An Independent Voice: Barking up the right tree

Some independents are giving pet owners a treat by creating outstanding pet sets that go beyond the traditional offerings.

By Jane Olszeski Tortola

During his most recent trip to the animal emergency clinic, my 4-year-old Yorkie, Guido, racked up more than $1,000 in medical bills when the vet had to remove a hard piece of plastic that the dog had found in the back yard and decided to eat.

Because Guido is an important member of the family, my kids and I do everything possible—seemingly no matter what it costs—to help him and our other dog, Buddy, stay happy and healthy. Something tells me that we are not alone.

According to the Greenwich, Conn.-based American Pet Prod­ucts Association, more than 71 million U.S. households own a pet, the majority of which are dogs or cats, followed by birds, fish, reptiles or other small animals. Translate that into dollars—more than $60 billion is expected to be spent on pet products and services in 2011—and there exists a golden opportunity for supermarket retailers.

One privately held chain that is invested heavily in its pet marketing efforts is Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, Inc. A proven leader in the industry, the company, which operates more than 220 corporate and independently own­ed stores, is capitalizing on the fact that consumers are becoming in­creasingly more savvy and educated about pet products and are demanding far more in the way of offerings than the traditional necessities.

“At Giant Eagle, our overarching goal is to deliver high-quality products and services that allow our customers to complete multiple errands under one roof,” explains company spokesperson Dan Donovan. “With so many of our customers being pet lovers, we offer a variety of pet foods and accessories to meet their needs.”

Following the introduction of enhanced pet departments in newer and remodeled stores, Donovan says that the company has experienced marked sales increases in a number of areas, including frozen and refrigerated premium dog foods and dog treats, in recent months. They have also seen an uptick in sales of novelties such as Barkery dog cookies sold by the pound and Pup Pie all-natural, pie-shaped dog treats.

“Our customers are becoming increasingly more health conscious when selecting foods for their pets to enjoy,” he says. “While still a smaller piece of the overall pet category, natural and organic options are gaining in popularity as well and are growing at a rate faster than the rest of the department.”

Also on the rise, in part to treat a growing obesity problem among America’s pet population is the market for grain-free foods. In fact, research data suggests that more than 50% of all dogs living in the U.S. and an almost equal number of cats are considered obese. Thus manufacturers are developing new recipes and modifying existing ones to provide lower carbs, higher protein and reduced calories, all of which can lead to Fido’s healthier lifestyle.

How challenging is it for supermarket retailers to compete successfully in the pet food arena?  “Customers have a wide variety of options when choosing where to purchase their pet needs, including general and pet-dedicated mass merchandisers, other traditional supermarket operators, and smaller specialty pet stores,” says Donovan.  “Ad­ditionally, those retailers who are solely dedicated to offering pet products are able to dedicate 100% of their promotional efforts to the category, while also often being able to carry items not available to traditional food retailers.”

He says that it is imperative for the merchandising and marketing teams of supermarket companies—small or large—to work collaboratively to promote and measure the performance of the pet department. “When evaluating our pet category, we of course retrieve important data from our Giant Eagle Advantage Card rewards program and we keep a close eye on factors including unique trips to the department, penetration of the category, and, of course, overall sales,” Donovan explains. “Additionally, we take very seriously the feedback we receive from customers, whether it’s given at store level or via our customer care line.”

Donovan advises offering a wide assortment of products at a great value. “With limited supermarket space often dedicated to the pet category, having a mix of the mainstay items, as well as the new and unique items that your customers want to purchase is key,” he says.

Jane Olszeski Tortola, a regular columnist for Grocery Headquarters, devoted more than three decades of her career to working at a family-owned supermarket company founded by her late father. She is a graduate of The Ohio State University and is active in a number of food industry organizations. She can be reached at janieot@aol.com.

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