Treats aren’t just for spoiling our canine buddies—they’re also used for training, to supplement diets and to support health, resulting in a diverse and profitable category.
Whether they’re functional or just for fun, treats have become a mus t-buy for dog owners. In fact, 94 percent of dog owners surveyed in the American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey said they purchased treats for their pets within the previous year, and gave their dogs an average of three treats a day. One third of large dog owners said they bought 11 or more packages of treats during that time frame, while 25 percent of the owners of small dogs said they had purchased between six and 10 packages.
But not just any old treat will do. As dog owners keep a watchful eye on their own eating habits, they are increasingly seeking out high-quality ingredients and avoiding artificial additives in what they feed their pets as well. About 17 million dog owners now purchase natural treats, according to APPA’s biannual survey. This movement towards natural ingredients is shaping product offerings in the treat category, says Ashley Czarnota, marketing coordinator for Pet ‘n Shape. Headquartered in North Hollywood, Calif., the company offers a full line of all-natural treats and chews.
“People want to feel good about what they’re feeding their pets,” says Czarnota. “The movement has been toward more high-protein, quality dog kibble and natural treats and chews. All ingredients should be simple and easy to identify, and there should be nothing artificial added.”
Jeffrey Levi, vice president of sales for Claudia’s Canine Bakery, is seeing the same. “People are looking for ingredients they can pronounce and understand,” says Levi. “We believe pet owners are looking at ingredients lists, and if they can’t understand it, they’ll put the product back on the shelf.” Claudia’s, located in Maumelle, Ark., produces high-end, gourmet-quality dog cookies.
Limited-ingredient and single-source treats are also capturing attention, especially those made with less commonly used ingredients, says John Parrotino, owner of Healthy Dog Chews. The company, located in Sylvan Lake, Mich., provides a wide variety of chews and bully sticks.
“We continue to look for unique and nutritious single-ingredient, all-natural chews,” says Parrotino, whose company offers chews made from yak cheese, lamb, pork, antlers and sweet potato, among others. “Dog owners are also looking for fresh, healthy and long-lasting chews.”
Food safety is another concern that pet owners have, Levi says. Claudia’s cookies are made from human-grade ingredients at its Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 2-certified facility.
Loving Pets, a Cranbury, N.J.-based manufacturer of grain-free pet foods and treats for dogs and cats, recently announced that its facility is Global Food Safety Initiative-SQF Level 2 certified, says Eric Abbey, president and founder, adding that this is “the gold standard for quality and safety in food and consumable products.”
The focus on food safety has also led to a preference for USA-made foods and treats, says Steve Duensing, president of Wholesome Hide, Inc., a Dolton, Ill.-based manufacturer of rawhide dog treats and specialty products made from ground rawhide blended with fruits and vegetables.
“The biggest trend we follow is the continual movement from offshore pet treats to those made and sourced in the USA,” says Duensing. “We’ve seen larger retail entities stop purchasing treats made in China and seek out new sources. Some manufacturers are also moving their manufacturing from China.”
Functional treats—those that help support health, energy and well-being—are also coming on stronger, says Paula Savarese, president of Healthy Treats Inc., maker of Dogs Love Kale. Headquartered in Naples, Fla., Healthy Treats currently makes eight crunchy, limited-ingredient, kale-based dog treats, as well as three soft flavor varieties.
Treats that keep dogs engaged, such as ones that work within a toy system, are growing in popularity as well, says Emily Benson, marketing director for Starmark Pet Products, Inc. The Hutto, Texas-based company creates a variety of mental stimulation and interactive play toys, treats and training tools for dogs.
Whether functional or purely indulgent, the demand for treats is there every day, says Levi, adding that there’s a place for both types. But the burgeoning popularity of this category has resulted in increased competition among manufactures and a dizzying array of products, which can make it more challenging for pet specialty retailers to devise assortments that best reflect their brand and values.
To help get a handle on the task, it may be helpful for pet retailers to keep in mind that specialty brands can help them stand out. “They need to know that they don’t have to compete with the big retailers by selling the same treat products and brands,” says Duensing. “Often by carrying a specialty brand that is healthier and not available at the big chain stores, they can differentiate themselves and build customer loyalty.”
Additionally, retailers should be aware that not all USA-made products are equal, says Abbey. As more consumers gravitate towards products carrying the “Made in the USA” label, more companies are making this claim. However, this isn’t a guarantee of product quality and doesn’t always mean the ingredients are healthy. It’s still important for pet specialty retailers to read the ingredients list and seek out those that are also domestically sourced.
“Chinese pet products manufacturers haven’t stopped making products,” says Duensing. “In fact, some products now available from South America and Asia were in fact made in China. [Retailers] need to be extra-vigilant about getting certifications for country of origin or know their suppliers well.”
Steps to Success
Offering unique treats is important for competitiveness, but there’s more to getting the most out of this category. Becoming educated and knowledgeable about the products you’re offering so you can respond with authority to customer questions is key, says Czarnota. Included on her list of what-to-know essentials are ingredients, nutritional benefits and product highlights.
“With some natural products that are newer to the market, like chicken feet, the consumer may have questions regarding safety or may be hesitant to try something very different from their typical treat purchases,” she explains. “Retailers should thoroughly educate their salespeople about their product selection, so customers won’t hesitate to purchase due to a lack of information.”
It’s also important to engage customers in conversation. Staff should be encouraged to ask questions not just about the breed of dog and age, but if the pet has any food allergies, health issues, dietary restrictions and so on. “A couple of short questions will help retailers offer solution-oriented products that are a win-win and will keep customers coming back,” Abbey says.
Retailers also need to know the purpose of each type of treat in their stores. Is it to supplement the diet or to help address a particular problem, such as skin or coat support or tartar control? Is the treat for training or reward, to give the dog something to chew (other than furniture) or just for sheer indulgence?
The intended use can make a difference when it comes to treat purchasing, says Benson. “For example, a long-lasting chew treat would not be ideal for use in training sessions where you want something that can be eaten quickly while maintaining the pet’s attention,” she says.
Additionally, retailers should be prepared to educate customers on healthy treating habits. Savarese advises talking to customers about moderation and when and how to use treats.
“Pet owners need to understand that treats should be used as a reward, snack and training tool,” she explains. “They should not over-feed any treats and the ones they choose should have high-quality ingredients. Just because some dogs ‘will eat anything’ doesn’t mean that they should.”
When it comes to merchandising treats, Benson suggests grouping similar treats together—biscuits or baked treats, chews, soft-moist, etc.—so customers can more easily find what they’re looking for.
Treats can also be cross-merchandised with other categories. For example, treats formulated to supplement diets can be located by the food. Those that are incorporated into toys can be placed in that aisle. Treats intended for training might be best placed near leashes, harnesses and crates—and if there’s a puppy or “new dog” section in the store, treats for training purposes would be a good fit there as well.
In the case of baked treats, Levi says many of Claudia’s customers have found success placing the cookies in bakery cases, bulk bins or on pegs. Holiday or seasonally themed tables or endcaps can also serve to show off all manner of treats, sparking additional sales.
Remember the register, says Levi. “Treats are often an impulse sale that can really add to the register ring,” he explains. “And don’t forget to demo treats. Have a bowl at the register for sampling. Or, as the dog walks into the store give him a treat. Do this and you’ve just made a customer.”