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The carnivorous nature of cats—combined with that feline propensity for pickiness—requires that pet specialty retailers stock a variety of options. And across the country, industry insiders report that wet cat food in particular is faring well. As a result, manufacturers are offering an array of tastes, textures and even packaging formats to please wet cat food shoppers and their pets.

Mark Sapir, chief marketing officer for Stella & Chewy’s, a pet food and treat manufacturer in Oak Creek, Wis., said the company’s new Carnivore Cravings line, which features real shredded muscle meat in a nutritious broth and comes in pouches, is performing very well.

“Pet parents are really doing their homework on what ingredients are best for their animals to live a long and healthy life, and they know our cat food is 100 percent real meat,” he added.

Stella & Chewy’s has also introduced Marie’s Magical Dinner Dust, available in Cage-Free Chicken Recipe and Wild-Caught Salmon & Cage-Free Chicken Recipe. According to Sapir, the freeze-dried-raw meal topper is perfect for picky eaters.

Caru Pet Food Co. is also offering a new product that aim to add excitement to a pet’s meal: Daily Dish Broths. The broths come in Chicken, Beef and Pumpkin varieties.

“Our broths are made with human-grade ingredients in a human food plant right here in the United States,” said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of the Vero Beach, Fla., pet food and treat maker. “Pet parents can pour these savory recipes over their pet’s food for an added nutritional boost or simply serve as a special treat.”

There’s no question that for many cats, texture can sometimes be a deal breaker. That’s why it’s important for retailers to pay attention to customers’ preferences. Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, which has three stores in the Pittsburgh area, said that pâté reigns at her store. Customers also appreciate options that are available in pouches as opposed to cans, she noted. But Shelaske said that what cat owners care about most is good nutrition. She said she is incredibly selective about the brands she carries, so that customers feel comfortable with any option they choose in the stores.

Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a retailer in Charlottesville, Va., said that her store is having great success with shredded meat and vegetable combos.

“They look and smell like something a human would eat,” she said. “Also, pâtés packed in boxes are getting great attention. We love so much of the new packaging that looks so inviting to customers. Foods in pouches are also extremely popular for people who have limited kitchen space.”

Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., a Markham, Ill.-based pet food and treat manufacturer, sells four different cat food textures, but pâté remains the most popular, said president Holly Sher. She agreed that cat owners are well educated on the benefits of a wet food diet.

“Cat food buyers understand the importance of moisture, and therefore buy canned food a lot,” she said. “As more cat parents become educated on nutrition, the canned food market continues to fare really well.”

Merchandising

Making the Cat Food Aisle Easy to Shop

One challenge many pet specialty retailers face is stocking enough variety to appeal to picky cats—but without making their cat food sections overwhelming.

Holly Sher, president of Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., a pet food and treat manufacturer in Markham, Ill., stressed that cat owners really do want choices.

“What I notice is that where a dog food buyer might buy one or two SKUs, a cat food buyer may go down the whole shelf and buy a lot more,” Sher said. “A lot of cat owners want their pet on more than one food because if anything ever changes and that food is no longer available, they don’t want their picky cat to be unwilling to eat. So we see a lot of cat people feeding their cat some variety.”

Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co., a pet food and treat maker in Vero Beach, Fla., said that retailers should offer a variety of food types including wet—but also dry and raw options—in order to appeal to even the pickiest cats.

“With those categories, retailers may want to limit the different proteins they carry so that their selections aren’t too overwhelming to pet parents,” Pettyan said. “A lot of the times, retailers will notice what proteins are best-sellers and can also determine what’s popular based on conversations with their customers.”

In terms of organization, Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore., said that grouping by brand tends to help customers the most.

“We tried organizing wet foods once by their texture—pâté in one area, stew and shredded in another—but it was pretty visually jarring,” McCohan said. “Having enough options in one line makes it more visually appealing and, ironically, less overwhelming. Brand familiarity also makes locating cans less overwhelming, so I would suggest to manufacturers that anything they can do to keep their labels similar, so people can find them in the mix of colors, would be helpful.”

Pattie Zeller, owner of Animal Connection, a retailer in Charlottesville, Va., said that her store chooses brands that also offer dry or freeze-dried options because these provide a great opportunity to sell foods as a package deal.

“If they also provide treats, even better,” she said. “It’s great to have a family of products. We look for brands that sell unique proteins, too.”

Zeller is also selective about packaging.

“As a retailer, I look for packaging that provides the least amount of waste, like stews and pâtés in boxes,” she said. “They’re more environmentally friendly, which our customers appreciate.”

The Impact of Raw on the Market

It can’t be ignored that the rising availability of raw food for cats is beginning to change the way that many cat owners think about their pets’ diets.

“Raw food diets have definitely been a trend we’ve noticed over the past few years,” said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co., a pet food and treat maker in Vero Beach, Fla. “We strongly believe that the nutritional needs of each pet are different and pet parents will be able to tell what is or isn’t working for their pet.”

Mark Sapir, chief marketing officer for Stella & Chewy’s, a pet food and treat manufacturer in Oak Creek, Wis., added that many cat owners are more educated on nutrition than ever before.

“More and more pet parents are understanding that cats are carnivores and thrive on a diet as nature intended,” he said. “We are seeing a strong surge of demand for our raw diets and an overall shift in pet parents’ interest in all-natural cat food.”

Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer for Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore., said that she has witnessed the progression of “styles of cat food” and how changing the food style can impact the cat’s health in a way that inspires long-term change.

“When an owner switches from kibble to canned wet food, they usually see enough positives, like [fewer] urinary issues, less constipation and even weight loss, that they don’t look back to feeding kibble,” she said. “Eventually, cat owners tend to ask, ‘If switching from kibble to canned had this much of an impact, what would happen if I switched to raw?’ This curiosity helps the conversation go deeper into pet nutrition like even less carbs and no thickening agents in raw food and why that matters with cats. When an owner with a cat who’s struggled with GI [gastrointestinal] issues, for example, switches from canned to raw food, the results are significant enough that, again, that pet owner never looks back to feeding canned food.”

While she has witnessed some curiosity, Melissa Whitton, owner of Most Valuable Pets, a pet store in Lexington, Ky., said that cat owners are not nearly as interested in raw as her dog-owning customers.

“The freeze-dried toppers are what we are seeing the most growth in currently,” she added. “I think it complements the wet food category nicely. We’ve noticed our customers really like the variety, and we always have something to please the most finicky cat.”

Toni Shelaske, owner of Healthy Pet Products, which has three locations in the Pittsburgh area, said that in her stores, raw food has begun to make a shift in cat owners’ buying process.

“It’s as if they have an ‘aha’ moment when we tell them that cats are obligate carnivores,” she said. “That information has helped increase wet food sales significantly in all forms—canned, pouches, Tetra Paks, freeze-dried and raw.”