Pet owners are becoming increasingly aware of sugars and sweeteners in the treats and chews they give to their dogs, which is why manufacturers have started supplying more healthful and natural products, and why retailers are stocking their shelves with these in-demand items.
"Customers want natural, sweetener-free—no sugar, corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup, etc.— treats that they can feel good about giving their pets," said Samantha Henson, clinical pet nutritionist for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan. "Treats with purpose, like ones with probiotics, omegas, dental enzymes and so on."
Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo., said consumers are hyper-focused on simple ingredient panels containing words they understand.
For this reason, many pet retailers are also seeing a rise in popularity of single-ingredient treats, such as freeze-dried meats.
David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla., said the industry needs to pay attention to two fast-growing yet very different trends: one is the move to real, whole meat, with bonus points from many millennials if that meat comes from humane and sustainable farms.
"The other is the move to vegan lifestyles, with millennials again focusing on sustainable, non-GMO sources," he said. "Both trendsetters want to feed their pets clean treats with no fillers. Both care about the corporate social reputation of the brand."
Ryan Oaks, general manager of Mini-Critters in Sioux Falls, S.D., said that similar to the pet food category, the treats and chews category is going back to the basics with meat-based natural ingredients, no additives and minimal processing.
"More and more people are starting to look for something safe that won’t break their pocket book," he said. "Proper nutrition is the first line of defense against many of the diseases that plague pets today. Healthy treats are the perfect way to reward pets and help fight obesity."
Natasha Hamon, retail operations manager for Healthy Spot, which has stores in California, noted that customers are becoming more savvy about reading ingredient labels and looking into how those ingredients are sourced.
"Our Healthy Spot chews, for example, are all beef, contain no chemicals, additives or preservatives and are made in the USA," she said. "Details like these are very quickly becoming part of many customers’ vocabulary."
Mary Helen Horn, president of Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan., said people are recognizing the huge health benefits that higher-quality foods, treats and chews offer to pets, so it’s becoming increasingly important to them that companies are transparent about the sourcing and processing of their ingredients.
"One of our core foundations is our commitment to sourcing from free-range, grass-fed, local New Zealand farms and from New Zealand’s pristine oceans," she said. "This is how we source the meat ingredients in all Ziwi products, including our treats and chews."
Focused on Ingredients
Bixbi Pet has always taken a limited-ingredient approach to formulating its treats, according to company officials, and its newest product, the Bixbi Bar chew, has just four ingredients.
"Our new nonfunctional jerky treats bring a ton of value to cost-conscious consumers," said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Bixbi Pet in Boulder, Colo. "In fact, we just lowered prices across our entire jerky treat line."
Halo, Purely for Pets offers both dog and cat owners highly digestible treats made with real whole meat, salmon or chicken, called Liv-A-Littles, said David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for the Tampa, Fla.-based company.
"For dog parents living in an exclusive vegan home or pet parents looking to reduce their dog’s carbon footprint, we also offer Halo Healthsome Dog Vegan with Peanut n’ Pumpkin Treats," Yaskulka added.
Mary Helen Horn, president of Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan., said the company’s robust research and development team is currently working on several innovations for 2018, which it plans to launch in the ensuing months to expand its air-dried treats and chews portfolio.
Providing customer education is the best and most powerful form of selling any natural product, according to most pet specialty retailers, which is why stores spend a lot of time and effort in making sure the entire staff can talk knowledgeably about natural treats and chews.
"I start by teaching all my employees about any new product that we bring in and make sure they feel comfortable answering any questions that a customer would have about it," said Samantha Henson, clinical pet nutritionist for Premier Pet Supply, which has stores in Michigan. "We get into conversations with our customers, take the time to learn about their pets, and then teach them about different supplements, treats, chews, etc."
Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla., offers a consumer education campaign about the superior digestibility of whole meat through its social media and digital ads featuring Poopsie, a smiling, halo-wearing character mnemonic, said David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for the company.
"Poopsie shares an important message with pet parents that high digestibility—a critical measure of pet food and treats quality—is critical to dogs and cats, who have among the shortest digestive tracts of any mammals," Yaskulka added. "We also provide independent retailers with an easy-to-use social media tool kit to educate their consumers about Halo’s superior digestibility, about vegan options and how to make the right choice when feeding their pet."
Mary Helen Horn, president of Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan., said the company plans to launch online learning modules this spring that will equip retailers with everything they need to know to answer their customers’ questions and articulate the brand’s commitment to clean sourcing, as well as to help them understand how the company’s unique air-drying process minimizes nutrient degradation and concentrates flavor.
Visibility Is Key
Thanks to Bixbi Pet’s bright, clean packaging, the company’s products are attention-grabbing on store shelves, said Todd Rowan, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Boulder, Colo.-based company.
"But we also believe in-store sampling is an important component for trial and education," he said. "We provide free samples to stores to stimulate that consumer awareness discussion."
David Yaskulka, vice president of social investment and engagement for Halo, Purely for Pets in Tampa, Fla., said retailers should be leveraging the social media content that social-savvy brands provide.
Examples from the brand include images of Halo celebrity "spokespets" Lil Bub and Manny the Frenchie enjoying the company’s Liv-A-Littles treats.
Mary Helen Horn, president of Ziwi USA in Overland Park, Kan., noted the company’s packages are versatile and can be displayed a variety of ways—standalone, with clip strips, on hanging displays, etc.—to help retailers maximize visibility throughout their store.
"We recommend having a display near the counter, as treats and chews are often an impulse buy," she said.
Ryan Oaks, general manager of Mini-Critters in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he sometimes asks manufacturers for samples, and then puts them out in the front of the store to entice customers to try.