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Roundtable: Reclaiming Natural From Spin Marketers


In a world of mixed messages, pet specialty retailers provide an invaluable service when they share their expertise with pet owners.

Natural Pet Product MerchandiserThe U.S. pet market is a $50 billion-plus enterprise, of which natural and organic makes up a growing percentage. Everyone, it seems, is looking to grab a share of the natural sector.

But what troubles many retailers and manufacturers is the skewing of “natural”—how it’s defined and how it’s marketed. What sellers call “natural” and what pet owners think is a natural product can be two very different things.

Natural Pet Product Merchandiser brought together two manufacturers and two retailers to discuss the market for natural and organic pet products and how such products are sold.
 
NPPM: Natural pet products make up a fast-growing sector in the United States. What is the situation in Canada, the home of PLB International?

Panelists Moderator
Jennifer Kluesner, co-owner of Jett and Monkey’s Dog Shoppe Ken Niedziela, editor of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser
David Yaskulka, vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely for Pets
Bob Walterhouse, technical trainer at PLB International Inc.
Michelle Adams, co-owner of Spike’s Treats, a Fountain Hills, Ariz., retailer.

Bob Walterhouse: In Canada, it is exactly the same; it is a growing segment of the market. I think our customers are interested in buying natural products for themselves, and therefore it carries over that they want to buy natural products for their pets as well.

NPPM: What can retailers do to counter unscrupulous marketers?

David Yaskulka: The best thing consumers can do it is visit wonderful retailers like Spike’s Treats or Jett and Monkey’s because they can help consumers understand things, such as simply read the ingredients. For about two years, the headline on Halo’s website was simply, “Read the ingredients.” The subset of that is really understand the ingredients, because there are ingredients that could sound natural or sound like food you or I would eat, but really may not be.

NPPM: Do you see a lot of confusion or misinformation in the marketplace about natural products?

Jennifer Kluesner: I do. Even with commercials, there are foods out there that lean toward showing that they’re healthy, but again it all boils down to the ingredients. I think consumers for dog and cat food don’t understand that they need to look at the actual ingredients.

Jennifer Kluesner
Jennifer Kluesner is co-owner of Jett and Monkey’s Dog Shoppe, a pet supply boutique in Des Moines, Iowa. Opened in 2009, Jett and Monkey’s provides eco-friendly and holistic products for dogs. Kluesner fosters and assists in finding forever homes for dogs through Fluffy Butts Rescue and the Animal Rescue League of Iowa.

Michelle Adams: I can see people who are very confused about what’s in their pet food. They come in thinking they’ve been feeding their pet a healthy food because of what the labels look like and everything, but they misunderstand what’s in the food. We develop a relationship with them and read the label with them and break down the ingredients with them.

Walterhouse: Smaller independent pet retailers are where people can come in and talk to informed, experienced people who will take the time to explain an ingredient list and explain exactly what the word “natural” means. Manufacturers also have to make things less confusing. The other day I was asked about pyridoxine hydrochloride and why I have something like that in my food. Well, it’s vitamin B6 and it’s a really good thing. If it was listed as vitamin B6, they would see it as something beneficial and good.

Adams: We get a lot of customers who say they prefer to come to an independent because we take the time to break it down for them and help them understand what each of these ingredients is and what the benefits are of some of these healthier foods.

Yaskulka: That’s exactly why you’ll never find Halo in a supermarket, because even though we have a nice, pretty label on our food and it looks wonderful, other brands can also look wonderful on the label. It makes all the difference to have an expert in the store who’s actually speaking with the consumer.  How do you avoid the spin doctoring around natural? It comes down to whom can you trust. My advertisements probably won’t look all that much better than the supermarket brands’ advertisements. We spend a lot of time encouraging people to talk about their experiences on Facebook or on Twitter. And that’s a great thing for retailers as well.

Kluesner: Something we utilize is the website DogFoodAnalysis.com. As people come in and ask questions about food, I always write down the website and say, “Take a moment and look up your food.”

David Yaskulka
David Yaskulka is vice president of marketing communications at Halo, Purely for Pets, a holistic pet food company based in Tampa, Fla. His career has been devoted to helping socially responsible companies win. He is featured in the books “Internet Riches” and “Secrets of the eBay Millionaires.”

Adams: We have a lot of customers who go to DogFoodAnalysis.com, then come back in very surprised and a little ashamed of themselves. They’re surprised that the food they were feeding is not as healthy as what they thought it was.

NPPM: How do you persuade customers about the value of paying a premium price for a natural product?

Adams: You can let people know that if they’re paying a little bit more upfront, they’re going to be paying less in the long term because they’re taking better care of their pet’s health upfront. We let them know, too, that we stand behind every brand we carry. Even with customers who might be on a grocery store brand, we can transition them to one of our less-expensive brands, and it’s still one we stand behind. We can get them on one of our frequent-buyer programs, too, and let them know how that equals out, especially with Halo, which has a great frequent-buyer program for me.

Kluesner: We don’t have a lot of people who come in with sticker shock. It’s just a matter of educating them.

Yaskulka: We can also encourage consumers to read the feeding instructions. For example, with Halo, you feed less on a volume basis and often less on a dollar basis than other foods because it’s so much more nutrient-packed.

Walterhouse: You feed less, the animals do better. When you get really great quality, it becomes even more important. They eat less, they look better, they’re more active. Does it cost more? Oh, you bet it does. A lot of our customers don’t understand that there’s often three, four, five different grades of an ingredient. It’s often the single most important thing when it comes to the cost of the product.

Bob Walterhouse
Bob Walterhouse is in his 15th year of teaching dog and cat nutrition to pet retailers, veterinary staff members and pet owners worldwide. He is a technical trainer at PLB International Inc. of Boucherville, Quebec, Canada, a manufacturer of high-end pet foods sold in more than 30 nations.

NPPM: How often do you see packaging that shouts “Natural!” but really isn’t?

Adams: Some of the grocery store types can be misleading. You also see commercials where people think they’re feeding a really good food because it shows nice, fresh ingredients and fruits and vegetables and meat.

NPPM: Are there products that you first look at and say, “Hey, it’s natural,” but then you look closer and discover, ”Hey, that’s not natural”?

Kluesner: Yes, several times. That’s a big thing with us. We research each product before we bring it in and we also try it on our own animals. I’ve eaten so much dog food and dog treats myself because if it’s good enough for a dog, we’ll try it as well. And if our dogs don’t like it, there’s no reason for us to sell it.

NPPM: Michelle, do you taste-test your products, too?

Adams: We take ours to a different level. We’re a bakery, too, so we eat all of our treats. They’re all made from human-grade ingredients. I won’t say I’ve eaten all of the kibble or any raw food, but I will say that all of the brands I carry have been tested on our pets.

Michelle Adams
Michelle Adams is co-owner of Spike’s Treats, a Fountain Hills, Ariz., retailer. In addition to baking all-natural dog treats daily, Spike’s Treats carries a full line of natural dog and cat foods, natural supplements, toys, collars, beds and accessories.

NPPM: What messages does Halo try to communicate with the company’s packaging and labeling?

Yaskulka: There is really very little that a natural pet food company can put on the front label that will strongly differentiate it from the supermarket brands. Once again, we just have to go back and read the ingredients. We have some great folks in design and packaging and messaging, but they won’t necessarily be better than the folks at other food companies.

NPPM: What message does PLB try to get across with its packaging and labeling?

Walterhouse: We use lifestyle packaging on Pronature Holistic. It shows people with their animals in everyday activities. One of the points that I try to get across to the people selling our product is that pet owners spend very little time on the front of the bag. They spend all of their time on the back of the bag. Yes, we advertise the front of the bag, and we want people to recognize it as a brand, but after that initial recognition, professionals should take consumers to the back of the bag and stay there, because that’s what’s going to differentiate you, especially as a small retailer.

NPPM: If you had to write a dictionary definition of “natural,” what would it be?

Walterhouse: Natural products are derived from an animal or plant source. They’re not synthetic. They’re not put together in a formula to make something out of a non-natural organic source. The way PLB labels our food, we’ll say exactly where we get it from. We’ll say, “It’s not just glucosamine or chondroitin or calcium. It’s New Zealand green-lipped mussel, it’s sea cucumber, it’s shrimp and crab meal.” We try to be as transparent as we can be.

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

Posted: March 30, 2012, 2:40 p.m. EDT

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