“Each food has to have a reason for being on my shelves. If it’s just another food with pretty packaging, it will not survive in my store.” That’s the pet food selection philosophy of Tammi Janel, owner of Blackbird’s Bowl Natural Pet Foods & More, a pet store in Morris, Illinois, USA. She and two other pet retailers were quoted in the summer 2017 edition of Pet Nutrition News, a supplemental publication to Pet Product News, and their words may offer guidance to pet food companies marketing their products to the US independent pet store channel.
For example, Janel’s philosophy is based on the increasing awareness and knowledge of her pet food-buying customers. “Many of our customers know what they want or what they don’t want when they come in the store. They’ve already researched using the internet and made some conclusions about what is best for their pet,” she said, adding: “This type of shopping has changed the way I bring in new foods.”
Sue Tasa, director of education for Pet Food Express, a small chain in California, USA, shared similar experiences, saying that more pet owners want to improve their pets’ diets and will proactively seek advice or be receptive to nutrition information when offered – and may even be willing to pay more for products that promise improved nutrition. (As she put it, they “have a better acceptance of the additional cost this sometimes involves.”)
What’s more, at least these retailers’ customers seem to have moved beyond seeking pet foods for the ingredients they don’t contain, based on “no” label claims. “Customers are no longer just looking for foods that are free of everything – for example, grain free and potato free, and with no ingredients from China,” said Andrea Margelis, manager of Pets Naturally in Traverse, Michigan, USA.
Pet food and pet nutrition education is key
It’s no surprise to members of the pet food industry that consumers are seeking to better inform themselves about pet nutrition and pet foods, but is the information they’re finding, especially online, helpful and accurate? Even these retailers have to deal with misconceptions and myths. “Pet owners believe that all foods work with all pets and some digestive upset is normal,” Margelis commented. “Pets are individuals like we are; one size doesn’t fit all.”
To Janel, who advocates feeding fresh food, a common misconception is that dry pet food is the only type a pet needs its entire life. She trains her employees to try and find out if a customer is interested in exploring other food formats, then to educate the person “based on our own personal experiences using fresh foods and the benefits we’ve personally seen.”
Indeed, education is a common theme in the comments from all three retailers, especially training for their staff. At Pet Food Express, this means a thorough grounding not only in the features of individual pet food products, but also in general nutrition. “We also teach them what the ingredients do, why they are important and how they affect the health of the animals that are eating them,” Tasa said. “We have an education department that is responsible for staying abreast of current trends and discoveries and for assisting the purchasing team in deciding how this information affects the mix of products we offer for sale.”
Smaller, one-store operations often rely on outside expertise. Pets Naturally works with a local holistic veterinarian, Margelis said, and holds nutrition seminars throughout the year.
For Janel’s store, education involves webinars and similar offerings, plus training she gives based on her own education over the past 20 years. But she also pushes learning through trial, encouraging her staff to try different products on their own pets. “I want each staff member to form their own opinions about what pet nutrition means to them, and the best way to do that is to introduce new things and see the difference it makes.” (Hopefully the pets are given plenty of transition time when trying a new food.)
Janel sees this hands-on approach as pivotal to educating and interacting with customers. “When we sell something, we are genuinely selling it based on our own opinions and experiences and those of customers that have also tried these products. When something is tested, our staff then reports back to the rest of the staff and discusses the results.”
Pet food trends and the future
Current trends that these retailers see their customers responding to include toppers (especially dehydrated or freeze-dried), pet supplements and “whole-food nutrition.” Some retailers, such as Tasa, would like to see the supplement category evolve and for supplement manufacturers to be more proactive in informing pet owners.
As for pet food, is further evolution necessary? “The pet nutrition category has evolved a little too much,” Janel said. “Pet nutrition is actually really simple; the more it evolves, the more complex it becomes and the more confusing it becomes to the consumer.”
As the industry struggles to inform and connect with today’s pet owners, perhaps these are words of wisdom to consider. Is the issue with education and information, or is it with the products themselves?