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Support ‘pet parents’

11/20/2015

These are good times to be a pet. While pet owners in America have generally always provided good care for their furry companions, many of them are going from pet owners to pet parents and actively doting on them the same way they would other members of the family, according to Mintel, a global market research firm. That reality means more of them are interested in buying only the very best for their pets.

At the same time, this isn’t necessarily a great time for the pet market as a whole. Mintel attributes some of the slow growth to “lagging rates of American pet ownership” as millennials put off starting families, but economic factors have been a hindrance as well.

“Flat wages undercut expectations that premiumization would drive growth,” says Amy Kraushaar, U.S. category manager for food & drink and foodservice at Mintel.

Despite slow sales, however, retailers could offer certain products to help drive store brand sales upward, including pet foods and treats that have cleaner ingredients and other benefits at a price that shoppers want.

“Store brand programs that focus on health-and-wellness pet food are a great opportunity for retailers. Since many of the national brands for these types of products are channel-exclusive, they are a solution for the style of products that consumers demand where they shop,” says Bill McKee, vice president of U.S. private brand sales for Siloam Springs, Ark-based Simmons Pet Food, a producer of a variety of pet foods. “They also afford retailers the luxury of offering these products at a significant value to consumers, coupled with great profit margins.”

Feed them like family

If some of the flavors and varieties being seen in the pet food aisle sound good enough for humans to eat, it might be because some of them actually are. According to Mintel, the pet food industry is currently seeing a move away from premiumization and toward the humanization of pet food.

“The overarching trend right now is the demand for health and wellness pet foods,” McKee adds. “As pet parents, we want food for our pets that is as good as for ourselves.”

But it’s not enough to offer flavors that sound appealing. Pet owners are also looking for pet foods with fewer processed ingredients.

“Today, that means clean and limited ingredients such as real chicken and beef. Sweet potato, vegetables and exotic inclusions such as quinoa are also very popular,” McKee says.

Just as it is important for retailers to stress high-quality ingredients, it is also important for them to emphasize what isn’t in store brand pet food.

“No byproducts, gluten, artificial flavors and fillers are desired,” McKee points out.

According to Mintel, more than half of U.S. pet owners, 55 percent, are concerned about fillers, with almost half of them, 49 percent, interested in feeding their furry companions a “wild” diet or one similar to what their diets would resemble out in the wild — primarily lots of meat and no byproducts.

And with customers interested in variety for their pets’ diets, retailers should consider offering a range of proteins for store brand offerings.

“Unique protein sources like venison, duck, bison, quail and kangaroo have worked well in these rotational feedings, along with the traditional chicken, lamb, turkey and salmon protein sources,” says Dan Schmitz, sales manager for Perham, Minn.-based Tuffy’s Pet Foods, which manufactures a range of pet foods.

Schmitz also points out that taste is just as important as nutrition, and retailers need to look for manufacturers offering food that pets will eat.

“A retailer will see very happy pet parents if their pet will both eat the food and have great results from eating it,” he says.

Treat them

While pet food sales remain mostly flat, the same can’t be said of pet treats. Mintel describes them as a “bright spot,” with 48 percent of dog owners giving treats on a daily basis, and another 28 percent treating their cats.

“Treats are the fastest-growing segment in the pet food category,” Kraushaar says.

With Mintel data pointing to treat giving as an act of love, flavor is important and, when exploring what treats to offer under a store brand retailers might want to emphasize it as a key benefit.

“Because treats are used primarily to demonstrate pet owners’ emotional involvement with their pet, pet owners assess treats more for the flavors and indulgence they offer versus nutrition,” Kraushaar says. “Pet treats that leverage this alternate need have more potential to grow.”

So what flavors and ingredients are popular in the dog treat world? Largely ones “that are popular in the human consumables world — coconut, coconut oil, pumpkin, wheat, corn and soy-free, and crickets; yes, crickets,” says Nicole Ice, national sales manager at Aurora, Ontario-based Complete Natural Nutrition, manufacturer of a variety of pet treats.

Of course, quality is very important, and in line with quality is safety. Retailers, therefore, need to carefully vet store brand pet care suppliers.

“Each week there is another recall of pet treats, and retailers need to pursue products and manufacturers who have the capacity and credentials,” says Chris Ruben, chief marketing officer for New Hamburg, Ontario-based Eurocan Pet Products, which produces a range of natural dog treats. Customers want treats with “limited ingredients that are made in safe and proper conditions using raw materials from trusted sources,” he points out.

Promote pet care

What messaging on the package is likely to grab shopper attention on the pet care aisle? According to Ruben, the top benefits consumers look for in dog treats include “all-natural,” “limited ingredients” and “Made in the USA” or “Made in Canada.” They also seek out treats billed as functional, “with wellness benefits that help reduce vet bills.”

Some claims Schmitz cites as effective include those centered on shiny coats, scratching reduction, and hip and joint improvements.

“Exclusive ingredients, vitamins and minerals are intriguing to customers,” he adds.”Customers have never been savvier than they are today and will investigate the food.”

As with other product categories, though, that promise health benefits, when it comes to on-pack messaging for pet products, it also has to be accurate from a legal standpoint.

“Claims on products are not permitted unless it is scientifically proven and the state in which the retailer resides allows it on the packaging,” Ice notes.

Packaging design also matters, so retailers might want to put more effort into product presentation.

“Store brand graphics tend to be bland and uninspiring,” Ruben says. “Many store brands make … their packaging look alike, with very little individual product distinction and benefit descriptions.”

An attractively packaged product with the right messaging won’t be enough to drive growth, however.

“Retailers should prominently display store brands to drive awareness and sales,” Ruben says, noting that rewards programs, in-store and on-shelf signage, and even partnerships with local animal shelters for events that showcase store brand products all could get them noticed.

Educated store employees, too, could share information about store brand pet care products.

“Educating salespeople on the features and benefits of food is very powerful and proven to be successful,” Schmitz says.

Do call out benefits such as “all-natural” and “limited ingredients” on the package.

Don’t forget to educate employees about the features and benefits of own-brand pet care products.

Do focus on healthful offerings that contain fewer processed ingredients.

Don’t discount the importance of taste; if a pet won’t eat it, the pet parent won’t buy it again.