Purr-fectly healthy

Pet parents continue to spend on products to improve the health and well-being of their pets.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

The economy has forced many consumers to curb spending and even “trade down” in certain categories, yet the pet care category continues to thrive. By placing a stronger focus on merchandise that contributes to a pet’s healthier lifestyle, grocers are primed to keep the category’s sales surging.

“In a time when consumers can’t afford expensive family trips to places like Disney World, they are spending time together with those who make them happy, and pets factor strongly into this trend,” says Leslie Yellin, director of business development for Multipet International, based in Moonachie, N.J. “Pets bring happiness to their owners, and this pushes owners to pamper their pets, which contributes to pet care sales.”

In fact, pet care sales among supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchants (excluding Wal-Mart) topped out at $1.283 billion for the 52 weeks ended March 21, according to Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group.

Shoppers are always at the ready when it comes to indulging their pets. The first priority is related to upholding their health, often in the same terms as owners take care of themselves. And these products run the gamut from toys and grooming products to nutritional or wellness merchandise that consumers expect will “help pets live healthier lives,” says Dr. Phil Brown, DVM, senior vice president of marketing and regulatory affairs for Nutri-Vet, based in Boise, Idaho.

This humanization trend is so strong that it often outweighs spending thresholds, even in a sluggish economy. For example, sales of dog and cat needs merchandise hit $631.2 million, for the 52 weeks ended March 21, according to SymphonyIRI.

The overall trend that seems to be spurring much of pet care’s growth is a priority toward more healthful products. “It is a trend that follows human consumption,” Brown explains. “Consumers are striving to eat better and take control of their well-being and they want the same for their pets.”

Supplemental solutions

Supermarket chains are finding that more pet parents are looking to prolong the physical health of their pets through supplements. Similar to why they peruse them personally, consumers consider supplements a safe way to supply additional nutrients that might be missing from their pets’ diets. “Supplements have moved beyond basic multi-vitamins and now support specific life stages,” says Bob Shipley, vice president of customer development and marketing, The Hartz Mountain Corp., based in Secaucus, N.J.

With formulas created for specific species, from dogs and cats to smaller animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, supplements benefits are plentiful. They work to strengthen animals’ immune systems, promote a healthy coat and appearance, stimulate appetite and maintain digestive systems.

“There are supplements produced for older animals, as well as those with aches and pains,” Shipley says. “Some benefit specific species, and others cater to distinct needs, such as skin, joint or digestion issues.”

And with more interest in their well-being, pet owners are much more aware of what their animals need. Whether basing their decisions on suggestions from veterinarians, or their own research done through the web, consumers are more in-tune to their pets’ physical needs, and as such, are making much more educated purchase decisions. “Consumers are much sharper when it comes to caring for their pets, and not only do they have reasons for giving pets supplements, but they know exactly what their animals need,” adds Shipley.

Supplements have been a sweet spot for Nutri-Vet, which began its journey into the category in 1998. The manufacturer has managed to grow each year at a rate of approximately 20%, according to Brown. Realizing all pets have different nutritional pre-requisites, Nutri-Vet keeps its portfolio vast. It’s largest supplement category caters to hip and joint problems, so it markets supplements with glucosamine and chondroitin, even Omega 3 fatty acids and fish oils to slow the progression of arthritis.

The next category that is growing for the supplier is digestive enzymes. Like people, as pets age they lose natural digestive enzymes needed to break down nutrients ingested with foods. By ingesting supplements that include probiotic and prebiotic enzymes, pet parents are helping to restore the health of their animals’ intestinal tracts and keeping immune systems functioning well.

Pearly whites

Another pet care sub-category that is being driven by humanization trend is the growth of pet dental merchandise. “Dental is a real issue with pets, as the average person will not brush their animal’s teeth on a regular basis,” Brown says. Besides being an asset that can protect the health of animals, particularly dogs, different products afford strong teeth and combat bad breath. And products run the gamut.

Hartz for example, launched a line of dental products “with proven oral care benefits,” says Shipley. For example, the company’s “Dentist’s Best” rawhide chews include a fluoride aid called DentaShield, that reportedly reduces tartar by 83%. The company also features “Crunch and Clean” dog biscuits and chew toys to aid in teeth cleaning.

Nutri-Vet’s dental offering is even more clinical, revolving around mouthwashes that can be added to pet’s drinking water. “They are formulated to keep breath fresh and teeth free of plaque,” Brown says.
Experts say grocers have become smitten with the dental subcategory and are partnering with suppliers to spur sales. For example, chains are working with Hartz to create retail-activated in-store marketing programs complete with displays to support the campaign.

The biggest challenge with pet care is that the category is still considered an impulse purchase. “While the dog and cat food and litter may make the shopping list as a priority, the toys, rawhide chews and supplements are often an added value item,” notes Multipet’s Yellin. “Years ago, retailers didn’t even consider advertising toys, bedding or other care items. Today, more of this merchandise is making its way onto circulars.”

Chains are clearly getting savvier and creating more in-store promotions and endcap displays, but to really keep pet care top of mind, grocers are finding new ways to merchandise the category at the shelf. Unlike pet specialty stores that have trained, knowledgeable associates available to answer consumer questions as they shop the store, supermarket chains must rely on their savvy buying and allocation skills to educate shoppers and spur sales.

Pet aisles are no longer filled merely with different pet foods. Chains are finding the value in making their pet aisles destination sites for pet lovers, and many buyers are learning to create a synergy between pet food and the impulse items and integrating the two in a way that complements the pet category as a whole.

Streamline shelves

For starters, merchandisers are filling shelves based on specific species, such as grouping all dog supplies, then cat supplies, and then birds and small animals. “This makes it easier for shoppers to find products for their specific animal,” Brown explains.

After streamlining shelf sets, the next key is to keep assortments fresh and find methods to continually remind shoppers about their pet care needs throughout the shopping trip.

Cross-merchandising is key in this technique. “Clean signage and easy categorization is paramount in the aisle, but chains also must keep pet care top of mind outside the section,” says Brown. “By cross-merchandising complementary items, they can gain additional interest.”

To spur sales in supplements for example, some grocers are merchandising specially formulated tablets next to specific types of dog food. “If they have a senior type of dog food, it is a good idea to have a display of a supplement that an aging dog may also gain value from,” he says.

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