Country of Origin

Products labeled "Made in the USA" can stir some patriotic fervor in customers, but from a sales standpoint, they might benefit certain retailers more than others.

"It continues to be something that retailers consider when they’re determining their product mix," said Steve King, president of Pet Industry Distributors Association in Abingdon, Md.

"I don’t know that it’s necessarily something that a retailer can use as some overriding factor when determining products to stock, but in terms of a strategy to appeal to a certain demographic of their customer base, it’s one more weapon to add to their arsenal," King added.

 Some retailers, however, swear by the category as a sales driver.

"[My customers] are thrilled," said Cindra Conison, owner of Quirky Pet in Montpelier, Vt. "People are really happy, especially when it’s treats. I think [the category] is growing."

Quirky Pet only carries products manufactured in the U.S., Conison added. 

There’s enough demand for U.S-made products that some retailers are finding it hard to stock shelves with everything they’d like.

"I don’t think there are enough [U.S.-made] products out there," said Biff Picone, co-owner of Natural Pawz, which has several stores in Texas. "Sometimes it’s a challenge finding [products] that fit the natural component as well as the made-in-the-USA component that we’re looking for."

"The simple fact that U.S. manufacturers are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other consumer agencies, there are more legal safeguards in place that help ensure that products made in the U.S. are generally safer and of higher quality."

Pet Foods Built the Trend

A lot of interest in U.S.-manufactured products has originated with and stayed in the pet foods category.

"In the pet industry there have been widespread reports in the past of problems associated with products, particularly in the food category, particularly coming out of certain countries," King said. "Certainly, China is one that has received the bulk of the notoriety, but it’s not necessarily limited to concerns there.

"There are certain customers [for whom] the made-in-the-USA label may provide a level of confidence that perhaps they wouldn’t [have] with products that aren’t sourced there," he added. "That being said, it’s not necessarily a guarantee by any means that the product they’re getting is any better than a product whose ingredients are sourced anywhere else."

Products made in the USA are not automatically better, agreed Dan McFadden, vice president of animal wellness for Oculus Innovative Sciences in Petaluma, Calif., maker of MicrocynAH animal health care products.

However, he noted that due to "the simple fact that U.S. manufacturers are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other consumer agencies, there are more legal safeguards in place that help ensure that products made in the U.S. are generally safer and of higher quality."

It’s a thorny topic, and each retailer’s mileage can vary.

"People are definitely asking for food products that are made in the USA," said Heather Hickey, national sales director for Nature’s Logic in Lincoln, Neb. "I’ve had a lot of conversations with retailers, and people are very leery of products coming out of countries [such as] China. They want to make sure they’re buying food from companies they trust. [They want] products that are not only packaged in the U.S., but from companies that are also honest about the sourcing of those ingredients."

Even when a company is dedicated to U.S.-made products, however, it isn’t always the case that every single part of the product originates within the country.

"We just launched new packaging this year," Hickey said. "And we’ve put the American flag on our bag. We’re advertising on the front that we’re family owned in America’s heartland.

"On the back of the bags, we specifically call out the country of origin for our primary protein source," she added. "We are getting some things overseas, due to availability or clean sourcing. For example, we have a line of sardine kibble and sardine oil. Obviously, sardines aren’t a huge product of the United States, so we’re getting that from the Norway region."

Not Just Consumables

There’s a different motivation for customer interest in U.S.-manufactured pet products when it comes to hard goods.

"It probably falls into two categories," King said. "One is, the consumer who wants to support manufacturing in the United States. That’s one segment of consumers that you’re going to reach with made-in-the-USA products. The other would be consumers who are looking for some assurance of quality and might attribute products made in the U.S. with higher quality."

This patriotic consumer impulse has led some retailers to offer entire categories with nothing but domestically produced products.

"It’s just amazing what’s made in the United States," Conison said. "I’ve been able to find almost everything [I want to offer]. I have life jackets, coats, mugs, etc."

Others in the industry have noted growing—though still relatively small—interest in U.S.-made products.

"A couple retailers I am close to have asked me to look for made-in-the-USA hard goods when I’m attending shows they aren’t able to attend, so some stores are looking for additional categories to have made-in-the-USA products," said David DeLorenzo, president of Vetscience LLC in Dallas.

It might be the case that hard goods manufactured in the U.S. do offer added value, especially when it comes to safety and environmental friendliness.

"Customers are extremely savvy regarding pet safety and how where a product is manufactured correlates to manufacturing processes and material oversight," said Spencer Williams, owner and president of West Paw Design in Bozeman, Mont. "Oftentimes, you lose accountability when you’re dealing with foreign manufacturers. When products are made in the USA, customers have the confidence that there are safety measures in place. Additionally, from an environmental point of view, having products made in the USA means a smaller carbon footprint. This point really resonates with consumers."

Not everyone sees it that way, and obviously it depends on the manufacturer in question.

"The pet industry is truly a global industry," King said. "There are quality products being sourced from all over the world. To attribute quality to only those products made in the U.S. would be a false premise. That being said, I think you have to understand your consumer base as a retailer, and if you feel there are a significant number of customers for whom that is an important element … then by all means, you should stock [appropriate] products."

Value Proposition

It’s ultimately a question of consumers’ perceptions of value.

"At the end of the day, [U.S.-made products] really are not that much more expensive," Picone said. "I think that’s a misnomer. We don’t deal with a lot of the cheaper toys, and that’s where you might find [that perception]. I think it really comes down to understanding the product and what it does. If you have a toy that’s $2, but it rips apart in two days, that’s not a good value for our customers. They look for value.

"[The] same thing [is true] with beds. You can go to a lot of big-box stores … and buy a bed that will be flat as a pancake in a week. We only will sell beds where the stuffing is more [like] what you would put in human furniture. People perceive the value. It comes down to a pricing issue and that you’re offering your customer something that’s of value."

Even if price points might not necessarily be in line, customer perception is what counts.

"People have told me that the products at [a large chain pet retailer] cost more," Conison said. "People really like high-quality products for their animals, so they don’t see it as more expensive."

Durability can add value for customers in the long run, too.

"If one of our Zogoflex toys cost $20 and you never need to replace it—or if you’re [in the] less than 1 percent that does and we send you a free replacement toy—that’s less expensive in the long run then needing to continually buy a less-durable toy that your dog repeatedly destroys," Williams said. 

Today’s pet owner is more concerned with quality than price, said Oculus’ McFadden.

"Obviously, few would feed their dog or cat treats of questionable origin simply to save a dollar," he said. "To the contrary, today’s pet owner is vigilant about studying ingredients, regulatory review and country of origin. If this ends up costing them more to ensure the safety of their pet, so be it.

"As my grandfather used to say, ‘Ain’t nothing more expensive than cheap furniture.’"

Some in the industry do see higher price points for U.S.-made items but don’t think it ultimately matters to consumers.

"They are more expensive, period," said Alisha Navarro, owner of 2 Hounds Design in Monroe, N.C. "But you get what you pay for. The quality is better, oftentimes there are more options, and there are more custom options." 

Part of the challenge for retailers is identifying the opportunity with products that might not be clearly labeled.

"If stores and end customers are willing to pay for it, there are made-in-the-USA products in every category," Navarro added. "The trade shows can be difficult because the made-in-the-USA suppliers are not noted for calling it out in any way, so stores basically have to go from booth to booth asking."  

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Pet Product News.