When it comes to choosing pet food, pet owners can easily be overwhelmed by all of the terminology they see on the bag. Words like "natural," "organic" and even "holistic" can have their heads spinning—but independent pet retailers can help steer them in the best direction.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), "natural" is often used in pet food labeling in order to appeal to consumers who specifically seek that terminology. The natural concept has more to do with what’s not in a food than what is.
"Right now, being ‘natural’ in the pet industry means the same thing that it did years ago," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet, a pet food manufacturer in Tewksbury, Mass. "It translated to sourcing simple, natural ingredients to develop a meal that is healthy for pets."
Certified organic, of course, is more heavily regulated, and pet manufacturers follow the definition created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. Yet despite the regulated nature of organic foods, most independent pet retailers said that they’re not highly requested.
"Organic is not so much a concern or a frequently asked for item, and we only have a few truly ‘organic’ choices at this time," said Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer at Bend Pet Express, which has two locations in Bend, Ore. "When it comes right down to it, the majority of shoppers just want foods that they believe are ‘good.’ To most, that means made in the USA with healthy ingredients."
Of course, McCohan said the biggest challenge for pet retailers is to get to the bottom of what matters to each individual shopper—as that can differ. What one customer deems "healthful ingredients" could be quite different from what another customer believes is healthful.
Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., also said that organic is not a huge trend at her store.
"I do sometimes get requests for organic, but what people don’t always realize is that if it’s not certified organic, it’s just a word on a label," she added. "Plus, they don’t like paying the high price for organic products and often end up buying something else in my store. Sales of organic products are minimal here at Pawz and, therefore, so is my stock of organic products."
Overall, Leary-Coutu said that with the continuing trend of consumers viewing their pet’s food similarly to their own, they likely will continue to analyze nutrition labels for clean, natural and simple ingredients.
"Identifying ingredients they’d use in their own food—like cranberries, sweet potatoes and broccoli—is another component that pet parents care about when shopping," she added. "Additionally, pet parents are eyeing labels to check for artificial flavors, preservatives and other chemicals included in food. At WellPet, we ensure that none of the above are included in our recipes. Instead, we select a small number of pure, authentic ingredients that are packed with the natural nutrients that pets need to thrive."
Retailers echoed similar sentiments, reporting that pet owners are more educated and are more likely to flip the bag over and read the ingredients. In the end, that ingredients panel might weigh more heavily on their minds than any of the language on the front of the bag.
"I do believe customers are savvy to the fact that ‘natural’ can mean almost anything," said Sherry Redwine, owner of Odyssey Pets, a pet store in Dallas. "It means they have to dig a little deeper. I have found that companies like Open Farm and Smallbatch are doing well because they source their meat from ethical and sustainable outlets. They also use as much organic ingredients as possible."
New Varieties and Options
Pet food manufacturers are launching new products to continue to give pet owners more natural options.
Health Extension Pet Care has entered into the topper category with its new Super Bites.
"These products provide an invaluable addition to a dog’s diet to aid in digestion and overall health and are an easy way to turn ordinary pet food into a culinary and extremely healthy diet," said Brad Gruber, president of the Hauppauge, N.Y.-based manufacturer. "These new products boost a dog’s diet with all of the benefits of tasty, super healthy ingredients while playing an important role in fortifying a pet’s diet. It makes kibble tastier, all while increasing the nutritional value of a meal."
Super Bites are available in three varieties: Chicken, Beef and Salmon.
WellPet, a Tewksbury, Mass.-based manufacturer, has introduced a number of new pet foods, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience.
For dogs, Wellness Core RawRev Ocean is the first poultry-free recipe in the Wellness Core RawRev family, Leary-Coutu said, adding that it’s ideal for dogs with poultry sensitivities or an affinity for seafood. In addition, Wellness Core RawRev with Wholesome Grains combines a high-protein kibble with wholesome grains and 100 percent freeze-dried raw meat pieces to create a savory, nutrient-rich meal. Finally, Wellness Core with Wholesome Grains are protein-packed recipes for dogs that contain the meat they crave and are crafted with nutrient-rich whole grains such as quinoa, barley and oatmeal to ensure they have everything needed to thrive, Leary-Coutu said.
Curating an Ideal Assortment
Pet owners want to know that independent retailers are narrowing their dog food selections to brands that they believe in.
Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main, a pet store in Cottonwood, Ariz., said that her customers rely on her to know that any choice they make in her store is ultimately a healthful one. While they want options, they want to know they’re choosing from among the best—so that there really is no way to make a "bad choice." She said that this is one of the biggest benefits that independent retailers can offer.
Brad Gruber, president of Health Extension Pet Care, a manufacturer in Hauppauge, N.Y., agreed that product curation can be a differentiator for independent retailers.
"Independent pet specialty retailers should give thought to carrying products that are not offered in any big-box, food, mass or club stores for the differential factor that drives today’s discerning shopper into their stores," Gruber said.
Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet, a Tewksbury, Mass.-based manufacturer, said that the key to curating an ideal assortment of high-quality foods is to source a wide variety of nutrient-rich options for pet owners to choose from. They will likely want to compare different options while they shop—such as varying ingredients, including proteins and grain options.
"It’s critical to have a range of alternative, natural protein sources, as many dogs have protein sensitivities," she noted. "WellPet prides itself on our variety of proteins—which offer the same natural nutrition of our core recipes—to serve pets with flavor affinities or sensitivities. Our most recent innovation here is the newly announced Wellness Core RawRev Ocean recipe, which incorporates the meaty goodness of Wellness Core RawRev with hardworking protein from the sea. In addition, with pet parents’ increased interest in grained recipes, retailers should also work to stock both grained and grain-free pet food options. WellPet caters to this exceptionally well, offering both grain and grain-free variations of beloved cat and dog recipes."
Natural Nutrition 101
With lots of marketing noise out there as to what constitutes a "natural" dog food, there is an opportunity for independent pet retailers to step in and provide consumers with some clarification. While many shoppers often perform a lot of their own research, they’ll likely turn to retailers as their trusted guides in navigating all of that information.
"This may be where we will begin to shine," said Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer at Bend Pet Express, which has two locations in Bend, Ore. "We are actually trying out a visual marker above sections of kibble that represent how much of the bag is carbs. Our goal isn’t to have someone shop around for the bags with the lowest visual representation of carbs, but to start a conversation."
Brad Gruber, president of Health Extension Pet Care, a manufacturer in Hauppauge, N.Y., said that his company appreciates that there is so much information readily available online to consumers these days as they seek information to help them make "informed decisions about the products they purchase."
"Along with transparent and detailed information we put out via social media and our website, pet parents want to engage in the face-to-face question-and-answer scenario that takes place in the store with an employee," Gruber added. "This dictates that store employees be well-versed with their product knowledge and be able to call out the unique features and benefits of each brand and its product offering."