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Exotics Marketplace: Bite-Size Goes Big

Posted: May 30, 2014, 11:30 a.m. EDT

Small mammal food and treats sales continue to increase, thanks to new products that offer more healthful choices and affordable prices. 

By Ramona D. Marek

The small mammal food industry is growing swiftly; consumers seek broader choices.

"This segment of the pet market continues to grow rapidly,” said Melissa Ross, director of marketing and education for Oxbow Animal Health of Murdock, Neb. "We have seen increased sales in the fortified food and treat categories each year, which bodes well for retailers.”

Healthier Choices and Quality Control
According to interviewed sources, today’s customers want premium pet food made with higher-quality, all-natural and organic ingredients that reflect their own diets.

"The trends suggest ever-increasing demand for all-natural and GMO-free small animal foods and treats,” said Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sunseed Inc. in Bowling Green, Ohio.

"We encourage our customers to buy the same natural food that we feed our animals and maintain that diet until the animal has had time to adjust to its new environment,” said Ryan Smith, vice president of operations and district manager of Nature’s Emporium in Burlington, N.C., and Roanoke, Va. "Oxbow is one of our best-selling small animal foods because it’s a favorite among the veterinarians in our markets and it offers a frequent buyer program.”

 Small Mammal Food
Lixit Corp.

Stephanie Clanin, manager of Bend Pet Express, with two locations in Bend, Ore., said her business caters to all-natural demands.

"We carry only premium food,” she said. "Rabbit and guinea pig foods by Oxbow are the most popular small animal foods we carry.”

At Animal Nature in Pittsburgh, Sweet Meadow products, both pelleted food and hay, are preferred by customers and small animals alike, said Nina Wolf, co-founder and co-owner.

But customers want more than just all-natural products.

 "Our customers are all about safety and quality,” Wolf said. "No Chinese sourcing; no shortcuts. Our customers want fresh product, quality control and as much local sourcing as possible.”

New Releases and Rebranding
"Our new line of compressed hay called Harvest Stacks occupies 75 percent less space than loose hay and contain no binders,” Oxbow’s Ross said. "They transform all-natural, long-strand, hand-sorted Western timothy hay into compact, convenient-to-feed portions, which produce 80 percent less airborne dust than loose hay.”

"We recently added a Mouse & Young Rat diet to our flagship Essentials line,” Ross continued. "It meets the nutritional needs of growing, energetic, pregnant or nursing rats and mice of all ages.”

Vitakraft also introduced a brand-new all-natural food line in May called SunSations, according to Norsen.

"These diets are high in natural foraging ingredients and contain no artificial colors or preservatives,” he said. "Our Vita Prima premium foods continue to grow, and we recently introduced a treat line to complement them.”

American Pet Diner now offers varied sizes and flavors of hay.

"The past year we rebranded and repackaged our premium-quality hays in larger sizes, starting with a 24-oz. bag; this summer we will offer a 96-oz. bag, all with new packaging and in color-coded, resealable bags,” said Lisa Marshall, president and CEO of the Eureka, Nev., company.

All-Natural Treats
"Small animal owners are purchasing treats in increasing numbers, but they must be affordable, fresh and new in order to succeed,” said Norsen. "Retailers should work with their distributors to ensure they are carrying the top-selling treats.”

"Customers want more value with treats,” said Smith of Nature’s Emporium. "Kaytee is one of the best-selling treats in our stores, specifically Kaytee Sticks and Fruit Toppers. It offers variety at an affordable price point.”

Customers are asking for natural treats sans color or additives that are made in the USA, said Sonia Wertz, sales manager for Lixit Corp. in Napa, Calif.

Al Michaud, co-owner of Sweet Meadow Farm in Sherborn, Mass., with his wife, Patty, said, "Our all-natural Apple Sticks are a great-selling item here in the Northeast. Also, we recently changed our Vitamin C Tidbits from a yogurt-based treat to a more healthful, grain-based treat that is great for guinea pigs.”

"Consumer rebates available on our Facebook page are great retail tools,” Norsen said. "Retailers should offer a discount on treats with the purchase of food or hay.”

Industry participants also recommend feeding treats and chews to small animals in the stores’ habitats so customers see the products in use.

Starting store animals on premium food and recommending continued use of the food and treats at home is a great way for retailers to promote this category, said both Smith of Nature’s Emporium and Ross at Oxbow.

"Explaining the correlation between premium, high-quality foods and increased quality of life and longevity of pets can go a long way toward the sale of premium products,” said Ross.  


Is it recommended to market small animal food and treats to younger pet owners?

"We try to engage everyone involved in the animal’s care. Typically, parents want what is best for their pets and want the knowledge to do so. We often find that younger family members have done their research and they look to us to engage parents further.”—Stephanie Clanin, manager at Bend Pet Express in Bend, Ore. 

"We market to a young, more mature demographic. Adults buy the food; they are more conscious about better foods for their pets. But we market supplies to young owners because they tend to be the ones who the adults buy for.” —Ryan Smith, vice president of operations and district manager of Nature’s Emporium in Burlington, N.C., and Roanoke, Va.

"We do not market to children at all. We believe adults must be fully engaged in the care of any animal in the household and committed to making sure the children involved are educated about the care and handling of the animals.” —Nina Wolf, co-founder and co-owner of Animal Nature in Pittsburgh




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