Where It’s Made Matters
Consumers today are actively shopping for pet products that are Made in the USA, and smart retailers are responding by stocking more of these popular goods.
The very first dog biscuit is said to have been invented in the 1800s by an American living in London. James Spratt, an electrician, saw dogs around a shipyard eating scraps of biscuits and was inspired to create a food specifically for dogs; by 1890 he began production in the United States of his line of dog food, know then as “Spratt’s Patent Limited.”
If the tale is true, manufacturing of dog food and treats could be said to have begun in the United States—but it certainly hasn’t stayed here. According to some estimates, as of 2011, the U.S. was importing approximately $30 million per month in dog and cat food, with 70 percent of those imports coming from China.
Still, in recent years, the industry has seen a swell of consumer-driven support for pet products manufactured at home.
Claudia Loomis, owner of the Cherrybrook Pet Supplies retail chain in New Jersey, has watched that trend carefully over the past decade. She and her husband purchased the Cherrybrook brand 10 years ago, when it was little more than a mobile store that sold pet products at dog shows; today, they’ve grown the brand to three brick-and-mortar stores, a warehouse with an attached store, and a successful ecommerce website.
The tipping point that drove consumers to become focused on where their pet’s food was manufactured, says Loomis, were the pet food recalls that occurred about eight years ago. Many of the products recalled were manufactured overseas and she began to have customers come to her asking specifically for items made here in the U.S. instead.
They’d ask, “Do you have U.S. chicken jerky? Do you have U.S. bone sticks? Do you have U.S.A. rawhide?” she recalls.
Chris Stahl, operations manager at Wag N’ Wash Natural Food & Bakery, which has stores across the U.S., agrees, “One reason is recalls of pet and human products from the last 10 years.”
However, he adds that the recalls aren’t the only reason this trend has grown so significantly. “As a whole, the United States consumer is becoming more aware of health and nutrition,” he explains. This has driven consumers to do a lot more than simply avoid products with ingredients that might be unsafe—instead, they’re often actively seeking the highest quality ingredients and products possible, for themselves and for their pets.
Add to that the wealth of information available online and the full picture begins to come into focus. “I think that access to information via the internet allows consumers to be more educated than they ever have been before, and at the same time the internet allows them many purchasing options,” says Amethyst Thorpe, who is in charge of retail sales and marketing at Petapoluza Pet Supply & Grooming in Seattle.
Once those three factors came together, interest in high-quality pet products made in the U.S. spread like wildfire, carrying over into almost every other pet category on the market.
“In the last decade, we’ve seen many large toy manufacturers bring manufacturing back to the United States after years overseas,” says Stahl. “Pet food manufacturers have been reinforcing the message of USA-sourced ingredients. More toy and treat manufacturers have appeared in the pet retail market with products manufactured in the United States, and has opened the market to independents offering a long list of new products.”
On that long list is everything from the treats and edible items that started the trend to items like beds and collars. “Your pet lays on that fabric,” says Loomis in explanation.
Legislation & Education
The latest shopper research survey conducted by Perception Research Services International indicates that four out of five shoppers notice Made in the USA claims on packaging—similar to 2011 levels (83 percent vs. 80 percent). And 76 percent of those shoppers claim that they are more likely to purchase a product after noticing the Made in the USA claim.
Another study, this one done by Consumer Reports National Research Center, found strikingly similar results. It showed that given a choice between a product made in the U.S. and an identical one made abroad, 78 percent of Americans would rather buy the American product.
Anecdotally, all three retailers agree that shoppers come into their stores because they know that the shops have U.S.-made pet products.
“We’re in suburban N.J. locations, so our consumers are pretty well educated,” says Loomis. Recently, she’s noticed shoppers have begun to take this interest in where their products came from to the next level by asking about the animal sources in a food, such as where they’re from and whether they were humanely treated. Knowing that level of detail requires retailers to do their research.
Under the FTC’s guidelines, products that are expressly labeled, advertised, or with labels that “imply” they are Made in the USA must be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S. (which includes U.S. territories and possessions). That means that all significant parts and processing of the product must be of U.S. origin, with no—or negligible—foreign content.
Still, with the level of detail many shoppers today want on the products they buy, retailers really need to spend some time talking to brands and educating their staff. “We research all new products thoroughly before bringing them into our store, in addition to communicating with brand representatives and reading labels carefully,” says Thorpe.
“We also take into account information and concerns customers bring to us about pet products, ingredients and materials. Our customers who are specifically seeking USA-made products are often well-informed and have clearly done a lot of their own research,” she explains.
That’s not to imply, however, that all of the store’s shoppers come in knowing everything they want to know about the products. “Other times, a pet owner may have seen a news story or read an article and heard pet products from China can be dangerous, but they haven’t researched the issue beyond that,” Thorpe continues. “In that case, they rely on us to educate them and convince them of the benefits of USA-made products.”
At Cherrybrook, Loomis also makes sure they do their research. “We have a product team, and we evaluate any new product line that we bring in; [they all go] before the team,” she says. They request manufacturer samples and test the product; and then they ask the vendor lots of questions.
“Where is the vitamin and mineral pack from? The salmon in the food, is that wild caught or is it farm raised? And if they say, ‘well, it’s wild but it’s from the Atlantic Ocean,’ then we’re like, ‘No, it’s not wild, because the Atlantic Ocean has no wild salmon, it’s all farmed. You have to go to the Pacific in order to get wild salmon,’” says Loomis. “So, based on the answers that they give us, we can tell if they’re being truthful in what they say.”
That level of knowledge doesn’t stop with the product team. “Our staff is pretty well experienced; 90 percent of our teams in our stores are full time employees—this is their career, and have been with us for years,” says Loomis.
That translates into “a high-touch experience,” she explains. “Everybody [that works in the store] has nutrition training and knowledge about supplements.”
Merchandising & Marketing
Still, any employee who has ever worked on a sales floor will attest that it’s only a small percentage of shoppers who actually ask questions, especially in-depth ones, about products before making a purchasing decision. So, what can stores do to convey U.S.-products to the rest of that 76 percent of shoppers that want it?
Three particular approaches stand out: mark these products in some special way, offer displays exclusively calling out these items, and utilize holidays and patriotic events to put those displays front and center.
Cherrybrook uses small paw prints with a red, white and blue design to denote which items are made in the U.S. “Customers, when they’re looking at our toy wall, they can see, ‘oh, these products, and this line here, are U.S. products,’” says Loomis.
Petapoluza takes a similar approach. “We put up signs that say ‘Made in the USA’ next to our USA toys and that definitely helps differentiate them from toys that are made in other countries,” explains Thorpe.
Then there’s the idea of using special displays. At Wag N’ Wash, Stahl says some of the stores do this—they have separate displays that mention “Made in the USA” or that feature locally made toys and gear. However, he adds, “as more local and regional businesses enter the market, there is less on the shelf that isn’t from the United States.”
While the trend may never reach the point where U.S. goods are the majority (some consumers will always shop based more on price than on where an item was made), the more U.S.-manufactured items a store has, the harder it becomes to highlight them in a special way.
Perhaps that’s where the third approach can be particularly useful. Holidays like the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day can be the perfect times to use window displays and other special areas of the store to call these products out in a big way. This month, retailers could even use Election Day as an excuse to give products in their stores that are made in the USA a little extra attention.
Loomis combines these in-store efforts with outreach marketing, like email promotions, and even offers special sales. “Fourth of July weekend we’ll do 25-percent off Made in the U.S.A. treats, and Made in the U.S.A. toys,” she says.
Pet products—and especially pet foods—have come a long way since James Spratt had the idea to make biscuits specifically for dogs. Although there have been some rough patches throughout the journey, the last 200 years have generally been good to our four-legged friends.
While it’s unlikely that we’ll see pet food go so far retro as to resemble the biscuits Spratt initially cooked up, perhaps there is one thing that Spratt got right all those years ago. It certainly seems likely that the percentage of pet products made here at home will continue to grow.