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Convenience Is Key

Alternative pet food offerings such as raw freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are gaining ground and helping independents stand out.


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Premium pet foods are quickly becoming the tool of choice for independent pet retailers that want to differentiate themselves and stand out from the competition. Raw freeze-dried and dehydrated options provide customers with more choices, and pet specialty retailers reported success with recommending these products to help customers address various issues their dogs face.

“A lot of the new customers are people who have reached their limit with trying all the different dry foods and having nothing work,” said Ken Daminger, owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, N.J. “Their last resort is to try [raw] freeze dried.”

As a result, the raw freeze-dried and dehydrated category is among the fastest-growing segments in the pet food industry.

“Alternative diets are the fastest-growing, albeit the smallest, category of pet food,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “They represent the consumer’s strong desire for minimally processed foods.”

Consumer awareness is driving the trend, both manufacturers and retailers reported, and customers are increasingly interested in switching or augmenting their pets’ diets with freeze-dried options.

“More pet owners become educated every day and are switching from dry and wet to freeze dried,” said Vanessa Quick, director of sales for Purpose Pet Food in New York. “They’ll add it to their rotational diet to provide their pets with better food. Considering the current market size and trend, we see pretty much unlimited growth for years to come.”

Freeze-dried options are appealing for their ease of use, retailers reported.

“Freeze dried is convenient,” said Kim Albright, owner of Kim’s Natural Pet Foods in Valrico, Fla. “It travels well, and you don’t have to worry about the whole thawing out process. … It’s just a great product that’s easy to feed.”

Palatability is another big selling point when it comes to raw freeze-dried and dehydrated products.

“[Raw freeze dried] is probably 30 percent of my business right now,” Albright said. “It’s really the convenience factor … and dogs eat it well and it’s very palatable for them.”

Though cost is a consideration, for customers with dogs that have skin and coat issues, retailers reported success helping them address these concerns.

“It’s not a product that’s for every dog, or every breed, but definitely for people who have experienced skin and coat issues with their dogs,” Daminger said. “That is something that we’ll bring up in the conversation.”

Pet owners are increasingly interested in the nutritional content and labeling of the foods they buy, too.

“Our customers are very educated, and sometimes they’ll walk in and grill us,” said Katherine Holtry, owner of Just for Pets in Austin, Texas. “You have to know what you’re selling.”

Options Abound

Raw freeze-dried and dehydrated foods are seeing increased interest from customers, retailers reported, and new offerings are coming on the market to meet demand.

Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis recently introduced the Cloud Star WellMade Dehydrated Mix line, which is available in four meat plus vegetables blends—with chicken, pork, beef and lamb—as well as a meat-free vegetarian option, said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for the company.

“Every diet, including the vegetarian diet, is complete and balanced and can be fed alone or with fresh meat,” she said. “WellMade Dehydrated Mixes … give consumers lots of preparation options when deciding how to feed their dogs.”

Purpose Pet Food in New York recently launched its line of freeze-dried dog food and treats, said Vanessa Quick, director of sales for the company. The line includes three formulas of dog food, available in 14-ounce bags, including Beef & Veggie, Chicken & Veggie, and Turkey & Veggie recipes.

“Freeze-drying is an innovative method that enables pet owners to get the benefits of raw, but with convenience,” Quick said. “Since the freeze-drying process locks in the nutritional value, taste, color and freshness of each fresh, raw ingredient, pets enjoy the same great taste as regular raw food conveniently and without safety issues.”

The company is adding two more formulas in the near future, Quick said.

Stella & Chewy’s recently introduced its Raw Blend and Raw Coated Kibble, featuring a lightly baked kibble coated with a freeze-dried raw protein. In addition to the coated kibble, Raw Blend includes freeze-dried raw pieces of Stella & Chewy’s Meal Mixers.

“Stella & Chewy’s Raw Blend and Raw Coated Kibble are doing great,” said Kim Albright, owner of Kim’s Natural Pet Foods in Valrico, Fla.

Increasingly, retailers are checking manufacturer labels carefully, with an emphasis on ingredient sourcing and nutritional content.

“One of our favorites is Stella & Chewy’s,” said Brittani Bash, manager of Just for Pets in Austin, Texas. “They’re real big on the market right now. They add real ingredients into the food. It’s very nutritious for the animal.”

She also carries Nature’s Logic and Instinct, which she noted is moving more into the freeze-dried department.

Nulo Pet Food introduced five freeze-dried recipes for dogs this summer with its complete and balanced Freeze-Dried Raw diets line.

“Every recipe is made with up to 83 percent meat, organs and bone, with fruit and vegetable pairings,” said Heather Acuff, customer care and product development manager for Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas.

“Alternative food sales are continuing to climb, and this trend runs parallel to the increasing demands from pet owners for foods that are less processed, more natural and deliver more whole-ingredient benefits,” Acuff added.

Start a Conversation

Many customers are unfamiliar with raw freeze-dried offerings, and they often don’t know the benefits.

“These are newer food formats,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis. “While consumers may be familiar with these types of foods in the human market, they are probably not aware that they are also available for pets.”

It’s useful to identify what customers’ expectations are, and to be ready to explain diet safety and how products in the category fit into feeding pets overall.   

“Customers are used to kibble,” said Brittani Bash, manager of Just for Pets in Austin, Texas. “People are habitual. Their main concern is: Is it OK for their dog?”

Bringing customers up to speed is a big part of Bash’s business, she said.

“You have to know what your store stands for,” she said. “One of our main goals is to educate our customers. Nowadays, pets aren’t just pets. They’re family. Knowing how to talk to [customers] is really important.”

Customers are increasingly interested in what’s printed on pet food labels. They’re looking for familiar ingredients, sourcing transparency and better overall nutrition, said Michael Landa, CEO of Nulo Pet Food in Austin, Texas.

“Greater emphasis will be placed on these ‘cleaner’ labels,” he said. “I also believe that pet parents seek to engage more with their pets at mealtime.”

It’s important to start a dialogue with customers to understand what their needs are.

“We always ask questions,” said Ken Daminger, owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, N.J. “We want to find out as much information as we can about the pet and what the issues might be, and then we try and assess what we have as the best solution. If you don’t ask questions, you’re just guessing.”

Service and Samples

Making shelf space in many independent pet retail locations is somewhat tricky, as retailers have to find the right mix of products to meet customer demand while trying not to overwhelm visitors with too many options.

“We have to walk the customers through the store,” said Ken Daminger, owner of Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, N.J. “We usually greet everybody as they come through the door. We’re a small, single location, so we can do that.”

It also can be helpful for retailers to use a personal testimonial about the foods they sell to help customers make the decision.

“I use Steve’s Real Food for my own dog, and I definitely believe in it,” Daminger said. “She’s a 12-year-old Shih Tzu, and she’s been experiencing all kinds of skin and coat issues. Since I’ve switched to raw, she’s been acting like a puppy again. She’s not losing her hair in clumps. Her skin is not red like it used to be. She’s a new dog.”

At Just for Pets in Austin, Texas, manager Brittani Bash uses basic point-of-purchase displays and shelf talkers to get customers’ attention. Also, free samples help induce customers to try new raw freeze-dried and dehydrated offerings.

“We use lots of samples,” Bash said. “People love free stuff. Honestly, it pretty much sells itself. People are always looking for an alternative to kibble and wet food.”

Other retailers reported success with samples, as well.

“My main thing here is customer service,” said Kim Albright, owner of Kim’s Natural Pet Foods in Valrico, Fla. “You just have to talk to people [when] they come in and help them. Samples are real helpful when they do that.”

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