Beyond the Bowl
Everything else has gone high tech. Why not feeding and watering? Automated feeders and fountains are revolutionizing the basics.
When it comes to pet care, feeding and providing water are about as basic as it gets. Food goes into a bowl, water goes in a separate bowl, and the pet eats and drinks. But in today’s high-tech world, even a task as simple as feeding a dog has been elevated by technological and mechanical upgrades.
Manufacturers in the category have designed a wide array of automated feeders and fountains that have added several layers of sophistication to the category. Ranging from the simple to the complex, options include basic food dispensers, automated feeders that control portions and feeding times, and models that feature two-way video interfaces—as well as fountains that span the spectrum from basic to elaborate.
Cool technology aside, however, pet owners are not buying these products just to keep up with the Joneses. Automated feeders and fountains, in fact, offer a variety of benefits, conveniences and useful features that many pet consumers have come to value. So, while it may be cheap and easy to just fill up a couple of bowls with water and kibble, many consumers are opting to spend a bit more on these more advanced food and water solutions. As a result of this increased demand, experts say, sales in the category are on the rise.
Erica Goode, feeding and water product manager for Petmate, says the category is growing as pet owners increasingly seek products that address some of their most pressing needs when it comes to providing water and food for their animals—safety, cleanliness and timeliness. “Pet owners are continually looking for healthy and time-saving solutions,” says Goode.
While the range of sophistication and functionality may vary among products in the category, consumer demand for these products is driven by common needs. Among the most prevalent motivations driving purchases of automated feeders and water fountains is the need to be able feed and provide fresh, clean water and food, particularly at times when the pet owner is not going to be at home.
Gabriella DeSantis, vice president of marketing at The OurPet’s Company, says busy consumers are looking for ease and convenience. “Today’s consumer has a busy lifestyle that often includes a beloved pet at home,” she says. “It can be difficult to juggle both a hectic lifestyle and pet parenthood, and today’s consumer demands choices that simplify this problem. Automated products do just that.”
For consumers who work long days or are out of the home even days at a time, these products offer an invaluable service. Pet owners who want to make sure their dogs get fed precise amounts of food at specific times of day, for example, may find automated feeders to be the perfect solution for their needs, explains Alwen Yao, owner of Qpets Inc., which manufactures programmable automatic pet feeders.
“Pets are like people—they need to have meals on time everyday to keep healthy, especially cats and dogs,” says Yao. “Since many people need to work and life is busy, scheduling a meal for pets is important when [the pet owner] can not feed [the pet themselves].”
Automation also allows people to easily regulate portion sizes for pets, making these feeders a great tool for weight management, Yao says. Having a feeder that controls how often and how much food a pet eats can be key to maintaining a pet’s weight and health, he explains, making accurate portion control a critical product component for many pet parents who are in the market for feeders.
Goode concurs that automatic feeding is ideal for pet parents who are monitoring their pets’ calorie intake. “[More than] 50 percent of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight,” says Goode. “Automatic feeders can help prevent over eating and keep a regular feeding schedule.”
She points out that automated feeders and fountains appeal to shoppers who own pets with special health needs, as well. These pets often need more frequent feedings or increased hydration. “Automatic feeders and fountains fulfill those needs,” she says.
Cat owners make up another demographic segment that is looking to automation as the answer to everyday concerns. “Automatic feeders are great for both dog and cat owners, but cat owners express a greater need for automatic feeders,” Goode adds. “Cats are more often left at home over a weekend or may be seeking food at night when they are nocturnally active. An automatic feeder can be a solution for either of these scenarios.”
Retailers that sell automated feeders should also promote the benefits of these products to shoppers with more than one pet, says DeSantis. “Automated products may also be a necessity in multiple-pet households where one pet is on a special diet, or where there are small children in the home,” she says. “Our WonderBowl addresses this need by allowing access to the feeder only to a selected pet and preventing access by other pets and small children.”
Keeping pets hydrated, meanwhile, is equally important, and pet parents are recognizing the many benefits that automated fountains provide, notes Shannon Supanich, marketing manager for Pioneer Pet Products, which makes a line of fountains. “Our fountains are filtered and electronic, so there is always running water,” she says, pointing to the key feature that makes fountains appealing to many consumers. “This is so important because animals are attracted to the moving water. It helps them drink more and maintain good health.”
As the category has matured, so has the technology behind it. As a result, fountains and feeders have evolved to be more useful and effective. Heather Owens, Radio Systems Corporation’s category manager for PetSafe Water and Feed Solutions, points to several advances in automatic feeders, in particular. “Features from facial recognition to digital programming are just a few of the recent developments in the category,” she says. “The customization features now provided by automatic feeders can create a feeding schedule [that is] right for any pet.”
The latest fountains are also making a splash with newly improved features. Goode says, “We have made improvements to our automatic waterers, specifically to include a wider opening to provide ease of access for the pet and a quiet, more efficient pump to provide optimal flow.”
Enhanced product performance is key to the category’s growth. After all, bells and whistles may be impressive in the store, but it is imperative that the product works as promised when it is put to the test in a consumer’s home. Dana Williams, marketing manager at Bergan Pet Products, which includes two automated feeders in its product lineup, says durability and reliability are two of the most important product characteristics that consumers seek.
Still, while advancements in product features and functionality are certainly helping to propel sales in this category, manufacturers also carefully consider the design and aesthetic qualities of the automated feeders and fountains that they produce.
“At Pioneer Pet, our No. 1 concern is the health of the animal. However, that doesn’t mean a fountain or feeder can’t be aesthetically appealing as well,” Supanich says.
Today’s feeders and fountains come in a range of colors and materials to complement household décor schemes, and even the shape of these appliances are contoured to charm the most high-design-minded pet owners. “Design, shape and color are key in the decision-making process of consumers for both feeders and fountains,” says Owens. “Pet parents often place feeders and fountains in high-traffic areas of the home, such as the kitchen. Walking past these items every day, it is especially important to have items that are aesthetically pleasing.”
Of course, making sure these products have maximum shelf appeal at the retail level is equally important. Fountains and feeders require more real estate in retail settings than the typical food or water bowl, and tapping into the full sales potential of these products may require some customer education, as well. “These items often need signage to help illustrate their function and their benefits,” Williams says. “[They also] tend to take up much more space than a normal feeding dish, so an efficient use of space is important.”
Having a working model on display can be a wise use of space when selling fountains and feeders. The visual draw of a running fountain, for example, is sure to catch a shopper’s attention and encourage sales. “Displaying a higher-end fountain that is ceramic or stainless steel may convince a customer to trade up from a lower-cost option,” says Owens.
Goode agrees that nothing beats an active display when it comes to merchandising automated feeders and fountains. “Consumers want to engage with products,” she says. “If they can touch it and see it in use, they will have a better understanding of how it works and are more confident to purchase.”