Not since the invention of the super-premium pet food category has there been a bigger development in the pet specialty channel than the trend toward natural products. Over the past decade, pet owners’ increasing appetite for everything natural, organic and eco-friendly has been one of the main drivers of growth in the pet products market, and nowhere is this more evident than among small, independent pet stores.
In a recent survey of pet retailers, nearly 50 percent said they identify their business as a “natural” pet store—a trend that comes as no surprise to industry experts like Leonard Powell, president and founder of Hi-Tek Rations. “It is the independent pet store retailer who is best equipped to offer the educated sale needed to point consumers in the right direction as far as wholesome, well-balanced diets,” says Powell, whose company manufactures several super-premium pet food brands, including Perfectly Natural Dog and Hi-Tek Naturals for dogs and cats.
Brian Collier, creative marketing and public relations coordinator for natural grooming products manufacturer Tropiclean, agrees that it is the unique ability of small-format pet stores to provide a high level of customer service that has made natural products a perfect fit. “Oftentimes the reason that consumers are going out of their way to visit an independent store is the value they receive in knowledge, customer service, care and expertise,” he says. “The natural category has truly ‘grown up’ in pet specialty and independent retail environments.”
However, while the natural category may have cut its teeth on the shelves of independent pet stores, other retailers have certainly noticed the explosive growth coming from this segment of the pet care market and are lining up for a share. This presents quite a challenge for small retailers, which practically had the natural pet products market to themselves during the category’s formative years.
“Independent pet retailers have a battle ahead of them—and they better put on their armor and get ready for the battle,” says Susan Weiss, president of Ark Natural Pet Products, which makes a wide range of holistic wellness and remedy products for dogs and cats.
Lorna Paxton, chief marketing officer for Eco Well Dog—a manufacturer of natural grooming and dental care products, as well as treats—also sees a battle brewing for small, independent pet stores. “It is all too easy while shopping at Whole Foods for your own healthy groceries to pick up your dog’s food as well. And as manufacturers are looking for more channels to sell their merchandise, this is becoming a big challenge for pet stores,” she says.
Despite this increased competition from other retail channels, industry experts say that small-format pet stores are still in an ideal position to defend their share of the natural products business. Doing so is simply a matter of playing to the strengths that helped independents build up the category in the first place—a high level of customer service and the flexibility to adapt to an evolving market.
“The little guys can either lay down and die, or they can get smarter [by educating themselves on the category], think outside the box in how they display products, and market to customers before they walk in the store,” says Weiss. “And don’t go crazy when marking up products; you can only do that when you’re the only guy in town with a product.”
In fact, being the only retailer in the neighborhood offering a particular product can be a great way to lock down a loyal customer following, says Jean Broders, brand manager for World’s Best Cat Litter. “[Independent pet stores] need to continue to work with manufacturers that are providing exclusive products to the pet stores only,” she says, noting that World’s Best Cat Litter recently launched a formula series that is exclusive to the pet channel: World’s Best Cat Litter Advance Natural. “It shows our support and loyalty to the pet stores.”
At the end of the day, the key to success for independent retailers in the natural category is not only identifying themselves as natural or holistic pet stores, but also backing that assertion up with a well-designed marketing and merchandising strategy. To this end, experts say that retailers must stock their shelves with a wide variety of items in the natural category, focusing on products that effectively do the job for which they are intended, and strive to convey a natural sensibility through all facets of their operations.
“I think offering a range of products which meet a variety of consumer and pet needs while providing pet solutions naturally are key elements,” says Mark Hughes, national sales and marketing manager of Pet Care Systems, makers of Swheat Scoop natural cat litter. “I also think the store should reflect the goal of a natural pet store, that it looks, smells and feels like a great choice for the consumer of natural pet products.”
“The retailer knows that they need the natural foods, but they also need to move into other natural products like shampoos, stain and odor removers, etc.,” says Vin Hourihan, vice president of sales for Natural Chemistry, which makes of a wide array of natural pet products in categories such as pet cleanup, grooming and pest control. “Beyond the product mix they need to communicate to the consumer that they have these natural products. Communication by social media, store consumer databases, advertising and in-store education via signing and a knowledgeable sales staff [is critical].”
The importance of providing shoppers with reliable information about natural product options, as well as the ins and outs of proper pet care, cannot be overstated, says Marco Giannini, CEO and founder of natural pet food and treat manufacturer DOGSWELL. “Retailers need to make sure their staff is knowledgeable, not just on the products they carry, but also on pet health in general,” he explains. “That way, they can address the different dietary concerns from customers and recommend the appropriate products as needed.”
With this in mind, industry experts universally agree that independent pet store owners and their employees must make a commitment to ongoing education. Luckily, there are many resources available for gaining and maintaining such an education, not the least of which is working closely with reliable vendor partners. “Retailers should take advantage of the in-store training and webinars offered by manufacturers,” suggests Chris Bessent, DVM, president of treat and supplement manufacturer Herbsmith, Inc. “But they have to look for training that is truly educational, not just an infomercial for a particular line of products.”
According to Collier, looking beyond vendor-provided information, retailers should be at no loss for ways in which they can stay ahead of the curve when it comes to natural product trends. “We live in an information-rich environment,” he says. “We also live in a culture that is more connected and linked than ever before. This means we have access to tremendous amounts of information right at our fingertips—literally. Use this hyper connectivity to your advantage by utilizing tools in social media, search and white papers to stay informed of the latest and greatest.”
However, while the Internet can be an invaluable resource in keeping up with the latest information about natural products, Powell advises retailers to be careful in evaluating what they read online. “While trends are worth watching, we would caution jumping on them without sufficient information,” he says. “Since the dawn of the Internet, there has been a panic du jour in the pet food industry that is at once alarmist and often damaging. Scientific studies that have been published in established and recognized scientific journals provide more insight into what is good for the long-term health of pets than much of the information that appears online or in blogs.”
Bessent agrees that this type of sound information on pet health is critical to success in the natural products market—particularly when one considers how educated pet owners have become in their own right. But while a customer base that is becoming increasingly knowledgeable about this category does raise the stakes for retailers, Bessent says it also presents a great opportunity. “The more a retailer understands the basic science [behind natural products], the easier they will be able to discern which products are good,” she says. “And customers will respond to that. It’s something that the big guys will not be able to replicate very easily.”