Sales in the overall pet food category continue to reach new heights. Total sales of U.S. dog and cat foods attained an estimated $27 billion in 2018, representing 4.3 percent growth over the previous year, according to Pet Food in the U.S., 14th Edition, a recently released report from market research firm Packaged Facts. With sales of dog and cat food rising, manufacturers of wet dog foods are making strategic changes to keep their product sales on this upward trajectory.
According to industry insiders, manufacturers of wet diets are capitalizing on consumers’ obsession with ingredients and sourcing.
"Most customers are asking where the food is made and what protein is in the food," said Caitlin Jones, manager of Nooga Paws in Chattanooga, Tenn.
These customers are drawn to high-meat-content, grain-free offerings and whole-food ingredients, especially those with antioxidant properties, insiders noted. And, dog owners want to know how those ingredients are sourced.
"A growing number of pet parents are interested in purchasing made in the USA products with clean ingredient declarations that are high in healthy nutrients and responsibly sourced," said Bill Shaner, managing partner and CEO at PetGuard in Sewickley, Pa.
Savvy manufacturers are responding with increased transparency.
"This need for true farm-to-bowl transparent manufacturing practices is driving wet food manufacturers to become more transparent regarding their sourcing practices, as well as upgrade sourcing to meet consumer demand," said Mary Helen Horn, president and executive director for Overland Park, Kan.-based Ziwi USA.
To meet consumer demand, she said Ziwi’s canine wet foods contain no grain or binding agents and have high meat content.
Wet food manufacturers are also using new packing materials for new product releases.
"More pet parents are trading up their conventional cans for more convenient, BPA-free Tetra Pak cartons to preserve the flavor and freshness of their pets’ wet foods," said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla., adding that pet owners appreciate the eco-friendliness and recyclability of the company’s Caru Stews, which are packaged in Tetra Pak cartons.
Jones also reported growing interest in eco-friendly packaging options, and reported that three of the store’s top brands released wet food this year in BPA-free Tetra Pak cartons that can be recycled.
Darrel Day, owner of Dog Gone Holistic, which has two stores in Florida, agreed that the Tetra-Pak-type packages have been really popular, and sales of canned or wet dog foods are higher this year than in recent years.
"The move to Tetra Paks and more pouches have made the foods more popular," he said, adding that while many pet owners find wet foods as convenient as kibble, or more so, others mostly use wet food as a topper on kibble to add variety to their pet’s diet.
The trend of using wet diets as food toppers can be attributed to the growing interest seen in meal enhancers, according to Jilliann Smith, director of communications at Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas.
"Wet foods give pet parents the opportunity to add variety to their dog’s diet and make mealtime a little extra special," she said. "That’s why it’s not surprising that we continue to see a growing interest in the meal enhancers category, which includes liquids and other wet toppers and formats.
"Overall, the meal enhancer category experienced double-digit growth in 2018, up 36 percent versus the previous year [according to gfK/Nielsen data ending Dec. 31, 2018]," Smith continued, adding that the company’s Castor & Pollux Pristine Bone Broths for dogs have "quickly become one of the fastest-growing wet products in our line."
Overcoming Category Challenges
Despite the growing popularity of wet foods, there are several challenges that manufacturers reported facing in developing wet foods for dogs, and they continually strive to overcome these challenges while delivering quality diets that sell well for independent retailers.
"Ensuring food safety continues to be a critical concern for every manufacturer of wet or dry products," Pettyan said.
Pet food safety is top of mind for most dog owners. To instill consumer trust in their products, many manufacturers have adjusted their ingredients and sourcing choices.
"From a manufacturing standpoint, the biggest challenge quality-driven companies like PetGuard face is sourcing," Shaner said. "We spend lot of time and effort to ensure that all the ingredients we use are consistently top notch."
At Caru Pet Food, the stews are 100 percent human grade, Pettyan said.
"Wet products prepared with GMO-free ingredients and clean labels are definitely on trend—especially those that are made in the United States," Pettyan added.
Along with a focus on food safety, the demands for knowledge about sourcing come from the trends being seen in food for human consumption, according to insiders.
"As pet parents shop for their dog the same way they shop for the rest of the family, there’s a growing interest in responsibly sourced ingredients," Smith said.
She cited grass-fed beef and free-range chicken as examples of the responsibly sourced ingredients consumers seek.
Managing the Message
While dog owners generally know canned and wet foods are available, there remains a great need for consultations and education at the store level.
"It’s important for retailers to take a consultative role and point out options [dog owners] might overlook," said Adrian Pettyan, CEO and co-founder of Caru Pet Food Co. in Vero Beach, Fla.
Jilliann Smith, director of communications at Merrick Pet Care in Amarillo, Texas, agreed.
"With the range of options available across the wet food category, it’s important that we help educate customer partners and pet parents about the product benefits as well as the different usage options, [like] the different ways a pet parent could use a new wet product as a topper or an occasional treat," she said.
Dispelling myths about wet foods for dogs has been an education focus for some retailers.
"A lot of our customers still feel that wet food is inferior to kibble," said Darrel Day, owner of Dog Gone Holistic, which has two stores in Florida. "We also have a fair number of customers say that if they start feeding wet foods, their dog will get fat."
Caitlin Jones, manager of Nooga Paws in Chattanooga, Tenn., said most customers have incorrect ideas about wet food, often thinking it’s "bad for [the dog’s] teeth or makes the dog gain too much weight."
To combat the misinformation, both retailers said they strive to educate their customers about the benefits of wet food.
"We’re educating our customers to help them better understand that wet food can actually be better—lower in carbs, more limited ingredient and typically less processed—than kibble," Day said.
Jones said she tells dog owners that "the more moisture in your dog’s diet and mouth, the better the good bacteria, which equals cleaner mouths and less dental cleanings."
Manufacturers play an important role in consumer education, retailers said. Manufacturers that offer easy-to-follow online training programs, helpful customer service lines, consumer advertising in print and digital, and in-store training and advocacy are helpful, retailers reported. Companies that create engaging social media messaging and partner with pet influencers are also effective in getting out the message about wet diets.
"In general, manufacturers are providing much more educational materials than ever before," Day said. "And they are providing samples, which in independent pet is key to getting customers to try something new."
Regina Crane, co-owner of All American Pets, which has two stores in Baltimore, added that manufacturer-provided coupons that help customers save money help get wet food into pet owners’ hands so they can experience the difference.
4 WAYS TO MAKE WET DIETS STAND OUT
To keep sales ringing in the wet pet food category, industry insiders offered four key merchandising techniques for independent pet product retailers.
1. Highlight unique and limited offerings
Some companies make "limited or seasonal" cans, which Nooga Paws in Chattanooga, Tenn., displays by the counter, said manager Caitlin Jones.
"This gives people who may not even think to pass the wet food aisles a chance to see a wet food can and ask questions," she said.
Bill Shaner, managing partner and CEO at PetGuard in Sewickley, Pa., recommended dedicating an endcap or the store window to highlight popular or up-and-coming wet food lines and rotating it every month.
2. Rotate specials
"Run BOGO [buy one, get one] or Buy 2, Get 1 promos to entice customers to give it a try," said Darrel Day, owner of Dog Gone Holistic, which has two stores in Florida. "This has been really effective for us when it comes to pouches."
3. Offer samples
"Samples are a great tool to get a specific brand in the hands of the pet owner," said Regina Crane, co-owner of All American Pets, which has two stores in Baltimore.
Day recommended getting free samples from the manufacturer’s rep or periodically just giving an interested customer a can to try.
4. Group products
"Dedicate an endcap to showcase products that share a common selling point, such as ‘Organic Certified’ or ‘Made in the USA,’" Shaner said. "Also, remember that wet foods are often purchased on impulse to add variety to a pet’s diet."
Dog Gone Holistic displays a brand’s wet and kibble together for the add-on sale. The cans are displayed in an eye-level band around the store, which draws attention to them, Day explained.
Nooga Paws offers a canned food aisle beside the dry food wall and sometimes places cans with their kibble counterparts to increase customers’ awareness.