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Promoting the Many Benefits of Small Mammal Treats

Posted: Oct. 31, 2011, 2:30 p.m. EDT

By Jaime McLendon
 
Many manufacturers of small animal treats share this principle: Combine wholesome delights with supplemental edibles in an eye-catching—and affordable—package. No attribute is more valuable than the others in the pet specialty sector because retailers are able to capitalize on three different customer mindsets:
 
1. Treat pets with the occasional indulgence.
2. Give pets something that is outside their normal diet but still healthful.
3. Choose whatever is new or affordable, or the first thing in sight.
 
“When you say ‘treats,’ most people think of an edible food product, either a nutritionally complete bit that provides interaction with the pet or some sort of supplement food item that is not nutritionally complete and is more of a snack,” said Shawn Dooley, vice president of development at Absorption Corp., based in Ferndale, Wash. “Like with human snacks, a carrot stick and a Snickers bar both qualify but are very different from a caloric intake standpoint.”
 
When it comes to distinguishing healthful treats from the rest, consumers can be easily confused, retailers reported. Many small animal owners tend to ignore the product label unless they’re also dog or cat owners or buying food, retailers stated.
 
Industry insiders pointed out that the front of the package matters most to many of today’s small animal owners. They look for the name of the treat, the featured animal (if any), the brand name and any benefit callouts, such as “promotes dental health” or “aids in digestion.” 

For example, Supreme Stickles, made by the English company Supreme Petfoods Ltd., are muesli bar-style treats formulated with extra fiber to aid digestion and promote dental health. The company’s Supreme Original Cruncher Snacks, on the other hand, are considered an indulgence. Retailers reported that alongside other treats, consumers see “fresh from the bakery” treats as akin to dessert despite such healthful ingredients as cherry, apricot, carrot, leek, apple and cranberry, to name a few.
 
That might not be such a bad thing because some small animal owners aren’t picky about what’s in a snack. After all, it’s just a snack.
 
“Who cares what’s in it as long as my pet likes it?” said Christopher Ames, a 16-year-old hamster owner in San Diego. “I mean, it’s not a like a pet store is going to sell you something that’s outright bad for the animal, right?”
 
The Sweet-Tooth Supporter
Consumers like Ames who aren’t particular about the nutritional profile of a treat may go for such snacks as Ware Manufacturing’s Rice Pops, Petsmart’s All Living Things Candy Covered Sunflower Seed Treats, or 8-in-1’s Ecotrition Frosted Donuts. Why? Regardless of how healthful the treats, small animal owners often associate such childhood-favorite words as “pops,” “candy-covered” and “donuts” with their own between-meal snacks.
 
For this reason, treats with names similar to people snacks may be an easy sell to sweet-tooth supporters or moms with sugar-happy children. Retailers can create a display that groups them—on a clip strip or endcap, for example—or simply keep them in mind for easy recall. Also, point-of-purchase displays near food, hay and the cash register can increase impulse buys.
 
The Health Hound
 “A lot of small animal owners are children, so our most popular treats are Vitakraft and Kaytee—probably because they look more fun,” said Kolby Greenhalgh, assistant manager of Especially for Pets, a seven-store chain in Newton, Mass.
 
Vitakraft Sunseed Inc., based in Bowling Green, Ohio, offers a variety of small animal treats, including AnimaLovens baked treats and Sunaturals Tamales, Rolls and Snacks. Its most popular offerings, according to national sales manager Tim Norsen, are Sunseed Grainola bars, Vitakraft Sticks, Vitakraft Slims and Vitakraft yogurt drops.

Emotional triggers such as “grain,” “slim” and “yogurt” translate to “good for you” in the minds of health-conscious consumers, retailers said.
 
“Our most popular small animal treat is the Vitakraft yogurt drops,” said Curtis Krohn, owner of Hartford, Wis.-based Dynamic Pet Palace LLC. “It’s what customers seem to prefer.”
 
At the SuperZoo trade show in September, buyers voted Vitakraft Sunseed’s newest snack, Quiko Edible Treats, the top new small animal product. The crispy, oven-baked products, which range from tunnels to houses to treat-filled bowls and cups, are completely edible and—not unlike Supreme Foods snacks—designed to promote dental health and proper digestion. Retailers reported that the bowls sell especially well to health-conscious owners because the products are marketed as salads.
 
Like Greenhalgh, Rachael Creech, co-owner of Adventure Pets in Mandeville, La., reported Vitakraft Sunseed as the store’s most popular treat line. She also referenced its aesthetic appeal.
 
“We carry quite a bit and I like their packaging,” she said, adding that the VitaVerde brand of natural treats are doing especially well.
 
For customers seeking organic treats, Murdock, Neb.-based Oxbow Animal Health offers USDA-certified organic BeneTerra Barley Biscuits, which are made from hay, fruits and vegetables.
 
“With treats, as with any other food product, it’s all about the ingredients,” said Melissa Ross, Oxbow’s marketing operations manager. “Many treats in the small animal category rely on added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients to attract the taste buds of small animals. While animals may willingly eat these treats, their digestive systems are not designed to process them.”
 
To minimize the risk of small animal owners overfeeding their pets too many unhealthful items, Oxbow developed the Simple Rewards treat line to be at once appetizing and nutritious for pets. Of the available seven flavors that stem from all-natural ingredients, including hay, herbs and freeze-dried fruits, Veggie Treats are the company’s current bestseller, Ross reported. She attributes their appeal to a positive pet response and natural compatibility with Oxbow hays and fortified foods.
 
“Oxbow makes a really good treat,” Greenhalgh confirmed, also citing Sweet Meadow as an all-around favorite. “Freeze-dried strawberries, very natural.”
 
Creech, who aims to please, reported she recently brought Oxbow into the store because “people were asking for it.”

The newest additions to the Simple Rewards line (Papaya Medley, Lavender-Chamomile Medley and Cranberry-Rosemary Medley), which were released simultaneously in September 2010, have had a positive consumer and retail response during their first year in the marketplace, Ross reported. Several retailers affirmed that they use this type of treat as a mix-in to enhance hay, an attractive benefit from both a sales and merchandising standpoint.
 
The Impulse Buyer
Virtually everyone now and then grabs a little something extra—something not on the list—when shopping. The usual suspects, according to retailers, are the young, the rich, and the busy, as well as new pet owners who can’t contain their excitement. For these buyers, a product’s price, newness to market and in-store location might reign most persuasive.
 
“The challenge is to offer products that are nutritious and accepted by the animals and that will interest the consumer, especially with respect to price,” Norsen said.

If the price is right and it’s something different or exciting, and if it’s within easy view and even easier reach, an impulse sale is promising, retailers reported. Krohn stocks all his small animal treats in the first aisle customers see when they walk into the store.
 
“They’re very visible,” he said, adding that his customers prefer the brand they’re used to.
 
“I’m not sure if they’re afraid their pet won’t like it or will get sick, but they are afraid to switch to something different,” he said. “They’re really brand loyal.”
 
Creech, whose store boasts a “pretty big treat area,” pegs her small animal treats on a rack close to the livestock and groups them by animal type: rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and so on.
 
She said that in general a lot of stores overlook add-ons such as chews.
 
Ware Manufacturing Inc. of Avondale, Ariz., produces small animal accessories and edibles, including chews that double as treats. Its Alfalfa Fields all-natural alfalfa hay treats and Carnival Crops colorful grain and vegetable cookies—two products that debuted this year at the Global Pet Expo—are clip strip-, bin- and starter kit-friendly. They attract attention not because of their ingredients but because of their interesting shapes, retailers said. The shapes include carrots, sprouts, dolls and mini hay bales.
 
They’re designed to appeal to the kid in everyone, said Dave Hitsman, Ware’s director of product development.
 
Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a division of Central Garden & Pet, offers a treat line that many retailers said they use in-store: Fiesta Medley Treat Sticks and Fiesta Fruit & Veggie Treat Sticks. Each treat stick is aimed at the owner of a particular species—rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla. Signage, including mention of products used in pet enclosures and playpens, can reinforce up-close foraging and nibbling demonstrations. 
 
The company, like others, is big on yogurt. Besides offering Fiesta brand yogurt-dipped fruits such as papaya, banana and pineapple, it also offers Fiesta brand yogurt chips and yogurt-dipped Timothy hay (not to be confused with FM Brown’s Timothy Hay Yogurt Yummies). Compared to Kaytee’s Forti-Diet Pro Health Healthy Bits treats, which are made from nuts, fruits and seeds, the sugary Fiesta sweets fall into the indulgent category. The Forti-Diet treats are formulated using DHA omega-3 to support heart, brain and visual functions as well as natural prebiotics and probiotics to aid in digestive health, according to the company.
 
“The easiest way to learn the benefits of any product is simple,” Hitsman said. “Read the benefits and features on the package. The best way to sell a treat is to show the consumers how much pets love to munch and crunch on a snack. Have some snacks available and encourage customers to participate in ‘treating’ the store pets.”

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