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Dog Marketplace: Call Off the Hunt

Posted: March 27, 2014, 2:50 p.m. EDT


Satisfy the needs of increasing numbers of dog owners who seek to feed their pets a more natural, ancestral diet by leading them to your raw and freeze-dried foods aisle.

By Lizett Bond

Canine enthusiasm at mealtime is often a gratifying affair for pet owners. Today, pet lovers are able to bolster Spot’s zeal with an ever-expanding array of dining options. This dietary diversity includes raw and freeze-dried fare.

"Pets are part of the family, and pet parents are increasingly aware of the benefits of eating a more species appropriate diet, including aiding in combating potential health issues,” said Kyle Frautnick, marketing director for San Francisco-based Primal Pet Foods.

For these reasons, consumers are talking to retailers, family and friends as well as studying information available in pet publications and online with regard to raw and freeze-dried selections.

This awareness has created an overall movement toward better-quality foods, said Bette Schubert, co-founder and senior vice president of sales, new product development and education at Bravo! in Manchester, Conn.

As a result, retailers are seeing rapid sales increases within the category of raw and freeze-dried foods, and manufacturers are meeting the demand by introducing raw foods as a natural alternative for pets.

Raw Diet
Allow pet owners to compare raw selections in well-stocked freezers. Carrie Brenner/I-5 Publishing at Pet Country

"Frozen raw diet sales as well as freeze-dried foods and treats are off the charts,” said Bill Greene, general manager of Reber Ranch in Kent, Wash. "In 2012 we had one solid door and chest freezer, today we have five glass-door freezers and are still growing.”

Back to Nature
One of the basic premises of raw is a return to a more natural, ancestral diet of meat, bone and organs without grains, fillers, low-grade meal, artificial preservatives and flavorings, Schubert said.
 
"It’s really understanding and selling the health benefits of raw and the value of whole ingredients,” said Del Peterson, president of Northwest Pets, a retailer with locations in Eagle and Meridian, Idaho.

"Once consumers understand the fact that dogs are still 99.8 percent genetically a wolf, and being fed that way is natural, they will try it.”

Frautnick added that the overall, long-term benefit of a raw diet is a proactive feeding regimen of nutrient-dense, species-appropriate foods. Immediate benefits include a shinier coat, clear eyes, healthy teeth and gums, and a smaller stool that is void of odor, Frautnick said.

Pet owners seeing these results often become vocal advocates, said Andrew Kim, owner of Healthy Spot, a retailer with three locations in the Los Angeles area.

"We believe raw foods are the gold standard in pet nutrition, and we actively educate and convert clients to raw and raw alternative products,” Kim added. "We are excited to see more pet parents make the switch to putting the best into their pets’ bowls.”

As raw distribution has expanded, providing more access than ever before, consumers are walking into retailers to inquire about raw product options, said Eric Emmenegger, Instinct senior brand manager for Nature’s Variety in St. Louis.

Educated consumers also are paying attention to sourcing when shopping for pet foods, and manufacturers are listening.

"Our Bravo! line of frozen-fresh raw foods are made in the USA and New Zealand from ingredients sourced in those respective countries,” Schubert said.

In spite of this interest, one of the criticisms to feeding raw foods is lack of convenience. Preparation can be perceived as a challenge for on-the-go consumers. Manufacturers are developing raw offerings to address those concerns.

Primal Pet Foods’ new Pronto product is designed to offer a convenient method of feeding raw foods.

INDUSTRY VOICES

What effective marketing strategies have you used for raw and freeze-dried foods?

"It’s all about education. At Reber Ranch, we presented a Raw Pet Food Clinic with representatives from manufacturers on-hand to answer questions. Customers purchasing raw pet food were offered half off of their second food purchase. We have some great sales reps who really understand this category and were able to successfully communicate with customers attending this event.”—Bill Greene, general manager of Reber Ranch in Kent, Wash.

"The products really speak for themselves, but getting customers to put it in the bowl is the hurdle. Sampling the product so pets can try it really makes a huge difference. Ask the manufacturers for support; as partners they have a shared interest in helping educate customers about the benefit of raw and raw-alternative foods.”—Andrew Kim, owner of Healthy Spot, with three locations in the Los Angeles area

"A member of our sales team got creative at a local pet specialty retailer and set up a raw bar. This provided pets with the opportunity to sample Instinct Raw, and allowed pet parents to ask questions and learn about a raw diet.”—Eric Emmenegger, Instinct senior brand manager for Nature’s Variety in St. Louis

"Outside of the retail store environment, we’ve seen a lot of very supportive social media chatter regarding our brand and raw feeding in general. Now more than ever, customers want to hear from their local stores and interact with them online. Top retailers know that social media is a powerful way to communicate. Why not take the time to share success stories with regard to staff-favorite products?”—Kyle Frautnick, marketing director for Primal Pet Foods in San Francisco

Small, bite-sized pieces allow for easy portioning that pet owners can just scoop and serve, Frautnick said.

"It’s the same formulation as our raw frozen formulas, but in a bite-sized, quick-thaw format,” he said.

New "scoop and go” products make the transition from kibble to raw easier for consumers, Kim added.

Freeze-dried Convenience
Providing the convenience of kibble with the nutritional advantages of raw, the freeze-dried category is attracting a broader market.

"The demand for freeze dried is consistent and continues to grow over time; for this reason, we have brought in more diversity of brands,” said Peterson. "Stella & Chewy’s is a freeze-dried brand that has done very well for us.”

The freeze-drying process removes moisture from raw frozen formulas through a process that reduces the atmospheric pressure around the food, allowing the frozen water molecules to evaporate. In this way, raw frozen formulas convert from frozen to freeze-dried without ever being thawed or cooked, thereby retaining all of the nutritional value of a raw food product minus the moisture, Frautnick said.

As a shelf-stable form of raw that is easy for pet owners to incorporate into their pets’ current diets, freeze-dried is a convenient and less-intimidating means for consumers to switch from kibble or canned to raw, Emmenegger said.

"Because people who use kibble or canned food can serve freeze-dried as a "topper,” the base of customers is going to be much wider and more expansive than raw,” he said. "Consumers now have the health benefits of feeding a raw food diet in a shelf-stable, easily transportable and highly palatable format that pets love.”

Northwest Pets’ Peterson agreed that freeze-dried foods are appealing to pet owners who might be reluctant to try raw.

"The great thing about freeze-dried is it makes foods more accessible, it’s more convenient, it looks less scary, and it’s a good bridge to getting consumers to try raw,” Peterson said.

Freeze-drying imparts a great texture without the need for grains, additives, preservatives or flavorings, Schubert noted.

At the time of writing, Bravo! planned to introduce a new freeze-dried food in March. The product is built upon a single-protein foundation and will include grass-fed, hormone-free red meats and hormone- and antibiotic-free poultry, according to Schubert.

"We will be bringing what we believe to be a unique twist to the product by adding organ meats and several other ingredients,” Schubert said.

Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co. has a somewhat different take on this category. Recently launched in limited markets, its Hi-Bio line of foods and treats is a gently dehydrated product offering the benefits of raw foods with the convenience of handling a dry product, said Holly Sher, owner of the Wheeling, Ill., company.

"The benefit of this type of food is that it offers dogs higher moisture content than extruded kibble or freeze-dried foods, enabling digestion and nutrient absorption,” she said.

Taste Tests
When it comes to promoting freeze-dried and raw foods, retailers and manufacturers agree that education is the foundation of a strong marketing program. For this reason, a well-versed retail staff is essential with regard to imparting the benefits of feeding these products.

"Some companies provide staff with a bag of food per month; they don’t necessarily feed it as a primary diet, but nobody sells a product better than a customer of that company,” said Peterson. "You don’t have to fake passion about something you have used yourself.”

Sampling also is important to marketing these foods.

"One of the most effective things a retailer can do is to offer samples,” said Schubert. "In-store demos and couponing are also great ways to show customers the health benefits and appeal of these products.

"We also encourage retailers to build an ‘all-natural’ section, which means stocking several brands so that consumers can compare ingredients and benefits across several product lines,” Schubert said.

She added that by taking advantage of merchandising and educational materials provided by manufacturers, retailers can effectively help educate their customers about raw food health choices for their pets.

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