A look at what is driving the growing demand for pet products that are made in the USA, and how manufacturers and retailers are heeding the call.
If the steady stream of product debuts is any indication, the pet market has yet to reach full capacity. There still seems to be room for fresh product introductions to meet any number of pet needs, from nutrition to grooming to first aid. But make no mistake: the competition is stiff.
Pet parents are choosier than ever; and among the top criteria that shoppers have for many of their pet-related purchases is that the products be made in the U.S.
“It is all about quality,” says Lance Reyniers, president of Python Products. “They want made-in-America products. People are begging for it.”
About 80 years ago, buying U.S.-made products was more than a noble ideal or an admirable goal—it was law, as least for government buyers. The Buy American Act mandated that the U.S. government favor domestically made products over imports whenever possible. Times were hard, and the Act’s message was clear—support U.S. industry.
Jump forward to today—the notion of “buying American,” while rooted in some of the same ideals of old, now incorporates a broader range of goals and values. The U.S. is a major importer of goods from around the world, and its economy is not as dependent on industry and production on its own soil as it once was. So, these days, buying foreign-made products is not uncommon for shoppers in many product categories.
“It’s a global age, and there are a lot of wonderful products that are made outside of the U.S.,” says Nadine Joli-Coeur, co-owner of Natural Pawz, which has 12—soon to be 14—locations in the Houston area.
In recent years, however, consumer sentiment has been shifting. For various reasons, people are increasingly seeking out products that are made in the U.S. Joli-Coeur is among the many pet specialty storeowners honoring consumers’ demand for domestically made foods, toys, beds and other supplies, when feasible.
“Wherever we can, we source products that are local or made in the USA; and that definitely plays a big role in terms of our product decisions,” she says.
Manufacturers are also taking note of both retailers’ and consumers’ growing preference for pet supplies made and sourced on familiar ground. Dr. Christine Bessent, DVM, CEO of Herbsmith, Inc., a Hartland, Wis.-based herbal supplement and treats company, says that for decades, store shelves reflected a retail landscape that transcended national boundaries, but consumer demand has the supply chain swinging in the opposite direction. “The really exciting part is that we’ve gone from being more local and national to being global, and now, we are coming back to being national and local,” she says.
In many cases, consumers’ purchasing decisions are inspired by a sense of loyalty, and even responsibility, to U.S.-based businesses, particularly small and family-run companies. Darcy Rogers, manager of Teske Pet and Garden, in Moine, Ill., says customers today prefer to support retailers and manufacturers that give jobs to Americans, or that source ingredients or components that are generated on U.S. soil. “It is important to [customers] because they want the money and jobs to stay in the U.S.,” she says.
In the pet supplies market, however, the most significant driver behind the demand for domestically manufactured products in recent years has been concern over pet food safety. The turning point came in 2007, when a rash of pet deaths and illnesses associated with a contaminated ingredient sourced from China led to mass pet-food product recalls. The recalls shattered consumers’ confidence in several pet food brands, and left many stores scrambling to fill sparsely stocked food shelves.
“That was a scary event for people,” says Susie Bower, owner of End of the Leash, a two-store pet-retail chain in Wisconsin. “I actually opened right on the tail of that big recall,” she says. “We’ve never offered any foods affected by those recalls, so we were educating [pet owners] right from the beginning.”
After the recalls, small pet-specialty stores that were already stocking lesser-known—and uncontaminated—food brands were perfectly positioned to meet consumers’ needs and guide shoppers’ purchasing decisions. The recalls, however, also motivated pet owners to do their own due diligence. Many have educated themselves on product labels, and they want to know, at the very least, where products are manufactured, if not also where the ingredients were sourced.
Sue Hunter, co-owner of Bad Dog Frida, a pet specialty store in Madison, Wis., says that even today, periodic recalls continue to raise people’s awareness. “We are starting to see people do more of their own research about products and food,” she says. “Even a couple of years ago, more people took our word for it. Now, they come in, and they’ve already done their homework. They know what they want to feed and what they don’t want to feed.”
This scrutiny extends down to the treats people choose as well, notes Starla Pellegrino, co-owner of Pooch N Paws in Suwanee, Ga., who says her customers are quite discerning about this product category. “We are very careful about the treats that we select,” she says.
However, while concerns over food quality and safety are paramount, retailers predict that pet owners will become increasingly choosy when it comes to other product categories, as well. While many retailers already offer a wide selection of domestic edible goods, they are on the lookout for non-consumable products that also answer the call.
For example, Bower says more shoppers these days are seeking pet toys that are made in the U.S. “I think it’s an area that could, and probably will grow more dramatically, because people are fearful of what’s in the materials that their pets are putting their mouths on.”
Pellegrino says companies such as Cycle Dog and Planet Dog help fill this demand; and Hunter points to West Paw Design as another company that is offering U.S.-made options in the category.
For the most part, however, there are few manufacturers making toys that are made in the U.S. or with U.S.-sourced materials. It is often cost-prohibitive to manufacture toys domestically. Production costs would inevitably be passed down to the consumer, which could make these toys the most expensive on the market—not necessarily an enviable position to hold.
“It’s tricky and challenging,” Hunter says. “Customers want a good price. Are they willing to pay more for something made locally or in the U.S.? When it comes to toys, people don’t always do that.”
Still, the made-in-the-U.S. proposition is gaining traction in other categories, such as beds, grooming products, and collars and leashes. “A majority of our beds are made in the U.S.,” says Joli-Coeur, adding that all the store’s shampoos are sourced or made in the U.S., as are some of its harnesses and other items.
Of course, on non-consumables and consumables alike, a Made-in-the-USA stamp on the packaging can represent a range of desirable qualities for consumers—safe, high-quality or eco-friendly, to name a few. However, retailers are discovering another nuance to the made-in-America trend, as customers increasingly place a higher premium on products sourced and manufactured in their own geographic regions, states and even hometowns.
“Part of our concept is to support local businesses and manufacturers in our area,” says Joli-Coeur. “Customers like to shop local. They know that just outsourcing everything is not going to help grow the economy.”
And, while retailers have caught on to the fact that selling locally or domestically manufactured goods is a smart move, they are learning that it has much more impact if the products’ origins are marketed through signage, packaging or stickers. For example, Joli-Coeur says her store’s marketing of Texas-based food manufacturer Merrick Pet Care’s products has yielded great customer loyalty. “We worked with [the company] to put labels on the packages that say, ‘Made in Texas,’” she says. “Texans like to buy from Texans.”
Georgians are no stranger to local pride either, says Pellegrino, who periodically sets up a dedicated Made-in-Georgia merchandising display. “It does really well,” she says. “Customers like it, and they also tell their friends.”
Even when products do not hail from a store’s home state, it makes sense to promote USA-made offerings. Claudia Loomis, co-owner of Cherrybrook, a three-store pet retail chain in northern New Jersey, began tagging U.S.-made products with red, white and blue paw-print stickers about a year ago, and for Independence Day, the stores curate assortments of domestically made items to display on Made-in-the-USA endcaps.
“We’ve always had the made-in-the-USA products, but the paw print was something customers asked for, so we thought we would make [these items] easily identifiable to them,” Loomis says. “An associate could probably rattle off a list of items for any customer who comes into the store asking for products that are made in the USA, but the visual does really help.”