Pet Food on Aisle One? Not Yet

On the eve of Petfood 2.0, I find myself waxing nostalgic about the weekly blogs I’ve written on topics ranging from defining natural pet food to our pets’ instinct to eat poo, sprinkled with a bit of pet poetry just for the sake of creativity. What I’ve learned from months of research and conversation is that we are working in a market where risk is inherent and disruption rules. It is a market that stalks the wants and likes of its customers. Regulation, lack of statute, and pending regulation serve as a spice for an industry growing faster than the puppies and kittens it helps. Pet parents are rewarded with a spectrum of choices for supplements, treats, and food that require a degree in natural medicine to evaluate. And that is why I’m astounded when I venture into the pet-food section of my neighborhood grocery store for birdseed, where I find three product lines and 25 square feet representing almost $60 billion worth of business. What is up with that?

I no longer have to hit the organic market or travel to Whole Foods to fill my cart with gluten-free pizza dough, natural chicken breasts, or grass-fed buffalo meat. Granted, I take a pass on more than half of the aisles, and only hit the pet-food aisle when I need laundry detergent or birdseed. My options for Scotty and Razz include by-products and grain-laden treats. I never spend money on my pooches at the grocery store. Instead, I head to my favorite independent pet specialty store, specifically for high-quality (expensive) foods and treats, where I also get the benefit of chatting with the cats awaiting adoption.

This summer, the company “I and love and you” conducted a poll, revealing that we health-conscious pet parents overwhelmingly support the concept of one-stop shopping. Seventy-eight percent of us said we would buy our favorite pet foods at the supermarket if they were available.

Among respondents, 69 percent currently shop at specialty pet stores (big and small), 40 percent frequent the natural retail chains, and only 35 percent sourced from their local grocery stores.

It’s important to note the “I and love and you” Natural Pet Quick Poll was fielded online among 500 qualified Market LOHAS (Lifestyle Of Health And Sustainability) MamboTrack health and natural consumers/pet owners who already purchase what they consider to be quality, natural products. And it is equally important to note these people represent the growing market everyone is actively courting. So why are national grocery store chains not responding to market demands?

I happen to be in Baltimore at the moment attending Natural Products Expo East. This sizeable retail showcase of natural products is second only to its sister event, Expo West, in Anaheim. Those of you who have attended either event know that if you want to know what’s hot, these shows are the place to go. Here, gluten-free rules. (I honestly think there is not one piece of regular bread on the show floor this year.) When I finally found “I and love and you,” we talked about their survey and the shortage of product selection on grocery-store shelves. I asked them why there were so few pet-food companies scattered among the product offerings at Expo East; their response was retail is just slow to respond to the market.

When the survey queried consumers about what would make them switch to buying at their local grocery stores, 78 percent said quality and sourcing are essential. Fifty-two percent defined that as having no by-products, 50 percent want all-natural products (don’t get me started again), and 47 percent require real meat to be the number-one ingredient in the product.

I raise this issue because it is clear to me that the distribution chain for pet food is far from saturated. Pet parents are hungry for options, and they are reading labels. Coupons for cans of bi-products don’t bring people into the pet-food aisle. Getting the attention of big retail and acquiring shelf space is no easy task. I would suggest this is an industry, with its disruptive forces, primed for the challenge. The first one to teach them the science of distribution wins. See you at Petfood 2.0 next week.

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