Feeding Food Sales

Carrying the latest cat diet trends and offering a strong marketing program can help retailers maximize food sales in their cat section.


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The American Pet Products Association reports that the average cat owner spent $246 on cat food last year.  Considering there are 85.8 million cats residing in U.S. households, the cat food market clearly represents a significant chunk of the more than $58 billion pet owners spent on their pets in 2014.

Yet manufacturers give a mixed report when it comes to growth in the cat food category. Some say they have seen steady growth, while others report that the market has been flat or even down over the past year. However, all agree that the focus right now is on wet cat food, and sales in this category are outpacing dry cat food options.

“Our wet sales are among my highest growing categories,” says Warren Stice,  division regional sales manager at KLN Family Brands, makers of Tuffy’s Pet Foods.

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing at Whitebridge Pet Brands, LLC—makers of Cloud Star, Buddy Biscuits and Tiki Pets products—also notes growth in the category. “Our expectation is that the treat and wet-food categories will continue to grow even faster than the dry food market,” says Hudson. “Feline diets, especially wet food, are growing rapidly, and new innovation in all categories will continue to attract cat owners to the pet specialty channel. Alternative choices, including human-food-grade and minimally processed diets, are in high demand and growing even faster than the overall category.”

Specifically, specialty diets—such as those that address shedding, obesity or litter-box odor—diets denser in protein, those that are raw or made with alternative proteins, and formulas that exclude grains and gluten seem most in demand. Other trends to watch include formulas with antioxidants to boost the immune system, and probiotics to benefit intestinal health and digestibility; as well as diets with salmon oil or omega-3 fatty acids.

“What we are seeing is an increase in functional diets,” says Dave Friedman, vice president of sales and product development at Health Extension Pet Care.

It’s un-debatable: cat owners—especially those that frequent independent retailers—are increasingly educated about what proper nutrition can do for their pets.

“There has been a real shift toward foods that contain ingredients that humans would eat themselves,” says Tracey Hatch-Rizzi, LAc, vice-president and co-founder of Radagast Pet Food, Inc., makers of Rad Cat Raw Diet. “High-quality, human-grade ingredients are not only more palatable for cats, they are more nutritious, which is often quickly reflected in the health of the cat.”

Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications at Wellness Natural Pet Food, points out the shoppers’ approach to buying pet food has evolved with the cat food market. “For many consumers, the thinking around their own food and what they feed their four-legged friends has changed dramatically in recent years,” she says. “People are increasingly concerned with what they eat and where their food comes from, and this concern has influenced the pet food space as well.”

Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Co., agrees that today’s pet owners are far more discerning. She recalls an informal survey she conducted about 10 years ago, for which she visited local pet parks to ask pet owners what they fed their pets. “I was amazed how many people were feeding terrible food and thought it was the best,” she says.

Of course, even 10 years later, not everyone has switched. In fact, it is likely that the majority of cats still eat low price-point diets. Stice says almost 70 percent of felines are still fed food purchased at grocery stores, and he sees those shoppers as a large untapped market. If he is right, that could spell really good news for independent retailers. As shoppers become better educated, they become unsatisfied with what they find available in the mass market—either the diets themselves or the information available to help them make decisions—leading them straight to the doors of their local independent retailer.

However, pet stores need to be prepared. Many retailers still do not have a strong understanding of what their customers are looking for, says Friedman. Retailers should understand cat owners’ criteria when shopping for cat food—including budget and nutritional concerns. He suggests that retailers ask themselves a couple of key questions. “What do they want and need?” Friedman asks. “Is your staff educated enough to know how to [address] this?”

It is also important that retailers and staff members comprehend the differences between the diets they sell and how to sell them. “In order to recommend appropriate foods and treats to pet parents, retailers must have a strong understanding of how to communicate nutritional benefits,” says Leary-Coutu. To help with this, she suggests that storeowners and operators research—and then teach their employees—three primary pieces of information about the diets they offer.

She says it is key that they understand the order in which ingredients are listed, what the nutritional value and health benefits of those various ingredients are, and finally, how each type of food or treat can satisfy different flavor preferences, lifestyles and nutritional needs.

Sher notes that, fortunately, many storeowners are making the effort to be as informed as possible. “I see the private storeowners doing a lot of education,” she says.

Like many manufacturers, Evanger’s sends its sales reps out to individual stores to help them educate their teams. “They want to learn,” Sher adds.


Convincing Cat Owners to Buy
Retailers should also make sure that cat food is a regular part of their rotating displays. “Off-shelf displays such as endcaps, window displays, stack-outs and theme promotions draw excitement and interest from consumers,” says Joel Katz, vice president of business development at Health Extension Pet Care.

Leary-Coutu says utilizing these options is especially important since the cat section may not be as large as the dog section in many stores.

For those stores that offer raw food—as an ever-increasing number of independent stores do—it is also essential to include signage on the front of the freezer, says Hatch-Rizzi. Freezer signage is so critical because it lets the customer know the products that are available in the freezers without having to open the doors, she explains. 

Signage and literature are often good tools for helping to further convey key nutritional information and benefits, as well. “Many customers will read the signage and literature before actually seeing the product,” Hatch-Rizzi says. “Having literature available will also help the customer engage store employees to get additional information.” 

From there, stores can bridge the gap between communicating the benefits of a given food to actually getting shoppers to try it. That’s where sampling comes in, says Stice. He emphasizes that stores need to actively pursue cat owners, which he says can be done largely with samples.

For example, if a shopper is buying a grain-free cat food, he suggests the store offer to add a free cat kibble sample to their bag, saying something like, “this is the food we’re featuring this month.” Regularly promoting diets with samples this way is the simplest option for actually getting shoppers to try new things.

“When a consumer is purchasing that bag of food, reach for the can as a give-away,” says Stice. Retailers that are hesitant to give away free merchandise may want to consider the worth of a new customer, Stice suggests—chances are, they will realize those customers may be worth more than the cost of the free sample or can.
Plus, many manufacturers, KLN Family Brands included, are happy to work with retailers when it comes to sampling programs.

Further, sampling is a great way to get feedback with new products—after handing over a sample, employees can mention that it is a new diet and ask shoppers to share their feedback next time they come in. The store wins by getting shoppers to try a new diet, and the pet owner wins because they get something for free. However, ultimately the cats win because they wind up eating quality foods that offer superior nutrition.

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