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2:16 PM   October 30, 2014
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Getting Ahead in the Food Game

Cat foods are always changing, but finding the right angle may make the difference in picking up customers.
By Michael Ventre

Change is the name of the game when it comes to current developments in the cat food product category.

The category is not experiencing revolutionary changes, but rather incremental ones aimed at making sure cats are not only eating the best meals available from the standpoint of overall health, but are also meowing in approval of the taste.

The most significant advances in new cat food trends seem to be in the area of grain-free foods, the latest buzz words that are geared toward digestive serenity.

“The grain-free trend continues to be a very hot topic,” noted Anthony Giudice, national sales manager for Weruva, headquartered in Natick, Mass. “More people in general these days are also paying attention to low carbs. Because grain-free doesn’t always mean low carbs. With cats, the lower the carbs, the better.”

Feel that extra padding around your own middle? Just think how your cat feels when it stands up after a particularly filling dinner and can’t see its paws. According to many in the industry, a low-carb diet is closer to what a cat would normally eat in the wild.

Human-Grade

Cats aren’t human. It’s not their fault. They were just born that way. But that doesn’t mean they can’t eat like humans.

Human-grade ingredients--or ingredients that were handled according to the standards the FDA requires for ingredients intended for human consumption are all the rage in the world of pet food in general, and cat food in particular, and that is an extension of humans eating healthier meals.

“I would say that is picking up in general,” said Ashton Thomas, a supervisor at Whole Foods Market in Millburn, N.J. “Everyone is starting to eat healthier and live healthier, and they want the same for their cats.”

Because human customers are streaming through the aisles of pet stores looking for the finest quality ingredients on labels, human retailers are trying to stay one step ahead of them, scanning the labels themselves to make sure what’s in the can or bag is made from goodness that, in another form, could have been served at a dinner table for two-legged creatures.

“We don’t carry anything that isn’t researched,” said Lori Lelonde, manager of Your Pet Pals in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. “It’s important for us to be particular when somebody approaches us with a food. Most of the food we get now is made with high-quality, human-grade ingredients.”

Giudice said grain-free food became popular because many cats develop sensitivity to grain.

“That was the previous step,” he said. “Now it’s carb-counting in the grain-free diets.”

Everything Weruva does is intended to be low-carb, Giudice said, and Weruva does not make a dry food because dry foods are higher in carbs.

On the retail end, Michelle Babar has noticed both the grain-free trend as well as raw and frozen diets at the cash register of The Pet Emporium in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she is the manager.

“We sell tons of grain-free and raw and frozen,” she said. “The allergies typically cause people to try grain-free cat food, and the raw-frozen has more nutrients. And I’m noticing a lot more advertising for grain-free and raw-frozen in regular magazines now, not just pet magazines.”

Kurt Gallagher, communications director for the Pet Food Institute in Washington, D.C., has noticed the grain-free and raw-frozen movements as well, but he detected a sub-category also: Different-stages-of-life products within those categories.

“It’s difficult to quantify that right now,” he said. “But companies know what the pipeline needs.”

Cat food isn’t anything new, but new cat owners are on the hunt for cat foods to try, and many new kitten owners are looking for the best food products for their new pets.

“A lot of owners are looking to raw,” said Jill Gainer, brand director for Instinct, the grain-free brand under the Nature’s Variety banner, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. “It’s a meat-based diet, 95-percent meat and five-percent fruits and vegetables.”

“If you see a trend in human food, watch out, because it’ll be a trend in pet food not too long after,” Gallagher said. “There’s a significant parallel there.”

Ashton Thomas can see it already. From his role as a supervisor at the Whole Foods Market in Millburn, N.J., he sees more customers looking for their cat’s food in his store.

“We just brought in a different variety of Castor & Pollux cat food,” he said. “This is a new version, more natural, with added vitamins and minerals. People come to our store because they know they’re getting the highest quality.”

Thomas also added that his customers in Whole Foods are environmentally conscious, and therefore tend to lean toward anything natural.

“It’s sort of a way of life, so it’s not just for the cat,” he said. “It’s a complete circle in a sense.”

And as people stream through the aisles to buy more cat food with healthier ingredients, many retailers are making sure they come back and buy more by offering frequent buyer programs. While it’s not exactly a new concept in the world of cat food, it is gaining popularity.

“For us, it’s everything,” said Lori Lelonde, manager of Your Pet Pals in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. “We honor that for all our dry dog and cat foods. It’s a frequent buyer type of thing.”

The amount of information on the bags and cans of cat food is also changing.

“The Evos of the world are telling the carb count on the front of the bag,” Giudice said. “I think that a big trend is just being up front about what’s in the can and in the bag.”

As far as food, changes are in store for cats. But when it comes to marketing and advertising, Gainer said, cats get no respect.

“Poor cats: they don’t get as much attention as they should,” she said. “I haven’t seen anybody doing any major marketing pushes for cats.” <HOME>


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