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Toppers, mixers and other meal enhancement products continue to garner consumers’ attention as pet owners look for ways to provide more nutrition to pets and boost their interest in mealtime. As a result, retailers and manufacturers have both expressed that this category is growing.

“We are finding the largest driver of this category are the pets themselves,” said Wyatt Zuber, national sales manager for Ageless Paws, a manufacturer in Manchester, Conn. “Picky or finicky pets tend to go on and off of their food, quite often. This has driven the pet parents to try a new way to entice their pets to eat their meals.”

Ageless Paws has expanded its meal topper selection with the introduction of its Topper+ line. The functional freeze-dried raw meal toppers are designed to enhance dogs’ and cats’ food with flavorful and nutritious single-source proteins, Zuber said. Recipes include Chicken Breast, Salmon and Turkey Heart.

Zuber noted that the category is also driven by an increased interest from pet owners who want to provide cleaner and more nutritious meals for their pets.

“Adding a topper/mixer is a simple, easy and affordable way for pet parents to add in the benefits of raw without breaking the bank,” Zuber continued.

This is exactly what Betsy Key Hooker Hintzmann, owner and partner at Four Dogs Pet Supplies in Charlotte, N.C., is seeing play out at her store. She said that the interest in meal enhancers is split between keeping pets interested in their food and pet owners’ desire to deliver more nutrition.

“Over time, pets get bored of the same food flavor, but toppers and enhancers add some variety,” Hooker Hintzmann said. “Along with that, pet parents understand that they’re adding nutrition to the meal. Raw goat’s milk, for instance, provides probiotics. Adding some raw topper gives more protein. Pet parents appreciate these nutritional benefits.”

Denise Strong, co-owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that a topper recommendation might make sense if a pet has stopped eating—but first, there should be some sleuthing as to why they stopped eating in the first place.

“Customers frequently mention to me that their pets ‘won’t eat their food,’” she said. “I often recommend a topper or a broth, but only after first finding out what brand of food they are feeding. Oftentimes, if it’s a low-quality food, their pets may have stopped [eating] it for a reason—and it could be the poor quality.”

Strong said she will first advise the pet owner to upgrade the primary mealtime food as a topper isn’t going to fix a significantly subpar food choice. Fortunately, most who shop at independent retailers like Pawz on Main have already chosen higher-quality foods, so a topper is just another way to make mealtime interesting and more flavorful, Strong said, adding that pets can get tired of eating the same food day after day.

Sau Cheng, founder and director of sales at Woofpak, an Irvine, Calif.-based manufacturer that also operates retail locations, said that the “realization that pets need freshness and variety in their diets” continues to drive the meal enhancement category.

“So many pet owners have come to us saying how bored [their pet is] with eating the same dry food every day,” Cheng added. “At Woofpak, we provide seven delicious recipes for our meal toppers.”

Cheng said customer favorites include Shepherd’s Pie, Thanksgiving Feast, Poke Bowl and Chicken Pot Pie.

“We’re a family-owned business and only cook our meal toppers in small batches using restaurant-grade meats and veggies,” Cheng added. “This brings a closer experience for the dogs to eat what’s typically made for their owners.”

Calling Attention to the Options

Although some consumers will already be aware of these types of products, generating interest amongst those who have never heard of toppers and mixers before can be achieved with creative marketing and displays.

“Counter displays work well if there is room on the counter or near the counter,” Zuber said. “The next best is an endcap if stores have or offer endcaps and/or window displays. Outside of that, cross-merchandising is the easiest way to catch a consumer’s attention in the store. Shelf-talkers and counter mats also do a great job at this.”

Cheng suggested that retailers set up free tastings.

“At Woofpak, we provide fresh samples so the owners can bring their dogs to try the food firsthand,” Cheng said. “That is our best channel to introduce our meal toppers, and we believe it is also the best form of validation from our customers.”

The company offers Woofpak-branded freezers to call attention to its toppers, which are stored frozen in colorful packaging reminiscent of ice cream containers, Cheng said.

Hooker Hintzmann said that samples have been very effective at introducing shoppers to meal enhancement options.

“It gives customers a chance to try it before committing,” she added.

Consumer Education

Building a Better Bowl

Pet specialty retailers looking to build robust sales of toppers, mixers and other meal enhancement products should be ready to educate shoppers on the benefits these meal boosters can give pets.

Wyatt Zuber, national sales manager for Ageless Paws, a manufacturer in Manchester, Conn., said helping pet owners compare products can be a useful part of the education process.

“Highlighting key sales points or even making a comparison chart between brands/products will easily help the consumer make a decision on what topper/mixer to add,” Zuber said. “Some of those highlights could be raw versus cooked versus freeze-dried, or single ingredient versus limited ingredient versus neither, or even functional versus non-functional—does it help the pet or just add flavor?”

Ruth Stedman Marriott, CEO and co-founder of A Pup Above, a manufacturer in Austin, Texas, said that there are two key areas to focus on with pet owners education.

One is that feeding fresh does not have to be an “all or nothing decision.”

“Using fresh food as a mixer or topper to build the pet’s bowl can be an excellent way to get healthy, fresh food into their daily diet,” she explained.

The second point is that variety is healthy, Stedman Marriott added.

“Feeding your pet variety by building their bowl makes it easier to get a variety of nutrients from various whole food sources—not to mention it makes mealtime much more exciting than eating the same thing day in and day out,” she said.

Many consumers will appreciate getting some retailer assistance in navigating the meal enhancement category.

“Even our knowledgeable shoppers can benefit from some help when new products come on the market,” said Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer at Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore. “Making choices related to nutrition can be confusing, so we’re always there to lend a hand.”