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Natural Pet Product Merchandiser Roundtable: The Future of Holistic

Industry participants discuss the opportunities in looking at the whole pet when it comes to health.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
The holistic movement has been growing in popularity with humans for decades, but more recently has gained a fair amount of attention in the pet industry as well. The editors of Pet Product News International and Natural Pet Product Merchandiser brought together holistic retailers to talk about the movement and its impact.

NPPM: What does “holistic” mean in relation to pets? Are there different theories of what the word encompasses among retailers versus healthcare practitioners?



Shana Bentivegna, co-owner of the online pet store Organic Sherri L. Collins, editor of Pet Products News International
Biff Picone, co-owner of six Natural Pawz pet specialty stores
Chip Sammons, owner of Holistic Pet Center Brian Hutchins, news director, BowTie Inc.
Greg Tilford, author of “Herbs for Pets” and an international lecturer in the field of natural pet care
Greg Tilford: The current definition of “holistic” as it applies to natural pet care is really the mindset which drives the industry, and that is we’re not really just looking at serving dogs and cats anymore; we are looking at serving different types of animals; animals that require us to view their real, natural needs outside of our own.

So in terms of “holistic,” which implies that we’re looking at the bigger picture, we have to look beyond what we know to be good for ourselves and do something to understand the special nuances and the natural needs of the animals we are taking care of. 

Chip Sammons: Holistic is all the parts that equal the whole. People seem to talk about one part or another, but we have to balance all the parts together and it’s not just looking at something that happens to an animal but why it happens.

I think the perception of holistic is the same as the perception may be of natural or good and, unfortunately, a lot of the products that are called “holistic” are not good or natural, so we need a lot more education in this field.

Shana Bentivegna: A lot of people just get confused about holistic, natural, organic, and as a company we like to think we’re all three.

Holistic means looking at the pet as a whole—the bed they sleep on, the food they eat, the topical solutions—just making sure everything is green and safe for them, and looking at the body, mind, spirit.

Shana and Len Bentivegna
Shana Bentivegna co-owns, a natural- and organic-focused online retailer launched in 2009. She and her husband/business partner, Len, both changed their careers to enter the pet products industry, inspired by the pet food safety crisis of 2007, during which they watched a friend go through the illness and loss of a beloved pet.
Biff Picone: The term holistic brings an added measure of wholeness—where the “body holistic” and natural all come together A lot of people identify holistic as trying to be more of a healthy diet and healthy ingredients that are put into that diet.

NPPM: Do you get the feeling that the term really isn’t understood by the general buying public?

Sammons: I think they believe [holistic means] something good but they are not quite sure what. Our job in the field is to share accurate information. All of us are actually already doing this, sharing good information to help change some of the perceptions.

NPPM: How do you go about educating your customers?

Picone: It starts in educating our staff. We require all of our staff to take training courses with all of our manufacturers. We encourage the manufacturers we deal with to provide education not just on their products but also their philosophy. For example, one of our food vendors is bringing their nutritionist just so they can drill down with our staff on the exact reason why they put the things that they’ve put in their foods and what the benefits are to the animals and to the owners. It’s incumbent upon us, if we’re going to differentiate ourselves, to make sure we equip our salespeople to be resources. They need to be able to distinguish the benefits and the ingredients in the products that them unique, holistic and natural.

NPPM: Shana, since you are website based, how do you go about educating?

Bentivegna: We’re coming up with a section that goes through and describes natural, organic and holistic because people are throwing out those terms too randomly.

Biff Picone
Biff Picone and wife Nadine Joli-Coeur opened the first Natural Pawz five years ago in The Woodlands, Texas. Biff and Nadine gave up their high tech careers to follow their passion of providing natural foods to local pet owners. They recently opened their sixth store.
There are products that are claiming to be organic but they are only 80 or 75 percent organic, so we look for those products on our site [that are] hopefully 100 percent organic or 99 percent. We really do need to educate our consumer as to what they are buying because it gets confusing and that’s why we’re creating the new section that will explain what the terms mean, what type of products we carry and what our philosophy is as far as making sure we have those healthy, organic products on our site.

NPPM: Greg, you obviously took the most direct approach by writing a book on herbs for pets. Do you have any advice or tips that you can offer to the retailers as to how to better define and to educate?

Tilford: It starts with educating the employees at the manufacturing level followed by educating the people that are educating the retailers.

It’s also important to understand there is a growing audience of people out there who wish to become informed consumers or already are informed consumers. These are people who already understand and embrace the philosophies of being holistic; that health really transcends the human body and includes the surroundings of the human body, including that of our animals.

It’s those people that I consider the shakers and movers out there. If we can contact and reach out to those kinds of people in a credible, responsible way, it will help us a lot in spreading the word about holistic. People need to take a closer look at the health of their animals and what they can do proactively for their companions.

It’s not just about reaching out to the newcomer, but it’s also supporting the  people out there who are spreading the word for us with targeted audiences.

NPPM: For many consumers, when they think holistic or natural it’s usually what a pet ingests or what they put on a pet. However, as holistic means the sum of its parts, what other products would you consider vital or important to promoting the holistic approach for pets?

Sammons: As Shana mentioned, it starts with the bed, with everything they eat, with the whole environment, with grooming products. It encompasses everything, including the way we talk with our animals—it’s everything. 

NPPM: Is there any particular product that stands out as being in really high demand holistically?

Sammons: From the beginning, our philosophy has been to have good food and a good vitamin/mineral supplement, so those are the two basics for us, and then it just depends on different dogs and cats, whether they need a digestive enzyme, whether they need some arthritis or glucosamine tablets.

Chip Sammons
Chip Sammons began researching the ingredients in dog and cat food in the 1970s. In 1988 he opened his store, Holistic Pet Center. Over the last 22 years, Sammons and his store have won many local and national awards. He has written a book about natural flea control, founded a non-profit for pets, and also hosts a live weekly radio program.
Tilford: Chip, do you always start with the base of the diet and the mineral supplement?

Sammons: Yes, we always start with the food. When somebody comes in and says their dog has an ear problem, my first question is, “What are you feeding?” Many times, it’s the food that is at the heart of the ear problem and simply changing the food is going to make the ear problem go away.

Picone: I couldn’t agree more with that. Diet seems to be the base of where you go and the good thing is that there is such a variety of opportunities to bring to the pet owner a lot of good natural, holistic solutions. Recently, we’ve also been looking into the Chinese medicines that are now coming available into the pet world.

NPPM: What are some of the best things you have done to market the holistic approach?

Bentivegna: What we like to do on our website is really educate the consumer. We have drop-down menus as far as if they need the joint support or if they need a daily vitamin, so it’s easier for them to determine what products will work without having to call up and talk to one of our salespeople.

With food, people are really trending toward raw and getting back to the ancestral diet of the canine and feline. That seems to be really cleaning up a lot of allergies and problems I’ve been seeing from people calling in and writing reviews. A lot of people also like to add the supplements in with the raw food because it’s easy to mix, so we really try to work to educate the consumer, making it an easy user interface—and that’s how we market from just our homepage.

NPPM: Shana, as an online retailer, do you have special concerns regarding running afoul with the FDA as far as claims for supplements since you’re so visible?

Bentivegna: We do have disclaimers that it’s FDA approved as most holistic sellers do; we put reviews on from our customers and the only claims that are made have been transposed over from the manufacturer.

NPPM: Biff, obviously your marketing techniques are working well since you now have six stores.

Picone: We work with all of our suppliers to give samples and also have the sales people try it out on their dogs, because there’s nothing more powerful than having an employee who has seen a result on their pet.

Greg Tilford
Greg Tilford is author of a BowTie Press book called “Herbs for Pets.” An international lecturer in the field of natural pet care, Tilford serves on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Animal Supplements Council and sits on the board of the American Herbal Products Association. He is a member of the Expert Advisory Committee for Veterinary Natural Health Products with Health Canada, and is president and chief formulator for Animal Essentials Inc., a company that produces natural supplements for animals.
We’re also not afraid to give customers samples. If you believe in the product—and we believe it will make a difference—people appreciate the fact that we’re not asking them to buy something upfront. We’re willing to give them a sample and because we know it will make a difference—and they will see a difference—and they’ll be back. That program has worked very well with us. Our suppliers see the value in sampling with us and I think that has allowed us to do not only well in the food but also in the supplements, and it’s allowed us to continue to grow our business over the last five years.

NPPM: Chip, I know you do outreach because you do the radio show, correct?

Sammons: I’ve been doing an AM show for about 13 years and an FM show for 12 or 13.

NPPM: You have also held some seminars, I think in the area on particular pet food and nutritional topics, right?

Sammons: I like going to different places and I’ve been invited into the schools to share with health classes and all of that, but that just comes from my research. I think every person in the world ought to read Greg’s book.

That’s part of my research, plus I like getting to plant tours because for me getting out to see if they really put into the food what they say they put into the food and then asking the operational questions means a lot to me.

It’s doing our research, sharing what we find, and networking with everybody we can about it to raise the level of awareness.
You know, we’re never going to reach all the masses, but if we can just reach a fringe of the masses that is more interested in health issues, I think we will do well.

NPPM: So what’s on the horizon for holistic pet care?

Tilford: I think what we’re seeing is a growing awareness. We’ve got a more informed clientele using these kinds of products. They’re going to be more discriminating.

We are going to see continued influx of the veterinary community stepping over from strictly conventional practices to complementary medicines and more holistic veterinarians.

I attend the American Holistic Veterinary Medical conferences every year, and every year there are new faces in the audience. I think it’s a safe estimate that at least a third of the vets out there are either using or willing to consider using natural remedies and supplements, if not things like herbal remedies. I see a growing awareness, people who want to look at the bigger picture. They want to confront the issues of daily care from a standpoint of supporting wellness and not disease. That audience is growing and the whole industry will grow as a result.

Editor’s Note: The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This roundtable discussion orginally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.


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