Buying into Freeze-Dried
Pet specialty retailers have dialed into the benefits freeze-dried products offer pets, owners and their stores.
In today’s fast-paced world, where pet owners take their dogs with them almost everywhere they are allowed, it is no surprise that the portability of freeze-dried dog food and treats has made them increasingly popular options with pet owners. However, the shelf-stable, lightweight, easy-to-store characteristics of freeze-dried products are hardly the only reasons for their rising popularity. Perhaps an even more compelling factor is the nutritional value these products offer.
Experts say freeze-dried diets are gaining converts every day. Dog owners who want to feed their pets raw diets but are wary of traditional raw products are particularly attracted to raw freeze-dried offerings. Matt Koss, president and founder of San Francisco-based food manufacturer Primal Pet Foods, Inc., points out that this format enables people to derive all the benefits that go with feeding their dogs a raw diet, but without all the muss and fuss.
The raw trend is indeed on the rise as people increasingly discover the many health benefits associated with these diets. “Raw is the foundation of health,” says Lori Fouts, vice president of sales management for MiracleCorp Products, the Dayton, Ohio-based maker of a variety of premium brands including Stewart. “Raw diets contain higher levels of nutrients, including essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antioxidants, which are available to the pet as building blocks to help maintain health and wellness.”
Demand for freeze-dried food and treats is also being fueled by the fact that these items undergo minimal processing. Other positive selling points include the fact that they tend to be limited-ingredient foods and are free of unwanted additives like artificial colors, preservatives, gluten, grains and so on. The freeze-drying process also preserves the nutrients of the food and results in enhanced flavor and palatability.
But it is not just dogs and their owners that stand to benefit; these products come with several key advantages for pet specialty retailers.
“Freeze-dried diets and treats offer retailers the opportunity to establish an alternative food section within their retail footprint,” Koss says. “These foods can be offered to consumers as a full-time diet or as a supplement to raw, kibble and canned diets as well.”
Meanwhile, the shelf-stability of these products means retailers can stock raw diets without using refrigeration, a boon for many smaller stores that lack the space for a refrigerator or freezer.
“Freeze-dried products are also lightweight but high in volume, so shipping them to the stores is cost-effective,” says Dr. Chris Bessent, DVM/CEO of Herbsmith, Inc., a high-end pet supplement and treat manufacturer in Hartland, Wis. “Storing them is as easy as storing kibble. Pets love them so there are fewer returns.”
They also have a longer shelf-life than kibble, says Fouts, resulting in less waste and loss for retailers.
John Gigliotti, founder and CEO of Whole Life Pet, a Pittsfield, Mass.-based manufacturer of premium-quality foods and treats for dogs and cats, lists what he sees as two equally notable selling points for pet specialty retailers.
“First, they allow the retailer to be on the cutting edge of the trend towards feeding minimally processed food,” he says. “Second, they’re able to offer a product that generates the highest profit per square foot over any other type of food or treat.”
On the Rise
According to Fouts and others, sales of freeze-dried products are picking up steam. “Consumer demand has seen double-digit growth over the last several years,” Fouts says. “Improved awareness of the benefits and ease-of-use, plus improved availability of exotic proteins have been category drivers, along with product innovation, improved freeze-drying techniques and improved packaging.”
Ashley Czarnota, marketing coordinator for Pet 'n Shape, a North Hollywood, Calif.-based producer of treats and chews, says retailers are taking note of these products. She cites figures indicating that in 2011, around 51 percent of stores selling pet food included freeze-dried products. By March of last year, the number had risen to nearly 71 percent.
“Since its introduction to the market, freeze-dried pet food has steadily grown into a sub-trend within the larger natural pet food category,” says Czarnota. “Its dollar share of the U.S. market grew from 0.4 percent to one percent between 2011 and 2014, and is expected to continue its upward trajectory.”
In fact, says Gigliotti, 2016 sales are projected to hit $200 million, up from the $120 million in sales these products achieved in 2014 (by 2015, sales had ascended to $195 million). And there is still room for growth. Consumer awareness about these products remains nominal, so the category’s potential has hardly been tapped, Gigliotti contends. However, this is likely to change as retailers continue to spread the word.
“Retailers’ awareness is very high,” Gigliotti says. “I can’t recall talking to a retailer in the last couple of years who isn’t completely versed in freeze-dried. They’re out on the front lines, educating the consumers.”
Because many pet owners are still confused about freeze-dried foods and treats, or may be unaware of them altogether, it will largely depend on pet specialty retailers and their employees to help boost sales.
“Consumers have a lot of questions about treats and food items as these directly affect their pet’s wellbeing,” says Czarnota. “The retailer should know the ingredients, nutritional benefits and the product highlights. They should thoroughly educate their salespeople about their product selection so customers don’t hesitate to purchase because of a lack of information or uncertainty on the salesperson’s end.”
One concern pet owners might have is the cost associated with freeze-dried products. “Whether you are feeding yourself or your pet, improving the quality of food—especially when going from highly processed to minimally processed food—has a cost associated with it,” Gigliotti says. “The benefits are undeniable, but for some pet owners the cost of feeding alternative diets can be prohibitive.”
If this turns out to be an issue, he suggests that the retailer explain to the pet owner that freeze-dried foods can be used as a topper on the dog’s regular food or as a mixer, allowing the owner to affordably enhance the nutritional value of the pet’s diet, while not committing to serving it as a complete meal.
Bessent says the idea that these products are cost prohibitive is in fact one of the biggest misperceptions she encounters. “Freeze-dried foods are concentrated, so one pound of freeze-dried product is equal to approximately five pounds of wet meat,” she explains. “The amount of nutrients in the concentrated form requires less volume to be fed and hence cannot be compared one-to-one with kibble.”
Retailers should also be prepared to educate customers about making the most appropriate choice for their pets. For example, it is important to ask about the pet’s age and if it has any health issues in order to help the owner make the best selection. Bessent says that every food has “energetics” that will positively or negatively affect how that pet’s body functions, depending on its particular health profile. To this end, she designates her protein mixes as “warming,” “cooling,” or “neutral.” Pets that are too warm/hot (such as an allergic animal), require cooling foods like duck or rabbit, she says. Those too cold, for example an older pet requiring joint support, need warming foods like chicken or turkey. Well-balanced pets can be fed neutral foods like beef or pork.
Retailers should also ask why the customer is interested in a freeze-dried diet, and inquire about any allergies or food sensitivities the dog has, says Fouts.
As for merchandising these products, Koss suggests establishing a dedicated section to alternative pet foods, with freeze-dried products comprising part of the set. Gigliotti agrees with this approach.
“The space doesn’t need to be 100-percent dedicated to freeze-dried but can encompass the entire category of minimally processed alternative diets like dehydrated, air dried and so on,” he says. “Having everything in one section and offering some simple signage educating the customer on these foods and showing the cost of feeding seems to be driving growth for those retailers committed to providing this type of dedicated space.”