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Spoiled for Choice

Stocking a variety of dog and cat food options and understanding the benefits of each type of diet is essential for boosting customer loyalty.


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Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh

Pet food is, without a doubt, the primary reason consumers visit their favorite pet supply shops. Between canned, kibble, raw, dehydrated and a myriad of protein combinations, the choices are seemingly endless. 

Manufacturers have launched a variety of options lately, allowing consumers to choose from a wide range of food types. St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Cloud Star and TikiPets brands, regularly works on new product options to satisfy the needs of consumers. Earlier this year, the company launched Cloud Star Wellmade, a reasonably priced range of all-natural, limited-ingredient, minimally processed food selections, according to company officials. The selection includes Baked Kibble made with duck, chicken and lamb; wet Homestyle Meals with shredded meats and vegetables cooked in broth; and Dehydrated Mixes—vegetable- and meat-based air-dried cubes that can be fed alone or mixed with fresh meat to appeal to pet owners who opt for raw diets.

Radagast Pet Food in Portland, Ore., now offers a frozen raw Rad Cat Raw Diet Natural Pork Recipe. The food is made with pork shoulder, providing a balanced ratio of whole muscle meat to fat, as well as outstanding nutrition and flavor, according to the company.

Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., said he sells food from Open Farm, a Canadian company with ingredients sourced mainly in the U.S., and it’s a favorite with shoppers. 

“This brand has one of the first ‘humanely sourced’ ingredient profiles in the market today, and we truly have found that customers see a wide range of health benefits to feeding this product,” he said.

AdreAnne Tesene, co-owner of Two Bostons, which has stores in Illinois, said that pouched cat food and freeze-dried dog food are growing in popularity. 

Millennials are a driving force in the pet food industry, with up to 80 percent of them owning cats, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, marking manager for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. 

With that in mind, WellPet is adding SKUs to its Wellness Core and Wellness Complete Health brands for cats, in addition to updating existing recipes. Wellness Complete Health grain-free Minced wet food and Wellness Complete Health grain-free Sliced wet food are now carrageenan free and have updated packaging. The company also recently introduced Wellness Complete Health grain-free Gravies wet food. 

For dogs, the company is launching products such as Wellness Core RawRev, grain-free kibble combined with freeze-dried meat, and Wellness Core Simply Shreds pouches, natural shreds of poultry, meat and fish, intended for topping or snacking.

Setting Food Apart to Sell

Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products in Pittsburgh, separates pet food first by category, and then by manufacturer. 

“My freeze-dried foods are next to my freezer, and cans are merchandised with kibble according to manufacturer,” she said. “Freeze-dried treats, when new, are merchandised with their food manufacturer. However, this is just in the introductory stage; they move into the treat section after a few months.”

Brand-blocking can make a visual impact.

“From a manufacturer’s perspective, I like to see foods separated by manufacturer,” said Tracey Hatch Rizzi, co-founder and vice president of Radagast Pet Food in Portland, Ore. “Manufacturers typically design their brands to look great when all of their SKUs are merchandised together.” 

Two Bostons, which has stores in Illinois, displays all dry food by brand with complementary cans included, said co-owner AdreAnne Tesene.

“All freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are located on shelving closest to the freezers,” she added. “This is a great way to show the hierarchy of foods: raw, freeze dried or dehydrated, cans, and then kibble.” 

Due to the combination of the aging human population and the popularity of owning small dogs, Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Cloud Star and TikiPets brands in St. Louis, suggests retailers create a section for small-
breed dogs. 

“A small-dog section with a large selection of wet diets would attract pet parents to pet specialty; a retail strategy that purposely takes small-dog owners to a specific section in the store could be immensely appealing,” Hudson said. “Retailers are going to need to replace the business lost as the large-dog population decreases. While they can’t make that up in volume, they can make it up in margin.” 

At West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., owner Curt Jacques said that dog and cat food cans are displayed separately on 22-inch-deep shelving, which is anchored to the wall. 

“We are in the midst of designing a self-service display rack that will automatically dispense the cans and create a more unified, easier-to-shop system,” he said. “One of the biggest issues is the small print on cans that consumers are unable to read. Our system will be customized by the product with labels and POP signage, making it easier for our customers to read, shop and compare with competing brands.”

Jacques recommends grouping dry food by brand rather than by type, based on customer loyalty. 

“By offering a wider range of choices within [consumers’ preferred] brands, they are less apt to make a change, but an upsell is more likely to happen within the brand they use,” he said.

The pet food market is enormous, with a myriad of brands and subcategories, so displaying food to maximize sales takes a bit of resourcefulness. 

In the case of frozen food, it is preferable to have a glass door on the freezer so that customers can get a visual, particularly because often, freezers are located in the back of the store, manufacturers noted. 

If it is not possible to have a more visible freezer, Hatch Rizzi suggests displaying empty packaging of frozen food on shelves, close to the register, or on an endcap, directing customers to the freezer. 

“This way, customers that wouldn’t necessarily think to look at raw cat food can see the container and engage the employees about the product,” she said. 

She also suggests using colorful, informative signage for those freezers without glass fronts, which will, ideally, pique a customer’s curiosity.

Shelaske rearranges the front section of her stores monthly, with a rotating selection of impulse items at the register.

Jacques is also a strong believer in keeping things fresh and new, which can include changing out endcaps in pet food aisles to feature new products or even themed products. 

“It’s also a good practice to rotate the brands within your section to refresh the look,” he said. “Sure, customers will wonder where their food went, but they will also be aware of different foods. If your store looks the same day in and day out, your customers will get bored.” 

Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior marketing manager at WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., agreed. 

“Taking advantage of endcaps is important, as they are prime real estate in any pet food store,” she said, adding that eye-catching signage is crucial, too. 

WellPet recently designed a way to stack and dispense canned Wellness natural cat food in-aisle to make it more engaging. 

“The cans are color coded to correspond with new flavors, forms and textures—like minced, sliced, pâté, morsels and gravies—so the pet parent can find the perfect pairing for their cat,” she said.

Tesene employs a visual trick. 

“The basic tips are to display the larger bags to the right or below the smaller items and work light to dark colors the same way,” she said. “Displaying light to dark or small to large automatically balances our customers’ visual field and makes it easier for them to shop. If there is room to display coordinating cans or treats, that it a great way to increase sales.”

Building Trust

Savvy shoppers are well informed, thanks in part to the internet, but they also ask questions when shopping in stores for products. 

Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., is a longtime proponent of educating his staff so that the knowledge can filter down to the end consumer. 

“We have a better chance of building a loyal customer base with knowledgeable staffing as compared to thinking that an educational pamphlet or poster will help them make the right choice,” he said. “Education is everything. It creates self-confidence within our staff, builds loyalty with the customer and has a direct impact on our bottom line.” 

Sharing knowledge is also part of the company culture at Two Bostons, which has stores in Illinois. 

“If you’re not willing to take the necessary steps to educate your customers about nutrition, then you can’t complain about them buying online or at a competitor,” said co-owner AdreAnne Tesene.

“The proliferation at 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,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing at Whitebridge Pet Brands, maker of Cloud Star and TikiPets brands in St. Louis. 

She suggests using signage at the shelves, having informed store associates and hosting in-store events for pet owners. 

“Retailers are still one of the most influential sources of recommendation,” she added.

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