Dog owners persist in wanting more out of their pets’ food, and many owners remain dedicated to high-quality premium diets that deliver beneficial nutrition. Some industry insiders expect this commitment is strong enough to even withstand an economic downturn.
As pet owners learn more about nutrition, they expect more, said Jessica Krueger, marketing manager of Ziwi USA, a manufacturer in Overland Park, Kan.
“The continuous evolution of the education of consumers has had a great impact on the premium foods category,” Krueger explained. “With the growth of information on pet nutrition becoming so easily accessible, pet parents are learning the ins and outs of what goes into their pet’s recipes and are educating themselves on how specific diets can impact their pet’s health. Consumers have learned that not only the method of manufacturing, but the ingredients and the rates of their inclusions all play a part in the health and wellness of their animals, which has become increasingly important as the role of our pets in our lives has evolved over the years.”
Of course, with higher expectations comes greater scrutiny. Greg Cyr, CEO and president of Mid America Pet Food, the Mt. Pleasant, Texas-based manufacturer of Victor Pet Food, said that pet owners are looking “deeper into nutrition” these days. They want to know what ingredients are being used—and what benefits they deliver.
“They’re also looking at the quality of ingredients used, where they’re sourced, where the food is made and what kind of safety programs a company follows,” he said.
Cyr has also seen a demand for “purpose-driven nutrition.”
“Pet parents want purposeful ingredients that deliver a noticeable and functional benefit to their pets,” he said. “They’re looking for high-quality, super-premium nutrition that works, and they want to quickly understand how and why.”
The Impact of the Economy
The shift to “purpose-driven” nutrition may help to sustain the premium category, even in the face of a recession—should one occur, insiders said.
“Most pet parents feed what they do because the food is a solution to a problem such as gas, upset tummy, ear infections, bad skin or because they believe in the core values of the brand,” said Tabitha McKinney, senior category manager of dog and cat food for Feeders Pet Supply and Chow Hound Pet Supplies, chains with locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. “As a result, premium customers will likely hold fast to what they are currently using. A pet’s diet is seen as a necessity in many cases, and as such, most people will be unwilling to change.”
Joanna Bronowicka, owner of Well Bred, the Healthy Pet Marketplace, which has six stores in New Jersey, agreed that it is unlikely a recession would impact spending in the premium foods category.
“I could see pet parents making cuts on spending in other areas, but maintaining a premium diet will continue to be seen as a necessity now that dog owners have linked it directly to their pet’s health,” Bronowicka said. “This category has come really far in a short amount of time. Just a few years ago, customers didn’t even know what a premium diet was, so we had to explain. Now, customers come in and ask me about it.”
Krueger said that though there could be “spikes and troughs in spending,” pet owners who prioritize premium nutrition will not go anywhere.
“It’s an element of their pets’ lives that they are not willing to compromise on due to their understanding of the impact diet plays in overall health,” Krueger said.
The Future of the Category
Insiders believe that the premium category is poised for persistent growth even as economic conditions cause some consumers to tighten their budgets. Pet specialty retailers can help by educating pet owners who haven’t already come around to the value of feeding higher-quality food.
“Retailers have a great opportunity to help educate consumers on the differences in ingredients, formulas and brands—and ultimately help them understand the benefits each of those brings to their pets,” Cyr said. “To help retailers do this, we offer training sessions where we’re able to dive into the science behind our brand and share more specifics on not just how our nutrition delivers, but why it delivers. Our senior vice president of sales and supply chain, Michael Keith, reviews the science, our ingredients and their purposes during these trainings.”
John Barron-Ethridge, manager of Pet City Houston, a retailer in Houston, said that a lot of consumers are still misled by information they see in commercials on TV and other advertising. This presents a great opportunity for retailers to step in.
“We have found when we show them what is actually in the food, we have around an 85 percent chance we can get them to switch from low-quality food to a high-quality food,” he added. “Once they do, they continue to come in and get their food from us, letting us know how they are seeing wonderful results based on the coat and skin quality on their pets. Plus, with us always offering coupons and a buyer program, we can help make sure our customers’ babies can lead a happy and healthy life.”
Looking ahead, many see a strong future for the premium category as more dog owners become educated on the benefits.
“I believe we will see four important trends continue to stay relevant,” McKinney said. “More natural brands cross over into science categories; solutions-focused foods that make the life of the pet, and by extension the pet parent, better; a return to an emphasis on each life stage as an important nutritional steppingstone versus the craze that was all life stages; and a focus on sustainability.”
Krueger said that consumers will keep seeking out products that are more sustainable and nutritious—and that this will elevate the category further.
“This will push pet food manufacturers to meet that demand through product innovation,” Krueger said. “The premium pet nutrition category will continue to grow as well due to consumers seeking better nutrition for their pets. Pet parents have also become increasingly tuned in about inclusions of meat, organs and bones, as well as natural sources of vital ingredients like taurine, chondroitin and glucosamine. These are all important staples in ensuring pets achieve peak nutrition through their diet.”
Erica Vogt, senior marketing manager at Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis
How have dog owners changed their approach to purchasing premium diets in the past year? How is Whitebridge Pet Brands responding to those trends?
One major trend is the premiumization of dry dog food through the use of meal toppers and wet food. Although wet food sales have grown faster over the past decade than dry (17.2 percent versus 13.1 percent), dry kibble remains the most prevalent food format, representing 65 percent of the market, according to Packaged Facts’ Pet Food in the U.S., 16th Edition report. However, the focus on pet health and wellness has many consumers looking to enhance and customize their dog’s dry diet to meet specific nutritional needs. Meal toppers provide an economical way for dog owners to bridge the gap between the cost efficiency and convenience of kibble and the functional nutrition and palatability of premium diets.
By adding toppers, mix-ins and wet foods to dry diets, dog owners can give their pets “premium” benefits, including increased nutrients, protein and hydration; healthier skin/coats and bones/joints; greater energy and vitality; digestive support; and more flavorful meals. This premiumization trend has benefitted sales of toppers and mix-ins, causing them to emerge as a growing specialty segment, now purchased by 14 percent of dog owners, according to Packaged Facts.
Whitebridge offers a range of dog food toppers in different formats and flavors such as Tiki Dog Tummy Topper, a simple tasty blend of pumpkin puree and ginger that helps aid digestion. Another topper, Tiki Dog Aloha Petites Air-Dried Morsels, is made with bite-sized air-dried cubes of 100 percent chicken or lamb that can be sprinkled over dog food to add protein and meaty flavor. Our Tiki Dog Aloha Petites Flavor Booster topper is a savory bisque with small chunks of meat that provides hydration as well as yummy taste. Tiki Dog Stix is a creamy topper with real chicken or duck in gravy that comes in convenient serving tubes.
With dry kibble itself, premiumization is reflected by consumers seeking more customized formulas that align with their dogs’ specific health and wellness needs.