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Dog Marketplace: Making Room for Dog Food Among Holiday Gifts

Posted: Oct. 18, 2012, 7:05 p.m. EDT


By Jazzy Loyal

When it comes to holiday gifts for the canine set, dog food often takes a back seat to treats. Treats, after all, are smaller, make for better stocking stuffers, and are typically available in more flavor varieties. Treats are also low-commitment gifts, designed to be fed as sporadic rewards; a bag of dog food can represent a complete dietary upheaval.

Despite these challenges, many retailers said that dog food has an important place within holiday gift displays. The season is not a dog food no-man’s land, but instead a ripe opportunity for introducing pet owners and their friends to the latest canine diet varieties.

“As retailers, we’re always trying to introduce new products to our clients—especially specialty foods,” said Veronique Michalik, owner of Austin, Texas-based boutique Lofty Dog. “The holidays are a great time to do that.”

Retailers can take a simple first step by helping customers visualize the potential of dog food for gift giving, she noted. At Lofty Dog, Michalik incorporates dog bowls into its holiday displays, filling them with colorful cans of seasonal dog food and adding festive bows.

Speciialty dog food
Take the time this holiday season to introduce your customers to new specialty dog foods. Sherri L. Collins/BowTie Inc. at Kriser's in Irvine, Calif.
Simple steps can make a powerful impact, noted Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and corporate marketing at Natural Balance in Pacoima, Calif.

“A customer might come in to purchase items for their own pet,” she said. “But a fun, holiday-themed shelf display might motivate them to purchase additional items for friends and family members.”

Visualization is key, agreed Laura Simms, director of public relations and special initiatives for Muskego, Wis.-based Stella & Chewy’s. She recommended using real product to create an in-store table setting that brings to life the holiday dinner party dogs would throw if they were able.

“Just moving product around and creating new venues can help the customer see the need for a product differently, or for the first time,” Simms said.

The holidays tend to be a time for impulse buys, another reason why gift sales skew toward smaller items, such as treats, at lower price points.

Retailers can alter this line of thinking by encouraging shoppers to consider dog food as an alternative or add-on to the traditional last-minute holiday party hostess gift, Simms noted. When a host says “no gifts,” retailers can encourage shoppers to pick up a gift for his or her dog instead, she added.

When capturing the impulse sale is the goal, specialty holiday-themed dog foods can help to rapidly make the case for the appropriateness of dog food as a gift.

“Many brands have seasonal flavors,” said Alan Ronay, owner of Best Buddies Dog Boutique and Bakery, based in St. Pete, Fla. “A food that’s rich in pumpkin, for example, can be presented as a creative way to add variety to a dog’s diet when the ingredients are at their peak of freshness.”

Examples of seasonal dog foods include Merrick’s canned, grain-free Thanksgiving Day Dinner and Venison Holiday Stew dog foods. Fromm’s Duck and Sweet Potato Formula Dog Food includes cranberries and green beans, and the line’s new grain-free Game Bird Recipe includes traditional holiday poultry, such as turkey, duck, quail, and pheasant. Natural Balance also reported plans to offer a Holiday Value Gift Pack with lamb, turkey, and beef formula rolls in a holiday-themed gift box.

For those food products that don’t have a holiday story of their own to tell, retailers can help make the case by crafting displays with strong visual narratives.

Retailers can inspire their customers by designing a menu that centers on traditional holiday ingredients and incorporates matching dinnerware and toys, Best Buddies’ Ronay said.

“An interesting idea would be to do an all-bison display, with bison dog food and bison-shaped toys,” he said. “Retailers can also incorporate non-edible items that carry the prairie theme.”

Matching dog food products with related stocking stuffers may also increase the likelihood that customers will buy both, according to Ronay. Displaying clever product pairs, such as cranberry treats with traditional turkey-based dog food is just one possible matchup; the appropriateness of the gift relies on the pairing, and the retailer is able to sell more items, he stated.

Furthermore, the gift recipient is exposed to a new dog food that could represent the beginning of a long-term relationship with the store, Ronay added.

Storeowners might also consider the holiday travel angle, Natural Balance’s Govea noted, because many families cross the country with pets during the season.

“Retailers should include pet food that’s convenient for travel,” she said. “Offer a solution for customers who will be going out of town for the holidays.”

Families who plan to add a new puppy or dog to their family during the holidays should also be considered, noted Tom Nieman of Fromm Family Foods in Mequon, Wis.

Incorporating dog food into holiday displays can “inspire gift givers to give the entire package, so to speak,” he said.

While creative display options abound, some retailers may be wary of recommending dog food as a holiday gift due to the potential for dietary complications among canine gift recipients.

“You might have good intentions when buying dog food as a gift, but it’s possible that you don’t know the dog’s medical history,” said Dan Barton, owner of Palm Desert, Calif.-based Hollywood Premier Pets.

Barton’s solution is designed to downplay the commitment aspect.

“Retailers may want to consider promoting something that can represent a low commitment, one-time offering,” he said. “A specialty holiday-themed canned food of turkey and gravy is a great option.”

Positioning dog food as a gift option and presenting specialty products as safe and fun alternatives to the dangerous table scraps that humans are tempted to feed during the holidays, including grapes, onions, chocolate and poultry bones, is also something to consider, Barton noted. When Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, Hollywood Premier Pets displays a list of hazardous seasonal foods next to holiday-themed products that are safe for canine digestion.

Whatever the method, it’s important to continue to promote dog food during this critical time of year, Lofty Dog’s Michalik said.

“A fun toy is nice,” she added, “but food products keep clients coming back.”

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