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Do-Good Diets

Premium holistic diets that not only satiate dogs but also provide health benefits are in demand.


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As dog owners become more educated about the connection between diet and health, there has been a greater interest in holistic diets. These days, dog owners are looking for foods that do more than fill their pets’ stomachs, favoring products that give their pets as much nutritional benefits as possible.

Melissa Hoover, owner of Nature Dog in Omaha, Neb., said the demand for holistic diets has grown because people are more aware of their own health—and how food affects it. As people begin to see a difference in how they feel, thanks to a better diet, they’re more aware of the difference it can make in their dog’s life.

“With a lot of conditions, such as allergies, you can see a drastic change in the dog’s quality of life, and that only supports the trend even more,” Hoover said. “As the dog’s health improves, and the dog parent starts to share this information with others, you can see how the trend grows.”

Steve Ball, co-founder and CMO of I and Love and You in Boulder, Colo., said that the humanization trend is another a catalyst behind the growing consumer interest in holistic diets.

“As the ‘humanization of pets’ movement continues to grow, so does the rise in natural and healthy choices,” he said. “As long as pet parents are making natural and healthy choices for themselves, they are also going to make those choices for their pets and their households.”

Joey Herrick, president of Lucy Pet Products in Westlake Village, Calif., cited people’s growing skepticism about commercial pet diets combined with their desire to extend their pets’ lives as two more significant drivers behind the demand for holistic foods.

“First, since pets’ lifespans are short to begin with, people want to help their pets avoid disease and do everything they can to help their pets live longer,” Herrick said. “Second, consumers are hearing about products contaminated with lead, excessive levels of vitamin D, euthanized meat or supposedly ‘byproduct-free’ foods that actually contain low-quality byproducts. This raises concerns among consumers and makes them question what they are feeding their pets.”

While the definition of holistic can get hairy—as can the meaning of other terms such as “natural” or “wholesome,” which are used a lot—the key is to pay attention to the ingredients, said Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va. It’s something that she said a lot of pet owners are already doing.

“You see those terms thrown around a lot, and it can be confusing,” Boden said. “But what we’re really looking at is the ingredients. Are they human grade? Are they locally sourced? We’re a lot more interested in that kind of information. We believe that a holistic food is one that benefits the body and the overall physical well-being of the pet. The answer to that is in the ingredients and their sourcing.”

Herrick concurred.

“Formulas need to be based on what is truly best for the animal, and not only bottom-line profits. Some consumers might be surprised to learn what some brands actually put into their pet foods,” he said. “Companies should be transparent as to where their ingredients come from.”

Samples Sell

While there are a variety of ways to display and attract attention to particular foods, nothing quite does it like sampling, said Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va. She said that it helps pet owners commit to a new food when they have the opportunity to try it first.

“We really believe in samples,” Boden said. “Even if the company doesn’t provide samples, we’ll break open a bag and let people see it and sample it.”

Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., agreed. She said that in-store sampling opportunities can be a great way to attract interest. In addition, she said that innovative, in-store display units, such as off-shelf secondary placements of product displays, also help capture shoppers’ attention.

Bob Rubin, CEO and president of Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., added that having a digital and social media presence is also foundational—particularly with millennial pet owners. Recent research shows that last year, 62 percent of millennials were pet owners, said Rubin—and that number is expected to grow.

“Beyond having a mere presence, it is critical to present a message that will resonate with millennials’ interests and lifestyle preferences to help break through the clutter,” Rubin said.

Taking steps to separate its stores from the “average retailer” is always top of mind when The Natural Dog Pet Food Market creates displays and spotlights products, said Amanda Casper, assistant store manager for the company, which has locations in North Carolina.

“We spotlight new foods as they become available but also like to draw attention to holistic diets and why they matter,” Casper said. “We’ll break down the dietary needs of the dog and what they would actually be getting from their diet in nature were they in the wild. We take time to talk to customers and create displays that explain why that’s important.”

For the Foodies

Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., has unveiled several innovations this year, including grain- and gluten-free dog food, said Bob Rubin, president and CEO. Several new dry and wet foods hit retail shelves in August. The launch features foods for many lifestages—from puppies to seniors—as well as small to large breeds. Among the new foods, Love at First Bark starts puppies out with a grain-free diet and optimal protein. Young at Heart, on the other hand, is focused on dogs in their senior years. Fit and Fabulous is a grain-free weight-control recipe that aims to provide optimal protein while remaining low in fat and calories, Rubin said.

Solid Gold also added new flavors to its Mighty Mini grain-free line for toy and small-breed dogs. And the popular grain-free Green Cow Green Beef Tripe Recipe is now available in an easy-to-serve 3.5-ounce cup.

WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., has also debuted recipes. Wellness Core RawRev is a combination of high-protein kibble with 100 percent raw meat. In addition, an improved lineup of Holistic Select recipes will continue to deliver complete digestive support with high levels of probiotics and digestive enzymes, according to the company.

Get Visual

When it comes to talking to dog owners about new food choices, education should be a priority—it should not only be an element of store displays, but also a goal behind conversations.

Steve Ball, co-founder and CMO of I and Love and You in Boulder, Colo., said that it’s not uncommon for pet owners to have a lot of questions about transitioning food or introducing new ingredients. This offers retailers the opportunity to step in and help.

“There seems to be a misconception that pets should eat the same thing every day,” Ball said. “We believe that variety truly is the spice of life. It would be great if there were more education empowering pet parents to challenge the norm. Explore new ingredients, introduce variety, and don’t be afraid to try new brands or flavors. Be more in touch with how pets respond to different ingredients.”

Bob Rubin, CEO and president of Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., said that partnering with manufacturers can also be incredibly helpful. At Solid Gold, independent pet specialty retail partners are viewed as the key behind pet owner education, and the company wants to be there to support them in that effort, Rubin said.

“We value the relationships store associates have with consumers and the expertise that they can offer on our brand,” he said. “We’ve designed a robust nutritional training program that provides ongoing courses and education for our sales team, which they then relay to our retailer partners so that store associates are adequately prepared to field any in-store questions that consumers have.”

Being able to provide the educational support is also critical for pet retailers that want to foster a loyal customer base, said Joey Herrick, president of Lucy Pet Products in Westlake Village, Calif.

“Leverage your vendor’s sales reps to train and educate your staff,” he said. “A knowledgeable store staff will keep consumers coming back into your store.”

A hands-on approach is incredibly helpful, as well. Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., said that visuals really help pet owners to better understand food choices. In addition to opening cans and bags of food for pet owners to sample, Boden often encourages customers to see the food, Boden said, adding that this is particularly helpful when selling dehydrated foods that require added water.

“We want our customers to see what the food is going to look like when they feed it to their pet, so we’ll do a demonstration and add water,” Boden said. “We’re big on opening things up and showing the customer exactly what they’re buying.”

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