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Dog Marketplace: Nothing But The Best


Educated retailers and staff can help dog owners select premium dog foods for their pets.

By Stacy N. Hackett

When it comes to feeding the family dog, an increasing number of owners now seek out the best ingredients and formulations in a way that mirrors the steps they take in managing their own diets. To satisfy this demand, manufacturers offer a range of premium diet options, including raw diets, freeze-dried formulas, wet foods and kibble, with an emphasis on high-quality ingredients and a range of protein sources.

“The last decade has seen a major trend of pet owners migrating from ‘good to better’ when it comes to dog food quality,” said Maggie Johnson, owner of Sojos in Minneapolis. “Now we are seeing them subsequently migrate from ‘better to best.’ The humanization of pets has led to the common-sense realization that pets thrive on whole, natural food just as humans do.”

Indeed, as people shift their focus to eating healthier, more natural diets, they extend this practice to their pets, said Justin Magnuson, vice president of sales and marketing for Raw Bistro Pet Fare in Cannon Falls, Minn.

“Trends in pet food tend to follow the human market,” he said. “It just makes sense that we have the same interest and concerns about what our companion animals are eating.”

An indication of this trend is the increasing number of dog owners who now carefully read labels and strive to learn more about the ingredients that go into their dogs’ food.

“Customers have been more painstaking in doing their research about the source of where their pet foods originate,” said Anita Nair, sales and operations manager of Addiction Pet Foods in Kent, Wash. “They are very upfront about contacting manufacturers and asking us where each ingredient is sourced from.”

Susan Moss, president and founder of All the Best Pet Care, which has several stores in the Seattle area, noted that more customers come into her store armed with information.

“They research pet foods on the Internet and see that higher-quality foods make a difference in their pets’ appearance, energy level and general health,” she said.

Special Formulas
All the Best Pet Care offers several types of premium dog foods that Moss described as “premium kibble, alternative (freeze dried or dehydrated) and frozen (both raw and cooked).” Moss and her employees serve these foods to their own pets and can recommend them with confidence, she said.

“These are the products we want for our own fur children,” she said. “We would never sell what we wouldn’t use ourselves.”

Kahoots Inc., a chain of pet stores in Southern California, offers a similar range of products, including wet varieties. Three freezers contain raw food chubs, patties, sliders, bites and medallions, with a range of freeze-dried and dehydrated foods stocked on shelves immediately adjacent to the freezers, said Mark Cirillo, education coordinator.

Cirillo said the typical Kahoots customer seeks a higher-quality dog food.

“They are willing to pay a little more for these types of foods to avoid vet bills and improve their pets’ quality of life,” he said. “Many of them have done their research and are looking for a food that will help with symptoms their dog is showing.”

Kahoots’ sales associates are trained to understand the different types and brands of dog food sold at the store and suggest options based on a dog’s needs.

“A lot of factors will determine what type of food we recommend,” Cirillo said. “Most important is what the dog needs for its health.”

Premium foods formulated to address dogs’ specific health issues are another trend noted by manufacturers and retailers.

“There is a higher demand for healthy weight formulas, food specifically formulated for aging dogs, formulas for active dogs that focus on quality protein sources, etc.,” said Mike Smith, Pet Specialty Group director for Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis.

The desire to feed their own dogs a diet that would address their pets’ food-related health issues is what led many manufacturers, including Lucy Postins, to create their companies.

“I couldn’t find a healthy, all-natural food that was convenient to make, so I decided to create a dehydrated pet food using real whole foods myself,” said Postins, the founder and CEO of San Diego-based The Honest Kitchen.

Healthy Convenience
Postins’ emphasis on providing a food that is both healthful and convenient highlights another trend in the premium dog food category noted by manufacturers and retailers.

“Complete formulas continue to gain momentum as more and more pet parents seek out better-quality foods that are not only nutritious, but also convenient to feed,” said Bette Schubert, co-founder of Manchester, Conn.-based Bravo!.

Terri Grow, founder and president of PetSage in Alexandria, Va., welcomes this trend.

“I have seen some very exciting innovations such as Bravo!’s freeze-dried or Vital Essentials’ freeze-dried [foods],” she said. “[These are] completely different approaches, yet they address species’ specific needs and client convenience with quality ingredients and processing.”

PetSage offers raw, fresh frozen, freeze dried, canned and select dry brands, Grow said.

“By offering a full range of types, we can help a client choose the most appropriate food for their dog on the spectrum of least processed to most,” she said. “Raw being … the least processed and in many cases the simpler formulas, followed by freeze dried, cooked frozen, canned and dry.”

Grow cited education as a key element in selling premium dog food.

Manufacturers agreed.

“If retailers can match pet parents with products that are well-received by pets and offer good nutrition, this leads to greater customer satisfaction and loyalty,” Bravo!’s Schubert said. “Happy, healthy pets make for happy owners.”

Making the Switch

While many customers believe their dogs deserve only the best in premium dog foods, some owners need a bit of gentle persuasion to try a slightly pricier raw, freeze-dried, dehydrated or other premium dog food product. Retailers shared their tips for helping dog owners make the switch.

“Our secret weapon is our staff, and their training is key,” said Susan Moss, founder and president of All the Best Pet Care, which has several stores in the Seattle area. “We have a dedicated training classroom and our own full-time trainer to help them distinguish the differences between foods and learn to uncover customer needs by asking them lots of questions about their animals and tailoring solutions based on the answers.”

A similar philosophy holds true at Kahoots Inc., a chain of stores in Southern California.

“We listen to our customers, ask questions about their pets,” said Mark Cirillo, education coordinator. “We recommend a variety of protein sources, just as a dog would eat in the wild. For example, we might suggest that they feed a chicken formula of a raw food, and when that is gone, switch to the venison, or the lamb.”

Ultimately, associates at PetSage in Alexandria, Va., leave the final decision up to the customer.

“We walk the client through the pet’s history, health and diet issues, then offer recommendations and why,” said founder and president Terri Grow. “That way they take responsibility for choosing the food. We are not just upselling on ‘X’ being a better food.”—SNH



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