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How Natural Dog Food Manufacturers Make Strides in a Saturated Category

Dog owners seek natural foods that are made using top-notch ingredients, and they want manufacturers to share the sourcing information of these products.


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As dog foods that are marketed as natural become ubiquitous across all retail channels, including grocery and mass, manufacturers that are supplying independent pet retailers are focusing on beating the competition through complete transparency and superior ingredients.

According to market research firm Packaged Facts’ new Natural, Organic, and Eco-Friendly Pet Products in the U.S. report, for the first time in years, during 2018, mass channels surpassed the pet specialty channel in pet food sales growth—a development Packaged Facts’ market analyst David Lummis attributes to mass premiumization and pet specialty channel losses to e-commerce.

“This is a far cry from the heady advances of previous years but understandable now that natural accounts for the bulk of pet food sales in pet specialty stores and is widely available in mass channels and online, often at considerably lower price points,” Lummis said.

While healthful options are aplenty in the marketplace, research and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that the natural category is becoming oversaturated. These days, to say a food is “natural” is not even enough, according to industry insiders. What really seems to matter to pet owners are the ingredients—and, more important, their sourcing.

“We never use the word ‘natural’ to describe our food—it’s just too wishy washy,” said Susan Goldstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Earth Animal in Westport, Conn. “There is no set definition of what natural means. What really matters is the sourcing of ingredients, manufacturing principles, sustainability—and so much more. We’re not alone in the effort as other companies are moving in this same direction.”

Mark Dunn, owner of Nature’s Pet Market in Eugene, Ore., agreed.

“The meaning of the word ‘natural’—and even the word ‘holistic’—have gotten muddled,” Dunn said. “As more and more pet food companies make claims on their bags, it’s gotten increasingly confusing for the pet owner to determine what’s real and what’s just a marketing ploy. When you can see the word ‘natural’ appear on a bag of food from the grocery store, then you know it’s not as meaningful as it once was. These days, there’s a lot more involved in making smart food choices than just looking at the bag.”

Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Tuffy’s Pet Foods, a brand of Perham, Minn.-based KLN Family Brands, said that “it’s truly about the ingredients used in making pet food,” which is why, Schmitz said, it’s so important that manufacturers trust the sources they’re working with.

As far as the reasons why pet owners continue to make more healthful choices, insiders stressed that the answer is manifold. But there’s no question that it is largely to do with pets being more a “part of the family” than ever before.

“It’s the humanization of our pets,” said Dr. Bob Goldstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Earth Animal. “When your pets are part of the family, you want the best for them, and that means making the best food choices.”

Consumer Education

Ask the Right Questions

Pet specialty retailers that are selective about the food choices they offer in their stores have a great opportunity to help pet owners who have questions and require some assistance, according to industry insiders.

Mark Dunn, owner of Nature’s Pet Market in Eugene, Ore., said that smart food choices come down to the “integrity of the company producing the food.” Knowing which companies fit this bill takes some work.

“When it’s the ingredients that really matter, you have to take an inward look at the company and ask questions like, ‘Where do they source food from?’ or ‘How many of their ingredients are local?’” he said. “That’s not exactly an easy thing to do. It’s an opportunity for the pet food retailer who has already done all of that homework to step in and offer guidance.”

Dan Schmitz, national sales manager for Tuffy’s Pet Foods, a brand of Perham, Minn.-based KLN Family Brands, said that pet owners should absolutely lean on retailers while making these decisions.

“[They should] talk to retailers—these folks know the products that they are selling,” Schmitz said. “Retailers can truly become a trusted source of knowledge, and it’s important that pet parents realize this.”

Diane Dewberry, owner of The Healthy Animal in Pembroke, Mass., said that customers want the best for their pets, but they don’t always have time to perform all the research needed to make wise choices.

“There’s a lot of work involved,” Dewberry said. “It’s not as simple as just reading an ingredient label when you want to know where and how food was sourced. So, it means a lot to the customer when they can come in and trust your judgement. It’s where the relationship between the independent retailer and the pet parent really shines.”

On the other side of the country, in Cottonwood, Ariz., Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main, has taken the same approach.

“My customers know that I’ve already narrowed the choices down for them and no matter what they pick, the research has been done—they can feel confident it’s a good choice,” Strong said. “Since I’ve already narrowed the playing field to healthy choices, the questions I ask to choose the best food are about the dog’s age, size and medical history.”

Marketing & Merchandising

Show Off the Selection

Pet specialty retailers that want to increase sales of their natural dog foods might want to consider hosting in-store demos, said Susan Goldstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Earth Animal in Westport, Conn.

“It’s so important to touch the food, smell the food and handle the food,” she said. “In my store, I do old-fashioned demos using old wooden bowls. I encourage pet parents to interact with the food. When you do that, you’re saying, ‘We’re hiding nothing. We are so proud of this food, we want to show it off.’ That’s really important in a time when transparency is everything to pet parents.”

Showing food off in attractive displays is also important. While Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main in Cottonwood, Ariz., stressed that any food purchased at her store would constitute a “good choice,” she still makes an effort to display food in an attractive way that draws attention.

“It’s easy to look over the need to display food since it’s such a necessity item, but we still like to draw attention to the great foods that we really believe in with attractive displays,” said Strong, who utilizes unique furniture displays throughout her store. “You’re telling customers that you’re proud of your offerings. We really like to showcase the great food choices that we offer in the store.”

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