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Trading Up

As consumers increasingly consider giving their dogs the very best diets available, it is up to retailers to help them get there.


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If superior nutrition is good for the human family, it’s also a fit for Fido. As a result, demand in the vitamin-rich, nutrient-dense, superpremium food category is escalating.

“More than ever before, sustenance for today’s canine companions receives the same consideration as the food pet parents serve on their own plates,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “These consumers are seeking nutritious, superpremium products that will make them feel good about the meals placed in their dog’s bowl.”

Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food in Vero Beach, Fla., cited health concerns as another reason owners are willing to purchase high-quality diets for their dogs.

“Consumers are seeking these foods in order to address specific health issues,” Pettyan said. “A dog will thrive when fed a diet that’s closer to homemade and isn’t full of fillers and preservatives.”

Superpremium foods are vitamin rich and nutritionally dense, featuring quality proteins, fats and carbohydrates, said Brad Gruber, president and COO for Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y.

“This means less food in a pet’s bowl and less waste left behind to clean up,” Gruber said. “These diets are formulated to support the needs of a broad range of breeds and differing life stages.”

Julie-Anne Hollander, marketing/projects for K9 Natural in Christchurch, New Zealand, noted the obvious benefits of feeding a diet high in meat and low in carbohydrates: It’s a natural form of nourishment dogs are instinctively drawn to, and their bodies are designed for it.

“It’s not so much consumers asking for superpremium food, per se, but the desire to offer their pets real food,” Hollander said. “Rich proteins and fats are needed to provide dogs with a wholesome source of energy that supports healthy skin and joints.”

Today’s pet owners take time to research nutritional options, Gruber said.

“These consumers know the exact ingredients in selected dog foods, where they are sourced, plus how committed the company is [in regard] to sustainability and transparency in the entire supply chain,” Gruber said.

However, while Pet Things in Douglasville, Ga., is experiencing strong demand in the superpremium category, owner Terry Brlecic emphasized the significance of value-brand offerings.

“When a shopper switches from a grocery store food to a higher-quality product, they see improvement in the coat and overall health of their pet,” Brlecic said.

But that goal often requires an initial introduction to a brand at a lower price point.

“As we move through our food offerings, the customer will go as far as their budget allows or to the point where the desired health improvements are seen,” Brlecic said.

Thus, the biggest struggle for the independent retailer is satisfying the value customer by stocking a nutritious food at a lower price point, he said.

“If there is not a product available as a starter food, the customer will leave and not return,” Brlecic added.

Cutting-Edge Cuisine

Manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for superpremium nutrition with an expanding array of selections.

Cloud Star’s Wellmade line of grain-free dog food offers a full range of complete and balanced diets, including baked kibble, wet complete meals, and dehydrated vegetable and meat mixes, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.

Wellmade baked kibble recipes are free of meat byproducts, grain, corn and soy. Each recipe offers high-quality chicken, duck or lamb, combined with pulses like lentils and chickpeas, Hudson said.

Prepared in a human-grade facility, Wellmade’s Homestyle wet recipes feature whole, shredded meats and vegetables, with beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, and chicken and salmon options. 

“Complete and balanced in the bag, Wellmade grain-free dehydrated mixes can be prepared at home with fresh meat, meat included or all-vegetable options,” Hudson said. “To improve digestibility, produce is dehydrated and starches precooked before drying.”  

The mixes are positioned at a premium/value price point to help transition consumers into this alternative category, Hudson said.

Caru Pet Food launched its Daily Dish line of grain-free stews for dogs in June, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of the Vero Beach, Fla.-based company.

Featured at an everyday value price, Daily Dish stews are formulated from USA-made, 100 percent human-grade, non-GMO ingredients in a savory gravy, Pettyan said.

Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y., recently debuted its Chicken & Brown Rice Large Bites Recipe, a highly palatable, complete and balanced food formulated for large-breed dogs, said Brad Gruber, president and COO.

“With this product, calcium and calorie content can be monitored through the provided feeding guidelines,” Gruber said. “This recipe will also help lower the risk of skeletal issues by helping a puppy to cope with problems associated with rapid growth periods.”

K9 Natural’s latest offering, Natural Puppy, is grain free and contains the nutrient-rich protein of New Zealand grass-fed beef and sustainably fished, fresh hoki oil to support the growth and development of a young dog of any breed or size, said Julie-Anne Hollander, marketing/projects for the Christchurch, New Zealand-based company. DHA and EPA from hoki oil are important nutrients in supporting healthy brain and eye development, Hollander added. 

Understanding Ingredients

As the category expands and selections multiply, retailers remain an influential source of dietary guidance for consumers, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.

“Proliferation at the shelf is truly overwhelming, and pet parents openly say that choosing a dog food is like choosing shampoo—too many options and not enough information,” Hudson said. “Whether it’s signage at the shelf, informed store associates or educational in-store events, we have to do a better job of educating pet parents.”

For these reasons, retailers can and should rely on their brand partners for assistance in providing knowledge and educational tools for staff and, ultimately, consumers, Hudson added.

Samantha Cohen, vendor relations manager and corporate buyer for Woof Gang Bakery, a chain of stores with headquarters in Orlando, Fla., said that education inspires trust.

“It takes an understanding of ingredients to gain this confidence when it comes to raw, dehydrated and freeze-dried diets,” Cohen said. “We make sure, when suggesting a new type of diet, that the customer understands why the price point may be higher and correlate this with the added benefit of saving money on potential medical expenses.”

Natural Paws in Reno, Nev., offers a wide range of foods, including top-quality products; however, co-owner Lori Burks noted the importance of catering to customers who are more budget-minded.

“All of our foods are corn, wheat and byproduct free and sourced in the USA and Canada, but not everyone can afford a superpremium brand, so we try to have something for everybody,” she said.

However, as part of the Natural Paws educational process, customers are advised that these higher-quality foods are more nutrient dense and, therefore, less is required at mealtime.

“That’s a little savings if someone is worried about price,” Burks said.

“Many consumers might be feeding a low-grade grocery brand, thinking it’s the best option, but in-store education helps them find the optimal food for their dog, whether it is raw, dehydrated or kibble,” she added. “It’s always best to have a conversation to find out what is ideal for both customer and pet.”

Staff members at Pet Things in Douglasville, Ga., take part in in-store trainings and independent research, resulting in the ability to read and understand ingredient panels—vital components to assisting customers in product selection, said owner Terry Brlecic.

And educational programs such as Eat Like Your Dog events are designed to enlighten Pet Things shoppers.

“We build a lunchtime meal around the same ingredients found in the featured bag of pet food,” Brlecic said.

Repasts have included roasted pork loins, chicken quarters, glazed butternut squash, cranberry relish, and pea and tomato salad, he said.

Food label comprehension is crucial, said Julie-Anne Hollander, marketing/projects for K9 Natural in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It is very important that consumers understand what to look for on ingredient lists, as many products are full of fillers and carbohydrates, which serve very little purpose to the health of a pet,” she said.

Put Superpremium on Display

The ability to convey the benefits and value of superpremium food is essential to merchandising and promotion, said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food in Vero Beach, Fla.

“It pays to display signage that will play up the nutritional or emotional advantages of a superpremium line over other diets,” Pettyan said. “If display space is limited, prominent shelf danglers or detailer cards attached to shelf fixtures may be used.”

Superpremium dog foods are a key marketing point at Woof Gang Bakery, a chain of stores with headquarters in Orlando, Fla., said Samantha Cohen, vendor relations manager and corporate buyer. This detail is featured on all marketing materials and advertised by many of the company’s franchisees, with an emphasis on available frequent buyer programs.

The power of social media is another facet not to be discounted, and it can be utilized to educate customers regarding the benefits of raw, dehydrated and/or organic diets, Cohen said.

Awareness of competitive methods, both within and outside of the pet industry, is another integral element to marketing success, said Brad Gruber, president and COO for Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y.

“Looking into how specialty grocers or other high-end establishments are merchandising products or enticing customers to shop can help make the shopping experience exciting and profitable,” Gruber said. “Many upscale ventures have built wonderful ‘store within a store’ concepts that really lend themselves to what can be done in a pet store.”

Driving Growth to the Category

Manufacturers and retailers agree that the dog’s status as family member is a flourishing phenomenon.

The deep emotional connection forged between pet owner and canine companion continues to drive an upward spiral of expenditures within the industry, said Brad Gruber, president and COO of Health Extension Pet Care in Deer Park, N.Y.

“The pet parenting boom we’re experiencing is being led by the two biggest age groups for pet ownership: baby boomers and millennials,” Gruber said. “So this trend is not only economic, but cultural.”

At Woof Gang Bakery, a chain of stores with headquarters in Orlando, Fla., Samantha Cohen, vendor relations manager and corporate buyer, noted an increase in millennial customers seeking the same wholesome, organic and natural foods for their pets as for themselves.

“Most of the brands of food carried in our stores typically fall into the superpremium category,” Cohen said. “I find trends in pet diets tend to follow those in human diets.”

As a result, the segment is burgeoning.

“Very simply put, pet owners are going to keep spending on pets in the same way they do for their children,” Gruber said. “It would be safe to assume we will see superpremium products growing at the same proportion, with indications showing it could be at an even faster pace.”

Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food in Vero Beach, Fla., noted the emergence of differing tiers within the superpremium aisle.

“There are human-grade-ingredient diets manufactured in human-food plants, and high-quality freeze-dried and dehydrated diets,” Pettyan said. “Superpremium brands are even launching specialty diets combining the kibble that some customers are accustomed to with a freeze-dried element for additional nutrition.”

Small, dehydrated mixes as an alternative category continues to grow as well, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.

“These foods offer unique dietary choices that can’t be found outside the pet specialty channel,” Hudson said.

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