The Latest Trends in Dog Food

It’s always been important that pet specialty retailers create a vibrant product mix—one where products practically fly out the door rather than loll about on the shelves unable to earn their keep. During these pandemic times, it’s even more essential to have an inventory that works for—rather than against—store profitability. As such, staying on top of trends needs to be at the top of any retailer’s to-do list.

Consider the dog food and treats category, which tends to serve as the primary draw for bringing pet owners into stores. Once through the doors, customers typically shop other categories and tack on some impulse purchases. Consequently, offering the foods and treats that are aligned with what is important to consumers, and being knowledgeable about the ins and outs of pet nutrition, can bring a store-wide benefit.

So, what are dog owners looking for when it comes to what they feed their pets? In general, the big three elements include minimal-ingredient diets, premium quality, and a sustainable component to ensure their purchase is helping the Earth, not harming it.


Deeper in Trends

One trend in play for a while now, and becoming more entrenched, is the willingness to splurge more on pet food that’s high-quality. Where pet owners were once somewhat price sensitive, this has changed as recognition about the positive impact that higher-quality food and treats have on their pet’s health and well being.

Tyler Atkins, chief sales and marketing officer for SquarePet, agrees there has been a strong movement toward premium options that provide solutions to issues their pets may be experiencing, as well as simplifying their pets’ diets in the same way they’re eating cleaner in their own.

This parlays into another trend—sustainability, which has become a significant driver behind purchasing decisions, explains Heather Hickey, vice president of sales for ZIWI USA, Inc. This desire, like many others in the pet industry, stemmed from the traction sustainability has gained in the human arena. As such, Hickey says consumers are gravitating toward premium products that are formulated to provide a nutritional and functional boost for the pet’s diet.

Along with functional ingredients, premium quality and sustainability—the latter of which is particularly important to Millennial and Gen Z pet owners, notes Lindsay Tracy, vice president of business development for Redbarn Pet Products—gentle processing and the inclusion of whole grains are other factors inspiring purchasing decisions.

"The desire for wholesome, natural and clean-label options remains strong," says Tracy. "We think pet wellness will continue to be a huge focus, particularly with dental health, anxiety support and joint, skin and heart health."    

Perhaps one of the newest trends is what David Sanborn, general manager for FLAVORS Food Toppers, calls "healthy convenience." This is particularly evident in the U.S., with the fast-food chains and the proliferation of home-delivery companies, he says.

"The same ideas and tactics can be seen in dog and cat foods, where premium-quality dry kibbles, refrigerated food and prepared meals are growing in popularity and have the benefits of being healthier alternatives to the basic kibbles from the past, while still being very convenient to a pet owner," explains Sanborn.


Behind the Trends

While stocking these trends is one thing, understanding the factors behind them is another. Sanborn credits the switch to people thinking of their pets as children rather than just pets as one of the biggest drivers behind their purchasing decisions. This change of perspective has made pet owners willing to spend more money and time on them, he explains.

"This additional spending on pets is also directly related to owners choosing healthier options for their pets," Sanborn continues. "This healthier approach contributes to pets living longer, which in turn leads us to new healthcare considerations for our aging pets. This whole new paradigm shift leads to additional spending across the board."

Making it less expensive to spend more is the trend toward owning smaller dogs, says Hickey, allowing pet owners to invest in better nutrition. Another concern is obesity, much of which can be attributed to diet. Pet owners have become increasingly aware that reducing unnecessary carbohydrates can help maintain a healthy weight.

Because pet owners think of their furry pals as family members, they’re quicker to respond to health issues or try to proactively ward them off altogether, says Atkins. At the same time, consumers become quite knowledgeable about nutrition and what they want their pet’s foods and treats to contain. Safety and confidence around their purchases is also a top factor in purchasing, he adds.

"Pet owners seek information that addresses features uniquely concerning to them as individuals," Atkins explains. "These concerns can be anything as wide as manufactur-ing process, ingredient sourcing [and] ethical considerations or as narrow as seeking specific micronutrient levels within a diet. If all these concerns are satisfied, then a pet parent feel a sense of safety around the dies and the brand."


Going Deeper

Diving deeper into what pet owners truly want from manufacturers and retailers alike will aid in the creation of dynamic inventories and sales. Putting it simply, pet owners are seeking trust—meaning that the diet is what is says it is, does what it says it will do and that the retailer has made a "good faith" recommendation, explains Atkins.

"Pet specialty retailers who politely engage and act as a knowledgeable resource for pet parents provide a tremendous sense of reassurance," he says. "Knowledge of products and pet nutrition builds trust and further recommendations. Offering the expertise and customer service that cannot be found with online resources are exceptionally valuable tools."

Pet owners want honesty and transparency from manufacturers, on the packaging and on the ingredients list, adds Hickey. Consumers want to interact with an informed staff that can provide a good shopping experience along with insights about their diet options. (Pet owners are also looking for more options outside of stores, such as curbside pickup and home delivery, she notes).

If manufacturers want to form long-lasting relationships with pet owners, trust is essential, says Tracy. To forge this connection, manufacturers must be completely transparent. And, just as pet specialty retailers need to provide exceptional customer service, so do manufacturers, who should be able and willing to address customer’s questions about specific ingredients, she says.

Pet retailers must also provide explicit, easy-to-read messaging about the benefits of the foods and treats they carry, says Sanborn, which can be made readily available through signage. Interacting directly with customers is also a must, as is asking questions to help narrow down the options and direct them to the best solutions. Questions should be open-ended and "exploratory," he advises, such as inquiring why they came into the store, how their pet is doing and what issues they may be looking to resolve.

"Today’s specialty pet retailers are more pet solution providers, as they now have to help solve a pet owner’s problems as opposed to just pointing them to an aisle," Sanborn says. "They always need to be up on the latest problems because pet owners will always be facing challenges in caring for their pets."  PB