The retail pet industry’s trend toward natural and eco-friendly products has quickly gained momentum over the past several years, and pet specialty stores are positioned to profit from this movement.
“It’s not easy being green.”
— Kermit The Frog
“Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.”
— Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Examine, if you will, the dichotomy of these two highly contrasting statements, one by an animated amphibian and the other by a great Spanish playwright of the Golden Age, and apply them to the green movement in pet products.
Not long ago, say midway through the embryonic years of the 21st Century, it wasn’t easy being an eco-friendly item waiting to be enjoyed by a dog or cat. The green movement was just beginning to rev up and gain widespread public acceptance. As Kim Oliver, founder of Good Dog Company, an eco-friendly manufacturer based in Boulder, Colo., says, just five years ago, the greening of the pet industry was still an early concept.
Now, as we move further and further into the second decade of the century, eco-friendly products for pets are gaining increasing acceptance by consumers. And like the 21st century, that acceptance is likely to be around for a long time.
“It’s definitely trending upwards,” says Oliver. “A lot of the trends are saying that if you want to have more success in your retail store, stock natural and organic products.”
“It’s gone from more of a niche market three to five years ago to probably more of a generality or standard in the future,” says Paul Cannella, president and owner of Poopbags.com, a Chicago-based manufacturer of biodegradable poop bags. “You probably had to search three to five years ago to find those types of products, whereas now there are more and more of these products being produced.”
The website of West Paw Design, another eco-friendly pet product manufacturer, includes the general statement that green is not a fad. Spencer Williams, company president, knows green is continually gaining more awareness as the movement continues to chase waste.
“As we look down the road, we don’t see it [the green movement] as a blip on the screen,” says Williams, who has a Big Sky Country view from his headquarters in Bozeman, Mont. “We see it as an evolving consumer awareness and it will continue to evolve. That’s affecting all industries, but certainly the pet industry.”
One reason is that consumers are projecting their own lifestyles onto their pets. You are what you eat, the saying goes, and those living a healthy lifestyle want the same for Fido and friends, not only in the foods they ingest but also in the products they use. Healthy is as healthy does.
“People are getting more conscious about what they’re using and what they’re feeding their pets, so they’re getting very knowledgeable about that part, and that’s why they’re looking more and more for eco-friendly, biodegradable or naturally grown products,” says Tatiana Boulankina, owner of Pet’s Delight, a respected eco-oriented pet store in Los Altos, Calif. Boulankina says that eco-products comprised 40 to 50 percent of her store’s overall inventory three to five years ago. Now, she says, it’s at least 80 percent.
A Green Education
The knowledge that Boulankina refers to is a main engine powering the eco-friendly movement in pet products. Syms, a well-known off-price clothing retailer with stores in 12 states in various regions of the country, uses the motto that “An educated consumer is our best customer.” The same holds true for the current and future growth of eco-friendly pet products. Consumers are not only gaining knowledge in their own homes and the environments they live in, they’re also gaining critical knowledge from pet retailers and manufacturers.
“There’s a lot of information given to me here, but we also educate our customers on how to read ingredients labels on our pet foods, which products are natural and which are organic, and which products are biodegradable and why,” says Boulankina. “We do as much as we can to educate our customers so they can make the right choice.
“We educate ourselves first, to educate our customers, so we are definitely committed to the eco friendly products,” adds Boulankina. “It starts with the salesperson and then it goes to the customer.”
Williams says that pet specialty retailers have to research the products and companies they’re dealing with in order to make consumers more aware of eco-friendly pet products.
“The dealer has got to believe in the product they’re buying. It starts at the company level and the product is secondary,” says Williams. “They have to train their staff so the consumer can be educated either via signage or displays in the stores, as well as information on websites. It starts with the staff being able to communicate the value of the company and the product to the consumer.”
Cannella says that being prepared to educate customers about the growing variety of eco-friendly options that are populating pet store shelves will not only be key in extolling the benefits of these products, but also in building the store’s reputation as a trusted resource.
“It’s education and the personal touch,” says Cannella. “They [pet store retailers] know how to run their business and build the trust factor between them and their customer.”
Merchandising is Critical
Proper merchandising is an effort that Williams describes as “critical” to educating customers on eco-friendly pet products. One idea is to create an association between Earth Day, which is April 22, and eco-friendly pet products.
“There are two great ways to merchandise eco-friendly products,” says Williams. “The first occasion is to call out an endcap or a specific section of the store that is all about eco-friendly and direct consumers to that. Now, as we’re coming toward Earth Day, that’ll be a great way [for pet specialty retailers] to show consumers how much eco-friendly product they have in their stores. It’s a great marketing tactic for encouraging purchases of those sorts of products, but it’s also a great educational key for the consumer.
“The second way to highlight and merchandise eco-friendly products at retail is to ensure that there are little signs, placards and shelf talkers. A good manufacturer or distributor is going to have that signage available. Making sure they’re visible to the consumers is a great way to get them to buy those products or be educated about them in the pet stores.”
While well-designed displays can be a great help in educating customers about eco-friendly products and ultimately inspiring purchases, there is no substitution for personal interaction between a pet store’s staff and customers.
“We create displays from time to time, but mostly, we talk to [our customers] and ask what they are looking for in particular and what types of product they are looking for,” says Boulankina. “We show them different types that we have, explain the benefits of each of the products, and then the customer decides which way they want to go.”
Sometimes, a lot of explaining may be necessary in order to inspire customers to purchase eco-friendly pet products. Eco-oriented pet products have all kinds of components that make them good for the environment. Oliver uses hemp, which is naturally hypoallergenic and anti-microbial, in products like dog collars and dog beds. Cornstarch is a key component in biodegradable poop bags. West Paw Design uses recycled plastic bottles in pet beds and pet toys. Dogs can enjoy organic cotton bumper beds, while feline friends can find ecstasy in organic catnip. The list goes on and on.
Benefiting a Variety of Pets
All this sounds wonderful for the environment, but the most important element to selling eco-friendly pet products is conveying how it benefits the animal.
“When you have a product that’s environmentally friendly, it helps the pet in a direct way by having the product be of generally high quality,” says Williams. “Dogs and cats, which are our primary business, are very susceptible to toxins and allergens. They’re dependent upon the people to provide products that are safe for them. As you look at the products they’re interfacing with and the environment, any negative impact on the environment directly impacts all living creatures. We look at products that are safe for the environment. They benefit dogs and cats by minimizing the negative impacts on the world in which they live.”
Products for dogs and cats are currently the main thrust of the eco-friendly pet movement, but the manufacturers of products for other types of pets are also grabbing at the green. The owners of birds, small animals, herptiles and even aquarium and pond fish can now find earth- and pet-friendly alternatives in a variety of product categories. From all-natural bedding and chew products to cultivated coral and eco-friendly water treatments, green products are growing more pervasive across the entire pet industry, and industry experts do not see this trend slowing anytime soon.
“It’s going to permeate every category,” agrees Cannella. “It’s going to migrate across all products, whether it’s birds, reptiles, things like that. It’s always going to be moving toward the natural and eco-friendly.”
“It’s going to get deep into the industry,” says Williams. “More eco-friendly products are going impact commodities such as cat litter. They’re going to impact all products that have contact with dogs and cats directly–shampoos, any sort of grooming products–anything that’s in close contact with pets. You’ll see more and more green product coming into it and it’ll penetrate the industry in all aspects.”
The Pricing Challenge
Even as the eco pet movement advances, it still may encounter some consumer resistance. Price is seen as a potential issue. Cannella says that eco-friendly pet products can cost up to 20 percent more than their regular counterparts. Oliver says the price can be equal to regular products, or up to twice as much in some cases, depending on the category.
Oliver, for one, says the higher prices for eco-friendly products can be a deterrent for consumers in today’s economy, particularly the first time they dip their toes into the eco-friendly pet waters.
“Everybody sees value as something different,” says Oliver. “Some people will spend $55 to $60 for a 30-pound bag of dog food and think there’s good value, and not because they’re going to make fewer trips to the vet. Then there’s people who’d prefer to buy a 30-pound bag of dog food for $20 to $25 at a local Costco because their initial cash outlay isn’t as great, but they also might not be the same people that are inclined to rush out to the vet when their dogs are sick. It depends on what your definition of value is.”
“You can’t appeal to everybody,” says Cannella. “Somebody has to be able to say I’m going to pay that 10 to 20 percent premium for that product, that I’m going to feel good about helping to save the planet and that I feel good about giving it to my pet.”
Of course, many pet product marketers have leveraged those good feelings into profits. However, many industry observers say that as the green movement progresses, the move to cater to the growing demand for products that are friendly for both pets and the environment may soon no longer be optional.
“The industry, as a whole, is going to end up needing to position itself as having eco-friendly products in every category,” says Williams. “Consumers are being driven more and more to buy that kind of a product. They’re going to want choice. They’re going to want products that meet their spending habits, whether it’s low-priced or high-priced items. They’re going to need a choice in the diversity of product.
“As the industry continues to develop they’re going to look at eco-friendly but they’re also going to look at where it’s going to be made,” adds Williams. “More and more product in the pet industry is going to be made in the U.S. It’s going to be made in North America. That’s not only going to improve the safety of the products people are buying for their pets, but it’s also going to lessen their environmental footprint.”
So, Kermit, maybe in its own way, it’s not so hard to be green after all. And from that, its loveliness arises.