Do pet food drivers differ online vs. brick and mortar?

Premium pet food purchasers shopping online consider the product important but are less interested in brand story, packaging appearance and sustainability.

(Highway Starz |
(Highway Starz |

Leading into 2020, e-commerce was gaining in sales and market share, including for pet food. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns sent those gains into the stratosphere, and most experts expect online sales in nearly all product categories to continue to grow, even after the economy and our lives evolve into whatever the new normal will be.

What does this mean for how consumer products like pet food are packaged, displayed and marketed? Should prevailing wisdom and common strategies and tactics change?

Some pet food experts believe the answer is yes. For example, Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel, said pet food brands should optimize their product packaging for efficient shipping and to stand out on a computer (or mobile) screen. Speaking as part of a panel during Petfood Forum CONNECT 2020, she added that brands may also want to use an online platform to talk in detail about the products themselves.

Pet food product more important online – but not price

A recent study provides further insights. While it was conducted by Mondi, a pet food packaging supplier, in partnership with Dow expressly to “dive deeper into how online shoppers compare to retail shoppers in their premium pet food packaging needs” – and it took place in 2019, before the pandemic and the related e-commerce surge – the results are still illuminating and include purchase drivers beyond packaging.

For instance, respondents were asked to allocate 100 points among five factors – pet food product, price, brand, size/weight of package and package overall – in terms of importance. Brand, package size/weight and the package overall ranked very closely for both online shoppers and “retail” shoppers (essentially, consumers shopping in brick-and-mortar, or BAM, outlets). Yet 39% of online pet food shoppers considered the product an important factor, compared to 33% of BAM shoppers, while 24% of the BAM shoppers surveyed also considered price important, compared to only 19% of online shoppers.

Another interesting difference between the two types of shoppers was availability of pet food products. Most other factors, including “product that I know my dog/cat will like,” “brand that I trust,” nutritional claims and specific formulations and ingredients ranked very similarly for both the online and BAM experience, but 79% of BAM shoppers said “available where I shop” was important, compared to 53% of online shoppers. (For this question, respondents were asked to assign points, 1 to 5, to each of about 16 factors.)

Not surprisingly, online shoppers surveyed tend to buy larger pet food packages – for both dog food and cat food – than those shopping at BAM outlets. Among online shoppers, 73% said they typically buy large bags of dog food (15 pounds or more), and 44%, large bags of cat food. For BAM shoppers, 60% purchased large bags of dog food and 28%, large bags of cat food.

Specific pet food product, package features

Contrary to recommendations from experts like Dornblaser, factors like appearance and brand story also mattered less to online shoppers, along with packaging material (though again, this survey was conducted in 2019.) When asked to rank importance of the package features, only 6% of online shoppers considered appearance important, compared to 18% of BAM shoppers. Information on brand story got 17% online vs. 30% BAM; packaging material was 13% and 25%, respectively.

BAM shoppers in the survey also seemed more interested in trying new products, 63% vs. 50% online, and more likely to agree that “good packaging can make me love a brand,” 47% vs. 36%.

Other specific package features like ease of carrying, opening, serving and storing, information on how the product was made and ability to re-close all received similar importance shares between the two types of shoppers. And both types considered keeping the food fresh and clear nutritional information the most important features.

Sustainability more important to ‘retail’ pet food shoppers

Though the differences weren’t significant, BAM shoppers were more likely to say they try to reduce their impact on the environment than online shoppers, 81% to 78%, and also to prefer brands that seem to care about the environment, 71% to 67%. In addition, 32% of BAM shoppers said they would “definitely/probably switch to a brand in a more sustainable package,” compared to 25% of online shoppers. Similarly, 54% of BAM shoppers considered the type of pet food packaging material to be an indicator of sustainability, while 48% agreed with that consideration.

Perceptions of sustainability and environmentally friendly packaging seemed to affect pet food brand impression and trust, too: 76% of BAM shoppers indicated such packaging positively impacted brand impression, with 66% saying it had a positive impact on brand trust. In comparison, 70% of online shoppers said it impacted brand impression and 61%, brand trust.


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