A Trend with Bite
A perfect combination of marketing, training advice and humanization is driving growth of the natural chews market.
When considering the many types of treats that pet owners purchase for their canine companions, you would be hard-pressed to find products more popular than chews. In fact, according to the American Pet Products Association’s 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, nearly two-thirds of dog owners have purchased some type of chew in the past 12 months.
However, not all chews are created equal, and retailers must look beyond the simple promise of being “all-natural” to find products that will truly perform in their stores.
“Natural pet parents are seeking natural solutions throughout their pet product purchases, whether it be natural chews, treats or shampoo,” explains James Brandly, public relations manager at Wentzville, Mo.-based TropiClean Pet Products, which updated its Fresh Breath by Tropiclean Dental Chew line with a new formula and several new flavors earlier this year.
However, he notes, natural chews must be unique to be successful.
That sentiment is echoed by many experts in the chew category. While the natural chews that companies offer differ drastically—from TropiClean’s Dental Chew to the highly digestible Twizzies from Emerald Pet to naturally shed deer antlers—they all exhibit the importance of being able to stand out in what has become a rather crowded market.
“The treat segment has really proliferated quite a bit, with many new varieties being introduced,” says Joe Wallington, president of Jones Naturals.
Jones Naturals was founded by the three children of a meat cutter in Rome, N.Y., who had become known for baked dog chews. Today, the company offers 97 varieties of chews, treats and jerky products for all sizes of dogs.
Wallington says that while the natural chew and treat segment is growing steadily at four to five percent annually, the premium treats category is seeing much more impressive numbers. “The growth curve for super-premium treats has been staggering—35 percent of treat and chew buyers are spending in excess of $20 a month on these products alone,” he says.
This is caused, at least in part, by a perfect combination of factors, including the much-talked-about humanization trend.
“While the term humanization has been overused, it is a fact that pet owners are trying to impart their healthy lifestyle with their own pets,” Wallington says.
Still, the category’s growth can’t be attributed entirely to humanization. There is also a push among pet trainers to use chews as a potential solution for a variety of behavior problems, from chewing the furniture to barking out the front window.
“There’s better education out there regarding the dog’s health within the mouth and the need to chew. It helps to occupy their minds so they don’t do behaviors that aren’t so desirable,” says Glenn A. Novotny, president and CEO of Emerald Pet Products.
As a result, he explains, there has been a rising demand for alternative chews that are still long-lasting. “Things that occupy the time, but don’t have the digestibility problems that you get with some of the more traditional chews,” says Novotny.
Founded in 2009, Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Emerald Pet Products makes all-natural, USA-sourced chews and treats, including Twizzies, a long-lasting alternative to rawhide and bully sticks that is 100-percent digestible.
The category has also benefited from the race among the large manufacturers to convince consumers that their product is healthiest, and therefore, best. “The big guys in pet food are pouring so much money into promoting, ‘Ours is healthier. Ours is better. Ours has less fat in it. Ours is this, ours is that,’” says Mike Thomas, vice president of development at Dallas-based QT Dog, noting that this is promoting the importance of healthy pet products to millions of pet owners.
“So, what’s happening is the dog food people are pushing the whole naturalization of pet products,” he explains.
At QT Dog, the focus in creating natural chews is on keeping products as unadulterated as possible, or as Thomas puts it, “just a straight cut of protein that is minimally processed and either oven or air dried, getting as close to the animal as possible.”
A self-described pioneer in the concept of the high-dollar, exotic chews with antler shed chew toys, in its 21st year QT Dog continues to look for innovative products it can introduce to the market.
“I think the natural chew business is exploding right now,” says Thomas. “…and the stranger, the better.”
A Blessing and a Curse
Of course, the explosion of variety in the dog chew category is both a blessing and a curse for pet retailers. On one hand, it offers many options that small stores can use to differentiate themselves from larger competitors, and even from each other. On the other hand, it means that retailers can’t just stock one of everything, which can sometimes leave them guessing which products will succeed and which will fail.
However, there are places retailers can look to get some insight into what might do well in their stores—like the food category. “Really, if you look at what [a customer is] buying and what they’re paying for their dog food, you can kind of judge—based on the brand they’re buying and the level of interest they have in nutrition—what they’re willing to pay on the chew side,” says Novotny.
This can indicate which chews might do well and what price points the store should stock, but variety is still important. After all, different dogs have different chewing habits.
“Some dogs are extremely aggressive chewers and should only be fed harder beef bone products. Some of the pork and lamb chews are softer, and aggressive chewing dogs may ingest too much of the bone fragments, which can cause digestive tract issues,” says Wallington.
Size variations are another important consideration to keep in mind. “Traditionally, we thought chews were only for large dogs, but what we’re seeing is growth in the small dog category,” says Novotny. “You want to have all levels of chew capability, from your little dog who might be more of a gentle chewer to your great, big dog that would chew on an antler.”
To accommodate a wide range of dogs, he suggests creating a section that organizes the store’s chew selection in a way that makes it clear which products will fit a particular dog, based on its chewing habits and capabilities.
Again, the point here is for smaller retailers to use variety as a point of differentiation against larger competitors, which may actually be hindered by their size. According to Thomas, at least one major pet speciality retailer has recently consolidated its purchasing process for treats and chews.
“Instead of buying from 30 different vendors, and getting a really nice, wide variety of products, they’ve narrowed their vendor count to three or four for that category because it’s easier for them to deal with three or four guys than it is for them to deal with 30 guys,” he says. “But what that has done is made a huge opportunity for the smaller retailers out there to bring in a variety of products that [they used to stock], but aren’t anymore.”
Shoppers who are loyal to the dog chew brands that are no longer carried at those larger stores may very well turn to smaller retailers that continue (or begin) to stock those products.
Still, while shoppers can often be quite loyal to products both they and their dogs love, new types of chews are often easy impulse purchases. “It’s the add-on to the dog food as they’re walking out the door,” says Novotny. With this in mind, he says that merchandising strategies designed to inspire trial are invaulable in the chew category.
“We see a big difference when you put a small display up by the cash register,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be every item, but a couple of items. It’s just kind of a way to suggest, ‘Hey, have you tried this?’”
Another factor that has a big impact is educated employee recommendations. “Retailers are the front line when it comes to bridging the gap for consumers,” says Brandly. “The retail employees need to be educated on the brands, the ingredients and the purpose of each natural dog chew they offer.”
That, he says, is an area in which retailers can lean on their distributors and manufacturers as partners. “TropiClean offers our retail partners educational discussion guides, pdfs on each of our product lines and a pet productional portal for other resources found on our website,” he explains.
Despite the growth in dog chews category and their overall success, Thomas points out that certain segments of this category have only captured a small percentage of the overall market so far. Using antlers as an example, he says this represents an important opportunity—and challenge—for retailers.
“Maybe 20 percent of the actual dog-owning population is interested in spending $15 on a dog chew,” says Thomsas. “The other 80 percent is happy with white rawhide, and those are the ones that have to be [convinced] to adopt the new trends in this category.”
Ultimately, that means the category continues to have a lot of room to grow—and retailers can expect growth to remain strong for a long time to come as more and more pet owners begin to choose natural chews. PB