer of raw pet food and treats. The No. 1 ingredient in all of Sojos Complete products is gently freeze-dried, raw meat. Pet owners just add water and watch the fresh ingredients spring back to life with flavors, textures and abundant nutrition.

PureVita, part of the Tuffy’s Pet Food family, also has a line of freeze-dried dog treats. These tasty bites bring together flavors like beef and sweet potato to create a healthy reward so owners won’t feel guilty about treating their pups.

Other alternative natural pet products include supplements like K-10+’s Water Soluble Supplements for Dogs. These all-natural packets come in six formulas and are up to nine times more effective than ordinary vitamins. The brand also produces natural dog dental sticks, protein bars and chewables, all designed with pet health and wellness in mind.

Having a large selection of trendy natural nutrition products is just one piece of the puzzle. Another key element is marketing.

In-store displays, if used correctly, are extremely effective promotional tools for retailers looking to make the most of the natural nutrition category. Overhead and aisle signs featuring educational materials can help inform consumers about the many benefits of natural products, though experts emphasize that the copy should be simple and concise.

“Signs are an opportunity to create conversation and spark interest. It can inform a potential customer about a need or topic they may have not known they had,” explains Conaway. “Entice your customers to ask questions and you have the chance to serve them in a new or different way. The modern pet parent craves this, and it is our job to add benefit and value to the store/customer and pet/parent relationship.”

Putting Nutrition on Display
As for placement, experts recommend creating a separate space for natural nutrition in pet food aisles and clearly denoting the products as natural.

“Separating out the natural from non-natural products helps consumers more clearly identify products,” says Ryan Holden Singer, founder of K-10+. “This separation also helps consumers battle paradox of choice.”

Endcap and side-stack displays can also be great ways to feature specific natural nutrition brands or even group together products based on trends. For example, a display of new raw foods and treats with signs listing the associated benefits or products that support healthy digestion. These kinds of targeted displays are effective ways to attract customer attention, as well as introduce pet owners to what’s new and exciting in the world of natural pet nutrition.

“Also, free samples are always a great way to get customers to try new items,” adds Milchman.

The Importance of Education
Although signs and displays are important sales tools, nothing is as effective as an educated sales team.

Pet parents today crave information. They want to know that the food and treats they’re feeding their pets are both safe and nutritious. But with so much misinformation floating around online, it’s tough for owners to know what the best choice is for their pet. 

That’s where retailers come in. With a well-informed team, retailers can become the source of knowledge that owners are seeking.
First, retail staff should be well versed in the signs and symptoms of common pet ailments. The most common visible signs of pet wellness, according to Leary-Coutu, are skin/coat health, digestive health, energy, immunity and eyes, teeth and gum health.

 “Pets are members of our families and it’s important that we understand how to recognize the signs of their overall health,” says Leary-Coutu. “Veterinarian visits only happen once or twice a year, but you can see the ‘5 Signs of Wellness’ in your pet every single day.”

Staff members should also be educated about the benefits of the different products they’re selling. While many natural nutrition brands take a holistic approach to pet health, like Holistic Select by WellPet, others focus on treating specific conditions. K-10+ brand supplements, for example, are geared toward a wide range of ailments from a calming formula for stress management to a formula that promotes joint health.

Finally, salespeople need to understand and be able to speak about the ingredients of different natural nutrition products stocked on the shelves. Salespeople can familiarize themselves with the list of ingredients and their benefits by either reading product labels or by visiting brand websites. Also, many manufacturers offer sales training to help employees better understand new products.

“With some natural products that are newer to the market, such as items like chicken feet, the consumer may have questions regarding safety or may be hesitant to try something very different from their typical treat purchases,” says Milchman.

Overall, customers look to pet retailers for advice on how to best care for their pets, so the more informed the staff, the better. That way, they can confidently answer questions, quell concerns and offer recommendations.

“This raises the retail store beyond ‘a place to purchase food’ to the status of nutritional advisors and partners to the health and success of the pet parent relationship. It is this dedication at the store level that keeps them visiting your staff year after year,” says Conaway. 

So while any pet retailer can have well-stocked shelves, it’s expertise and knowledge that sets the good retailers apart from the great ones.


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