["Surveys suggest pet owners are becoming more comfortable with private label.", "Among Internet shoppers for pet products, 42% made a petfood purchase in the past year.", "Petfood remains on the front line of preventive pet health."]

As 2011 comes to a close, the US economy continues to limp along, and shoppers continue to carefully weigh purchase decisions. Pet owner surveys conducted by Packaged Facts on a quarterly basis throughout the year highlight key trends, including the bright spots and weak spots likely to continue to shape the market in 2012. In the most recent survey, conducted in September 2011, 62% of respondents had a pet, including 43% with dogs, 32% with cats and 11% with other types of animals.

With many pet owners considering a growing number of pet products too expensive, it’s no surprise that price shopping is on the ups. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of pet owners look for lower prices, special offers and sales on pet products, and about half (47%) shop for pet products at a variety of stores, according to Packaged Facts’ survey. On the other hand, almost one-third (30%) choose to shop at pet product retailers that offer the best products available regardless of price, while nearly one-quarter (23%) base their choice of retailer on the availability of natural/organic and other specialty brand products.

Private label petfood  remains of strong interest among retailers and contract manufacturers alike. According to Product Launch Analytics, an online service of Datamonitor, 2010 gave rise to a record number of new private-label dog and cat food products. On the dog food side, retailers were behind 23 new product reports covering 109 SKUs, while cat food saw seven new reports yielding 28 SKUs.

At the same time, findings from Packaged Facts’ surveys suggest pet owners are becoming more comfortable with private label. In the September survey, 45% of pet owners agree that private-label pet products are as good as national brands, while over one-third (34%) admit to buying more store brands of late.

Brick-and-mortar retailers must face off not only against one another but also with a less tangible foe: the Internet. Internet sales of pet products continue to well outpace pet market growth overall, with niche and “info-centric” items often doing especially well online. Packaged Facts survey data indicate close to half of pet owners use the Internet to research pet products online, while about one-quarter buy online.

As of September 2011, one in 10 pet owners had made a purchase online in the last 10 days, and 24% had done so in the past month. Because of its bulk, petfood has long been a less likely purchase online, but free shipping and other special promotions are making home delivery of petfood a growing factor. Among Internet shoppers for pet products, 42% made a petfood purchase in the past year.

During the weak  economy, the strongest arguments for generous spending on pets are founded on pet health. Even while cutting back in other areas, over three-quarters (78%) of dog owners and over half (58%) of cat owners have taken their pets to the veterinarian for a routine visit in the past year.

Petfood remains on the front line of preventive pet health. Although over two-thirds (69%) of pet owners believe many pet products are becoming too expensive, 25% of petfood purchasers report buying higher-priced foods, compared with only 7% of non-food pet product purchasers. Many pet owners view an investment in pet health as an investment in human health as well. Over three-quarters (78%) agree that pets have a positive impact on their physical health.

Stubborn economy notwithstanding, the human-animal bond promises to keep the pet market on solid ground. Over two-third (67%) of US pet owners strongly agree that “I consider my pets to be part of the family,” and another 23% somewhat agree with this statement.

Perhaps not coincidentally, 76% of pet owners like to indulge their pets with special food/chew treats (Table 1). During the down economy, treats have benefited from their affordable indulgence appeal to dog and cat owners alike, helped along by claims including nutraceutical/functional, natural/organic and grain-free. Overall, health appeals are in much stronger play in dog and cat treats than ever before, tipping the value balance in these products’ favor among pet owners who, even when economizing in other areas, still want to treat their pets right.

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