Raw food might be the pet food category to watch, but for most cat owners, kibble is still king. According to the American Pet Products Association’s 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, in 2016, 74 percent of surveyed cat owners fed dry food most often. Pet specialty retailers can cater to dry food buyers by promoting foods with quality ingredients and those that tap into the ancestral diet trend.
"Consumers want to feed high-quality ingredients that will help their cats live longer, healthier lives," said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. "There is an overall focus on simplification and getting back to the ancestral diet of a cat."
The need to feed cats a more healthful diet that they will actually eat is an ongoing battle for cat owners and the retailers that serve them.
"Cat parents want the best for their cats but know that they can be finicky about their food’s texture and flavor," said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. "As a result, passing the ‘taste test’ is usually the first requirement for dry food."
A high-quality dry food that does not sacrifice taste or nutrition should keep cats satisfied. But Matt O’Leary, manager of Felix & Oscar in Springfield, Va., said that cat owners are still wary of taking any chances, which is why offering a guarantee on all brands sold in the store helps ease owners into trying something new.
"They know that if their cat absolutely won’t eat it, they can bring it back for a full refund," O’Leary said.
Kelley Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., said that her store has the same policy.
"Cats are finicky," she said. "That’s why we stress that cat parents can return a bag of food for a full refund if their cat won’t eat it. Without that promise, I think they’d be more reluctant to try something new."
Convert Them with Conversation
When a cat owner finds a food that their cat loves, it’s often difficult to get them to try something different—even if they know the food is low quality. But successful retailers said that education makes all the difference.
"It’s an uphill battle for sure," said Matt O’Leary, manager of Felix & Oscar in Springfield, Va. "Once a cat gets hooked on a particular food—even if it’s a lower-quality brand—it’s hard to encourage a switch. But it’s not impossible. It’s largely a conversation-driven effort, as we explain the benefits. Switching from a low-quality food to a high-quality one also makes such a tremendous difference in the cat’s health that once they do it, there’s no going back."
Marni Lewis, owner of The Green K9 in Mount Dora, Fla., agreed. She also called the effort to get cat owners to switch a "battle," but said that it is worth the work.
"Cat parents don’t always know that their pets need more protein and fewer carbs," Lewis said. "That’s where education really counts. While our optimum choice would be a raw diet, a premium dry food diet is still much better than the brand they were likely getting at the grocery store. Once they start seeing healthy changes in their cat, they’re a customer for good. They trust you, and they’ll come to you for advice going forward."
Lewis said that one way the staff at The Green K9 educates customers is to ask cat owners to actually bring in a bag of food they are currently feeding their cat so that they can compare bags.
"We will compare the nutrition so that they can see with their own eyes what the difference is," she said. "People are often very visual, and they need that side-by-side comparison to truly understand the difference."
Jennifer LaPointe, brand manager for Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., said cat owners often welcome guidance as they shop. Education can give them confidence about their choices.
"Shopping dry cat food can be overwhelming with what seems like endless options," she said. "Helping consumers understand why they would choose a specific food makes the product selection less overwhelming. With educational materials in-store and at-shelf product navigation, cat parents will have the help they need in picking the right food for their cat."
Of course, it is important that retailers know their stuff. Patrick Mendicki, vice president of sales and business development for Pureluxe Pet Food in Atlanta, said retailers should investigate the claims being made by manufacturers.
He posed these questions for retailers: "Does the manufacturer have the back-up data to show their transparency, and is the back-up data being provided by the company itself or supplied by a third party to verify the accuracy of the statements being made?"
Variety Is Key
When it comes to choosing which dry cat foods to stock, pet specialty retailers should think about consumer preferences and offer a wide enough variety of proteins, according to industry insiders.
Having an optimal product assortment is incredibly important for the kibble category, said Chanda Leary-Coutu, director of consumer experience for WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass. Because cats are unique when it comes to their nutritional needs and individual taste preferences—even more so than dogs—having a wide range of dry food to choose from is crucial, Leary-Coutu added.
"Retailers should look to stock recipes with a variety of ingredients that cater to cats’ differing palates and sensitivities including grain- and poultry-free recipes and meals with unique protein sources that go beyond the usual chicken and salmon offerings," she said. "Retailers also need to consider solution-based formulas and indoor recipes that suit cats’ sedentary lifestyles. All of these considerations need to come into play when figuring out the right product assortment."
Stocking a robust selection means retailers will be more likely to have the exact recipe cat owners are seeking, she added.
Kelley Parsons, manager at Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., said that solution-based formulas are particularly important to her shoppers, and she makes sure they are well represented in her product assortment.
"The majority of cat parents that come in looking to switch their cat’s dry food do so because they have a problem," Parsons said. "Whether it’s allergies, itchy skin, hairballs or something else, they’re looking for a solution that works."
When putting together the perfect product assortment, retailers should keep shoppers’ wants and needs firmly in mind, said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo.
"Retailers should be looking for foods that are based on the true needs of a cat while also delivering transparency at the shelf," Zaro said. "They need to understand what their customers are looking for in cat food. Then they need to consider the trends in the market and be able to deliver those to the customers."
High-Protein and Indoor Recipes
Solid Gold Pet in Chesterfield, Mo., has introduced Indigo Moon with Alaskan Pollock & Eggs. The dry recipe is a grain- and gluten-free, high-protein, low-carbohydrate food made with fresh-caught, omega-rich Alaskan pollock and nutrient-dense whole egg, said company officials.
WellPet in Tewksbury, Mass., has expanded its line of balanced dry recipes for cats with a recipe for indoor cats called Wellness Complete Health Grain-Free Indoor Healthy Weight. The Chicken & Turkey Meal Recipe contains fiber and L-carnitine to assist in weight control, while glucosamine and chondroitin help maintain healthy hips and joints in cats that might be carrying extra weight, according to the company. WellPet has also added Wellness Core Indoor Salmon & Herring Meal Recipe. It supports lean muscle mass with a protein-rich and poultry-free dry food, company officials added.
St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands recently launched Tiki Cat Born Carnivore for Kittens. The high-protein kibble contains real chicken combined with highly digestible egg and nutrient-packed chicken liver for superior palatability, said company officials. The grain-free Chicken & Egg Luau Recipe includes omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids from salmon oil and flaxseed, as well as pumpkin to help support healthy digestion.