While there are still a fair number of people who are not overly concerned about the repercussions of an unbalanced diet, by most accounts their numbers are dwindling as more folks embrace healthier lifestyles. As people have become more educated about the benefits of making good nutritional choices for themselves, those with dogs in the family have cast an equally concerned eye toward their pets’ diet for many of the same reasons. It is a shift that is changing the landscape for independent pet retailers.
“This trend has caused the demand for healthier dog food diets to gain considerable momentum in the past few years, which retailers are aware of and responding to,” says Heather Govea, general manager of Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc. “As the demand for natural pet food increases, more healthy products are appearing on pet retailer shelves, resulting in many unique choices for consumers.” Based in Pacoima, Calif., the company provides a wide variety of formulas for dogs, cats and other animals.
Grain-free and low-calorie formulas are two trends Govea is noticing—no surprise, since these are the hot issues for people when it comes to their own diets. The interest in grain-free is so strong that pet food manufacturers are releasing new formulas to meet the demand. For example, this spring, Fromm Family Foods, headquartered in Mequon, Wis., introduced a new grain-free option. Bryan Nieman, brand director for the company, which specializes in small-batch, artisan recipes for dogs and cats, says pet owners are also looking for more food and flavor varieties, as well as higher-quality products.
Also making inroads are low-glycemic diets—again, a very human concern. This is one of the most recent trends, says Brad Armistead, vice president of marketing and innovation for Dogswell, a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of premium pet foods and treats for dogs and cats.
“According to the Glycemic Research Institute, not only do low-glycemic diets align with the natural diet for dogs and cats, but avoiding high-glycemic foods can also help [in] weight [control] and reduce the risk of many diseases,” Armistead says. “This trend is becoming more prevalent in the pet industry. In fact, we’ve begun putting the glycemic index rating on the packaging for our newest food line, LiveFree.”
Meanwhile, fillers, corn, soy and wheat, as well as artificial ingredients, dyes and so on, rank high on the list of things not desired in pet food, Armistead adds. In their place, pet owners are looking for formulas containing high-quality protein sources, fruits and vegetables.
Consumers are reading labels, looking to weed out toxic additives, says Wendy Shankin-Cohen, president of Dr. Harvey’s, a manufacturer of fine health foods for dogs, cats, birds and horses. The company, based in Atlantic Highlands, N.J., also offers treats, supplements and herbal grooming aids.
“They’re concerned about recalls and tainted food and want to know that the food they’re buying for their companions is pure,” she explains. “Dog food is not just dog food anymore.”
Consumers have become more educated and more demanding, consequently placing more pressure on pet food manufacturers to devise new formulas that satisfy the health needs—and palates—of all pets, says Govea. Also propelling innovation is increased awareness of food allergies and intolerance in dogs, she says. Some manufacturers like Natural Balance have responded by incorporating unique ingredients or limiting the number of ingredients used. Novel protein sources such as bison, rabbit and duck for example, are popping up in more formulas, as are alternative carbohydrate sources. This has created a deluge of products.
“It can be very confusing for consumers when they walk into a store, especially if they’re not certain what they’re looking for,” says Armistead. “Retailers should make sure they make themselves available to consumers and answer questions as needed, [especially since] there are certain key things consumers look for that aren’t always clearly stated on the packaging.”
The fact that the pet food arena is viewed as a lucrative one has also attracted those that have scant concern beyond packaging and marketing, says Ron Jackson, assistant to Leonard Powell, founder/CEO and president of Hi-Tek Rations. The Dublin, Ga.-based company manufactures a wide spectrum of dog and cat food.
“These companies have no investment in plants, infrastructure, scientific expertise or food safety,” Jackson cautions. “The result is a glut of inferior products touting the hot topic of the day in ads and packaging. The consumer needs to be more aware than ever.”
At the same time that there’s been a proliferation of products, Jackson says that information and access to it has exploded to an unprecedented degree. And although some of this information is sound, not all of it is, placing the onus on retailers stay informed so they can help customers figure out what is worthwhile and what isn’t.
“We often refer to the ‘panic de jour’ when discussing the fallacies presented on the Internet in the form of blogs and chats,” he says. “The consumer is often besieged with unscientific, unproven and untrue information. Retailers can play a strong role in debunking bad information and in steering customers to reliable sources of information online and in print.”
There is no one-size-fits-all diet for dogs; their needs are as individual as their human companion’s, says Shankin-Cohen. “Stores need to educate their staff and then spend time with customers. Often, consumers come into pet stores looking for advice. When a consumer asks for a natural dog food, the answer should never be ‘check aisle three.’ Customers require guidance and in many cases, some hand-holding.”
Retailers must be willing to educate and to devote time to explaining the “often-complex issues” involved in the formulation and production of pet food, says Jackson. Teaching customers how to interpret bag labels and ingredients panels are key to building trust and repeat business, he says.
In this sense, independent retailers have the advantage over their big-box brethren, says Nieman, adding that this is one of the reasons the company supports the channel. “We find owners and employees are much more knowledgeable and dedicated to learning about the brands they sell,” he explains.
Talking to customers is the best tactic for serving them well, agrees Kirk Young, executive vice president of Texas Farm Products Company, located in Nacogdoches, Texas. The company manufactures several brands of natural and holistic pet foods, including their flagship brand, Precise Naturals. “Each and every store needs to have constant education of their team/staff to ensure the best information is readily available for every consumer that walks into the store,” he says. “This is the essence of why a consumer shops at the independent retailer.”
When it comes to matching pet to product, questions are in order, Young says. In addition to asking the pet’s age—many brands offer a range of life-stage formulas, why this question is important—breed, sex, weight and activity level, it’s also a good idea to ask what they’ve been feeding their pet and why they’re thinking of making a change, he says. It’s also helpful to inquire what kind of protein the dog prefers.
Also query about the pets appearance and demeanor, suggests Jackson. “Are the signs of good nutritional health present or does the pet suffer from issues including allergies, poor coat and skin condition, loose or odorous stool? The right food recommendation can make a tremendous difference in the health and happiness of the pet and its family and should not be taken lightly.”
Never shortchange an opportunity to make a difference—to the customer, the pet and to the store. Retailers should look at every customer as providing the chance to educate about the importance of a healthy diet, says Govea.
“Understanding and supporting common pet issues like food intolerances and allergies can help retailers connect with their customers, and turn their pet store into a pet solution center,” she says. “Building trust with each and every customer is an important sales-generating tactic that will offer customers a reliable place to shop while fostering trust and loyalty.”
In the Dog Food Aisle
Hi-Tek Rations (hitekrations.com): The company recently launched the Leonard Powell Signature Series Dog Foods family of products. The three “families,” differentiated by protein source, include Exotics, Classics and Baked. The Exotics line includes Grain Free Wetlands Formula With Duck and Grain Free Open Prairie Formula With Bison. This latter formula offers bison as the first ingredient, and also includes apples, carrots, tomato pomace, blueberries, pre- and probiotics, and fatty acids (omega 3, 6 and DHA).
Texas Farm Products Company/Precise Pet Products (precisepet.com): The newest addition to the company’s premium dry pet food line is Precise Naturals Grain Free Chicken Formula for dogs, formulated for all breeds of adult dogs. In addition to chicken, the product contains natural preservatives, purified chicken fat, chelated mineral, probiotics, and glucosamine and chondroitin. Garbanzo beans and spring yellow peas provide low-glycemic carbohydrate alternatives to grains. The company’s newest brand is Precise Holistic Complete. This brand contains DHA Gold, Ganaden BC30 Probiotic and Citrus fiber.
Dogswell : The company offers four lines of food, including the recently launched LiveFree, a super-premium, high-protein, holistic dog food line. The grain-free/potato-free diet features ultra-low-glycemic recipes formulated to prevent spikes in blood sugar levels, support slower digestion and sustain energy. LiveFree contains added nutrients, vitamins and chelated minerals, along with antioxidants and more. It is formulated for different life stages—Puppy, Adult and Senior—and comes different flavor profiles, both dry and canned.
Dr. Harvey’s (drharveys.com): Dr. Harvey’s offers Canine Health-The Miracle Dog Food and Veg-to-Bowl dehydrated pre-mixes, to which pet owners add fresh meat after rehydration. The pre-mixes enable dog owners to control the amount of protein and fat in the diet, providing a solution for dogs that have protein restrictions or other dietary needs/restrictions, or need weight management. The newest food is Oracle, a freeze-dried, just-add-water, ultra-premium raw food that includes USDA meat as the first ingredient. The foods contain no preservatives, dyes, chemical additives or synthetic ingredients.
Fromm Family Foods (frommfamily.com): The newest entrée to Fromm’s premium, variety-driven Four-Star Nutritionals line is Pork & Peas Recipe for dogs. This grain-free entrée is prepared with pork, peas and an assortment of handpicked Polynesian fruits and veggies, including mango, pineapple and melon. Four-Star Nutritionals allow dog owners to alternate between recipes without causing digestive upset. Pork & Peas is also free of white potato and chicken.
Natural Balance Pet Foods (naturalbalanceinc.com): The company has launched Fat Dogs dry food, formulated to assist in weight loss, maintain lean body mass and keep dogs satisfied. The formula, the company’s lowest calorie one, combines chicken and salmon meal with garbanzo beans, peas and oatmeal, providing fiber and protein to help dogs feel full and reduce begging behaviors. Fat Dogs offers balanced nutrition, enabling pets to shed extra weight in a healthy way while remaining satisfied.
Sojos Pet Food (sojos.com): The company’s products include Sojos Grain-Free Pet Food Mixes for dogs and cats, along with a variety of treats. The handmade, all-natural mixes incorporate freeze-dried raw meat along with air-dried fruits, veggies, herbs and nuts. The raw pet food is condensed and shelf-stable; just add water. The Sojos Complete Pet Food Line includes Sojos Complete Beef Dog Food mix and Sojos Complete Turkey Dog Food mix. Formulas contain no GMOs, artificial fillers/additives or preservatives, and are grain-free.
Stella & Chewy’s (stellaandchewys.com): The Milwaukee-based manufacturer of freeze-dried and frozen dinners for dogs and freeze-dried dinners for cats has recently introduced its third single-sourced protein within the Exotic Dinner family. Like all of the dinners, Phenomenal Pheasant is a 100-percent complete and balanced meal with added vitamins, minerals and probiotics. Made with 90-percent cage-free pheasant meat, organs and bones, it is complemented by organic fruits and vegetables. Compared to chicken, pheasant is lower in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. The dinner, ideal for protein-sensitive dogs, is offered in two freeze-dried and three frozen sizes.
WellPet (wellnesspetfood.com): Wellpet, based in Tewksbury, Mass., offers premium pet food brands including Wellness, Old Mother Hubbard, Eagle Pack and Holistic Select. The grain-free Wellness CORE Large Breed Formula is protein-rich—36 percent more than Wellness Large Breed Complete Health Adult Recipe—contains deboned chicken, chicken meal and turkey meal, and offers a larger kibble size. The formula includes kale, broccoli and spinach, as well as glucosamine and chondroitin. Grain-free/potato-free Wellness CORE Wild Game Formula with duck, wild boar and rabbit is also available.