Domesticating the Pet Shop

Demand for Made in the USA fare continues to grow steadily in pet stores, as consumers have become increasingly cautious regarding the origin of the products they give to their animal companions.


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As manufacturers continue to reassure pet parents by bringing their production processes stateside, consumers want even more peace of mind through responsible domestic ingredient sourcing and greater transparency. Since 2007, a number of scares have occurred involving imported food and treat ingredients—notably jerky—laced with contaminants including melamine, as well as illegal antibiotics and anti-virals.

In response to these past scares, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to comfort pet parents, such as the implementation of an Import Alert system, which requires high-risk foreign companies to provide documentation that their products are safe prior to admission into the country. Despite these efforts, the distrust of products and ingredients sources from abroad continues to grow in the United States and has expanded to include non-consumables. In fact, New York-based market research firm GfK found that 81 percent of pet parents surveyed in spring 2015 valued whether a product is American-made as an important factor in their purchasing decisions.

It is a trend that Biff Piccone, who owns the 17-store Texas-based chain Natural Pawz with his wife Nadine Joli-Coeur, has witnessed firsthand. “Made in the USA continues to be a desire on the mind of pet parents,” he says. “Our goal is to offer our customers ‘best in class’ products with a focus on made in the USA. We have been successful in areas such as food, treats, beds, collars, leases and poop bags...pet parents we serve are still very concerned with products produced by China.”

As with many trends in the pet-goods market, the initial shift begins when owners alter their own diets, and changing how they feed their animals naturally follows. As concerns over listeria, salmonella and E. coli remain on the radar of consumers shopping for their own safe, healthful food, pet parents will also seek information regarding the origins of products bought to nourish their furry loved ones.

“I think people are getting more conscious about locally sourced food for themselves and that trickles down to the wellbeing of their pets as well,” says Peter Berman, owner of Rock Dog and Cat, a two-store operation in Los Angeles.

In a country whose citizens are becoming more health conscious in their own lives and more aware of the dangers of tainted products in the cupboard, pet parents will incorporate intensive research into their shopping habits when spending money on goods for their animals.

To make the most of the Made in the USA trend, smaller, independent pet retailers must utilize all of the tools at their disposal to gain information regarding the origins of the products they sell, as well as items they will consider offering. Meghan Driscoll, manager of Connecticut’s Bone Appetite, found that her past employment with Earthborn Holistic and Natural Balance Pet Foods allowed her to gain valuable knowledge before joining her mother to work in the family pet shop.

“One of the first things—if not the first—that any consumer asks when you are talking to them about pet food (or anything edible) is if it’s made in the U.S.,” she says. “Also, in dealing with these two companies, I was trained pretty thoroughly on where products came from, and even where the ingredients were sourced. Now that I am choosing which products to bring into my own store, we have enforced a strict ‘No China’ rule regarding any food, treats and supplements.”

Having this insider’s perspective regarding the details of product origins is invaluable for retailers. To remain a trusted source for quality goods, sellers must also remain educated about manufacturer recalls and those products that receive the highest quality ratings.

Just as retailers hope to retain customers through trust and loyalty, some storeowners feel that forging the same type of relationship with local manufacturers is their best bet to discovering the highest quality domestic products. However, there is fear that these local sources will disappear if they are bought by larger operations, with quality potentially being compromised in favor of less costly manufacturing, according to Piccone.

“The trend for stores like ours, who focus on smaller manufacturers, is the current course where many are being purchased by large corporations who make commercial-grade products, and we fear their sourcing and manufacturing will change,” he says. “We have been successful in finding some great USA manufacturers, and customers appreciate our efforts in these areas.”

Piccone’s preference for conducting business and forging relationships with smaller manufacturers is a sentiment echoed by Berman.

“I am a small business, and I try to do business with similar companies that have similar values,” he says. “Many times it seems a little easier to get a clearer picture of those kind of companies when you have the opportunity to speak with the actual owner and hear straight from them what they do and why.”

This banding together by independent neighborhood retailers and local manufacturers has created unity in this corner of the industry, affording a return to respectable mom-and-pop-shop values, such as trust and transparency.

The Made in the USA trend is not solely the domain of small, local manufacturers, though. Vendors of every shape and size are responding to the growing demand for domestically produced and sourced pet fare. In fact, according to GfK’s POS panel of pet specialty retailers, 72 percent of 3,911 recently introduced food and treat items from September 2014 to August 2015 were made in the USA, and these domestic products generated $388 million in revenue for pet stores.


Beyond Jerky
Much of the focus on domestic products seems to be placed on food and treats, but there are many more items that retailers should consider when researching products that are made in the United States. Consumers are known to spoil their pets, often indulging every desire they could imagine their pet having: toys, leashes, collars, grooming supplies and clothing. And for some pet parents, the origin of the products that are being placed on their animals is as important as the food that is consumed.

“We prefer purchasing non-consumables from domestic manufacturers, although it is much tougher to find these items made in the U.S.,” says Nancy Maida, owner of Pawsh, a Boston-based pet boutique and salon. “There is a demand from customers for non-consumables, especially toys, to be made in the U.S., but we have only been able to provide a small percentage of these items that are made in the U.S.”

Once a trusted source for domestically manufactured food and treats has been found, pet parents will search for quality non-consumables. And while demand for products that are made in the USA might not be quite as high in some of these categories as it is in consumables, retailers should strive to stay slightly ahead of the trend by making domestic options available. It is a strategy that is sure to pay off as the trend continues to grow.

Toys represent one non-consumable category in which the Made in the USA movement is already making an impact at the retail level. But while the demand is great for toys manufactured in the United States, the supply has not yet caught up, making consumers and retailers anxious for a larger selection. “Toys are the biggest hold for USA manufacturers,” says Piccone. “We would like to see additional offerings in toys from the USA.”

Regardless of the product category in question, it is clear that customer concerns about imported products will not be going away anytime soon, and thus the Made in the USA movement is here to stay.

“I don’t see why pet parents would ever become comfortable with foreign-sourced products, particularly food and jerky products,” says Health Mutt owner Kendra Bailey, noting that the trend toward domestically produced pet fare is also being driven by consumers’ desire to support local businesses. “People want to feel good about shopping local and supporting local. That includes buying products made right here in the U.S.”

Of course, making sure that a pet store is reliably meeting its customers’ growing demand for Made in the USA products is not always easy and will require due diligence on the part of the retailer. However, storeowners who are committed to this approach will find that it is well worth the effort.

“I take the time to research and hand select each and every item placed in the store,” says Bailey. “Where the products are made is important not only to us, but our customers.”

 

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