A Category with Bite
by Jennifer Boncy
December 1, 2012
By understanding the finer points of the natural chews they sell, retailers can look forward to booming sales as customers seek premium products for their pets.



As with almost every consumable product category in the pet industry, the dog chew category has expanded to include a variety of all-natural options—and it is a development that makes perfect sense. Today’s customers are shopping for dog chews with the same critical eye they use when browsing the food aisle looking for natural, wholesome alternatives to products they have typically found in grocery stores.

Manufacturers have met this growing consumer demand with a fervent push to get natural chews on store shelves, creating a lively market on which pet specialty retailers can feast. But in order for a retailer to make the most of the category, it needs to build a product assortment that meets customers’ demand for high-quality, safe and tasty chews. And the first step, experts say, is getting to know the natural chews market and understanding the various qualities that make these products appealing to so many pet owners today.

One of the first things retailers need to understand, according to  manufacturers, is that not all chews are created equal.

“There are a lot of choices on the market in chews these days, but not a lot that are naturally healthy,” says Cindy Dunston Quirk, founder of the antler-chew manufacturer Scout & Zoe’s.

Since “natural” is not a certifiable distinction in the way “organic” is in the food arena, manufacturers conform to a relatively loose set of guidelines defining natural products. Consumers, therefore, are often on their own when determining the veracity of manufacturers’ claims. Retailers, however, can help pet owners wade through the options to find the products that best meet their needs—and their standards.

Most customers seek certain hallmarks associated with natural products, mainly the absence of artificial ingredients, preservatives or any ingredients that seem unfamiliar or hard to pronounce. Fortunately, many manufacturers hold themselves to those standards.

“Our definition is to be as natural as possible—that is to stay as close to the raw product as we can, [using] no artificial ingredients,” says Darren Jones, vice president of research and development for Jones Natural Chews. “If we add something to the meat, we add raw ingredients that are as close to the state of origin that it came from [as possible.”]

Many manufacturers are eager to promote their products’ distinguishing features, making it easier for retailers looking to build a strong assortment of chews. For example, Loving Pets, which manufacturers several varieties of treats and chews, makes it a priority to call out its products’ highlights, and includes these points on packaging and other marketing materials.

“We find more and more that pet-parents are reading the ingredients on each treats package, so promoting our simple, all-natural ingredients like fresh meats is very important to us,” says Eric Abbey, president of Loving Pets.


Knowledge is Key
The key for retailers is taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the different chews they carry and then learning to leverage that type of product information to increase sales. “You only have a certain number of hours in the day, but the more retailers know about the finer points of the product they bring in, whether its chews or treats, the better they’ll do with it,” says Dunston Quirk. “Education is everything.”

Being able to convey to a customer what makes a product unique and worth the extra few dollars these premium products sometimes cost can also help retailers sell to an increasingly well-informed and demanding customer base.
“Retailers really need to make themselves familiar with all of the natural chews that they sell, because these same consumers are adamant about ‘natural’ and will likely have lots of questions to make sure they are actually purchasing what they assume they are purchasing,” says Debbie Claypool, president of dog-chew manufacturer Free Range Eco Naturals.

Retailers should be prepared to tell customers where the chews they sell are made and sourced, how long they are expected to last and which chews are suitable for puppies and senior dogs or dogs with allergies. In fact, the more information a sales person has about each product, the more likely he or she is to make the sale and match the right product with the right pet.

Customers will also want to know the ancillary benefits these products offer—and the list of benefits is pretty long. For starters, Dunston Quirk says, retailers may want to point out to customers that chews can help keep dogs’ teeth clean and healthy, which can, in turn, help them avoid expensive and unpleasant visits to the vet. Chews give pets something “constructive” to chew on, as well, she says. For example, giving a puppy a chew can help steer it away from gnawing through its owners’ shoes, furniture and anything else it is not supposed to be chewing on. And some products offer some unexpected health benefits for the pet. “The natural calcium and phosphorous [in the antler chews] grinds into a powder, so the dog [ends up] ingesting something it needs,” Dunston Quirk adds.

Fortunately, retailers that are hoping to hone up on the myriad of benefits and selling points of these products don’t have to go very far. Dunston Quirk points out, manufacturers have a vested interest in seeing retailers succeed, so most will be more than happy to provide the information sales staff need to share with customers.

She adds, “We strive to arm retailers with as much information as they need to able to answer all their customers’ questions, and when [a question] arises that they can’t answer, we are always available to help them make that sale—because when the retailers are successful, we are successful.”