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Natural Marketplace: Discerning the Difference

Posted: April 29, 2014, 12:45 p.m. EDT


Maintain pace with today’s astute pet owners by knowing the quality options organic foods offer.

By Karen Shugart

As cat and dog owners grow more concerned with the quality of their pets’ food, they show more interest in organics.

"The biggest difference between the client base now and five years ago is that now many customers are informed about natural and organic pet food benefits, and also about specific lines and what they offer,” said Emma Schwager, store manager for Long Dog Fat Cat in Omaha, Neb.

This development, both retailers and manufacturers said, gives independent shop owners an opportunity to grow sales by offering a widening variety of organic foods and treats.

Whether a retailer carries a lot of natural products or just a selection, it’s a smart way to increase profits and develop lasting customer relationships, several observers said.

"The long-term benefit is that organic consumers are loyal,” said John Gigliotti, founder and CEO of Whole Life Pet, a manufacturer in Pittsfield, Mass.

New Options in Organics
Whole Life Pet, which makes what Gigliotti describes as the only line of certified organic freeze-dried treats for dogs and cats, is planning to build on the line’s success by adding new flavors later this year.

The company also just launched an organic single-ingredient freeze-dried roasted pork treat in its Tail Mix line, Gigliotti said.

Dog Nutrition
Mat Hayward/Shutterstock

"Like all of our treats, it’s 100 percent human grade, sourced in the USA, and produced and packaged in our own facility in Massachusetts,” Gigliotti said. "We chose pork as a healthy [alternative] after getting constant requests from customers for alternate protein treat solutions for allergies.”

Castor & Pollux Natural PetWorks’ biscuit hit store shelves this year, said Pete Brace, vice president of communications and pet parent relations for the Amarillo, Texas-based company. Organix Jerky Chip cookie is oven-baked with organic whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables, and protein-packed jerky chips, he said.

The product comes in four flavors: Oatmeal & Chicken, Oatmeal & Beef, Oatmeal & Salmon and Oatmeal & Lamb. The Oatmeal & Chicken variety is made with organic chicken and contains more than 95 percent organic ingredients so that it can bear the USDA Organic logo on the front of the bag, Brace said. The other three recipes are made up of more than 70 percent organic ingredients.

"Our cookies are made in the USA, which we believe is especially important,” Brace said.

Ingredient quality also was behind the development of a new line of canned dog food, Cocolicious, from Party Animal, a manufacturer in West Hollywood, Calif. Cocolicious is grain-free and made in the U.S. with organic coconut oil and other organic and natural ingredients, said Shawna Abrams, president of Party Animal.

"Coconut oil has gained mainstream awareness for its health benefits in humans, and we feel it is time for animals to benefit from this amazing, nutritious ingredient as well,” Abrams said. "Coconut oil offers wonderful health benefits to animals, from assisting in maintaining a stronger immune system to helping promote oral health, healthy skin and a shiny coat.”

Organic foods, along with demands for more natural or raw ingredients, are becoming more sought after among pet owners, said Josh Allen, owner of Dee-O-Gee, a retailer in Bozeman, Mont.

"Customers who would consider such products are getting older and younger,” Allen said. "More retirees and young singles are considering organic alternatives. People think it’s worth the cost and will see fewer trips to the vet.”

Education is important, several retailers said, because many customers aren’t sure exactly what "organic” means.

"It’s a hard area to educate on because it is a bit confusing,” Allen said. "Most foods on the market will have organic ingredients but are not 100 percent organic.”

Not very many people understand exactly what makes a product organic, said Chelsea Kent, owner of Hero’s Pets, a retailer in Littleton, Colo.

"Very few people know what questions to ask to determine if products are really good products,” Kent said. "Knowing that animals only need to be raised organically for 30 days prior to slaughter, but otherwise can be treated as other animals, is rare knowledge. People also don’t understand that the organic certification makes a product cost about 30 percent more than it would otherwise. We have many products that are under organic standards without the extra 30 percent cost of an organic certification.”
 
Many customers don’t want to know those specifics, Kent said. They want the retailer to offer sound advice.

Customers Seek Wholesome Foods, Quality Sources
While many pet owners are choosing organic, others are mostly concerned with the ingredients’ sourcing and quality, not necessarily their organic certification, said Josh Allen, owner of Dee-O-Gee, a retailer in Bozeman, Mont.
Kathy Hyland, owner of Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich., said her customers have an overarching concern rewarding quality.
"Most are concerned with where the protein is coming from—not China—and where it is produced,” Hyland said.
Many consumers are turning to raw or freeze-dried diets, she said.
"We do well with The Honest Kitchen and our raw frozen lines,” she added.
Other customers are turning to natural products.
Natura Pet Products has a new line of premium, grain-free pet food called Innova Nature’s Table, said Jason Taylor, spokesperson for Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of Fremont, Neb.-based Natura.
The lineup includes five dry dog and two dry cat recipes that are grain- and white potato-free with no gluten added, he said.
"Increasingly, pet owners want to feed their pets the wholesome, natural foods they would eat,” Taylor said. "They believe their pets deserve the same high-quality, natural nutrition they enjoy, and they avoid chicken byproduct meal, fillers, wheat, corn, soy and artificial preservatives, flavors and colors.”—KS

"Many people get the ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look if you give them too much information,” Kent said. "It’s important to identify what your customer wants prior to offering information. I ask customers if they want a lot of information or if they just want me to recommend things. Let them determine it.”
 
Many customers are drawn to organic foods through word-of-mouth, Allen said.

"With more people feeding organic foods now, others hear from their neighbors or friends about how amazing and life changing high-quality food is for their pets,” Allen said. "Personal testimony is enough for someone to come to our store and try it out. After seeing the changes, they will stick with it.”

Stoking Interest to Strike up Sales
The key, retailers said, is getting dog and cat owners to try it out. That’s where marketing and outreach savvy comes into play.

Allen plans to use a contest to drum up interest. Dee-O-Gee has an upcoming 30-day challenge, in which customers will pledge to try raw as 50 percent of their pets’ diet for 30 days. If completed, the customers will have a chance to win a free raw diet for a year, Allen said. A similar approach could be used with organic products.

Andra Schenkelberg, national sales manager for Plato Pet Treats, a manufacturer in Fresno, Calif., recommends that retailers boost receipts by offering treats for combined sale with other items.

"Consumers look for complete solutions when shopping for their dogs,” Schenkelberg said. "Combination offerings are highly profitable. Treats combined with other products, such as foraging toys, will generate higher sales.”

First, retailers must draw them into the store. Social media can help, Party Animal’s Abrams said.

"This is a great way to educate thousands of consumers and at the same time promote the fact that their store offers natural/organic food and treats,” said Abrams.

Schenkelberg recommends that retailers use online reviews to sell products. She cited data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that indicates that 58 percent of U.S. adults have a smartphone.

"That number is on the rise,” Schenkelberg said, adding that customers are increasingly likely to seek out reviews before deciding to purchase an item.

Showing positive product reviews to your customers can add credibility to recommendations, she said.

Organize Your Organics
Retailers should consider creating a specific section in the store that is dedicated to organic products, Abrams said.

"You should give organics their own space,” Gigliotti said. "If you want to attract the organic consumer, make  options clearly visible with signage and dedicated space, even if it’s small to start.”

Organic customers often are ahead of the game and might require less education, he said.

"Many times it’s more about letting savvy customers know that you are taking the category seriously,” Gigliotti said. "It’s a category that takes time to build, and you have to be committed to it for the long haul.”

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