Born in the USA
By MARK KALAYGIAN
Published: December 1, 2013
Driven by concerns about product safety and a desire to support a troubled domestic economy, a growing number of pet owners are seeking out products that are made in the United States

 

 

 

While the “buy American” movement goes all the way back to colonial times, a couple of factors have converged to bring it roaring back to the forefront with consumers over the past several years—and nowhere is this more apparent than in the pet industry. Fueled not only by a desire to support the still-struggling domestic economy, but more importantly by concerns about the safety of imports, pet owners are increasingly seeking out products that are made and even wholly sourced in the USA.


The trend has not gone unnoticed in pet stores. In a recent survey conducted by Pet Business, 91 percent of pet specialty retailers indicated that they have seen an up-tick in the number of shoppers who are specifically looking for products that are made in the USA. It is an observation that has also been made by Suzie Yannes, co-owner of Pawtrero Hill BathHouse & Feed Co., which operates two stores in San Francisco. “There are quite a few customers in our area that are all about ‘made local’ or ‘made in America,’” she says. “And [that group] gets bigger every day.”
Not surprisingly, this trend is particularly obvious in pet stores’ food and treat aisles, and for good reason. “Food is the number-one category that customers are concerned with purchasing,” notes nutrition-focused retailer Jill Tack, owner of The Pet Beastro in Madison Heights, Mich.


According to Tack—and many other industry experts—much of the demand for “Made in the USA” food and treats is driven by ongoing high-profile reports about unsafe products and ingredients from China—reports that all-too-often include a death toll of pets. “With the numerous pet recalls from China products and pets dying, [pet owners] are more apt to buy products sourced in North America,” she says.

 

 

 

 

 

“Concerns about products from overseas should and do extend beyond the dog and cat departments, and into other areas of the pet industry, including the aquarium category. For example, the plastics used in many imported aquarium products are actually made with chemicals that can leach out into the water and adversely affect the tank inhabitants. That is why all of our products are manufactured right here in the USA, from only the highest-quality FDA-approved materials. And it is why I use this tagline, ‘Quality is proof…you have a choice…choose AMERICAN,’ at the bottom of all of my emails.”

– Lance Reyniers, president, Python Products

 


 

 

 

Responding to pet owner concerns about food and treat imports, pet specialty retailers are offering an expanding selection of “Made in the USA” nutritional products. In fact, 84 percent of pet retailers surveyed by Pet Business indicated that at least half of their pet food lineup is made in the USA, with 69 percent reporting that these products make up 75 percent or more of their assortment. Similarly, 74 percent of the surveyed retailers said that at least half of the treats and chews they sell are manufactured in the United States, with 56 percent indicating that these products account for 75 percent or more of their selection.

 

However, the conversation does not begin and end with where food and treats are formulated and packaged. Ingredient sourcing plays a huge role in shaping how consumers and retailers view products in these consumables categories today. In fact, 84 percent of surveyed pet retailers indicated that it is “very important” that the food and treats they carry are made from ingredients sourced in the United States. On the other side of the coin, only one percent said that U.S.- sourced ingredients were not important.

 

 

 

 

“As a family-owned American manufacturer for 45 years, Coastal Pet Products prides itself on its ‘Made in USA’ products, and our customers are emphasizing this benefit more and more. ‘Made in USA’ means a higher-quality product in the minds of the consumer. With the ever-increasing demand to know where a product originates, we are pleased to offer a wide variety of quality-guaranteed, American-made products manufactured right here in Alliance, Ohio.”

– Diane Thomas, marketing manager, Coastal Pet Products, Inc.

 


 

 

Even as “Made in the USA” labels have grown more important to pet food and treat shoppers, industry experts point out that this is really just one aspect of a multi-faceted trend toward products that are wholesome and trustworthy. “It’s even bigger than just ‘Made in the USA,’” says Yannes. “It’s about the quality of the products and the sourcing of materials or ingredients. ‘Made in the USA’ is good, but you need to go further than that.”


Derek Panfil, senior vice president of merchandising for the Pet Supplies Plus franchise, also sees pet owners looking beyond product origins to ensure that the food and treat products they buy are safe. “There is a lot of movement toward better ingredient panels overall,” he says. “At the end of the day, the manufacturers that are the most transparent are those that are seeing the most success today.”


While food and treat products that are made in the USA—from wholesome, domestically sourced ingredients, of course—have proven quite an easy sell for pet stores, some retailers point out that the trend has yet to reach its full potential in other product categories. There seem to be two major reasons for this: price and supply.

 

 

 

 

 

“Retailers and consumers are seeking products that are not only made in the USA but also sourced in the USA. However, higher price points may limit part of the consumer base.  Parts such as chicken feet and beef tendons can satisfy demands for USA-made and sourced products, while still hitting lower price points to attract a broader consumer base.”

– Ahdee Abramson, president, Pet Ventures Inc


 

 

 

“Retailers and consumers are seeking products that are not only made in the USA but also sourced in the USA. However, higher price points may limit part of the consumer base.  Parts such as chicken feet and beef tendons can satisfy demands for USA-made and sourced products, while still hitting lower price points to attract a broader consumer base.”

 

“Pet owners are just more price sensitive when it comes to non-consumables,” says Panfil, noting that the product safety message that connects so strongly with pet owners in the food and treats categories does not carry the same resonance in areas such as toys and accessories. Thus, it can be more challenging to convince pet owners to spend a few pennies more on non-consumable products because they are made in the USA.


In addition, some retailers note that the number of options at their disposal is also much smaller outside the food and treat categories. For example, Yannes says, “We’ve tried to take out as many toys made in China as we can, but that is a tough category.”

 

According to Joe Aversa, owner of Route 4 Aquarium in Elmwood Park, N.J., the aquarium department is another area in which price sensitivity and the absence of a broad supply challenge retailers’ ability to effectively sell products based on the fact that they are made domestically. “The whole [aquatics] industry is pretty much coming from outside the country,” he says. “And price points make all the difference.”

 

 

 

 

“Pet stores continue to feel the anti-China sentiment as consumers want safety and quality and are voting with their wallets.  But it’s not enough to stick an American flag on the package. Shoppers are scrutinizing ingredient panels and choosing products, like BIXBI Functional Jerky, that deliver the 100% USA-sourced pedigree, but also exclude less healthy ingredients like salt and sugar.”

- James Crouch, CEO, BIXBI Pet

 


 

 

 

This is unfortunate, as the country of origin can affect product safety in categories other than food and treats. “Plastics from other countries use high-levels of arsenic,” says Aversa, noting that this poisonous chemical can, for example, leach out of plastics and into the water of an aquarium. Conversely, he says, government regulations preclude arsenic from being used in U.S.-made plastic products.

 

 

 

“Pet owners in the United States are the most conscientious pet guardians on the planet, and as manufacturers (and also as pet guardians) we take that mandate very seriously. Our standards are among the highest in the world. Ark Naturals third-party tests glucosamine and chondroitin, as 99.999% of that ingredient typically is coming from China. We check for bacteria levels, and we check that what they are selling is actually meets their label claim. One trick that Chinese suppliers use is putting the ‘real stuff’ on the top of the kilo, and the [bad] stuff on the bottom. We know we need to test from the bottom of the barrel, so to speak.”


- Susan Weiss, president, Ark Naturals Products for Pets

 


 

 

 

Of course, the supply-demand dynamics of “Made in the USA” products in non-consumable pet product categories and the challenges that these dynamics present, can be seen reflected in the assortments on pet store shelves. While a majority (55 percent) of retailers that participated in Pet Business’ online survey indicated that at least half of their non-consumable product assortment is made in the USA, this is well below the numbers seen in the food and treat categories.

 

 

 

 

“With Americans’ love for their pets at an all-time high and the increased demand for safe products, retailers can benefit from choosing companies that manufacture in the United States and have stringent policies on sourcing, manufacturing and quality control. Retailers who sell consumables sourced and made in America can have greater confidence in the product they are recommending to their customers. A decision to support companies that follow these practices helps retailers avoid the pitfalls and potential product recalls associated with products manufactured in foreign countries with lower manufacturing and quality standards.”

–Sarah Julian, worldwide bone ambassador, Zuke’s

 


 

 

However, despite these challenges, pet specialty are still stocking their shelves with “Made in the USA” products  in categories beyond food and treats. Among the product categories in which surveyed retailers said they carry at least some products that are manufactured domestically were healthcare/supplements (69 percent), collars/leashes (70 percent), toys (66 percent) and grooming products (62 percent).



Supporting Their Neighbors
While the implications for product safety is the primary driver of the “Made in the USA” movement—65 percent of surveyed pet specialty retailers pointed to product safety as the biggest factor—there is another important dimension to this trend. “Buying products that are made in the USA makes people feel good about supporting our country,” says Lisa Senafe, owner of Bentley’s Corner Barkery, which operates three stores in Chicago.


This feel-good proposition is even stronger when it hits a bit closer to home, she says. “We get some of our toys and treats from suppliers that are local to our state, or even from nearby towns. We get a great response from those, because shoppers feel even better about supporting their local communities.”

 

 

 

 

“We have Puppy Bumpers manufactured at STEPS, Inc. in Victoria, Va.—a company that employs people with special challenges.  The relationship have we have developed with them over the past five years has been beneficial to both of us. The people who work on the Puppy Bumpers on a daily basis are so proud to show me their work that it is a delight to walk into the factory. Frankly, we have looked into having our product produced overseas to be able to supply the larger box stores. In the final analysis, however, taking the income and pride in their jobs away from our friends STEPS, Inc. is more than we can afford. We have the luxury of being able to do this our way—making a product that saves dogs lives and helping our community at the same time. What could be better?”

–Ann Price, president, Puppy Bumpers, Inc.

 


 

 

Whether they concentrate primarily on food and treat products, or carry a wide range of pet fare sourced from the United States, retailers that see value in a “Made in the USA” sales proposition must be sure to highlight these products effectively in their aisles. “If you are not already promoting these products, it would be a good idea to build a ‘Made in the USA’ section in your store,” suggests Senafe.


This is a sentiment that is clearly shared by Pet Supplies Plus. Panfil says all of the franchise’s stores have included prominent “Made in the USA” rawhide and jerky sections for over a year now, after the company identified this as a key trend. These products are also highlighted regularly in Pet Supplies Plus advertising, and the retailer is currently looking into also promoting the sections through in-store events.


According to Senafe, this all fits with what must be an overall strategy for calling customer attention to the expanding “Made in the USA” movement. “You should be actively talking about these products with customers, and highlighting them in your newsletters and through social media,” she says. “Sometimes, retailers don’t understand just how important the ‘Made in the USA’ label is to consumers until they start really promoting it.”