Serving a Purpose
Today’s dog treats and chews aren’t relying on taste-appeal alone; they’re providing health and training benefits valued by pet owners, spelling delicious business for retailers.

If only the treats children clamor for were as healthy as those formulated for dogs, parents would have it a lot easier. After all, redirecting wheedling youngsters away from candy and chips toward the better-for-you snacks is often an exhausting and ongoing battle, one that can break the will of even the most determined adult. It’s a totally different story for dog owners.

Thanks to the growing number of nutritious, functional treats and chews on the market, it’s easy for folks to indulge their canine family members and feel good about doing so. It’s a trend with legs, one that promises to become more entrenched as people pay closer scrutiny to everything that goes into their pets’ mouths.

“We’ve found that pet parents are looking for treats that serve a purpose in addition to being a treat for their dog, [which] is why every one of our treats is functional,” says Erin Clemens, director of operations for Germantown, Wis.-based Isle of Dogs, which manufactures baked treats and soft chews, among other products. “We’ve all heard that food is medicine. It’s this concept that we took in order to pick the right organic fruits and vegetables for each treat.”

Examples of functional ingredients designed to promote dental and skin/coat health; improve digestive function; maintain heart, joint and eye health and more, abound in all manner of treats and chews. Formulations incorporate such things as blueberries, carrots, pumpkin, cherries and sweet potato—high in antioxidants, vitamins, beta-carotene and fiber—along with ingredients like flaxseed, chamomile tea and alfalfa. And mindful of how consumers are continuing to seek out natural and organic products for themselves, manufacturers of dog treats and chews are doing the same.

“The pet industry is following very closely to human food trends and in both treats and chews, naturals and organics have seen the largest growth,” Clemens says.

Consumers are also looking for simplicity, embracing products containing just a few familiar, or at least pronounceable, ingredients, says Debbie Rutherford, account manager for Pet Center, Inc. Located in Los Angeles, the company manufactures a broad spectrum of dog treats and chews under the PCI brand.

“Almost all of our products are one ingredient, maybe two, and are very basic,” says Rutherford. “Consumers are more aware of what they’re feeding their dogs so the demand for natural treats that are free of additives is picking up.”

Open to Alternatives

At the same time, the market for less-conventional treats and chews is also perking up. As people are becoming more experimental when it comes to their own palates, and demonstrate a greater willingness to try foods from other countries or unusual dishes, they’re more open to exploring different options for their dogs. Mike Thomas, vice president of development for QT Dog, says pet store owners are taking note. The company, located in Dallas, produces Antlerz deer-antler chews and the ChurpiChew line of chews made from Nepalese yak milk cheese.

“Retailers have recognized the public’s appetite for, and acceptance of, long-lasting and exotic chews and treats, which demand a higher price point than other products in the category,” Thomas says. “There is a limit to what consumers will spend, but we have no problem selling plenty of Monster Antlers, which can retail up to $60. At keystone, that’s a nice ring for any store.”

Another alternative product that pet owners seem to be embracing more readily is non-rawhide chews, says Martin J. Glinsky, chief science officer for PetMatrix, LLC. Headquartered in New York, the company manufactures a non-rawhide chew made from vegetables and chicken called SmartBones. According to Glinsky, 30 to 40 percent of dog owners steer clear of rawhide chews out of concern over hazards associated with rawhide chews—for example, some worry about the chew getting stuck in the esophagus. Although that still leaves rawhide chew users in the majority, non-rawhide chews are making significant strides, he says.

“Veterinarians and many other pet professionals are recommending to their clients that they avoid rawhide products because of choking and intestinal blockage concerns,” says Glinsky, who expects sales of non-rawhide chews to substantially outpace market growth. “Pet specialty retailers should realize that even if their rawhide sales are still satisfactory, there’s a growing market and demand for alternatives, and they should be able to satisfy this growing demand.”

Making the Sale
Even though their ingredients are simple, because of their functional nature, treats and chews require some customer education. Consequently, says Eric Abbey, president of the Loving Pets Corporation—Cranbury, N.J.-based manufacturer of all-natural, vitamin-enhanced meat snacks and treats, among other items—staff education about ingredients and what they provide is a must. This is especially necessary since many pet owners have become avid label readers and Internet researchers and are therefore fairly knowledgeable.

“Encouraging your staff to highlight the differences is key to helping consumers find the best options available,” Abbey says. “Help explain the selling points of why these treats are beneficial for a consumer to purchase, not only for the health-promoting benefits to the pet, but the affordability to the consumer.”

Remember that treats and chews are a combination of impulse and deliberate buy, says Alex Perrinelle, president of Pet Center. Therefore, he advises locating them by the register or on nearby endcaps, as well as in the aisles. Place non-rawhide alternatives near the traditional rawhides, says Glinsky, making sure employees are aware of this new product choice.

Abbey adds: “Every dog’s needs are different, so engaging with the consumer and asking key questions about their pet is very important. This will help independent pet retailers offer solutions that are a win-win for everyone.”

Consider these selling suggestions:

•    Inquire about the purpose. For example, says Perrinelle, because they’re easy to carry and not moist, Pet Center’s ACA-endorsed Chicken Nibbles® are good for training. “In fact, these are the primary items the ACA uses to train their dogs,” he says.

•    Provide samples, says Clemens. She suggests placing a cookie jar on the counter or dropping some in the bag with a purchase—don’t forget the customer education in the process.

•    Ask about any issues—dry skin, achy joints, etc.—or allergies the dog may have, says Clemens. This makes the treat/chew selection easier and results in a more suitable choice. Inquire about the age and size of the dog, suggests Rutherford. For example, she explains, older dogs may require a softer chew or treat. Ask also if the dog is an aggressive chewer, says Thomas. If so, a harder chew may be the best recommendation.