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Beyond Grain

As consumer awareness increases and more manufacturers offer grain-free diets for dogs, category sales continue to rise.


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With accelerated demand for grain-free diets, the market is seeing more options for dogs of all life styles and stages.

“The popularity of natural and grain free seems to have followed the human food trend around natural, organic, low-carb and gluten-free diets,” said Paul Cooke, vice president, trade and industry development, at Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis. He added that “in most cases, the family’s nutritional preferences are consistent with their pet food purchase.”

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, agreed.

“Dog owners want their pets to be healthy and happy, and they want to know they did their very best when choosing a food,” she said. “Owners sometimes know more about human nutrition than dog nutrition, and that colors their choices when it comes to dog food.”

Consistently increasing sales and a rise in manufacturers joining the segment demonstrate that customers want these diets, according to industry participants.

Both Andrea Margelis, manager of Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich., and Lisa Vogt, CEO of The Dawg House Grooming Boarding Daycare in Athens, Ga., said sales of grain-free diets for dogs continue to increase. They attributed it to consumers being more educated to the potential benefits and seeing the results in their own pets.

Several companies cited quality ingredients as a major sales driver, with price being a lesser consideration for pet owners.

“Most of my customers don’t ask about pricing,” said Howard Feldman, owner of California Pet Center in Woodland Hills, Calif. “They are more concerned about the quality and how it works with their dogs.”

Dog owners also want choices, said Betsy Berger, communications manager for Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.

“Pet parents are looking for grain-free options for all stages of life—from the young puppy to the young-at-heart aging dog,” she said.

Margelis said she finds this to be true with her customers.

“When looking for new foods, consumers want them to be tailored to their individual pet,” she said. “‘One size’ does not fit all, and with the options that are available, we can give consumers what they want.”

New Products

Grain-Free Formulas for All Stages

More pet food manufacturers are adding grain-free lines or formulations to their canine diet offerings.

For example, St. Louis-based Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. added Grain Free and No Corn, Wheat or Soy formulas to its Sport, Focus, Savor, Bright Mind and True Nature Purina Pro Plan lineups. In addition to being grain or soy free, the recipes contain no artificial colors or flavors and no poultry byproduct meal, the company stated.

In addition to being grain-free, Evansville, Ind.-based Midwestern Pet Foods’ new Earthborn Holistic Venture line is potato free and limited ingredient. The six recipes feature regionally sourced, single-animal-origin proteins, such as rabbit and duck from France, pork and turkey from the U.S., Alaskan pollock and Pacific squid, the company stated, adding that they all come in recyclable packaging containing up to 30 percent plant-based materials.

With a focus on small dogs, St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands recently debuted Tiki Dog Aloha Petites in grain-free baked kibble and whole wet foods. The formulas contain nutrient-dense organ meat first, low-carbohydrate nutrition, and superfoods such as kale and coconut, according to the manufacturer. The kibble comes in lamb, chicken, duck and fish varieties, and the whole wet foods come in seven meat, poultry and fish combinations.

New Ingredients

The Changing Face of Grain Free

Dog owners want fewer “fillers” and other low-cost ingredients in the grain-free diets they feed their pets, industry participants reported. Increasingly, what’s not in the bag is equally important as what is inside.

Warren Hill, chief commercial officer for Midwestern Pet Foods in Evansville, Ind., said that consumers want novel proteins and natural ingredients, but it doesn’t end there.

“When [we were] formulating Earthborn Holistic Venture, consumers told us that they didn’t want any ingredients that detracted from the overall quality of the food,” he said. “From top to bottom, consumers want only high-quality, nutrient-dense ingredients that can withstand scrutiny.”

Paul Cooke, vice president of trade and industry development at Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis, said he sees similar trends.

“We’re seeing more and more diets formulated with high-quality protein and simple, natural ingredients,” he said. “For consumers who are looking for natural and grain-free pet food, what is not included in the ingredient list—grain, soy, byproduct, and artificial colors and preservatives—is just as important as what is in the bag.”

Several sources reported seeing more potatoes in grain-free diets.

“I’m seeing brands using carbohydrates or starches like white potatoes in place of grain,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “It’s a trade-off. While dogs are omnivores and carbs play a role in nutrition, at the end of the day, switching one out for another isn’t the right solution for the pet.”

Lisa Vogt, CEO of The Dawg House Grooming Boarding Daycare in Athens, Ga., agreed.

“I am seeing lots of potato and sweet potato, but this only turns to sugar in the body as well, so I am not a fan of this new substitute ingredient for grain-free foods,” she said. “I am also starting to see garbanzo beans as a new ingredient additive.”

Lentils and chickpeas are the substitutes Howard Feldman, owner of California Pet Center in Woodland Hills, Calif., sees more of in grain-free diets. He also reported an increase in the inclusion of fruits and vegetables, as well as more organic options.

Superfoods, such as kale, hemp hearts, broccoli, blueberries and manuka honey, are showing up in grain-free diets, said Andrea Margelis, manager of Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich.

“When it comes to proteins we are seeing kangaroo, guineafowl, pork and goat,” she added. “These ingredients are recognizable to our shoppers, and they are excited to be able to provide them to their pets.“

7 Sales-Boosting Display Tips

For brick-and-mortar retailers, physical space is limited, so owners said they must be strategic in their merchandising placements. Several retailers and manufacturers shared tips on how to effectively display and move grain-free diets for dogs.

1. Carry only grain-free diets

“We are proud to only offer grain-free foods and treats,” said Lisa Vogt, CEO of The Dawg House Grooming Boarding Daycare in Athens, Ga. She said she made that decision after conducting online research and witnessing the benefits in her own dogs and those of clients.

2. Plan endcap highlights

“Endcaps highlighting items that are driving growth in the segment should be thoughtful and included in the annual plan,” said Paul Cooke, vice president of trade and industry development at Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis. “These endcaps can include informational content for consumers to preview before buying.”

3. Utilize packaging

“We do a lot of things incorporating the color on the product packaging,” said Howard Feldman, owner of California Pet Center in Woodland Hills, Calif. For example, he places lighter and darker bags next to each other to stand out, and puts larger bags on the right because most people are right-handed.

4. Arrange in-store promotions

“Promote the benefits of grain-free diets in store with point-of-purchase displays, sampling events and demos,” said Breann Shook, co-owner of Grandma Lucy’s in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

5. Label shelves wisely

“We make sure that we label new foods with giant paw prints that say ‘new’ on them, as well as attaching shelf talkers that outline some of the unique ingredients,” said Andrea Margelis, manager of Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich.

6. Rotate the selection

“Rotate products to the front of the store with a special spotlight section for grain free,” Shook added.

7. Leverage your expertise

“Consumers seek expert advice, so having a well-trained, passionate and knowledgeable team on the floor is crucial,” said Warren Hill, chief commercial officer for Midwestern Pet Foods in Evansville, Ind. “[They can] make valuable suggestions and recommendations, particularly when confronted with concerns about food allergies, food safety or quality.”

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