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Functional Indulgences

Snack time has evolved as dog owners increasingly consider the ingredients and benefits that treats and chews offer their canine counterparts


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Dogs have an innate need to chew—and who among the canine world doesn’t enjoy a treat now and then? As such, the treat and chew options available for dogs are seemingly bottomless, and manufacturers and pet specialty retailers report an increase in demand for chews.

Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing at Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis, said that treats are among the fastest-growing categories.

“Treats are not a static market, and owners are always looking for new and better options to reward or encourage their dogs,” she said.

Joe Wallington, president of Jones Natural Chews in Rockford, Ill., agreed.

“The future growth looks excellent as millennials and other age groups continue to increase their spending for healthy, natural treats and chews,” he said.

Treats and chew trends have aligned with those in the food category, reported Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif.

“If you are conscious about what you are feeding your dog for their meals, you are going to carry that thought through your treats purchase,” Nonini said, adding that minimal and functional ingredients panels are key.

As consumers make the connection that it is important to give their pets a high-quality meal coupled with treats that have the same benefits, many look for all-natural products that are grain free, made in the USA, and minimally processed without additives or artificial flavors or colors, said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales and education at Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.

Trends in this category also reflect the consumer’s desire to keep their pet safe while fulfilling the dog’s need to chew and stay occupied, according to industry insiders. Curt Jacques, president of West Lebanon Feed and Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., reported that, overall, sales in this category are climbing, and animal parts such as pig ears, chicken feet and pizzle sticks are popular with dog owners. Jacques attributed increased sales, in part, to installing a treat bar at the checkout counter for impulse purchases.

Consumers also are interested in products that are long lasting, said Jamie Idzi, owner of Yuppy Puppy in Bethany Beach, Del.

Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., said, “We’ve seen a big shift from baked biscuits to training-size treats, any kind of meat-based treat like jerky or small treats, and chews that are not bones but longer lasting kinds of body parts.”

New Products

Re-examining Proteins

The treats and chews category is quite crowded, which can be tricky for manufacturers that want to keep things fresh.

“You really need to differentiate yourself from the other ‘chicken, beef and fish’ treats,” said Art Nakagawa, president of Artvark Pet Products in Van Nuys, Calif., which is what led his company to launch GoGo Stressless Venison Jerky last year.

Artvark Pet Products plans to introduce other new and unique proteins in 2018, Nakagawa added.

Other manufacturers are following suit, such as Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., which is adding a vegetable option to its Thinkers line as well as exotic proteins.

Jones Natural Chews in Rockford, Ill., recently added several products to its lineup such as bully basted and smoked pork skin, liver log jerky and beef ligament strap. This month, the company plans to launch a line of exotic proteins and more, said Joe Wallington, president of Jones Natural Chews.

This month at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis will also unveil new proteins such as lamb, salmon and turkey, with a focus on the meaty treat segment with jerkies, meatballs and high-protein meat-first biscuits.

It is important for retailers to update their stock, adding new products while discontinuing slow-moving ones as well, said Curt Jacques, president of West Lebanon Feed and Supply in West Lebanon, N.H.

“If we don’t change the offerings, customers get bored,” he said.

Sometimes, the addition of a new product can boost sales in the category.

“After introducing Earth Animal’s No-Hide chew line, sales exploded,” said Jamie Idzi, owner of Yuppy Puppy in Bethany Beach, Del.

Another newbie on the shelf at Yuppy Puppy is Icelandic+ lamb horns, which has similar appeal to customers, Idzi added.

Consumer Education

Tweets About Treats

With so many choices available in the treats and chews categories, independent pet specialty retailers can expect consumers to have questions, said industry participants.

Online education, particularly through social media, is a popular method of educating the consumer, and in support of their retail partners, many manufacturers, such as Artvark Pet Products, are doing just that.

“We believe telling our story to as many end consumers [as possible] will drive them to their local pet store,” said Art Nakagawa, president of the Van Nuys, Calif.-based company. “This, ultimately, helps both the end consumer and our independent store and distributor partners.”

Treats are not a complicated story, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing at Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.

“But while most people think of them as just a pure indulgence, they can be yummy and functional at the same time,” she said. “That’s where we differentiate ourselves from the others. Owners don’t want to feed junk, so we talk about ingredient sourcing, the manufacturing process and the nutritional benefits.”

Manufacturers often work in tandem with retailers to enlighten the consumer about the products they sell.

“It really comes down to matching pet parents with the best-fit products, and that can only be done if retailers are familiarized with their inventory,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales and education at Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn.

While social media is an ever-increasingly popular means to educate the consumer, the personal touch goes a long way, too.  

“Our team is very hands on when working with a customer, so many times the purchase is because of our recommendations,” said Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va.

At West Lebanon Feed and Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., the store provides signage to help consumers distinguish between the types of chewers their dogs are, such as passive grazers and gulpers, for example, which enables consumers to make the correct choice for their dog, said president Curt Jacques.

At the Yuppy Puppy in Bethany Beach, Del., owner Jamie Idzi makes it a point to learn about the products she stocks through suppliers, personal experience and her own research—and she uses that knowledge to help select the best products for her customers.

“An educated consumer is an engaged consumer,” Idzi said. “Education makes a brand-new and ‘foreign’ product more approachable, it builds trust and loyalty, and allows consumers to make product decisions with confidence.”

Marketing

Let the Dogs Choose

Sometimes the best market research can be conducted in-store by the target consumer: the dog itself. Stores such as West Lebanon Feed and Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., offer treats at the checkout counter to visiting dogs.

“We typically will get 75-plus dogs in our store a day, and it’s a great chance to ‘test’ in action,” said president Curt Jacques.

The retailer also uses social media and asks its customers for input before introducing a new product, Jacques said.

“Facebook is a good way to get the word out, and most of our brick-and-mortar retail partners have pages too, so it’s something we can partner on,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing of Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis.

“Inside the stores, we are starting to cross-merchandise treats with the food,” Hudson added. “People don’t always realize that a brand they trust for nutrition also makes great treats.”

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