A Movement with Momentum
The Made-in-the-USA trend continues to gain steam in the pet care market, where consumers equate domestic sourcing as a clear sign of product quality and safety.
For pet specialty retailers, Made-in-the-USA is a trend that keeps on giving, as pet owners continue to seek out domestically sourced and manufactured products because of the perceived quality and safeness of these items. And there are no signs of a slowdown for this movement. In fact, all evidence points to the trend growing even more vital in pet store aisles as demand for these products increases at a significant and measurable rate.
“’Made in USA’ has always been an important buying factor, but our research studies in the past year have shown that its importance continues to rise to where it is now the No. 2 buying factor, right after ‘Known, Trusted Brand,’” says Martha Palmer, director of Wahl’s North America Professional Animal division. “In fact, 68 percent of survey respondents indicated that ‘Made in USA’ was either ‘Very Important’ or ‘Important’ in their buying decision.”
Palmer points to not only “a definite quality difference,” but also “the overwhelming desire of consumers to help keep jobs in the USA” as the main drivers of the trend and notes that Wahl has been manufacturing in the U.S. for nearly a century.
“In 1919, Leo J. Wahl patented the first practical hand-held hair clipper and manufacturing began at the Wahl Clipper Corporation in Sterling, Ill.,” she says. “While we have nine global factories and 21 wholly owned subsidiaries around the world, we remain committed to manufacturing in the Sterling, Ill., community as our manufacturing and sourcing approach is to make our product in the country or region of the world where the product will be used. This allows us to be more responsive to our customers’ needs and affords us total quality control while our competition remains an ocean away.”
Lance Reyniers, president of Python Products Inc., is another pet industry executive who has observed growing demand among pet owners for domestically sourced and produced pet products—a trend that his company has embraced by manufacturing its entire portfolio of aquarium and pond maintenance items in the U.S.
“[Consumers] are constantly saying to us, ‘Thank you for still making your products in America,’” he says, noting that these pet owners also express desire to see more companies do the same.
While demand for Made-in-the-USA products has had an obvious impact in every segment of the pet industry—including aquatics and pet clippers, as evidenced by Python and Wahl, respectively—there is probably no segment where the trend is more prevalent than it is in consumables such as food and treats. Yet, the trend still has not hit a ceiling in these product categories. Based on data collected from a panel of more than 11,000 pet stores, New York-based market research firm GfK reports that pet foods carrying a country claim accounted for 70.6 percent of all sales in this segment during 2015, versus 69.4 percent in 2014, with an overwhelming majority of these products (95 percent) carrying a “Made in the USA” label.
With momentum like that, it should come as no surprise that manufacturers are responding with a growing lineup of on-trend product. But according to many in the industry, U.S.-based production and ingredient sourcing is about much more than simply displaying an attractive American flag label; it’s about providing the quality and safety that has long been key in the super-premium pet food and treats category.
“The sourcing of the highest-quality raw materials produced and grown in the United States is a core initiative for all products in the Primal line,” explains Matt Koss, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods. “We believe and are committed to the philosophy that nutrition begins with the ingredients, the elements of the finished product. Therefore, Primal devotes a significant percentage of our time and budget to foraging for ingredients that are sourced in the United States and that are passed and inspected for human consumption (edible-grade ingredients) only.”
Pet treat manufacturer Emerald Pet Products also views domestic sourcing and production as key elements in ensuring product quality. With this in mind, the company is unwilling to compromise when it comes to finding the right ingredients for its products. “U.S. manufacturing allows us to maintain a tight control over quality assurance while also supporting our local communities,” says Glenn A. Novotny, president of sales and marketing. “At Emerald Pet Products, we verify all ingredients used in our treats and chews are U.S. sourced during the formulation process. If the ingredient is not available from a U.S. source, we do not use it and change our formulation to use products that are directly from a U.S. source.”
However, this approach is not necessarily an option for every company in the pet care category. In fact, some manufacturers face significant hurdles when it comes to finding a domestic source for vital product ingredients or components. In some cases, the sources simply do not exist.
For example, while 2 Hounds Design sources the materials for its leashes, collars, harnesses and accessories in the U.S. as much as possible, not every component is available from domestic suppliers—a factor that company president Alisha Navarro calls “an unfortunate fact of life.”
“When we begin a new project, we always start first within the United States to find the materials,” she says, noting that the company’s webbing, ribbon and buckles are all made in the USA. “This means our research time may take longer, as some things are more difficult to find, but it is worth it to us to make sure that our Made in the USA products use U.S.-sourced components in every possible category.”
While the impact of the trend on pet restraints and accessories may not be at the same level as in consumables, Navarro says that the Made in the USA trend still plays an important role in her segment. “Customers are looking for unique, crafty, creative products, not mass produced,” she explains. “The Made in the USA trend plays straight into this category.”
Pet food and treat manufacturers often find themselves in a similar predicament, as there may not be a reasonable supply of certain ingredients from U.S.-based sources. Luckily, there are some trusted overseas sources that are helping to pick up the slack in certain areas—for example, New Zealand and Australia are trusted sources of lamb, while some South American countries are trusted sources of beef.
“While Primal is committed to sourcing from suppliers based in the United States, we do procure the highest grade level ingredients from countries such as New Zealand and Australia, as well as countries throughout the European Union,” says Koss. “Farming practices such as grass fed, non-GMO, antibiotic free, pesticide free and cruelty free are common standards found throughout the regions referenced above, and Primal has built long-standing and committed relationships with farms and ranches that supply our company with many ingredients used in our food and treat products.”
Redbarn Pet Products is another food and treat manufacturer that looks to overseas suppliers when high-quality ingredients are not available from U.S. sources. “While the sourcing of items from the U.S. is important and does contribute to high-quality pet products; we find that the importance of sourcing U.S. can vary by ingredients” says Rashell Cooper, marketing director. “Some ingredients from abroad are higher quality than ingredients found in the United States. Our bully sticks are sourced and manufactured in South America at a Redbarn-owned plant that we hold to the same quality assurance standards as our Kansas-based facility.”
Of course, U.S.-based production is preferred whenever possible. “Products assembled in the United States are typically subject to higher safety standards,” says Cooper, noting that Redbarn has been manufacturing 80 percent of its product line in the U.S. for nearly 20 years.
Still, simply looking for a Made in the USA label may not always be enough to presume quality and safety. “Concerned pet parents and retailers should contact manufacturers and ask about safety protocols, both mandated and voluntary, to better understand the vulnerability of their pet’s food and treats,” Cooper suggests. “While it takes some time to develop good supply chain and production policies, we believe it’s worth it to provide our customers with safe and high-quality pet product."
The dependability of a Made in the USA label is further complicated by the fact that rules for such labeling have historically been somewhat vague. “Probably the biggest obstacle is that ‘Made in USA’ isn’t very clear cut,” says Palmer. “While some products are labeled as ‘Made in USA’ or show a flag icon, they may actually be made overseas and just assembled in the USA, or the product may contain components sourced from overseas.
“While this practice is illegal, compliance has been tough to monitor. One way to overcome this is for the retailer to ensure that they hold their suppliers accountable for accurately portraying the country of origin on their products and that marketing is specific in explaining to what degree the product is made in the USA.”
This is a sentiment that is echoed by numerous industry experts. “Retailers who recommend Made in the USA products to consumers should know what that label means to the manufacturer,” says Cooper. “For Redbarn, a reasonable definition of ‘Made in the USA’ means that the product is not only manufactured in the USA but that most of the ingredients are sourced from U.S.-based ingredient providers. In our Great Bend, Kan., plant, Redbarn cooks, cleans, assembles and packages the majority of our products.”
According to Novotny, “It is just as important to verify the ingredient sourcing as it is to verify U.S. manufacturing. Many times we see packaging marked as ‘Made in the USA,’ yet the ingredients are not U.S. sourced. Adding clarity and visibility for the end user is key to building trust with the pet parent and reassuring them that they are getting what they expect. We have taken a proactive approach to add clarity for the end user by marking all of our packages with ‘Made in the USA with U.S. ingredients.’”
To Koss, given the fact that many consumers equate country of origin with the quality and safeness of a product, it is essential that retailers look beyond Made in the USA labels to reveal the true value of a product’s ingredients. “Products simply bearing the Made In The USA label do not guarantee retailers or consumers that those products were produced with the highest grade level of ingredients nor under production standards that require strict quality and food safety standards,” he says.
“Paramount to the origin of the raw materials used to produce products and/or the location of the manufacturing facility is the quality grade of the raw materials themselves (edible grade vs. pet grade) and the production and food safety standards of the manufacturing facility. Retailers and consumers should be seeking out brand partners that are committed to and can guarantee the use of only raw materials fit for human consumption (not for pet consumption only). This quality grade of ingredients ensures a higher-level nutritional value as well as more strict standards of food handling and safety."
Once a retailer has assembled a good selection of Made in the USA items that can be counted on as being safe and of the highest quality, it is essential that they call customers’ attention to this segment of the product mix. “If you are selling anything that is made in America, you need to let your customers know,” says Palmer. “ It should be clearly marked on the product packaging and reinforced through all customer touch points. Retailers should be able to rely on their vendors to highlight this selling feature on all product packaging and marketing support materials.”
Novotny suggests that utilizing special merchandising displays that group Made in the USA products together can be particularly effective in this regard. “Creating endcaps or displays with a USA theme is a great way to bring attention to USA specialty products,” he says. “Highlighting particular products by category type is a great way to showcase USA items that are available across several categories. For instance, create a display that showcases USA food, long lasting chews, crunchy treats, soft treats, and dental chews all in one location. This helps to create a solution center for the customer.”
This is a strategy that Navarro espouses, as well; but she takes it a step further. “Create a ‘Local’ section of your store with products made in your state/region,” she suggests.
While Reyniers also believes that calling attention to Made in the USA products with special displays and on-shelf signage is important, he says that retailers should not limit their efforts to the store’s aisles. “Put it in your front window,” he says. “You will be surprised by how many people passing by your business will notice it. They will appreciate it, and it will draw them into your store.”