Pet Food Trends of the Future That Independents Can Leverage Now
Millennials are the most likely to embrace meat-alternative foods for pets
Baby boomers and gen Xers might remember when their local pet store’s dog and cat food assortment consisted mainly of industrial-sized bags of kibble and canned diets of questionable quality. But since the pets-are-family-too movement ramped up in the 2000s, there’s been a proliferation of innovation in pet food, leading to more choices.
Pet food—which the American Pet Products Association (APPA) reports at $30 billion of the $72 billion spent in the U.S. on pets in 2018—is the largest category in the pet space.
Today’s pet food choices include raw, frozen and made-to-order, while an internet search reveals unexpected ingredients such as alligator, beer, quinoa and even crickets.
And for anyone wondering what more can be done with pet food, the answer is a lot.
Independent pet retailers have been gut-punched by live animal bans, the “Amazonization” of retail, pet superstores, and the emergence of pet sections in the grocery, drug and mass merchandise sector.
The good news is that the pet food category offers independents a way to keep pace and even outdistance their big-box and online rivals.
While independents can’t compete with the big pet chains on price or “breadth of selection, they can compete in other areas,” said David Lummis, a pet market analyst with Rockville, Md.-based market research firm Packaged Facts.
Lummis contends that all of the current pet food trends, as well as the growing popularity of cannabidiol (CBD) in pet treats, are “potentially potent competitive avenues for independent pet retailers.”
“It’s up to independent pet retailers to have their fingers on that pulse, especially when it comes to pet food,” he said.
It’s also up to retailers to leverage their particular strengths, according to Todd Rowan, senior vice president for Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., maker of
Rawbble freeze-dried dog food.
“Indies must use their collective channel power and support food brands that protect their business—and ignore food brands that don’t,” Rowan said, adding that these stores also “win with knowledge, consumer touch and assortment.”
“Big-box and mass employees simply don’t impact shoppers in the same way, if at all,” Rowan said.
Pet food innovations don’t have to involve what’s in the food or how it’s prepared, but can instead focus on how it gets to the pet bowl.
Raised Right, which makes lightly cooked, frozen pet food, sells direct to the customer while still offering its products in retail freezer sections—without raising the ire of its retail partners.
The day the Rye, N.Y.-based manufacturer launched in 2018, it also began The Right Way Retail Alliance in “an effort to create an additional revenue model for brick-and-mortar retailers.”
The program incentivizes brick-and-mortars to make referrals, such as when walk-in customers inquire about home delivery, to the company’s website by rebating them a percentage of online referral purchases.
“Understanding that these two channels are often at odds, we created a new model of distribution that allows consumers to purchase product in-store or online, without one channel competing with the other,” said co-founder and CEO Braeden Ruud.
“Not only has this [program] allowed stores that don’t have freezer space to sell our food, but it has functioned as a form of customer service for stores that physically stock our food,” Ruud said, adding that this type of incentivized referral model is a first in the pet industry.
Ingredients That Hit the Mark
A trend that will continue, according to Lummis, is foods that zero in on specific health concerns.
“Independents can increasingly overlap with the types of specialized condition-specific products that are sold by veterinarians, an area in which even many pet superstores are often lacking,” he said.
One only needs to look back to the melamine pet food recall of 2007 to know that pet food is only as good as its ingredients.
For most of its 75-year history, Diamond V, an animal health company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has developed “microbial fermentates” for livestock feeds.
However, with the lucrative pet industry looming, Diamond V ventured into the companion-animal side of the business, as pet food and private-label manufacturers are always on the hunt for new ingredients that optimize health functions.
Kevin Larsen, director of global strategic accounts, explained how the company has gone to great lengths to “adapt its proprietary fermentation technology to benefit pets and pet owners.”
“Finally, this year, at Petfood Forum in Kansas City, we launched our latest immune health product, TruMune, which is specifically designed for inclusion in the diets of dogs and cats,” Larsen said.
TruMune is only sold to pet food manufacturers.
“TruMune works naturally with the biology of the animal to maintain immune strength, support digestive tissue integrity, and promote a healthy microbial balance with prebioticlike effects,” said Ilya Frumkin, director of companion-animal business development.
“[Knowledge of] a pet food’s functional benefits from unique health-supporting ingredients can be an effective means for independent specialty retailers to differentiate from the big-box space,” Frumkin added.
Fungi Is What’s for Dinner
Meatless food for pets is another trend that is expected to grow.
“Veganism and flexitarianism in the millennial demographic are … popular, and that’s also an age group that loves pets, so a lot of progress in the space is driven by the millennial consumer,” said Florian Radke, chief marketing officer for Wild Earth, a Berkeley, Calif.-based maker of fungi-based proteins for dogs.
“As the research shows, people are interested in opting out of animal-based proteins for their pets,” Radke said.
Technically speaking, Wild Earth’s koji is not a plant but rather a fungus; however, it is still in keeping with the whole vegan spirit.
Mark Cuban, a investor on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” was so taken in by Wild Earth’s pitch—its dry koji kibble hits stores in September—that he invested $500,000 in the company.
“Mark immediately understood the opportunity to disrupt the $30 billion-plus pet food industry with a new protein source,” Radke said. “There’s no question our process is safer and cleaner than protein from animal slaughter.
“We see a huge interest in the market for clean, safe and sustainable protein,” he said, citing consumer research that 35 percent of pet owners would ditch meat for plant-based alternatives because of sourcing and safety concerns.
In Radke’s estimation, millennials will fuel expansion of the vegan pet food space for at least the next three to five years.
But not everyone is enamored with veggie or vegan diets for pets.
“Vegetarian pet diets have been a niche market for a while,” said Michael Eggleston, companion animal technical specialist for Diamond V.
“However, due to recent discoveries in the amino acid deficiencies of veg-only diets, consumer awareness about feeding pet species the way they evolved to eat is at an all-time high, which has created a more discerning consumer,” he explained.
Still, koji is a different animal.
“It is important to note that it’s a whole protein with all 10 essential amino acids, and not a protein isolate like the soy, pea or rice protein used in other plant-based pet foods,” Radke said.
“Clean Meat” and Other Trends
Another area in which Wild Earth is looking to use biotechnology to “disrupt” the pet food space is in the production of “cultured or clean meat derived from animal cells.”
“Outside of pet food specifically, genomics and microbiome research are really interesting areas in science for pets. The connection is pet foods laden with antibiotics may disrupt healthy gut microbes and fuel disease and obesity too,” Radke said.
“The reality is consumers already have fears that animal-based foods have many risks like antibiotics, hormones, artificial colors or flavors, plastics and other contaminants.”
Meanwhile, even though raw pet food isn’t new, many still see good times ahead for this category.
“We don’t see passion for raw nutrition slowing down; actually, it’s only gaining momentum,” said Brad Johnson, chief marketing officer of Nature’s
Variety, the St. Louis-based manufacturer of Instinct, a raw pet food brand.
“In addition, the surge in raw education from retailers, raw feeders and raw pet food brands is bridging the knowledge gap most pet parents had about raw nutrition,” Johnson said. “Therefore, independents are best equipped to educate the public about raw; armed with ‘people first’ teams and unmatched knowledge about raw, neighborhood pet stores are a great match for any pet parent looking to learn more about raw pet food.”
Johnson added that pet owners are taking cues from human-food movements like Whole30 and aisles in their local grocery stores as to the qualities to look for in their pet food.
While more of a ripple than a wave, there are a number of small commercial feed mills, reported Eggleston, that are creating small-batch, private-label products to accommodate smaller chain stores. Eggleston thinks there is a market for these premium private-label brands with unique ingredient profiles in the pet specialty space.
“Millennials are drawn to this ‘small-batch, hand-crafted’ philosophy. Although it’s a small market, it commands a high price at retail,” Eggleston said.
Together, these trends represent fertile ground from which retailers can grow.
“Over time, if maximum effort is put into introducing, demo-ing, sampling and continually promoting independent-only brands, the independent retailers will build a new stable of exclusive brands that can help carry them into the future and perpetuate loyalty to their stores,” forecasted Adam Jacobson, executive vice president of Raised Right.