When taking a look back at all the progress we’ve made as a society, the most obvious (and easiest) aspect to focus on is the technological and scientific advances that have shaped our lives for the better. As scientists continually present research that allows us to improve our diets and eat cleaner, the population is shifting toward eating more wholesome meals and frequenting establishments that uphold shared eco-friendly values. This, naturally, translates into an awareness of how pets are fed, especially given its less-than-glamourous start.
Dr. Bob Goldstein, co-founder of Earth Animal with his wife, Susan, explains that his company has, "been around long enough to see how the pet food part of the industry was birthed"—its origins in the by-products and leftovers from the human food industry that were pilfered from the trash bin.
"The fact is people are so much more aware right now that those types of food are just not healthy for the animal," says Dr Bob. "Whole food, organic food and all-natural food has really taken root in people’s conscious as they feed their pets the best they can get."
Experts believe this awareness of purchasing wholesome options is both conscious and subconscious—while humans are actively seeking to provide their animals with the best, they’re naturally transferring their personal food preferences over to what they feed their pets. As it turns out, there’s more similarities than meets the eye.
"When it comes to healthy eating principles, dogs are not too different from us—they will thrive on whole, natural foods versus overly processed and artificial options," says Rafi Kalachian, vice president of business strategy for Redbarn. "Their main food source should be natural, rich in animal proteins and complete and balanced with functional ingredients to properly fuel our omnivore companions."
What is Natural?
As the demand for all-natural diets increases and new companies throw their hats into the ring, the natural options on the market seem endless. Perhaps the trickiest aspect of defining a "natural" diet—and thus determining which products to carry—lies in the keyword itself. Natural can be a vague term that’s eye-catchingly easy to throw around for marketing speak, but retailers will quickly find that a flashy piece of text on packaging just isn’t enough.
"On its own, the word natural can have various definitions, especially to the pet parent who is likely unfamiliar with AAFCO [The Association of American Feed Control Officials] definitions and regulations," says Kalachian. He explains that in general, natural should mean ingredients sourced from a real animal/plant, cooked without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and cleaned/cooked with a process that’s completely free from artificial chemicals.
Once retailers have done their own research and determined which natural products they’d like to carry in stores, choosing which brand will provide those goods revolves around the ethics of the creation, sourcing and production of the products themselves.
"Finding natural foods and treats is only step one," says Kalachian. "Step two is ensuring the selected products come from a trustworthy manufacturer—the source and quality of the ingredients is more important than just seeing ‘natural’ on the label."
To that end, Susan Goldstein explains that there needs to be a synergism in the process of creating natural products, which includes the "ethics of the formula itself"— where the ingredients are sourced, who’s making and formulating it, and who’s distributing it.
Though it may seem like a lot of initial leg work, all that time and research invested into curating a natural selection in pet stores pays off in the end, both for retailer’s wallets and a pet’s health. Experts agree that the results are proven: pet parents who consist-ently feed their pets a nutritious, organic diet will see longer lives and healthier pets.
"We’ve had a holistic, integrated veterinarian practice for over 40 years, and we’ve seen the difference in terms of an animal’s quality of life, health and wellness when an animal is fed an organic and natural program on all levels," says Susan Goldstein.
The other task for retailers is the ability to properly convey the benefits and go into depth about the companies they offer and why they’re offering them when asked by pet parents. The Millennial generation of pet parents is perhaps the most thorough in their product research.
"Pet parents are searching for products and companies that share their love of pets, are locally made and are trustworthy," says Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator of Midwestern Petfoods. "Pet parents today seek detailed information about how and where their pet food is made, the ingredients being sourced and the brand’s sustainability practices that align with their own personal lifestyle."
Here’s where it can get tricky: retailers thoroughly and painstakingly researched the products they decided to carry in depth, but it’s all for naught if they can’t seem to get consumers in the door to convey that knowledge.
"Retailers have to be very present in terms of local advertising online," says Susan Goldstein. "That’s something we’re strengthening; I’m strengthening it as a retailer and as a company. Retailers should take full advantage of any trainings being offered by manufacturers. Training is what we do best; we market education and awareness and we’ve always encouraged retailers to take full advantage of it."
While there’s always the route of traditional advertising in the forms of newspaper, magazine and TV, retailers that take the steps to modernize their presence and offer online campaigns can give themselves a strong edge over the competition.
"I think it’s important for retailers to become or remain active on social media," says Kalachian. "Pet parents are researching products far before they ever bring their new pets home—social media allows a store to connect with them during this research phase and become their trustworthy, neighborhood pet store. As pet ownership grows amongst Millennials and Gen Z, as well, it’s a great way to be the first thought leader they come across."
Once customers are in stores, however, retailers have to go the extra mile in order to appeal to them and move their products off of the shelves. While "education is key to empowering pet parents to make informed decisions," says McNulty, another option is to offer free samples so pet parents can try the product in store and see how their pet will react to it.
"I’m a big supporter of demoing and sampling; I’ve always had a little table out filled with products," says Susan Goldstein. "I think opening a bag of treats that I’m fully endorsing, sampling them and breaking them down into recyclable bags is an old-fashioned approach that works."
Throughout the process, retailers have to keep in mind that in consumers’ eyes, less is always going to be more. Retailers who are able to provide simple, easy-to-understand products coupled with first-hand knowledge and manufacturer support will see the biggest differences in their pocketbooks.
"Pet parents are quick to read ingredient labels and features and benefits found on kibble bags, for example, and will put it down if there’s too many ingredients they can’t pronounce, or frankly, just too many," says Kalachian. "Pet parents want to extend the lives of their pets more than ever and there is a growing understanding that one way to do this is by feeding them foods with natural, wholesome and simple ingredients." PB