Natural Noshing
by Pamela Mills-Senn
July 1, 2011
Once just a niche category, natural pet treats have become an essential part of many pet specialty stores’ offerings as consumers become more discerning about what they feed to their pets.



While natural products have clearly risen to a prominent position in the pet treat category, it wasn’t that long ago that these products faced somewhat of an uphill battle. For example, when the Cloud Star Corporation first began trying to drum up interest in its natural dog treats more than 10 years ago, the company encountered more than a fair amount of resistance.

“We were laughed out of buying offices,” says Melissa Lapidus, who handles marketing for the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based company, which also manufactures grooming products. “Some buyers didn’t understand the importance of feeding pets a natural diet. [Now] that attitude has clearly changed.”

Propelling this reversal is the growing awareness on the part of pet owners that if they are what they eat, so are their pets. Consequently, says Lapidus, just as consumers are increasingly seeking healthy options for themselves, such as natural and organic foods, they’re searching out the same for their animal companions; a trend that pet products manufacturers and retailers are responding to. And this concern not only involves the pet’s primary meals, it extends to treats as well.

There are a number of reasons why natural dog and cat treats are moving to center stage. For one thing, thanks to product recalls of both the human and animal kind, consumers have grown warier.

“People have become increasingly aware of what is in their food and that has led them to [also] take a closer look at what they are feeding their pets,” explains William Xenos, executive assistant for Carlson Morgan Premium Pet Products, a Modesto, Calif.-based manufacturer of natural pet treats.

This has translated into a desire to avoid unnecessary additives and questionable ingredients, says Lapidus. As a result, consumers are becoming avid label readers and are educating themselves about pet health and wellness.

Concerns about what they’re feeding their pets has also prompted consumers to seek out U.S.-made products—one of the “major trends” they’ve noticed impacting the natural treats category, says Erin Clemens, business support manager for Isle of Dogs. Based in Germantown, Wis., the company manufactures all-natural treats, grooming products and odor neutralizers.

This factor, combined with the burgeoning health and wellness movement and the humanization of pets, has turned a spotlight on natural treats—to the retailer’s advantage, says Clemens.


Retailing Benefits

“Treats are not products that are just going to sit and take up valuable shelf spaces,” says Clemens. “Treats are something that almost every pet parent purchases for their dog.”

According to Bette Schubert, cofounder of Bravo!, a Vernon, Conn.-based manufacturer of fresh-frozen raw food products and treats, natural treats can spell good profits for retailers.

“If the numbers on our Bravo! Bonus Bites are any indication, sales of natural treats can have a tremendous impact on a retailer’s bottom line,” says Schubert. “It is an item that has a quick turn; most of our retailers order weekly.”

This is in spite of the fact that raw still comprises a small percentage of the category, she adds.

As more consumers give natural treats a try, the demand grows, along with the product selection, which also inspires higher sales, says Xenos, explaining that there’s now a wide range of natural treats available in all kinds of sizes, shapes, ingredient types and price points. Consequently, it’s become easier for retailers to offer product and pricing variety, a potential sales booster, as consumers look for different qualities when it comes to natural treats. Carrying a selection of natural treats also establishes the store as the go-to place for these kinds of products, attracting a customer base that is not only passionate about pet health–and therefore more likely to invest in all manner of products–but is extremely loyal as well.


Maximizing Sales
“Marketing the treats to the customers at the store is key,” says Clemens. Retailers should be setting these products apart and drawing attention to them by creating special displays, holding samplings, making use of marketing materials, and taking pains to educate customers, she says, adding that staff education is essential to the sales effort.

Moving their natural treats can be as simple as having an open bag or canister available, says Xenos.

“If the consumer can see, feel and smell the actual product it becomes clear that it is in fact a more natural item than the chews and biscuits sitting on the shelf,” he says.

This can also spark a conversation, affording the retailer an opportunity to provide recommendations and explain some of the advantages natural treats offer over more conventional items, interactions that can be effective in creating sales, Xenos says.

“We use packaging that makes a lot of the product visible as we know samples can become costly,” he adds. “We also like to work with our buyers to find out what we can do to make samples more cost effective.”

It’s also important to remember that treats are often an impulse buy, says Schubert.

“So, anything that can be placed on the counter, without too much clutter, or near the register is a good start,” she says. “Suggestive selling also goes a long way. Have the person manning the register suggest a treat as an add-on to their purchase. Or, a simple sign at the register saying, ‘don’t forget the treats,’ can also help increase sales.”

Retailers should also consider creating a dedicated natural products section, says Lapidus. This will not only attract customers already sold on these items but will also draw the curiosity of customers that are not as familiar with natural products.

Finally, consulting with manufacturers and utilizing the tools they make available (retailers should be certain to inquire about what kind of support and materials manufacturers offer) will certainly help the sales effort.

“A lot of consumers are looking for more natural things to feed their pets,” says Xenos. “If the retailer can provide those options and be knowledgeable about the benefits, the treats will do well in their stores.”