For the Love of Country
The demand for domestically sourced and manufactured pet products is on the rise as consumers continue to equate these items with high quality.
Trust, experts say, is the cornerstone of any strong relationship. When it is in short supply, relationships weaken, becoming increasingly brittle under the weight of doubt. And once broken, trust can become impossible to regain.
This proved to be the case between U.S. pet owners and the pet specialty food market several years ago. Since a rash of pet-related illnesses and deaths was linked to a pet food ingredient sourced from China in 2007, shoppers have not looked at pet food in quite the same way. They quickly learned to scrutinize labels, product claims, and details about where and how ingredients are sourced. And, by way of their purchasing decisions, many pet owners sent a loud and clear message that they were no longer satisfied with the old guard. Customers now demand higher-quality, more nutritious and safer pet foods that are made in the U.S., using well-understood, wholesome ingredients.
The upshot has been that the pet specialty channel has become a champion of premium pet foods that answer that demand, and many retailers have gone so far as to commit to selling only U.S.-made foods and treats. In fact, the “Made in the USA” proposition in the pet food category can hardly be considered a trend anymore. It holds court at the very core of the market.
“Customers are conscientious, and they want stuff that is made here in the United States,” says John Gaughran, the owner of Dart Frogs to Dogs, a pet specialty shop in Bath, Pa., that sells live herptiles and related supplies, as well as an array of dog and cat products. “They are really conscientious about what they are feeding their pets, and they feed their pets better than themselves. It is a trend I don’t see stopping.”
The demand for products that are made in the USA, however, is not limited to pet food. Being made in the U.S. is an increasingly coveted product characteristic in several segments these days, from beds to healthcare solutions to reptile husbandry products—and even livestock. For this reason, many pet specialty retailers are focusing on building product assortments that feature as many domestically produced items as possible. Often, these stores tap into the riches offered by small, local companies that design unique items that cannot be found in a PetSmart, Walmart or any other mass-market retailer or grocer. And increasingly, independent retailers are broadcasting their allegiance to U.S.-manufactured and -sourced goods as a proud point of distinction that sets them apart in an ever-growing field of competition in the pet market.
Food and Beyond
With so much manufacturing still occurring offshore, the question remains as to how the Made in the USA movement will evolve in the pet industry—and in other retail sectors, for that matter. For now, however, pet specialty retailers report that the proposition still resonates loudest in the food category. Independent specialty retailers’ shelves are flush with American-made pet diets these days, as manufacturers in the pet specialty channel continue to answer the growing consumer demand for them.
Heather Blum, co-owner of Petagogy in Pittsburgh, says that one of the chief differentiators between her store and the nearby mass-market and big-box competition is its assortment of pet foods made by companies that manufacture and source their products in the U.S. Blum—who opened the store four years ago with her husband Cole and another couple, after tiring of the long treks they were making to find high-caliber pet supplies in their area—adds that Petagogy’s customers actively seek out domestically manufactured foods for their pets. “It’s always a request,” she says.
While food is at the heart of the Made in the USA movement in the pet product arena, the call for U.S.-produced goods has been echoing across many retail sectors and channels in recent years. According to a New York Times poll conducted in early 2013, two-thirds of U.S. shoppers said they check labels when shopping, to see if products were made in the States. Whether or not that proclaimed interest in domestically manufactured product translates into cold, hard sales is unknown. Still, pet retailers report that demand is growing in all categories, including toys, beds, collars and leashes, and other pet goods.
Nicole Centeno, owner of K9 Kibble in Kenosha, Wis., for example, fields a steady stream of customer requests for domestic product, and she is always prepared to deliver. K9 Kibble, in fact, brands itself as a store that specializes in American-made products. While there are gaps in the inventory where, out of necessity, Centeno has to stock items that are made overseas, she offers an assortment of mostly American-made products, including food and treats, of course, but also beds, apparel and grooming products. The majority of her customers, she says, are drawn specifically by the shop’s U.S.-centric focus; others are pleasantly surprised.
“Some people come in because they are curious, and once they get here, and see that everything in the store is U.S.-made, they get excited,” she says “They really do like that I try to find as many quality products [as I can] that are local.”
Centeno says she offers several brands of collars and leashes that are U.S.-made, as well as a few toy brands, such as West Paw, Planet Dog, Jolly Pets, Ziggo and Fido. However, due to the many well-known drawbacks to manufacturing certain types of goods in the U.S.—mainly the higher cost of labor and materials or ingredients, which drives up retail prices—the availability of these products is sometimes limited to a few brands, if they exist at all. She says the pet bowl category is particularly lacking in this respect, and she has not been able to find affordable metal or ceramic bowls, for example, that are not made overseas.
The toy category is another area of concern. “I wish there were more toy options,” she says. “That would be great.”
Blum echoes the sentiment. “Toys [represent] a big category where there is this very big hole— especially the durable soft toy [category],” she says. “We are always on the lookout for U.S.-made toys that are durable and attractive, and made with U.S. materials.”
One pet specialty segment in which U.S-made goods are making a difference is in livestock—particularly herptiles. In the pet market, discussions about Made in the USA products often revolve around food, but Gaughran says offering domestically sourced—or rather bred—livestock is a key distinction that serious herptile hobbyists seek these days.
Gaughran says herptile hobbyists place a high value on retailers that can vouch for their animals and stand behind their care and health at the time of sale. Hobbyists often do not have this kind of confidence in big-box specialty stores,, as these larger retailers are reputed to buy animals through distributors that obtain their livestock overseas—for example, wild-caught golden thread turtles from China or tortoises from Russia—and to sell them to the public without properly vetting them or quarantining them to ensure their health.
In most categories in which USA-made products are valued by consumers, demand is largely driven by the expectation that these goods are safer or of higher quality. But it certainly is not the sole motivation for buying American. Retailers say many consumers also gravitate toward the idea that buying domestically manufactured products helps to support job growth and the overall economy.
In fact, some companies proactively market their success at doing their part to keep manufacturing jobs onshore. “West Paw makes POS [point-of-sale] signs that say how many people work for them [here in the U.S.], and explain that their materials are made in the U.S.,” Centeno says. “People love that company. We have people who come in just looking for that brand.”
Don Kingsbury, owner of Two Salty Dogs in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, is another pet storeowner who focuses heavily on offering domestic goods. While product quality and safety is factor, he says, people’s attraction to U.S.-made fare is often motivated by their love of country. “Patriotism comes into it a lot,” he says. “More and more people want to support their local community and where they live, rather than just spray money around to get the best deal.”
For many customers and retailers, the more local the product, the better. “My mantra in the shop is that we go out of our way to buy local,” Kingsbury says. “If we can’t it get it in Boothbay Harbor, we get in it Maine. If we can’t get it in Maine, we get it in New England; and if we can’t get it in New England, we get it in the U.S.”
Of course, not every customer is going to be swayed by the Made in the USA proposition. The significance may be lost on those who place a greater value on other product characteristics, such as brand recognition or sheer popularity. Goods that are manufactured in U.S. factories with ingredients or materials sourced in the U.S. also tend to cost more than items made elsewhere. This puts this class of products at a disadvantage when marketed to budget-sensitive customers and pet owners who are apt to buy their pet supplies at grocery stores or big-box retailers, which often offer more competitive pricing.
“For a certain portion of people, if one product is 59 cents more expensive [than a lesser-quality alternative]—no matter the quality or what I say—they are going to want to save that 59 cents, and they will feel like they walked out a winner,” Kingsbury says.
While many pet stores are comfortable charging premium prices for quality goods, not every pet retailer can afford to be carefree about pricing. Many, in fact, have to pay close attention to price points, and walk a thin line between offering a distinctly specialty-caliber assortment and pricing themselves out of contention in the battle against big-box and mass-market competition.
Gaughran says he is constantly mindful of the higher prices that come with premium pet specialty brands and many U.S.-made products. “Where I am, I have to be careful,” he says. “Every time I brought in [super premium brands], I brought them in on special. I definitely pay attention to that.”
The price differential between domestically manufactured products and their less-expensive counterparts, however, is a manageable obstacle for many pet specialty retailers, whose competency for a hands-on approach to product promotion gives them an advantage. These retailers also understand the impact that a small but potent dose of customer education and guidance can have when helping to market a product or a category.
“It’s all about education,” says Kingsbury. “A lot of people are not going to—without an explanation—spend $20 extra for a bag of dog food without knowing the reasons why [it is more,]” he adds. When I explain it to them, their eyes kind of open.”
Centeno echoes the sentiment. She says it is often necessary to explain why a U.S.-made product is more expensive and share a bit of the backstory about ingredient sourcing or materials. “We do have to explain that little bit,” she says “I think by explaining how the products are made, and that we select products because they are quality products, we override [customers’ price concerns].”
Sometimes, offering a sample is the push customers need when they are on the fence about whether they want to try a premium product. Kingsbury says that he sometimes offers a discount to customers who are hesitant to upgrade from a supermarket brand, for example, to a premium, Made in the USA product.
It helps that manufacturers are increasingly touting their products’ most desirable features right on the packaging. However, Centeno points out that many manufacturers are emblazoning their products with Made in the USA labels, but do not necessarily give enough information to communicate what makes its manufacturing process or ingredients any better than less-expensive options on supermarket shelves.
“Although the label is important, it’s not the whole story,” she says. “It is great if [Made in the USA] is on the product, but the ones that go into more detail about what is actually happening are great.”
Fortunately, independent pet specialty retailers are generally well positioned to fill in the gaps when packaging fails to fully communicate what makes a product special. And with U.S.-made products, it is often the backstory that makes the final sale. Kingsbury, for example, merchandises a locally made treat—Lobster Treats for Salty Dogs—on the checkout counter as an impulse buy. The prime real estate he allots to the product affords him ample opportunity to pitch it to customers as they checkout.
“They are made by a real lobsterman’s wife,” he tells his customers, explaining that the husband catches the lobster and the wife makes them in nearby Friendship, Maine. “The story goes a long way.”