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While the options are more varied than ever, dog owners are committed to premium diets that offer their pets high-quality nutrition, and independent pet retailers who can help match a dog to their ideal food choice can inspire loyal customers.

Jason Ast, owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, N.C., said that customers are coming into his store on a daily basis seeking ways to give their dog a better life. Ast and his staff are taking the time to look at each dog as an individual and narrow down the food options to help “create a path toward better living.”

Denise Strong, co-owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that many pet owners are making the correlation between nutrition and their dog’s health. As a result, they’re willing to invest in premium diets.

“Dog parents know that choosing high-quality foods is important because there is a direct link to their dog’s health,” Strong said. “They are generally willing to pay the extra cost knowing that it can actually save them money on vet bills and help promote a long and healthy life of their pet.”

In offering premium choices, manufacturers are listening to pet owners’ wants and needs. For example, in the fall, Midwestern Pet Foods refreshed its Earthborn Holistic recipes to be free from peas, lentils and legumes. Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator for the Evansville, Ind.-based company, said that Midwestern believes a premium diet is best defined as one that is nutritious, high quality and safe to feed pets.

“Crafted in family-owned USA kitchens, Earthborn Holistic offers a wholesome approach to heart-healthy nutrition through safe, trusted ingredients, and we’ve never had a recall,” McNulty added. “It is available in grain-in and grain-free recipes to fit any dog’s nutritional needs.”

At Open Farm, a Toronto-based pet food company, premium diets are defined as those with the highest-quality ingredients, said Evan Shuster, vice president of marketing.

“There are a few factors that go into this, including how we formulate our recipes to ensure that we’re using quality ingredients at levels [which] maximize their nutritional value to the pet, while also excluding unnecessary ingredients such as fillers, byproducts or meat meals,” Shuster said. “All of our meats are sourced from third-party-audited farms to ensure that not only are we partnering with farms that treat their animals with care and respect, but that we’re using ingredients that come from low-stress environments.”

Open Farm recently launched a line of Gently Cooked recipes, which Shuster said are a great solution for dog owners looking for human-grade foods that can be used as a complete meal or a topper.

“We start by combining the best humanely raised meats and sustainably sourced wild-caught fish with a nutritious blend of veggies and superfoods,” he said. “We then cook our recipes sous vide. This gradual cooking process retains more flavor, nutrients and vitamins, while providing higher food safety as the low heat removes bacteria. Last but not least, we freeze it. Once cooked and cooled, each pre-portioned meal is frozen to preserve its freshness.”

Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food, a manufacturer in Cos Cob, Conn., added that premium equates to using high-quality ingredients, starting with real meat, and then adding real fruits, vegetables and grains.

Blandford said that Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food has introduced a new flavor to the Adult Dog Classic line—Chicken Soup for the Soul Beef and Brown Rice, with real beef as the No. 1 ingredient and no peas or legumes.

“We have also recently released three new complete and balanced dog wet recipes in a new format, Cuts In Gravy,” Blandford continued. “These include Turkey & Sweet Potato, Beef With Vegetables and Chicken, Brown Rice & Vegetables. These premium recipes combine chunks of real beef, chicken or turkey as [the] first ingredient with real fruits like blueberries and cranberries as well as healthy vegetables like green beans, sweet potatoes, carrots and spinach. All are prepared in savory gravy.”


“Dog parents know that choosing high-quality foods is important because there is a direct link to their dog’s health. They are generally willing to pay the extra cost knowing that it can actually save them money on vet bills and help promote a long and healthy life of their pet.”—Denise Strong of Pawz on Main


Consumer Education

Offer Valuable Knowledge

When it comes to helping dog owners better understand what they feed their pet, the independent retailer can play a valuable role by educating customers on the options.

“Education is crucial in empowering pet parents to make informed choices on how best to feed their pet family,” said Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator for Midwestern Pet Foods, a manufacturer based in Evansville, Ind. “We work hard to provide our retail partners with training on all of our recipes, but we don’t stop there. This year we invested in state-of-the-art online modular learning programs for our retail partners to help them gain greater understanding of our products.”

Pet retailers have the opportunity to be a resource for customers who might need guidance, said Evan Shuster, vice president of marketing at Open Farm, a manufacturer in Toronto. Most customers don’t need help choosing toys or accessories, but nutrition can be daunting, he noted.

“I think the average consumer finds shopping for pet food to be confusing and overwhelming,” he said. “Pet retailers are an amazing resource to help guide individuals to the right unique solution for their pet. We put a lot of trust in our pet retail partners to educate and inform consumers and know that many are [choosy] in what brands they sell.”

When it comes to how to communicate, Addie Schuhle, buyer at Pet Food Depot, a pet store in Phoenix, said that retailers should remember that social media is just one tool. It should never be a replacement for those face-to-face opportunities.

“Speak to every person that comes through the door,” Schuhle said. “Communication is key. Social media does not get to everyone. People are busy, but use that first 30 seconds to get their attention.”

Assortment Optimization

A Thoughtful Variety

A thoughtful assortment of premium dog food is also important. The key is to stock a variety of options to cover the individual needs of pets—but avoid overwhelming the customer with choice overload, according to industry insiders.

Denise Strong, co-owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that carrying premium pet food is a differentiator at her store and customers know that anything they pick up will ultimately be a good choice. That feeling that they “can’t go wrong” gives them the freedom of choice without the worry.

“Many of my customers rely on me to know that I’ve already researched the options and narrowed it down to only the best,” she said. “That’s not the same type of experience that you’d get at a big-box store or online. Within those choices, it’s important that we still have options for the dog parent since every dog is different and has unique needs.”

Katie McNulty, marketing coordinator for Midwestern Pet Foods, a manufacturer based in Evansville, Ind., said that the best way to stock an optimal variety is to listen to pet owners and know what they want.

“Their desire for safe, high-quality and nutritious food is real and should not be ignored,” she said. “It’s also important to understand that consumer demand is constantly changing. Maintaining new, interesting and relevant products in-store is a continual challenge.”

Ultimately, those retailers who can curate an assortment that meets all of their customers’ needs will have the most success.

“Since space is at a premium, retailers should have product that will cover the different life stages of pets,” said Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food, a manufacturer in Cos Cob, Conn. “From puppy to mature dog, an assortment of dry and wet products with different textures and proteins to entice customers to purchase is ideal. We have found that offering 1.5-pound trial size bags, with $3-off coupon for future purchases, is a great way for customers to give our premium products a try with no significant monetary investment.”


Trade Talk

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James Crouch, CEO and founder of Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo.

Are there any common misconceptions that pet owners associate with premium dog foods? How does Bixbi deliver healthful premium diets and work to educate retailers and consumers about its products?

The two most common misconceptions we see from both consumers and stores are ingredient knowledge and price perceptions. For ingredients, we continue to hear that people think meat meal powders are meat. They are not. Meals may have concentrated protein, but their digestibility levels prevent them from optimizing a dog’s diet. As for price, people still think a fresh meat diet, with its incredibly high digestibility benefits, is too expensive, when it is not. The Bixbi food lines, Rawbble and Liberty, are priced at levels most dog owners can afford. Liberty is especially value-driven with fresh meat recipes at price levels normally found with products using rendered meat meals.


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“Our store exists because we were able to help/fix one of our dogs through proper diet and nutrition. After five years of vet [prescription] foods, steroid treatments, antibiotics and multiple veterinary visits a month costing nearly $350 each month, we turned toward educating ourselves on the importance of proper nutrition. It took less than four months to change Zoe’s life. Once we removed the items that were causing her discomfort and pain, she was a new dog. Five years later, she now plays with our puppy, takes no meds, requires no shots and has a full, vibrant life!

Training your team on proper dog nutrition is vital! Think about it: Every dog eats, so every customer that enters your store is a possible conversation regarding nutrition. We allow customers to sign up for a free food consultation, and on any given Saturday or Sunday, I personally handle four, sometimes five, food consultations each day. These people are always thankful. You can see it in their eyes and hear in their voices. I think most customers really appreciate someone who can ‘connect the dots’ of all the ‘stuff’ they’ve been researching on the internet.”—Jason Ast, owner of Just Dog People, a pet store in Garner, N.C.


“We think the better educated a pet parent is, the better for everyone—but especially their pet. Customers need to understand the true value of real-meat-first products versus those products that contain inferior ingredients like corn or wheat. They need to know what omegas or taurine can do for their pet. That’s why we add a benefits band on the back of every bag to help educate consumers on the attributes of our high-quality ingredients. We help retailers educate their customers by providing shelf talkers, danglers and stand-alone displays that call out important ingredients and their attributes. We have also created 30-second spots that communicate and educate pet parents on product benefits. These videos are available for retailers to play in-store.”—Jeanne Blandford, senior director of marketing at Chicken Soup for the Soul Pet Food in Cos Cob, Conn.