The impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the pet food market goes beyond retailing and sales, undermining the motor of market growth by putting a crimp on new product development. With safety concerns at the top of everyone’s minds, the new product pipeline has been slowed down, from research and development to retail new product launches.
Even before the pandemic, new product introductions were on a numerical decline, with 632 new product launches in 2017, 618 in 2018 and only 510 in 2019, as tracked by Mintel’s Global New Product Database. This decline reflects the superabundance of variety that has built up on store shelves, real or digital, with the playing out of key market trends that have long driven product innovation and introduction in pet food: humanization, premiumization and pet pampering in general (and grain-free in specific, due to the cloud cast by canine dilated cardiomyopathy — DCM). The new product flame has been further dampened by restrictions brought about by COVID-19, leaving the pet food market with a potential scarcity of the innovative products that drive both consumer interest and market growth.
Not all the news is negative, however. As Petfood Industry reported in June 2020, advertising spending was up by over 50% year-over-year from May 8 to May 23, with pet food brands specifically increasing spending by 30% from February 2020 to April 2020. And relatively undeveloped pet food product niches, such as meal toppers, continue to hold considerable promise after gaining some spotlight in recent years.
Meal toppers in the pet food market
Like raw/frozen pet food, mixers and toppers is a segment that has been around for decades while failing to achieve a significant level of sales. But these products have begun to come into their own, helped along by marketers invested in developing new premium-style products and by growing consumer interest in freeze-dried and dehydrated ingredients.
Playing into the customized pet food trend, meal enhancements and toppers allow pet owners to put their own touch on mealtimes. Although it may be true to an extent that humans are projecting a prejudice against eating the same exact food every day onto pets who don’t have the same perspective, dogs and cats can still benefit from variety in their nutritional offerings. Meal customization also enhances the “quality time” and bonding inherent in preparing and setting down a bowl of food for your pets.
In addition, meal enhancements and toppers can provide a dash of functional nutrition, allowing owners to address specific conditions such as weight control, sensitive stomach, joint/mobility issues and oral health via an add-on, without changing their pet’s usual or favorite food.
Moist toppers can also provide a sense of “freshness” that dry food on its own lacks, something that pet owners may want for their pets but are challenged to provide with dry kibble. In terms of kibble appeal — for pet owners and pets — dry pet food plus a moist and fresher-seeming meal topper can generate some of the advantages and pet pampering associated with moist/canned pet food. Moist meal toppers, notably including broths in tandem with the bone broth trend in the human food and foodie markets, can also commercialize and monetize the sort of moist human food/kitchen scraps that many customers routinely add to the bowl of kibble.
Consumer data on pet food meal toppers
As reported in Packaged Facts’ new report on “Pet food in the U.S.,” our April/May 2020 Survey of Pet Owners shows that 16% of dog owners and 14% of cat owners had purchased pet food toppings, mixers or add-ins in the past 12 months (see Figure 1). While this modest usage rate trails that for dry or wet/moist pet food as the industry stalwarts, that gap is precisely the point in terms of potential for new product innovation and introduction.
FIGURE 1: Pet food toppings and mixers are purchased less often by pet owners than other products, but a growing desire for customization provides plenty of opportunity to grow the segment. | BigMouse I Shutterstock.com
This potential is confirmed by the survey finding that 44% of pet owners agree that they like the idea of meal toppers in general, with nearly twice as many pet food customers “strongly” agreeing or at least “somewhat” agreeing on this point than “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreeing (see Figure 2). With interest in these products this widespread, the market upside for meal toppers remains considerable.
FIGURE 2: Nearly half of dog and cat owners at least somewhat agree that they like the idea of pet food toppers/mixers/add-ins, with only one-quarter saying they don’t like the idea. | BigMouse I Shutterstock.com