Selling natural morsels for pets requires education for retailers and customers.
By Kristin Mehus-Roe
Most pet supply stores today have an aisle—perhaps more than one—filled with a variety of natural pet treats. Unlike 10 or 15 years ago, when some pet treats were either heavily processed or little more than specially shaped kibble, treats now range from dehydrated vegetables to morsels of muscle, according to industry participants.
Owners with active lifestyles frequently seek out natural, healthful treats for their pets.
It comes as no surprise then that as more treats “go natural,” so are pet owners. Customers switch to natural treats permanently once they experiment with them, reported Brian Sharp, manager of Earth Pets Natural Pet Market in Gainesville, Fla.
“When people start with the good treats, their dogs have fewer issues,” he said, adding that although treats only make up a small percentage of a pet’s diet, everything an animal eats affects its health.
That small percentage translates in a vast range of natural pet treats—and it continues to grow. For example, Bravo! Raw Diets offers treats for cats and dogs made from all muscle and organ meat. My Perfect Pet has a line of treats made with human-grade ingredients, including turkey and yam.
Other natural manufacturers focus on treats that address particular maladies. Case in point: both Zuke’s and Cloud Star have a gluten-free treat. Zuke’s also offers treats with glucosamine and chondroitin.
Where They Sell
Many natural pet treat manufacturers focus their sales on independent retailers, where the stores can provide customers with more education about the products, and where customers are more open to spending more money on a natural product.
“The average person probably isn’t going to try our food anyways,” said Karen Scoggins, president of My Perfect Pet in Poway, Calif. “So we focus on the independents that can do the education.”
Independent retailers are the proven outlet for Bravo!, said David Bogner, owner and co-founder of the Manchester, Conn., company.
“All of our products are distributed via independent retail outlets and through some online retailers,” he said. “The independent retailers have been a perfect outlet for us, as selling raw really requires a personal touch as well as some consumer education, and the independent retailers really excel in this area.”
Offering education and a personal touch can help independent retailers excel at selling natural treats for pets.
In terms of marketing and advertising, natural pet treat makers use a variety of tools, from traditional print and online advertising to word-of-mouth to in-store sales promotions.
“We advertise in trade periodicals, social media, media pitches and on several websites,” said John Hart, owner of Zuke’s in Durango, Colo., adding that the company’s marketing efforts focus on retail-level promotions designed to encourage trial and brand awareness.
“In terms of advertising, we use all of the tools in the toolbox to help promote our brand,” Bogner said. “Still we find that word-of-mouth is a very powerful tool, especially in terms of raw.”
That grassroots-level word-of-mouth marketing has made natural pet treats a perfect product for online and social media marketing, both manufacturers and retailers reported.
“We initially didn’t do social media at all, but we started hearing all these stories about the dogs…their tear stains went away, their tremors went away,” Scoggins said. “The social media almost took off without us.”
Now My Perfect Pet has a social media savvy staff member who supports the company’s efforts through Facebook and other online outlets.
Cloud Star also keeps an active Facebook page, complete with a “Wag More Wednesday” blog.
“We communicate fun happenings to our retailers and our end-users, as well as answer questions from our customers,” said Jennifer Melton, co-founder.
Marketing isn’t limited to the Internet or advertising. Several manufacturers offer in-store sales supports, such as point-of-purchase displays, brochures and window decals.
Zuke’s uses point-of-purchase materials to call out special attributes of its treats.
“Out-of-department displays and permanent racks have been a staple of our branding efforts,” Hart said. “We also focused heavily on clip strip and value-added promotions.”
From the Retailers
Two retailers, Wylie Wag in Northern Virginia, and Earth Pets Natural Pet Market in Gainesville, Fla., offered their thoughts on selling natural pet treats.
Brian Sharp, manager, Earth Pets Natural Pet Market
Percentage of business is natural pet treats: 30 percent
- Oftentimes the manufacturer provides a shelf talker or brochures that explain the product. But the customers don’t really take the brochures; they want the salesperson to give them the comparisons.
- The most helpful items are brochures or materials that explain the treat’s benefits. This way the sales staff can provide this information to the customer.
- It’s good to have unique products. We have several treats that are chicken, but it’s good to have a unique treat with extra glucosamine or a different shape.
- Any sort of natural packaging helps sell the product as long the bags don’t rip.
- More information on the nutrition label would help, especially for treats. We always get people looking for low-calorie treats, and none of the labels contain calorie counts. Having little hooks that tell people exactly what they want is really helpful.
Laura Clark, owner, Wylie Wag
Percentage of business is natural pet treats: 10 percent, excluding chews and bakery treats
- Our customers buy more soft treats than crunchy treats. Additionally, they prefer single-source or limited-ingredient treats, such as freeze-dried chicken or sweet potato slices, over multi-ingredient treats.
- There’s a lot of room in the treat sector right now for new entrants or more innovation from existing lines. It would be great to see more of the things happening in the human food industry happen for natural pet treats—non-GMO, organic and certified humane.
- It also would be great to see more variety among ingredients. We definitely are beginning to see some deviation from the standard flavors, but staples like chicken and peanut butter still reign supreme.
My Perfect Pet offers freezer bags and hand sanitizers with the company logo on it as well as freezer decals and signs as large as the store can accommodate.
“We provide our retail partners with POP materials and in-store signage,” Bogner said. “All of our treats have been converted to zip-top resealable bags with a notch for peg hooks or endcaps. The new packaging has eliminated the need for floor displays and has given retailers more flexibility in how and where they display the products.
“We also recently switched our chews line to self-shipper displays. It is nice to have a display you can place near the register for those add-on sales,” he added.
Retailers reported that many manufacturers do not provide support, although all customers appreciate in-store samples.
“It’s very helpful when manufacturers supply samples and educational materials, but it’s not something that treat manufactures promote enthusiastically from their end,” said Laura Clark, owner of Wylie Wag, a pet supply store with four locations in Northern Virginia.
When materials are requested, however, all but the smallest companies generally provide it, Clark said, adding that often she opens boxes of treats herself and offer samples in the stores.
“This always increases sales,”she said, “and customers seem to appreciate it.”
The consensus for both manufacturers and retailers is that education is the key to sales of natural pet treats.
“Education is at the very heart of everything we do at Bravo!,” Bogner said. “You cannot sell raw unless you truly understand raw and the benefits to a pet’s overall health.”
Ideally, manufacturers send a representative to the store to provide education to the employees, Sharp said. In recent years, he’s noticed a trend with distributors sending representatives to provide information on five or six different product lines, rather than an individual company sending a representative.
There is no question that store staff can sell product better for companies that provide education training, Sharp added.
In addition to education for the retailers, manufacturers and stores recognize the need for educating customers. One way to do this is by hosting events where representatives can answer questions about the products and customers (including pets) can sample the wares. These events can create a fun environment to provide information and deliver a company’s message.
“From a marketing perspective, it’s always helpful to have something creative handed to us, but it’s not the norm,” Clark said. “We often have success coming up with our own ideas and working with treat manufacturers to see if they can support what we’d like to do, such as pumpkin treats for a Pumpkin Fest.”
Stores that pride themselves on educating customers will do well, Scoggins said.
“We have some very small stores that are doing phenomenal business,” she said. “Make sure customers leave knowing more than when they came in.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser.
Industry Professional Site: Comments from non-industry professionals will be removed.