Natural Foods Merchandiser
Pet foods dont need to be the dog of product mix

Pet foods dont need to be the dog of product mix

Where do you stock your pet food?

  1. Across the aisle from the "people food."
  2. Next to the garbage bags and toilet bowl cleaner.
  3. Wherever there's space.
  4. I can't believe you're giving me a quiz on pet food.

If you didn't answer (a), you're making a mistake, merchandisers say.

"Retailers need to understand the relationship pet owners have with their pets—that they're members of the family—and honor that relationship [when stocking pet food]. Think of it as buying food for another family member," said Jim Hertel, senior vice president of Willard Bishop Consulting in Barrington, Ill.

If that sounds ridiculous, consider the facts. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association's 2003/04 Pet Owners' Survey, 62 percent of U.S. householders own a pet, and 46 percent own more than one pet (except in areas such as Boulder, Colo., where, according to local government decree, people are the guardians, not the owners, of their pets). There are 78 million cats and 65 million dogs living in U.S. homes.

Feeding all those animals is big business. According to Business Trend Analysts' Petfood Industry report, U.S. retail sales for dog and cat foods totaled $12.3 billion in 2002. The report predicts those sales will increase to $13.6 billion this year and $18 billion by 2012.

An increasing percentage of those sales is in natural and organic pet foods. San Francisco-based market research firm SPINS reports that pet foods and pet care products sales in natural foods supermarkets increased 19.5 percent for the year ending Feb. 21, 2004. Dog food sales increased 23.7 percent and cat food sales rose 11.6 percent.

SPINS reports that dog and cat foods sales during that time totaled $25.2 million. Although natural brands account for only a small portion of all pet food sales, they've averaged a 25 percent growth rate during the past five to six years, said L. Phillips Brown, a research veterinarian and animal nutritionist in Prescott, Ariz.

"In 1989, there were about two or three natural pet food brands," Brown said. "Now there are 50 from 22 different companies and about three organic brands. Every major pet food company has a natural food now. It's growing incredibly fast."

Even "people food" manufacturers are getting into the act, including Newman's Own Organics, which earlier this year debuted organic dog and cat food that includes human-grade chicken, probiotics, chelated minerals, antioxidants and Ester-C.

"Consumers are realizing they don't like chemicals [found in conventional pet foods] in their dogs' systems, just like they don't like them in their own systems," said Brown, who works as a consultant to Newman's Own and several other natural pet foods and supplements companies.

Nonetheless, on April 14, the National Organic Program issued new guidelines stating that pet food was among seven categories no longer permitted to display the USDA organic seal (see NOP news story).

Retailers who want to attract the large population of health-conscious pet owners to their store should consider the following:

  • Study your demographics to determine what type and how much pet food to stock. Natural and organic pet food sales vary by region, said Michelle Kay-Rood, marketing director of Waggers Originals Natural Dog Treats. Sales are traditionally strong on the West and East Coasts, but within the last year the trend has gravitated inland, she said. Also, if you?re in an urban area, there might be more cats and small dogs than in a rural or suburban area.
  • Know your challenges. "If there are strong, independent pet supply places nearby focused on natural and high-quality pet food, you probably can't carry enough to have critical mass," said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Retail Insights. Also, "In a lower-income neighborhood, it may be more of a struggle because it's difficult to convince people they should be spending more on their pets."
  • When creating a pet food section, "think of it like your primary supplements line—you want to have enough critical mass," Jacobowitz said. That means four to eight shelves in a 4-foot to 8-foot section, with special signage. Another option is to stack food bags on pallets in the dead space near your store's front windows.
  • Tie in to the rest of your store by offering signage and seminars on natural cooking for pets, using items such as eggs, baby food, natural meats, turkey jerky and natural oils and flours.
  • Remember that sampling works for pet food too. Many manufacturers offer sample sizes that you can take home to Fluffy or Rover.
  • "Host community outreach events the same way you do for people—they're no less interested in the health of their pets as they are their own health," Jacobowitz said. Consider partnering with animal shelters, homeopathic vets, and dog and cat acupuncturists and chiropractors to offer seminars. Stock books on natural care for pets. Sponsor animal anti-cruelty legislation.
  • Use tie-in seasonal displays such as pesticide-free flea care or pet allergy supplements.
  • Remember that pet owners love to talk about their pets. Post an in-store bulletin board where customers can pin up pet pictures. Give away a free bag of dog food for the picture of the week. The bulletin board can also be a clearinghouse for pet sitters, dog walkers and pet care practitioners.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 6/p. 44, 46

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