Dog owners’ approach to feeding their companions has unequivocally changed over the years. Many feed and care for their pets on the same level as they do other loved ones, industry insiders report.
"With an increasing number of people looking to live well and feel good through the food choices they make for themselves, a growing number of pet parents also want the same for their furry family members," said Kambria Newton, trade marketing manager for Petcurean, a Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada-based manufacturer.
With this focus on improved nutrition, specialty pet retailers and manufacturers highlighted five key trends seen in dog foods today.
"Recently, we’ve seen growth in demand for natural toppers and treats," said Michael Landa, CEO and founder of Nulo, an Austin, Texas-based pet food company. "It’s no longer just about offering a variety of life-stage kibble recipes for consumers to choose from. It’s about creating a coordinated system of products that work together synergistically to create an incredibly palatable, highly nutritious and ethically sourced food program for pets."
Consumers are more conscientious about nutritional requirements for optimum health, and they find supplementation helps meet this need, said Jennifer Lohin, co-owner of Stonehaven’s Uptown Hound and Laundromutt, a pet store in Cumberland, Md.
"People are feeding a good-quality kibble and adding a booster or beet stock, raw bones and bone broth," she said. "They’re bumping it up a notch with these supplements."
2. Kibble Love
Retailers reported that dry diets remain a popular staple in the dog food category, with an uptick in those with higher meat content and quality ingredients.
"Good-quality dry kibble is easy and travels well," Lohin said.
Michael Levy, founder and president of Pet Food Express, which has more than 60 stores in California and is based in Oakland, Calif., also noted that certain kibble diets are selling well this year.
"Fresh cooked, raw frozen, freeze-dried and air-dried diets continue to take market share from traditional kibble; however, high-meat, low-carb kibble formulas, such as
Nulo Challenger, are also experiencing strong growth."
3. Welcome Back, Grains
Another trending area is grain-inclusive diets, Landa said.
"From the second half of 2019, we have seen a shift from grain free to grain friendly," Levy said.
In her area, Lohin said veterinarian recommendations are a big reason for the increase in customers wanting dog foods with grain, like turkey and rice formulas.
"Vets are now saying you want a product with grain, so that’s a big push," she said.
4. Functional Focus
According to Landa, diets with functional benefits are in high demand.
Pet owners want nutritionally balanced foods that focus on common ailments, Newton said.
"Now more than ever, consumers are looking for solutions-based recipes with functional ingredients to help address the unique needs of their pets, in order to help them live the happiest and healthiest lives possible," she said, adding that these challenges can include picky eating, itchy skin, a dull coat and food sensitivities.
5. Domestic Sourcing
USA sourcing and manufacturing remain a top trend in dog foods.
"People are catching on that what we’ve been feeding pets just isn’t working to keep them healthy," said Beth Kidd, owner of Dogs By Design, which has two locations in Pennsylvania. "I hear more and more people say that they don’t trust foods that are sourced or made in other countries."
Not only are dog owners more concerned about ingredient sourcing, but they also want to know the overall quality of all ingredients used in those diets, Newton said.
"For example, when looking for animal protein sources, pet parents are looking for information [on] how the animal was raised and the type of diet it was fed," she said. "If the recipe contains fish or other seafood, consumers want to know whether the fishery is sustainable. And in terms of veggies, grains or fruits that may be used, consumers are getting more savvy about the type of farming practices they would prefer to support."
On the Market
The top-selling products in the dog food market incorporate leading category trends, from grains and kibble to local sourcing and functionality. Manufacturers shared how their recent launches have continued to prove themselves this year.
Since being introduced last year, Nulo Challenger and Nulo Frontrunner, both high-meat product lines, have remained steady sellers this year, Nulo reported.
Challenger provides "ultra-premium, high-meat kibble with industry-leading animal-based protein levels of up to 90 percent [and] features a variety of meats sourced from sustainable systems, including pasture-raised lamb, U.S.-raised guinea fowl, and wild-caught Acadian redfish paired with nutrient-dense ancient grains like organic oats, organic barley and organic millet," said Michael Landa, CEO and founder of the Austin, Texas-based company.
Also a grain-based formula, Nulo Frontrunner contains 77 percent animal-based protein levels, low carbohydrate levels and wholesome grains such as oats, barley and brown rice, Landa said.
Petcurean’s 2019 expansions are also selling well more than a year later, the manufacturer reported.
"The Go! Solutions collection came about in response to the growing number of pet parents who are looking for solutions-based recipes with functional ingredients that can help support pets with various dietary requirements—such as picky eating, itchy skin or dull coat, and adverse reactions to certain ingredients," said Kambria Newton, trade marketing manager for the Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada-based company.
Wet and dry recipe options include novel protein sources such as duck or venison or higher levels of animal protein sources. Meal Mixers for dogs feature freeze-dried functional ingredients for issues such as skin and coat health, hip and joint support, digestive health and weight management, Newton said.
Find Support, Stay Informed
Retail staff members are the face of the business, and successful pet specialty retailers said they set themselves apart by making sure their team members are well educated.
"Retailer education is key," said Beth Kidd, owner of Dogs By Design, which has two locations in Pennsylvania. "Without knowing what you’re offering and why, it’s almost impossible to sell. We must be able to provide the customer with information that makes sense to them and why they should choose what we recommend for their pet. If we can’t do so effectively, we can’t sell our products."
With a plethora of information—and misinformation—just a click away, the job and responsibility of retailers training their staff on the facts and how to disseminate knowledge well is of utmost importance, industry insiders said.
"During this age of information, retailers are faced with the challenge of delivering the right information to consumers, on the right platform, at the right time," said Michael Landa, CEO and founder of Nulo, an Austin, Texas-based pet food company. "This sets the bar high for retailer education, but when done right it will build trust and rapport with consumers."
To assist its retail partners, Nulo offers in-store educational programs, interactive tools and on-demand training through its online NuloU program, Landa said.
"We work to equip store associates with the information and resources they need to address topics like ingredient sourcing, production processes and quality control standards," he said. "Nulo’s transparency in these key areas gives consumers access to the information they need for peace of mind when they need it most."
Petcurean, a pet food company in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada, strives to help retail partners with comprehensive training materials and transparency, and by having nutrition and customer care teams available to answer questions by phone, via email and through social media platforms, said trade marketing manager Kambria Newton.
"Education is the foundation of making good decisions," Newton said. "We see it as our job to support retailers and pet parents in making decisions about what to feed, and we do this by being fully transparent about each of our recipes’ ingredients and their precise nutrient composition."
Beyond relying on manufacturer-provided information, retailers said they do their own research, continuing education and certifications.
"I personally have spent years researching pet nutrition, taking seminars on nutrition and speaking with holistic veterinarians on the benefits of better-quality pet foods," Kidd said. "My staff has taken and completed [courses] in both kibble and raw food."
Jennifer Lohin, co-owner of Stonehaven’s Uptown Hound and Laundromutt, a pet store in Cumberland, Md., said she gleans information from a variety of sources, from visiting manufacturer reps to industry publications and shows.
"Whole Dog Journal is in the breakroom to read every month as well as industry publications," she said. "It’s been good to help sort through new trends. Groom Expo and continuing education delves into skin and coat issues and resolutions. Any nuggets we can get we share with the folks on the retail floor so they can field anything that comes in."
This knowledge then gets passed on to customers, building trust, sales and pet health, retailers said.
"My staff and I have spent a lot of time educating ourselves about the benefits to pets, and we happily share that information with our customers," Kidd said. "Time and time again, we get to hear how changing the diet of their pet has improved their pet in some way."
Food on Display
While food is a staple for many pet specialty retailers, industry insiders maintain that there are ways to boost sales and add-ons in this category. Many specialty shops report taking great care in making their selections of food in the first place. Then, with physical space often limited, it takes planning and strategy to get the most out of these offerings.
"We’re not that big, and it’s a delicate balance with profit margins," said Jennifer Lohin, co-owner of Stonehaven’s Uptown Hound and Laundromutt, a pet store in Cumberland, Md., who purchased the store’s building just three years ago. "We started our store to provide vetted and quality foods and decided we’d do the legwork for customers so they could feel confident in what they were purchasing."
Lohin said they use endcaps for new products or clinical lines and incorporate promo areas throughout the store. Playing to the local demographic, the store features a "hot-deals" section.
"The area where we’re in, it was the fourth poorest city in the top five in the country," Lohin said. "We utilize a hot-deals section because of the area. A marked-down bag is a great way to try out something they haven’t before, whether because of cost or an unfamiliar flavor or a supplement they haven’t tried yet. Some will transition from the hot deal to use it regularly."
One way retailers can make the most of their space and resources is to avoid cluttering a small space.
"Consumers want to spend more time in spaces that are well organized, easy to navigate and aesthetically appealing," said Kambria Newton, trade marketing manager for Petcurean, a pet food manufacturer in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. "Use clean, concise and legible signage to help consumers find the type of nutrition they’re looking for."
Marketing experts report that creating an experience makes a lasting impression on customers. So displays that are interactive or experiential can really help boost sales and give brick-and-mortar retailers an edge.
"We encourage retailers with limited space to consider more of an experiential-marketing approach to merchandising, consistent with what all the data tells us that today’s consumer is looking for," said Michael Landa, CEO and founder of Nulo, an Austin, Texas-based pet food company. "This is something that e-commerce platforms cannot do effectively."
Beth Kidd, owner of Dogs By Design, which has two locations in Pennsylvania, has an eye-catching way of highlighting foods that educates at the same time.
"We generally put up a display table with empty bags from some of the different raw foods and supplements we carry, along with more graphics," she said. "Often, we incorporate a basket of plastic fruits and vegetables to show people how to boost the nutritional value of whatever food they’re feeding. Even the lowest-quality kibble on the market can get a significant nutritional boost by adding fresh foods."
Piquing customer interest and boosting sales of trending dog foods needn’t take a lot of time or space—and savvy retailers use what’s already available to them.
"Don’t forget about your front windows," Newton added. "You can use them for attractive off-shelf displays to draw in consumers."