Dog owners are fiercely loyal to their premium pet food brands, as evidenced by consumer response during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of all the things consumers sacrificed this spring to help flatten the curve of the virus, they weren’t willing to give up their pets’ nutrition.
“Although we’ve faced a lot of uncertainty in the world, pet parents have continued to make their pet’s nutrition a priority,” said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care, a Hereford, Texas-based pet food manufacturer. “When pet parents started stocking up on food for their dogs and cats earlier this year, they remained loyal to the premium brands and high-quality food they know and trust.”
Nulo saw “a sharp spike in pantry-loading sales in the back half of March, followed by a painful hangover, then gradual recovery,” said Michael Landa, CEO of the Austin, Texas-based pet food company.
Merrick reported a big spike in dry food sales as a result of the pandemic. Smith said kibble remains “more of a pantry staple that pet parents feed every day.”
Merrick saw “a modest increase” in wet food sales as a result of stockpiling, but not as large as the spike for dry food, Smith added.
“This recent sales trend reinforces how pet parents view wet food and incorporate it into their pet’s diet,” she said. “Wet food tends to be more emotional for pet parents—it’s less about providing a functional, complete and balanced meal and more about enjoying a great bonding experience with their dog or cat. Although many pet parents still view wet food as a special occasion treat, this perception is starting to shift.”
For Nulo, the manufacturer’s four kibble lines still outpace options like wet and freeze-dried, but these formats are seeing steady growth, alongside add-ons like bone broths and meal toppers, Landa said.
Time spent at home with pets during the COVID-19 shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, and increases in pet adoptions and fostering during that time, gave some consumers the opportunity to zero in on their pet’s diet.
“As pet owners have been spending more time with their pets and making them a more central part of their daily lives, we feel pet nutrition has become even more important to pet owners,” said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for Ziwi USA, a pet food manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan. “Providing excellent nutrition to pets has become a larger focus.”
Emotions play a role in dog diet selection. Premium diet buyers are more likely to identify with statements like “I put my pet first” and “My pet is my best friend,” Landa said.
“There is an emotional aspect tied to purchasing higher-priced products centered around the belief that the food truly is better for the pets,” he said. “When they’ve found a solid reason to believe, the higher cost is justified because ultimately they know their companion is worth it.”
Laura Moore, president of The Critters & Me, a pet store in Santa Fe, N.M., said most of her clients would put their pet’s health before their own.
Victoria Park, president of Park Pet Supply in Atlanta, agreed.
“People will skimp on things for themselves, but not on their pets’ health,” she said.
On the Menu
Dog owners are proving to be more dedicated than ever to their pets’ nutritional needs, and demand for premium diets continues to drive innovation in the category. A variety of new food options have come to market as a result.
In April, Ziwi USA launched its Provenance Series, which includes three new air-dried and wet recipes for dogs and cats. The recipes—East Cape, Hauraki Plains and Otago Valley—are each named for a region in New Zealand and feature a combination of five meats and fish sourced from that region. The diets are made of up to 97 percent meat, organ and bones.
“The Provenance Series offers the ultimate nutrition for dogs of all breeds and life stages,” said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales at the Overland Park, Kan.-based company.
Late last year, Nulo launched its Challenger super-premium, high-meat kibble line. With animal-based protein levels of up to 90 percent, the line features sustainably sourced meats like pasture-raised lamb, U.S.-raised guinea fowl and wild-caught Acadian redfish, as well as organic oats, barley and millet.
“Challenger is not available for e-commerce, a request we are honoring for our valued independent retail partners,” said Michael Landa, CEO of the Austin, Texas-based company.
In May, Nulo introduced Challenger Stews, a wet-food companion for the Challenger kibble line. The beef, turkey and chicken stews can be fed as a complete meal or as a topper and are packaged in recyclable Tetra Pak cartons.
Nulo Frontrunner was also launched late last year. The grain-based kibble line is designed to offer premium food at a more competitive price. The diets feature 77 percent animal-based protein levels, low carbohydrates, and grains like oats, barley and brown rice.
“Both [Nulo Challenger and Frontrunner] contain guaranteed levels of taurine and the patented GanedenBC30 probiotic for optimal digestive and immune support,” Landa said.
In June, Merrick Pet Care in Hereford, Texas, launched its Full Source line of six kibble recipes with freeze-dried raw coating. Full Source diets feature 85 to 90 percent animal proteins and are made with nutrient-rich organs and cartilage, said director of communications Jilliann Smith.
Knowledge Is Power
Manufacturers and specialty retailers agree that premium pet food buyers come from all walks of life, but certain demographics could use more targeted education on dog nutrition.
Dog owners who are conscious of their own nutrition choices are more likely to choose premium diets for their dogs, said Laura Moore, president of The Critters & Me, a pet store in Santa Fe, N.M.
Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care, a pet food manufacturer in Hereford, Texas, said these consumers often have other similar characteristics.
“Premium pet food buyers are willing to pay a higher price for food that is made with higher-quality ingredients,” she said. “Data shows that these shoppers are highly educated, have higher household incomes and tend to fall in the older millennial or generation X demographic.”
Conversely, Moore finds that owners in the 20-to-30-year age range could use more information on pet care and nutrition.
“We feel that the more we are active in social media, the higher the chance to reach the younger demographic,” she said.
Location plays a role, too. Moore said the Santa Fe community has a “holistic bent” in general, which flows over into pet care.
Kim Matsko, owner of Natural Pet Essentials, a pet supply store in Charlottesville, Va., seeks to educate her customers through seminars run by vendors who highlight their products and drive home the importance of premium diets.
Moore emphasized that some customers could use more information about how the cost of premium diets translates to less money spent at the veterinarian.
“We also try to reach out to lower-income families to show them that feeding better is not that much more expensive and will certainly save them having to pay bills for health care,” she said. “Many people come for advice, being low income as they cannot afford veterinary services, so are looking for a diet change answer, which, in 90 percent of the cases, corrects the issues.”
Personal Recommendations Go a Long Way
In-store efforts like signage and displays and online connections with customers are good tools for marketing, but nothing beats a personal recommendation, said Jilliann Smith, director of communications for Merrick Pet Care, a pet food manufacturer in Hereford, Texas.
“Our pet specialty retail partners are passionate about pet nutrition, and shoppers look to them for advice when selecting food for their own pet,” Smith said. “When a store associate is feeding our food to their dog or cat, their personal endorsement is the best way to encourage and inspire pet parents to trade up to a premium food.”
Allowing customers to try a new food and see the benefits for themselves is effective, too.
Park Pet Supply in Atlanta gives out a lot of free kibble samples and encourages customers to compare ingredients between different options.
“Usually, customers notice how much better their dog looks, how much better the poop looks and how the energy levels change,” said president Victoria Park.
In April, Ziwi USA began offering a new trial-size bag with a coordinating display as part of its Provenance Series launch.
“Including displays near the register is always a great way to increase impulse purchases,” said Heather Hickey, vice president of North America sales for the Overland Park, Kan.-based manufacturer. “We encourage all retailers to focus on getting consumers to enhance their current diet with a nutrient-rich premium food, like Ziwi, as a topper.”
James Crouch, CEO of Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.
How has the premium dog diets category evolved in the past few years, and how has that influenced pet owners’ purchase decision process? How has it impacted what Bixbi brings to the category?
When consumers figured out the beautiful lamb chop pictured on the front of their dog food bag was not actually in the product, they looked for better alternatives. Frozen and freeze-dried diets emerged to meet this need and have enjoyed tremendous success and helped thousands of dogs live healthier lives.
Bixbi has gone a step beyond the raw food movement and applied the same whole food approach we took in our freeze-dried Rawbble line to our line of Rawbble kibble products. Fresh meat without meat meals, whole food ingredients and a gentle steam-cooking process now define a new premium, affordable dry dog food option. Bixbi combines a unique manufacturing approach and strict ingredient sourcing protocols to create the only fresh meat kibble with industry-leading protein digestibility that consumers can actually afford. And with a large recipe assortment and grain-free and grain-inclusive options, retailers have a lot to choose from.