The Big Chill

Refrigerated and raw products are opening new revenue streams for independent pet stores, but will consumers pull the plug?


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Who would have guessed? Neighborhood pet shops and superstores alike have been installing refrigerators to stock the latest pet pampering craze: Raw and frozen products that bring cat and dog food ever closer to what humans eat.

According to GfK’s panel representing 11,000-plus pet retail outlets, growth in refrigerated and frozen food has accelerated from 15 percent in Q2 of 2013 to 21 percent a year later, with dollar sales rising from $22.5 million to $27 million per quarter. By contrast, growth of gluten-free items has dropped off dramatically, from 89 percent to 38 percent in the same timeframe; and freeze-dried has essentially been in a holding pattern, wandering from growth levels of 49 percent to 55 percent to 44 percent over the past four quarters.

Of course, refrigerated and raw products still account for just one-sixth of gluten-free pet food’s revenue (which was $167 million per quarter, as of Q2); but it seems like the category is more than just the latest fad in pet coddling. It is a focal point for larger trends and battles playing out in the industry, and it could become a turning point for some key players.

Online sales, for example, have become a major concern for brick-and-mortar retailers, both neighborhood shops and superstores. In the latest GfK FutureBuy study of shopping habits in 15 categories, consumers gave online retailers a clear edge over brick-and-mortars on such differentiators as “easier,” “faster,” “better selection,” and “save money.” Internet retailers are continually honing their ordering and delivery systems; but stocking and safely shipping refrigerated foods, while still making a healthy profit, will be much more of a challenge for the online giants. If the category grows, it could become a significant differentiator for in-person shopping.

Like many other pet retail developments, the refrigerated trend had its start in neighborhood shops, which take the lead in providing specialty, high-touch products. They cater to the pet shopper segment GfK calls “Privileged Pet”—the nine percent of owners (roughly 10 million households) who worry less about price than giving their cats and dogs the very best. But as the bigger raw brands move increasingly into superstores—a movement that is already underway—smaller shops are forced to find the next emerging trend, or revert to new boutique brands that take freshness and quality to new levels.

We are also seeing grocery and mass merchants dabble in the raw and refrigerated segment, but with only one or two brands in stock. Here, too, neighborhood shops can differentiate themselves by providing a wider selection and stocking cutting-edge brands that bigger chains will not carry.     

In the end, however, consumers will have the last word on the future of raw and fresh pet foods. There are already some major watch-outs in that department. National coverage of salmonella risks and other potential safety issues linked to raw ingredients have likely given some adopters pause. There is nothing that large brands like less than bad PR; the better known you are, the more likely that any negative development that can be attached to your name will become media fodder.

The fact is that our industry is never short on complex dynamics and competing agendas—with raw foods being just one example among hundreds. Striking the right balance between proactive and reactive, between profit minded and PR smart, is a challenge for every player in the pet business.


Maria Lange is Senior Product Manager on GfK’s Retail and Technology team, helping clients make the most of GfK’s pet specialty data and insights. Want to learn more about pet owners and shoppers? Write to us about becoming a member of our POS database, and we’ll send you regular reports on retail trends in the pet space. Contact Dave Stevens at dave.stevens@gfk.com.

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