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Slow to Grow

More consumers than ever before believe their pets are worthy of the safest and highest-quality foods. Could that mean the organic category is poised to gain greater ground?


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Although the organic pet products category has been slow to grow, consumers might become more interested in certified organic consumables thanks to the number of “natural” products flooding the market.

CARRIE BRENNER/PPN LLC AT FURLY’S

It doesn’t take long for a trend in human food to make its way into pet food. While many in the pet industry reported that organic food hasn’t gained nearly the same attention it has among people, some said they’re finally seeing a shift toward interest in organic products for pets. Education, industry participants reported, will be the key to keeping that interest going.

“Organic overall has been picking up speed for the last few years,” said Lorin Grow, owner of Furry Face in Redlands, Calif. “But it’s been slower to gain traction in dog food with consumers.”

One of the biggest reasons Grow said her customers have been reluctant to buy organic has been the cost.

“When it comes to pet food, it is extremely difficult to go completely organic and be price conscious at the same time,” said Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas. “People are willing to pay more for ‘natural’ and ‘exotic meats,’ but there has not been a huge call for ‘organic’ at my location.”

Natural vs. Organic 
Many consumers are satisfied with a higher-end product that’s not certified organic. But they often rely on retailers’ expertise to point them toward those premium products that truly have some health benefits.

“I think most people throw around the term ‘organic,’ but they’re just using it to mean something ‘natural’ or maybe something GMO-free,” said Mike Palmer, owner of Premier Pet Supply in Beverly Hills, Mich. “I don’t have a high demand for true organic. We make a concerted effort to find the best products, even if they’re not certified organic, and most people are happy with that. As long as it has clean-sourced ingredients, no fillers and no byproducts, I don’t think a lot of consumers are caught up on it being certified organic.”

With ambiguous terms such as “natural” being used loosely, though, organic products do have appeal. It costs a good deal of money to become certified organic, and some companies might feel it’s not worth jumping through the hoops, yet those that do are committed to the cause and have a loyal group of consumers as a result, manufacturers reported.

Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., said that she believes there’s a lot of consumer confusion when so many terms like “natural,” “holistic” and “clean” are thrown around. But when it comes to organic, it’s pretty straightforward. Certified organic food has had to go through a lengthy and rigorous certification process.

Some companies might have organic products but choose not to go through the certification process because it’s so expensive and time consuming, said Brett Sher, the company’s vice president of operations. But Evanger’s, which offers a selection of certified organic foods, has put a lot of focus on building consumer trust.

“We’ve always been certified organic, even when it was a smaller part of our sales,” Brett said. “People talk about wanting to buy organic but don’t want to pay the difference. Fortunately we are seeing that change and sales are increasing. I think as more people become educated about organic, it will change even more.”

Aaron Merrell, co-owner and co-founder of Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., has also recently seen a long-awaited increased interest in organics.

“I have had experience with organic products in the pet industry for more than a decade but only in the last two years has interest skyrocketed,” Merrell said. “It seems to me that this trend has done a complete 180. Premium pet food now sells better than lower-grade or mid-grade products. The trend is a clear indicator that pet parents find that their family pet is extremely worthy of the safest foods, best ingredients and best nutrition in the highest-quality products.”

The company recently introduced a line of Small Bites treats, and one of the line’s formulas is made with organic chicken, Merrell said.

Organic pet food is poised for big growth—as much as 10 to 15 percent—in the next few years, said Pete Brace, vice president of sales and marketing for Castor & Pollux Natural PetWorks, a brand of Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.

“Much like in the human food world, more pet parents are seeking to understand more about the safety and reliability of ingredients,” Brace said.

Increasing Awareness
The continued interest will have a lot to do with ongoing education efforts by manufacturers and retailers alike.

Laura Clark, co-owner of Wylie Wagg, which has locations in Virginia and Washington, D.C., said that there is undoubtedly greater awareness of organic alternatives.

“Organic food and treats are now far more mainstream than they were even just a few years ago,” Clark said. “Our customers are not surprised to see products with organic labels on our shelves. As with any products, creative displays always help to increase sales. But beyond merchandising, sales teams also have to know how to quickly and clearly present the benefits of an organic diet—including the nutritional advantage and the environmental impact.”

Store staff must understand the market in order to educate the consumer, retailers reported.

“Our customers are definitely keeping us on our toes these days,” said Palmer of Premier Pet Supply. “In general, consumers are more conscientious of what goes into food for themselves and their pets, and they’re educating themselves about it. We have to be prepared to answer those questions.”

Simply just promoting organic more will help keep it on consumers’ radar, said Dan Schmitz, sales manager for KLN Family Brands and Tuffy’s Pet Foods in Perham, Minn. The company recently introduced a turkey formula to its Natural Planet Organics line, which will complement the chicken formula already available.

“There is room for growth in the organic segment,” Schmitz said. “Promoting these foods through endcap displays and staff training will prove beneficial.”

Social media also can play a big role in that education factor, said Shawna Abrams, president of Party Animal Inc. in West Hollywood, Calif. Social media gives retailers the ability to access a large audience and to discuss the benefits of going organic.

“There has been a huge shift in regard to the awareness of feeding pets quality food and treats due to social media and the interaction of millions of pet parents,” Abrams said. “Social media is where retailers can join the conversation to promote their store and the products they offer.”

Taking advantage of these kinds of opportunities can go a long way in building relationships with customers and help keep them informed about the choices they make in feeding their pets.

“Our job in the pet industry is to remember that people are willing to go the extra distance for their pets,” said Beth Courter of Benson’s Pet Center, which has locations in New York and Massachusetts. “They want the best product and information they can get, and it is our job to give them that, being as unbiased and knowledgeable as we can.”  

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