Harnessing Raw Potential

Raw pet food and treats represent a product category in which independent retailers can thrive, provided they take the right approach to building a selection and educating customers.




For independent pet specialty stores, the ability to stay at the forefront of product trends—particularly those within the pet food category—is a critical component of staying competitive. However, while small pet stores have an opportunity to set themselves apart from bigger, less-nimble competitors by leveraging trends such as the growing pet owner demand for grain-free and all-natural foods, they rarely get to corner these emerging markets for long before the big guys horn in on the action. The raw food and treats category may be one of the few exceptions to this rule.


Although it has been growing by leaps and bounds for years now—undoubtedly drawing the attention from all types of retailers that deal in pet products—raw foods and treats are still providing mom-and-pop pet stores a great opportunity to get a leg up on the competition. “The raw pet food category has exploded in recent years,” says Eric Emmenegger, senior brand manager for Nature’s Variety’s Instinct brand, which encompasses a variety of raw diets. “More brands have entered the market with raw frozen products, and more pet parents are aware of this feeding form.”


But even with this growth in product options and customer awareness of the raw category, Emmenegger says that it remains a food segment that often requires some extra effort on the part of retailers in selling. “Pet parents approach feeding by what is familiar to them,” he explains. “The majority use traditional forms like kibble and cans. Getting pet parents to think about feeding raw is asking them to think about pet food in a different way.”


This is precisely where independent retailers can excel. By being uniquely positioned to engage pet owners directly and inspire coverts to raw nutrition, pet stores have been, and will continue to be, central to the growth of the category. And, as Emmenegger points out, that growth has been significant, to say the least.


In fact, the raw food and treats segment has gained so much momentum in pet stores, it has actually bifurcated into two distinct subcategories—frozen and freeze-dried. While both sides of the category share similar growth, each offers its own unique benefits and challenges, making them great complements to one another. “Retailers should make sure they have a diverse selection of frozen and freeze-dried products available,” suggests Brad Armistead, vice president of marketing and innovation for Dogswell, maker of Nutrisca Raw Freeze Dried Bites and Nutrisca Raw Freeze Dried Solos.


“While both forms contain the same nutritional properties, freeze dried products can be conveniently stored at room temperature. This is a great option to use on walks or weekend trips as freeze dried products are both lightweight and portable.”


While she acknowledges the convenience afforded by shelf-stable freeze-dried products, Nicole Lindsley vice president of marketing for Steve’s Real Food—which offers a full line of raw frozen diets with 100-percent U.S.-sourced ingredients—points out that selling only this part of the category has its drawbacks. “The downside with a dry raw food is that it tends to be more expensive due to the added processing,” she says. “Steve’s Real Food feels that it is not ideal to feed a dry raw food all the time due to the lack of moisture. Our pets need moisture in their food to properly digest it, and although many freeze dry manufactures instruct the customer to re-hydrate the food, it will often not take on moisture when you place it in a bowl of water.”


According to Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales for Bravo!—which will be adding two new freeze-dried diets to its traditional lineup of frozen products next month—offering a mix of both types of raw foods and treats will enable retailers to appeal to two groups of pet owners that are as distinct as the products they favor. “Each category appeals to a very different consumer, but for very much the same core reasons,” she says. “Both are looking for a high-quality, grain-free food that will benefit their companion animal’s overall health and wellness.”


The freeze-dried customer, says Schubert, is typically a younger small-breed owner who is drawn to their product of choice because of convenience—for which they are willing to pay a premium. On the other hand, frozen-raw customers usually own larger breeds, have more experience in the category and are willing to invest the time and effort needed to prepare and clean-up after these products. “At the end of the meal, both consumer segments are assured they are feeding a high-quality raw diet with many benefits to their companion animals,” she says.


Matt Pirz, vice president of sales for Primal Pet Foods, which offers a broad assortment of raw diets in both frozen and freeze-dried forms, agrees that retailers should take a well-rounded approach to building the raw food section of their stores, in order to harness the full potential of the category. “Retailers should be developing entire ‘alternative diet’ categories in their stores that consist of raw frozen, raw freeze-dried, dehydrated and home prepared offerings,” he says. “We’re a raw company and believe that raw if the best way to feed your pets, but pet specialty stores should offer a broad spectrum of specialty products that can provide the right solution for any given consumer. All of these product types provide a significant step forward from traditional kibble and can feeding, and oftentimes can be used in conjunction with one another to create a very healthy diet that suits a consumer’s needs and budget.”


While offering variety within the raw category will go a long way in satisfying the full range of pet owners who are currently feeding their companion animals these diets, much potential can still be found among pet owners who have not yet been turned on to the raw-food movement. With this in mind, retailers must be prepared to leverage their competitive strength in the area of customer engagement to inform and inspire the next wave of converts. “Getting [customers] to try [raw foods] can be a challenge because, depending on who they are, a little education might be essential in order to clear up misconceptions and assumptions,” says Maggie Johnson, co-owner of Sojourner Farms, makers of Sojos freeze-dried raw foods and treats. “Thankfully, among raw diets today, there are options and resources. Retailers need to reach out directly to these brands and ask for help.


“It is no surprise that companies who want to bring the very best in nutrition to the market don’t stop there. We also understand the customer base very well and know the category still requires a little education or explanation. We value the customer’s desire to understand ‘why.’ We want to invest in customer education.”


Raw Bistro, which offers a variety of all-natural, humanely sourced raw foods and bones, is another manufacturer that invests in consumer education. In addition to offering informational point-of-purchase material such as signage and brochures, the company conducts in-store sampling events to help educate pet store patrons on the many benefits of feeding raw diets. However, founder and owner Pat Greene points out that retailers must be ready and willing to do their part in the effort.


“Retailers have to take the time to educate themselves [about the raw food category],” she says. “You can give out all of the samples you want, but that isn’t going to make a difference unless you are able to convey the benefits.”

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