A Natural Season

The winter season is a great time to promote natural foods and treats, as people seek to indulge their pets in ways that are healthy, nutritious and fun.

Natural products are more on-trend than ever, and the winter holidays provide additional opportunities for pet specialty retailers to drive sales in the category. Retailers looking to make the most of the trend will find that manufacturers have launched a wide array of natural foods, treats and other products that are a great fit for the holiday selling season.

Consumers are increasingly seeking natural products for their beloved companion animals, and they are open to the latest trends, such as limited-ingredient recipes and superfoods. In fact, according to IBISWorld, Inc., a global market research firm based in Los Angeles, natural is no longer the niche it once was. In its August 2015 Pet Stores in the U.S. report, the firm noted that the pet parent trend has bolstered demand for premium, high-end pet products. “Because pets are treated as family members, pet owners frequently lavish them with all-natural and organic pet foods and treats, in addition to high-end services,” the study states.

Kristie Hamilton, director of sales for Imperial Cat in Morrilton, Ark., says many pet owners find natural to be very important when shopping for products for their pets “By shopping at high-end boutiques, [customers] are usually looking for the best of the best or products that are considered to be top-of-the-line,” she says. “This could be based on ingredients; where the products are made and sourced; the quality of the products; or if they are eco-friendly or green.”

Pet specialty stores often attract pet owners who seek not only natural products but also information about the category. “As natural pet foods become a staple in many pets’ diets, it is important for retailers to know the benefits that specialty lines can offer dogs and cats,” says Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager of marketing communications at Wellness Natural Pet Food. “Pet parents interested in making the switch to feeding their dogs natural and specialty foods have high standards when it comes to ingredient quality and sourcing.”

Those high standards have encouraged consumers to buy more natural products in recent years. “Pet parents’ interest in natural diets has really taken off in the past decade, and pet parents in general have started taking much more of a proactive role in their pet’s health, focusing on a holistic approach to wellness through nutrition,” Leary-Coutu says. “When it comes to nutrition, we’re seeing a growing desire to feed our pets as we would ourselves.”

In response to that demand, manufacturers are infusing natural foods with what are considered the most nutritious ingredients such as quality meats and vegetables; colorful superfoods such as kale, chia seeds, pumpkin and papaya. They are also creating formulas that cater to different stages of life and dietary needs like grain-free.

There has been much innovation in the natural foods category, says Sara Morgan, founder and CEO of Frenchie’s Kitchen. “In the last five years, the whole industry has been reinvented,” she says. “There is a revitalization happening with an emphasis on healthy and a focus on ingredients. People now want to know where the products are coming from and how they are sourced.”

That is a sign of the times, Morgan says, as consumers were not asking these questions a few years ago. “We have awakened to a new era in the pet food industry,” she says.

Morgan says one new trend in the natural food category is gently cooked food, which often appeals to people who already cook for their dogs. The Corpus Christi, Texas-based Frenchie’s Kitchen makes meals and stews that are sold frozen so the manufacturer does not need to use any preservatives. The foods are produced in a USDA human-food facility with 100-percent human-grade ingredients. “They are the true definition of all natural,” Morgan says.

Treats are also important in the natural category. Limited-ingredient snacks, in particular, are trending up. “People want less in what they‘re eating,” says Paula Savarese, president of Dogs Love Kale, based in Naples, Fla. “They want  ingredients that are going to benefit them, and less fillers for themselves and for their pets.”

Retailers are also taking note of customers’ growing interest in natural foods. “Natural is among the top sellers for dog foods due to a number of reasons,” says Jayne Malenfant, owner of Dawg City in Andover, Mass. “After people educate themselves on how toxic some of the preservatives are, they choose the natural foods.”

Kathy Hart, owner of the Palm Springs, Calif., location of  Bones-N-Scones, says people who come into the store often say they want to uprgrade their pet’s food and improve the quality of their pet’s diet. “The word natural is overused, so I ask them what they are looking for,” she says. “They want quality ingredients, [and to know] where ingredients are sourced from, and organic.”

Basket Full of Goodness
The holidays are the perfect time to promote natural products and encourage customers to try something new. Gift baskets can serve as a vehicle for introducing high-quality products to new consumers. “Particularly over the holidays, a nice basket could include the treats, gentle shampoos, and higher-quality, simple, natural, chemical-free products,” Hart says.

However, it is also important to remember that there are holidays sprinkled throughout the year. Carol Andersen, owner of Barkfield Road in East Northport, N.Y., develops holiday promotions for every season. For example, treats were the focus for Back to School, to encourage kids to offer their dogs a treat before leaving for school. For winter holidays, the store offers gift baskets. “You need little gift baskets if you are going to someone’s home,” Andersen says.  

Hamilton adds that retailers should promote natural products during the holidays with special displays or in a section designated specifically for natural products. “Having a section dedicated to natural products for the holidays would draw even more attention to those great green gifts, perfect for every pet lover,” she says.

Retailers may also want to keep in mind that even pet owners who are not in the market to buy gifts may be looking for something special with which to indulge their pets during the winter holiday season. “During the holidays, many pet parents are looking to find their furry family members something special, whether it be healthy treats or special meal toppers to make mealtime a bit more special throughout the festive season,” says Leary-Coutu, from Wellness.

Manufacturers are making sure dogs are not left out during the holidays. “One of our favorite products to promote during the holidays is our Turkey and Quinoa entrée made with 100-percent human-grade ingredients,” she says. “It is a great promotion for both Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays as well. It fits right in with the dogs getting their very own serving of fresh turkey, carrots, green beans all cooked in natural juices. It has traditionally been our biggest seller during the holidays.”


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