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Why Natural Pet Foods Are No Longer Niche

The demand for natural pet diets is the new normal, as the industry sees continued expansion of food formats and formulas in the segment.


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The quantity and type of products in the natural dog and cat food space are ever expanding as manufacturers strive to meet the evolving demands of today’s nutrition-savvy pet owners, industry experts assert.

“There’s more of a variety than there has been in grain-free, freeze-dried raw and raw products,” said Amber Albright, manager for In Good Health All Natural Pet Food Store in Northfield, Ohio. “Those products have really expanded.”

While there is no official definition for the term “natural” within the context of pet food formulations, for most people, it denotes wholesome products with nothing extra added.

“When people think of natural diets, they’re looking for products free from chemical preservatives,” said Howard Bearz, co-owner of Cheshire Cat & Dog Too in Cheshire, Conn. “They want stuff that hasn’t been processed as much.”

Though consumers today still demand an absence of additives in their pet foods, they have also come to expect natural products to deliver top-notch quality, as well, experts report.

“When natural products started appearing, the emphasis was on preservatives such as BHT and BHA,” said Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat & Dogs Too in Denver. “There’s an emphasis now on higher-quality ingredients.”

Further, in the pet category, the term “natural” is associated with how ingredients are processed—and for most people, less is more in this regard.

“There is rapidly growing interest in diets with less-processed ingredients,” said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo. “Meat meal, for example, is a very common ingredient that is losing favor among consumers. … Freeze-dried foods don’t include meals, and this is part of their nutritional benefit and growing appeal.”

To that point, consumers are increasingly searching for whole-food ingredients on packaging labels, as they begin to understand more about the various processes employed to make their pets’ foods. And, for many shoppers, independent pet specialty retailers are the category gatekeepers that allow them to feel confident that what’s on their local pet store shelves meet their standards for what is considered natural.

“Natural diets have no byproducts,” said Mary Anne Novak, co-owner of EarthWise Pet Supply East Village in San Diego. “We look for whole meat on ingredient lists. We prefer fresh meat in the ingredient panel. We look at the first three ingredients, and that tells all.”

Retailers find that, despite steady consumer demand for natural diets, it helps to explain what these diets can do for customers’ pets. Chris McCoy, co-owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center in North Royalton, Ohio, noted that when pet owners think of natural, they think of a more healthful option for their pets, but they are often light on the particulars.

“The term needs further explanation when it comes to health benefits,” McCoy said, adding that many pet owners don’t know the distinctions between product attributes such as holistic, organic or natural.

What’s New and Trending?

As the natural segment has grown, a wide variety of products have appeared to meet consumer thirst for healthful options.

Bixbi Pet recently introduced its Rawbble line in dry, wet and freeze-dried formats. The line is meal free, Rowan said.

“As shoppers learn how meal powders are processed, demand for foods with meal-based proteins goes down,” he added.

Retailers also report that customers appreciate having a wide selection of products to choose from, especially cat owners.

“Cat owners want variety,” McCoy said. “There is more of a move toward an inclusion of wet diets, or at least including some feeding of raw, which we’re thrilled about.”

Formats are changing as well, with raw products and novel proteins becoming more prevalent.

“We’ve seen a lot of raw-coated foods being introduced,” McCoy added. “I expect to see more novel and unusual proteins being added.”

Green noted a rising trend of novel ingredients, as well.

“Some manufacturers are going into different things,” Green said. “Koha has always offered a pâté, and they’re going into pouches with shredded food. They’re using unique proteins, whereas most of the other shredded stuff is chicken or fish.”

Competition

Specialty’s Slice of the Pie

Natural food diets have afforded independent pet specialty retailers seeking relief from online and big-box competition a degree of solace over the years. However, as non-pet-specialty retail channels storm the category with their own natural offerings, the key to success for pet retailers becomes more nuanced, industry insiders report.

The good news is that “natural” still sells.

“Natural dog and cat food sales are definitely growing,” said Chris McCoy, co-owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center in North Royalton, Ohio. “Customers are gravitating to natural options. They’re getting more involved with what they feed their pets.”

Cat customers, in particular, have shown growing consideration for natural diets, retailers reported.

“Cat owners are increasingly interested in what they’re feeding their cats,” said Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat & Dogs Too in Denver. “We always preach to our customers that 50 percent of what they offer to their cats should be wet food, either raw or canned.”

Mary Anne Novak, co-owner of EarthWise Pet Supply East Village in San Diego, also noted an increase in demand for natural cat diets.

“We have a lot of [natural cat food] that goes out our door,” Novak said. “There is an increasing awareness about the health needs of male cats versus female cats, and how cats are susceptible to crystals forming in their urinary tract.”

Fortunately, independent pet retailers tend to have an edge in the natural diet space, McCoy said.

“We definitely fill a need,” she said. “People need to be able to come in and find some of the higher-quality foods and be able to talk about them. … We have an advantage, especially with raw foods, because these aren’t available online, unless, of course, someone is paying for expensive shipping costs.”

Still, as the category grows, online competition can present a challenge, meaning retailers need to adapt to the market.

“I really like to bring in natural products that aren’t available online and that are good,” Novak said. “There are companies out there, small family-run productions that only supply to local independent retailers and not online. [Still,] a lot of times, people do come in and pick my brain and end up ordering off of Amazon.”

Natural foods for dogs and cats have become so popular that big-box stores and supermarkets have moved in to the segment in a big way.

“We did have an edge, but I believe the big-box stores are starting to go all natural,” said Howard Bearz, co-owner of Cheshire Cat & Dog Too in Cheshire, Conn. “They’re trying to squeeze out the small independents. Big-box retailers are starting to do some of the more well-known raw frozen products.”

Several important brands in the natural segment have already started making appearances on big-box retailers’ shelves, or are rumored to be headed in that direction.

“[Champion Petfoods’] Orijen [brand] just went into Petco,” Green said. “That’s an issue for us. For our part, we offer better customer service and knowledge about food quality. Big-box store sales clerks generally don’t really have that much knowledge about it.”

Orijen’s recent move into Petco has already caused a shift in customers’ buying habits, retailers reported.

“Sales have already diminished a bit,” McCoy said. “Orijen and Acana used to be among our better sellers. Customers have heard about it, and a lot of them have already made the switch.”

On the upside, some retailers have been able to find ways to leverage their advantages and compete.

“Big box tries to compete, but I’m not threatened by them at all,” Novak said. “The majority of products just aren’t the same. We carry Nulo, and they have two separate lines. They have a boutique line, and then they have their Petco and PetSmart line. There’s only like a $2 difference from what I’m offering, which is a much better food than what Petco and PetSmart have.”

Consumer Education

The Go-To Resource

Independent pet retailers have long played an integral role within the pet industry as it relates to consumer education. This is especially true today, as apprehension over the quality of diets, ingredients and related health issues continue to mount—a recent example being the questions raised by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) about the health implications of serving dogs a grain-free diet.

“Customers want more education on those topics,” said Chris McCoy, co-owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center in North Royalton, Ohio. “Pet diets need explanation, especially with this new influx of concerns about what we’re feeding our pets. Customers come to us because we really help them do research. We guarantee everything we sell, and customers want an understanding of what they’re feeding their pets. They just are not trusting labels or name brands anymore.”

There are so many topics to cover when it comes to natural diets that, for many retailers, it helps to have specific points prepared when talking to customers.

“When we’re talking to customers, we emphasize that they’re getting [foods with] a better quality of ingredients,” said Amber Albright, manager for In Good Health All Natural Pet Food Store in Northfield, Ohio. “We try to stick with USA-made or Canada-made as much as possible. We don’t carry anything sourced from China. Customers always want to know that I don’t carry anything from China. We tell our customers we don’t carry products that have any artificial ingredients in them, such as BHA, BHT, ethoxyquin, no corn, wheat or soy.”

Education is one area in which independent retailers can shine, given the deep knowledge of nutrition and experience with natural products that many possess. Of course, having an assortment that differentiates a store from its competitors might also be a critical key to success.

“Natural diets rely on the indie pet store recommendation engine,” said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo. “In turn, pet stores should rely on food companies providing nutritionally superior products and channel exclusivity. It does not help a store to educate shoppers when those same shoppers can find the product online or in big-box pet stores.”

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