It is common knowledge among pet industry insiders—retailers, manufacturers and distributors alike—that pet owners are more receptive than ever to buying products designed to improve or possibly extend the lives of their pets. Products that can rightfully claim to be all natural have even more appeal.
The flip side, however, is that while the pet product market is starting to bubble over with products such as supplements and health remedies, the average independent pet specialty retailer only has so much room on its shelves and consumers only have so much money to spend. Despite consumers’ apparent willingness to spend money on pet health products, manufacturers say that retailers have to be prepared to do more than just stock a few bottles and boxes on their shelves if they want to make the most of this growing segment of the market. They have to know and understand the products, be able to convey their benefits to consumers and make them stand-out on the shelves to fully tap the potential of these categories.
It was not long ago that most pet owners had a rather simple approach to caring for a pet—give it water, feed it at appropriate times, and perhaps walk it, depending on the type of animal. The pet industry, however, has since benefited from the notion that people can do so much more for their animals than just the bare-boned basics—the contents of a can or bag of food may or may not be enough.
Today’s pet market offers a plethora of products designed to treat various health conditions or to improve the quality of pets’ lives overall—and pet owners don’t need a prescription to buy them. Some harness the power of herbs to treat minor ailments or age-related grievances. Others have taken ingredients used in human products, and found an equally appropriate and helpful application for them in the pet world.
Stephanie Johnson, pet division brand manager for American BioSciences—manufacturer of DGP, an all-natural product designed to support mobility and flexibility, and NK-9, which offers immune system support—says pet owners are treating their animals to health regimens similar to what they themselves practice.
“Generally, the pet world lags a bit behind the human world,” she says, “and humans are all geared toward supplements, all-natural products and maintaining their health. Now that is transcending into the pet world.”
Retailers that are not stocking and actively promoting these categories are not getting their fair share of the dollars these growing categories are generating, says Susan Weiss, founder and president of Ark Naturals, which makes a broadly ranging line of all-natural remedies and health products for cats and dogs. The beauty of these products for retailers lies in their ability to generate repeat business, she says, pointing out that they are consumables that pet owners will seek to replace again and again.
“Retailers should really be putting energy into their consumables,” she says. “How many times do you buy a food bowl for the same dog? The percentage of times you purchase the same items in non-consumables for the same pet is really low.”
Harald Fisker, president of Grizzly Pet Products, which specializes in all-natural pet supplements, says sales of the company’s Grizzly Salmon Oil supplements are a testament to the repeat business these types of products generate.
“We see our gain in sales over time—once people buy good supplements and see what they can do, it drives them back to the store every month or two,” he says. It is a good asset for the store to have these products on the shelves
Wapiti Labs manufactures a line of all-natural pet supplements that target health concerns such as mobility, respiration and digestion. It is another company that is confident in its products’ ability to ensure a loyal customer base. “Once we have a consumer who has tried it, they buy it cause it works,” says Maureen O’Neill, vice president at Wapiti. “They are going to be a repeat customer.”
Still, as alluring as the promise of repeat business is, retailers and manufacturers alike seem to agree that the competition for the consumer dollar in the pet market is stiff. To make the most out of the supplement and remedies categories, retailers will have to understand the value of these products, how they work, and for which pets they are best suited.
“It’s about understanding about what you are selling,” says Weiss. “It’s definitely harder to understand a probiotic than it is to understand a toy. It is definitely harder to understand a glucosamine product than it is to understand a leash.”
Pet industry insiders agree that the retailers that are bound to be most successful are those willing to do their homework so they can confidently—and accurately—share that information with customers. Retailers will have to know the right questions to ask their customers in order to match them with the appropriate remedy or supplement. Store staff will also benefit from understanding differences in breeds and lifestyles, and be able to recognize the symptoms of common ailments that are safely and effectively treated with retail products.
Retailers, however, will have to bear in mind that nutritional supplements and some health remedies may be in a head-to-head competition with the latest crop of pet foods on the market. The struggle to secure market share on the pet food segment has motivated manufacturers to offer the most nutritionally complete formulas they can cost-effectively produce. So, with everyone’s pets eating such nutritionally balanced meals, some consumers are left wondering why they should bother buying supplements for their pets at all.
Many manufacturers argue that giving a healthy pet products such as glucosamine for mobility or other supplements can prevent health problems down the line. Still, there are plenty of other pets that, for whatever reason, clearly need an additional boost to their regular diets, and retailers should be able to identify these customers.
Weiss says retailers should have a clear understanding of what customers—and their pets—have to gain by augmenting their animals’ diets with these products. For example, senior pets will obviously rank high on a list of they type of best served by many of the health products on the market. But Weiss advises retailers not to forget about agility and service dogs, as well as highly athletic or active dogs, which can also benefit from the additional support these products provide. Retailers that understand this need are in a great position to upsell products in this category.
“Even if you are feeding that pet a better diet, its lifestyle really requires additional vitamins, supplements and all those things,” she says. “I don’t think that has been explained to the humans properly.”
In fact, according to Weiss, many of the products referred to as supplements may be better classified as health remedies and lifestyle products. She explains that supplements in the human world are often thought of as products that supply essential nutrients that may be lacking in the diet, whereas many of the products Ark Naturals supplies may be helpful additions to a pet’s diet, but are not necessarily a “missing” dietary component per se.
Fortunately, questions of categorization and definition, aside, many manufacturers are confident that pet specialty retailers are more prepared than stores in any other retail channel to raise consumer awareness of these products and increase sales in these categories.
“Many pet specialty stores really focus on education,” says Johnson. “We like the specialty stores because typically, independently owned specialty stores have sales associates who are more involved in knowing about all the product and are more involved in helping the customers and going over and above.”
Of course, while having a knowledgeable staff and a carefully tailored assortment for the customer base is at least half the battle, a good merchandising strategy can help win the war. Toys, apparel, collars, leashes and other products lend themselves easily to colorful, eye-catching displays—supplements and health remedies, not so much. These products tend to come in smaller, less showy packaging, making merchandising that much more important.
“Our salmon oil is not a big package product, so it easily disappears on the shelf if people are not looking for it,” says Fisker, who adds that retailers often make the mistake of not placing the products prominently enough on store shelves or displays. He says the retailers that are most successful selling supplements and remedies place these products higher on the shelves or near the front of the store, often using signage to draw customers’ attention.
Many manufacturers are also willing to contribute to efforts to make these products easy to promote and merchandise. Merchandising tools, marketing materials, free samples and even in-store product training sessions, during which manufacturer reps visit to train store staff, are just a few of the measures companies take to help retailers move product off the shelves.
Grizzly Pet, which also offers joint aids for dogs and horses, has simplified merchandising for retailers that stock its products by offering smaller display units designed to fit easily on a countertop. This is a concession designed for retailers that would otherwise struggle to find adequate space for larger floor displays. The countertop version is a compact way, he says, to get the product out in front of customers.
Wapiti, meanwhile, has recently updated its packaging to include more educational language to trigger awareness in pet owners and guide their purchasing decision. O’Neill adds that merchandising the line as a set creates a great presentation.
On top of providing compact displays and consumer-friendly packaging, some companies also offer more hands-on assistance to retailers. Johnson often conducts on-site product trainings, giving retailers and staff the opportunity to learn about the products from the source and to have any questions they have answered.
Johnson says that unfortunately many retailers pass on this great opportunity to learn about her company’s products, but retailers can still call anytime with questions.
“As a company, for all of our products, we are very available to talk about them—what they do, what they don’t do and any information someone wants,” she says. “I’m also available; if a customer comes in and has a question the retailer doesn’t feel they can answer, all they have to do is call here.”