April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Natural treats reward retailers

It?s not just pets that are finicky these days. When it comes to treats, pet owners are demanding snacks that not only tempt their furry friends? tastebuds, but also are made from natural ingredients. Consumers who check labels on their own food are starting to pay much more attention to what Fido and Fluffy eat, too.

According to Packaged Facts? market research, sales of natural and organic pet products are soaring and expected to top $1 billion per year before the end of the decade. And a 2005 survey by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association found that 63 percent of U.S. households include a pet, and that the average dog owner spends $68 a year on treats, while a cat owner spends about $43.

Many of those consumers, especially those who shop in natural foods stores for themselves, are begging for treats that are natural and wholesome. That means treats with a short list of recognizable ingredients—human-grade meat, vegetables and grains. Many customers shopping for pet treats want to avoid chemical preservatives, partially hydrogenated oils, artificial dyes and animal byproducts, as well as ingredients that could trigger allergic reactions, such as soy and corn. And that?s not enough—their animal companions have to love the treats, too.

Happily for pets, consumers now have more choices than ever. ?When we first started there were very few natural pet treats available, and they were very, very expensive,? says Margot Kenly, who founded the Seattle-based Blue Dog Bakery in 1998. ?Now there?s a huge demand for natural treats, and they?re more affordable.?

Only the best for pets
Sure, treats make up only a small part of a cat or dog?s diet, but owners still want to feel good about what they?re feeding their beloved companions.

?I tell people to look at the treats as just an extension of the meal, just like they do for themselves. A person who tries to live a healthy lifestyle is probably not going to go and down a Milky Way bar between meals,? says John McGeough, national sales manager for Lowell, Mass.-based Old Mother Hubbard. The company manufactures Wellness, a line of natural foods that includes Wellbars dog treats, baked with ingredients such as apples, yogurt, whitefish and sweet potatoes.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, 52 percent of pet owners sometimes prepare special food for their animals, many of them using human-grade food or making pet food from scratch. But now that natural pet products are increasingly available, they don?t have to. Pet-product makers are offering food and treats that are just as pure and nutritious as what the rest of the family eats.

?Our philosophy is that pets are family too, and they really deserve the best. They should have pure, clean treats to eat,? says Marco Giannini, founder and president of Dogswell, a San Francisco company that makes low-fat functional jerky treats from 100 percent pure chicken breast or beef liver, raised without antibiotics or hormones.

More and more, consumers are recognizing the connection between diet and health for their whole families, pets included, and are willing to pay a little more with the hope it will pay off in reduced medical and veterinary costs. Dogswell?s director of marketing, Amanda Thompson, says customers don?t balk at paying $6.49 for a six-ounce packet of treats. ?People say, ?I?m buying good stuff for me; I?m going to buy high-quality stuff for my pet.? They know by spending a little more, it may extend their dog?s life.?

Natural choices
There are two types of natural treats: grain-based and meat-based. Many customers choose to feed their pets both.

Grain-based treats often resemble cookies and appeal to a wide range of customers, including vegetarians who want to reduce their pets? meat consumption. Blue Dog Bakery makes low-fat treats using whole-wheat flour, eggs, milk, peanut butter and molasses. ?We use the exact same ingredients you?d use to make cookies for people,? says Kenly, who was in the baking industry for years before she started making dog treats. Kenly says her customers often confess to sampling her wares. ?People love them, and their dogs love them,? Kenly says. The company?s new products include vegetarian treats in grilled chicken and bacon cheese flavors.

Meat-based treats also appeal to pets, of course. ?If you put one of our treats in front of a dog, the dog just goes for it. Our motto is ?Watch your fingers!?? says Susan Weiss, president and founder of Ark Naturals. Weiss says one of Ark Naturals? recent successes was creating a product that pleases cats, notoriously picky creatures. In February, the company introduced Kitty Kantina Surf & Turf, which has two separate treats in one package?bonito (a variety of tuna) flakes and moist chicken chunks—to provide the variety that cats crave. Weiss says her company conducted a survey of cat owners, and she was happy to find that between 65 percent and 75 percent of cats love the treats. ?Making cats happy is pretty hard. You put 10 cats in a room, and they?ll have 10 different opinions,? Weiss says.

But some treats are about more than just taste. Functional treats reward a pet with healing supplements, too. Dogswell?s Giannini says customers like the convenience factor of having a supplement built into a treat. Dogswell?s functional treats come in five varieties, including Mellow Mutt, with lavender and linden flower to calm anxious dogs; Happy Heart, with sage and vitamins A and E; and Breathies, which have rosemary, parsley and cinnamon bark to help combat bad doggie breath. Ark Naturals? jerky dog treat, Sea Mobility, contains sea cucumber, a natural source of chondroitin, and glucosamine to help lubricate an older or arthritic dog?s stiff joints.

?Anyone who?s ever tried to give a dog a pill appreciates having a treat with a supplement in it,? Giannini says.

Soaring sales
With sales of natural pet products booming, natural foods stores are just beginning to capitalize on the trend, says McGeough of Old Mother Hubbard. ?It?s a very underdeveloped category within the natural foods channel. There?s a lot of potential there.?

McGeough says natural foods stores can increase sales by making their pet products sections larger and calling more attention to them. Providing samples, he says, is key. After all, customers are more likely to buy a treat if they know their pet loves it.

?Sampling is one of the best ways to get the news out,? he says.

Windmill Farms, a natural foods store in San Diego, has been reaping the rewards of making its pet section more visible. Susan Clark, who manages the pet section, says she recommends putting pet items in a visible location—and not near the checkout where customers might see them as an afterthought. Clark also suggests putting pet treats, foods and supplements together in one section that is marked with an eye-catching sign, and putting a brochure rack in the section to give customers more information about the benefits of natural products. A store newsletter is a great way to get the word out about the pet section, she says.

Many natural foods customers have read reports about the questionable ingredients found in some mainstream pet foods and treats, and they just need a nudge to switch to natural. ?It?s gotten out about how toxic some of the ingredients in commercial pet foods are, and a lot people are concerned about it,? Clark says. ?So, that?s where the health food store can step in and offer them solutions to what they can feed their pets.?

Allie Johnson is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 76, 79-80

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