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Dog Marketplace: The Next Food Evolution

Posted: June 19, 2012, 6:30 p.m. EDT

Organic and grain-free still lead the premium and ultrapremium dog diet pack, but a new twist on an existing trend is gaining traction.
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

It’s no surprise that organic, novel-protein and grain-free diets have lead dog food trends over the past five-plus years; however, the newest spin on the craze centers on formulating those foods—and the carbohydrates used in them—to fall low on the glycemic index, pet industry participants reported.

Such a shift may benefit not only the dogs, but retailers, too, noted Jeff English, CEO of Horizon Pet Nutrition in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada.

“Much of the growth in pet specialty is around grain-free,” he said. “Consequently, the price point of grain-free has continued to escalate, and that has prompted an exodus from the pet specialty market back to mass channels. As an industry, we need to be cognizant of these changes that are happening in grain-free.”

Super premium dog food
Growing consumer awareness has contributed to an uptick in the number of superpremium diets currently offered.Photo Courtesy of Cherrybrook
Independent pet stores can recapture those customers by offering not only the top-shelf organic and grain-free diets, but also the newest low-glycemic grain-free brands not sold in big-box stores and mass-market channels, according to retailers and manufacturers.

Correcting Carbs
Low-glycemic foods are among the new trends in dog diets. These meals, which are formulated to not trigger elevated blood glucose and insulin levels like high-glycemic foods can, trade sugar-spiking potato and tapioca for brown rice, oatmeal, red lentils, peas and garbanzo beans that provide a slow and steady source of energy, reported Michael Landa, CEO of Nulo Inc. in Austin, Texas.

“Carbohydrates are required to make a piece of kibble, so we’ve chosen to use low-glycemic carbohydrate choices in our diets,” he said. “So, for example, our endurance formula is ‘grain-free,’ but we use chickpeas and peas, which have a low-glycemic profile but also allow us to get a higher protein level in the food for athletic dogs.”

Low-glycemic, grain-free diets are something retailer Ramie Gulyas, co-owner of Follow Your Nose, in Evanston, Ill., has been aware of and selling for some time—and her customers are seeing the benefits when they switch.

grain-free pet food
With grain-free options abounding, retailers may need to retrain staff. Katie Ingmire/BowTie Inc. at Pet Supply
“Grain-free is great, but there are some grain-free foods that are so high in carbohydrates that they can offset other health benefits,” she said. “Low-glycemic foods are already getting a loyal following. I have customers who weren’t necessarily looking for grain-free that come in with allergy issues, and they have transitioned very easily onto Dogswell’s Nutrisca…It’s very palatable and easy on the stomach, and it’s not high in carbohydrates. It has made a difference.”

Raw, Dehydrated Holding Steady
Other popular types of grain-free diets include raw, freeze-dried and dehydrated, said Barbara Ratner, co-owner of Holistic Pet Cuisine in Boca Raton, Fla. It’s a trend she has seen take hold among her customers.

“These foods are well-tolerated by diabetic dogs as well as dogs with colitis and intestinal issues,” she said. “They are always grain-free, and grain-free is and always will be popular because they are finding out that with a high-protein diet, a dog is able to eat less than with a food filled with grains, gluten and all the fillers.”

One of the newest raw dehydrated blends on the market combines freeze-dried raw with grain-free kibble, said Jill Gainer, director of communication and consumer insights for Nature’s Variety in Lincoln, Neb.

“Many pet parents understand the benefits of feeding raw because of the biologically appropriate nutrition it provides, but the frozen form may not work with their lifestyle,” she said, adding that the freeze-dried raw kibble speaks to consumers’ desire for convenience.

Raw diets are also filled with immune system builders, Ratner noted.

“Dogs are better able to tolerate and digest the food,” she said. “Plus, they have more living enzymes that boost the immune system so the body can fight against any diseases.”

Ingredient Sourcing Matters
Despite the stagnant economy and reports of dog owners spending less on food than in previous years, organic diets remain strong sellers, retailers reported—and even more so this past spring as the latest wave of pet food recalls washed over the industry.

Industry Voices
Do you offer dog food samples to your customers?
“We give out all the samples humanly possible. Palatability is the biggest reason. A lot of dog foods taste like Melba toast. If all the sudden you go from eating Melba toast twice a day to spaghetti, what’s going to happen? You’re not going to want to eat the Melba toast any more. It’s no different with dogs.”
—Jim Hacke, owner of Family Dog Center in LaCrosse, Wis.

“We are all about sampling. Any company that makes samples available to the store, I have them. They’re what help sell the lines. I don’t want somebody buying a $70 bag of food that their dog can’t eat. Most of the samples also have coupons on them, so that makes them attractive as well.”
—Ramie Gulyas, co-owner of Follow Your Nose in Evanston, Ill.

“Samples are very popular for us. For customers who haven’t heard of a particular line that we may recommend for their dog, we always recommend the sample to start off with so they can try it at home to see if their dog will like it.”
—Greg Phillips, co-owner of Gone to the Dogs with locations in St. Pete Beach and Madeira, Fla.

“Samples are a necessity in raw and freeze-dried as well as dry for cats and dogs.”
—Barbara Ratner, co-owner of Holistic Pet Cuisine in Boca Raton, Fla.

“Customers are becoming more savvy, particularly with all the recalls that are happening,” said Greg Phillips, co-owner of Gone to the Dogs Boutique with locations in St. Pete Beach and Madeira, Fla. “People want to know what’s in the food. I’ve actually had a couple of customers ask if I know where the product is being manufactured, which I’ve never had anyone ask before.”

Gulyas at Follow Your Nose has experienced the same thing.

“My customer is definitely concerned with where the ingredients come from,” she said. “And we’re very concerned, because where the ingredients are coming from plays a lot into the food that’s being recalled. I just had a conversation with a customer about where the beef is sourced for several different raw foods because there’s a big difference in taste and quality.”

This demand for ingredient source awareness—from “seed to feed” as industry insiders say— means that more food makers are continuing to tap in to the organic trend, said Mike Thompson, CEO of Wenaewe, which is based in Soriano, Uruguay.

“And really,” he continued, “with the recalls that happen in the industry, it gives the retailer a lot of comfort to know that organic food makers have that type of control over their ingredients. They know it’s something that is controlled by the USDA.”

At Follow Your Nose, customers buy all the organic food and merchandise they can get their hands on, Gulyas said.

Organic, where it’s available, my customers want,” she said. “If I had more, I would sell more if there were more brands available. And I think a lot of companies are transitioning in that direction.”

For all foods, retailers can seek out manufacturers’ safety records and pay attention to reports of quality control issues, said Bob Walterhouse, technical trainer for PLB International’s Pronature Holistic brand in Boucherville, Quebec, Canada.

“Retailers are really doing their customers a favor when they take the time to learn who these companies are and direct all customers to foods that have shown that quality is more of a focus than any given trend,” he said.

Customers want variety, too, added Lauren Grimm, spokesperson for Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.
“Retailers today are paying more attention to ‘natural’ and ‘holistic’ food brands that offer more choice to their customers,” Grimm said.

Educated Shoppers
Dog owners are savvier than ever. They’re doing their pet food research and coming to retailers for advice and information—which means pet store associates should be prepared to respond, said Nancy Liao, founder of Zoe’s Premium in New York.

Wet dog food
If samples are unavailable for wet foods, staff can suggest that a consumer buy one can first to see if their dog likes it. Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc. at PetStop Warehouse
“The dog-owning public has a growing appetite for the educational component to feeding their dogs better-quality food,” she said. “The whys and the hows really interest them the way it might not have five years ago.”

This means one—well, two—things to Gulyas.

“Our customer is becoming more educated,” she said. “So that means we have to be educated about what we sell and what our competitors sell, too.”

Behind the counter, Gulyas has binders full of pet food information for her sales team and customers to peruse, and she takes full advantage of distributors and manufacturer reps who do in-store demonstrations and informational seminars.

This, along with her product line, sets Follow Your Nose apart from the competition.

“You go to big-box stores for price,” Gulyas said. “You’re not going there for customer service and information because it’s just not what they’re about. But in an independent store, I get a ton of people coming in, just asking questions about food. That’s what we’re there for.” 


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