The raw, freeze-dried and dehydrated pet food category is growing, but to convert more consumers, retailers and manufacturers must thoroughly address pet owners’ lack of knowledge about feeding these diets.
By Keith Loria
While the natural raw, freeze-dried and dehydrated food segment is fast growing, the vast majority of pet owners still are unfamiliar with this category or hesitant to give it a try. Pet owners crave information, and they’re looking for partnership, both from the retailers they visit and the brands they invest in. That’s why it’s important for retailers to engage their customers about raw food products and highlight these items in stores.
“Pet parents are transitioning to premium foods and treats, predominantly raw frozen and freeze-dried offerings,” said Lanny Viegut, CEO and owner of Vital Essentials in Green Bay, Wis. “More and more companies are adjusting their strategies and searching for ways to enter and penetrate the category, thus enabling them to cater to this rapidly growing market. Some ‘traditional’ pet food companies are acquiring raw food companies/brands, and others are exploring partnerships with existing raw food companies. There appears to be a sense of urgency for most to create an access point to the raw food category, whether it be frozen or freeze dried.”
In December 2015, Vital Essentials became the first in the raw pet food category in the U.S. to receive the Food Safety System Certification 22000, Viegut said. The company also has earned a superior rating (99.3 percent) from Bureau Veritas, an international food safety audit firm, and recently received European Union certification, permitting the import of its pet products into Europe, he added.
Katie Southard, store manager for Pet Food Center, which has locations in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee, said interest in raw and dehydrated food has definitely climbed over the years.
“We are in the Midwest, so it might be more popular on the coast, but it’s definitely getting more popular [here],” she said. “Before, we carried very minimal raw, and I have boosted that up; dehydrated is something we have added a lot of to our shelves. It’s more pure, more limited ingredient, so customers know exactly what’s going into their foods as opposed to a long list when they don’t know half the words on it.”
The majority of consumers might not have the resources to feed their pets a full raw food diet, but it’s important to help them understand the benefits, said Lindsay Mutschler, owner of Concord Pet Foods & Supplies, which has stores in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The No. 1 thing customers ask Mutschler about in this category is what the differences are between raw frozen, freeze-dried raw and dehydrated, and what the benefits of each are. That’s why she makes sure she and her staff are up-to-date with the latest news about each product.
“Obviously in most cases this category is very new to the customer, so raw definitely can be intimidating to them,” she said. “They also ask about safety and pricing. Many times it can look on paper like feeding raw, freeze dried or dehydrated is much more expensive, when in reality the benefits to your pet offset the cost a bit.”
“Pet parents are transitioning to premium foods and treats, predominantly raw frozen and freeze-dried offerings,” said Lanny Viegut, CEO and owner of Vital Essentials in Green Bay, Wis. “More and more companies are adjusting their strategies and searching for ways to enter and penetrate the category, thus enabling them to cater to this rapidly growing market.”
New in Raw Pet Food
Gregory Jemal, founder of Five Star Raw and CEO of G Mason Group, based in New York, said pet owners who are considering feeding some form of raw diet to their pets are placing a great priority on giving their pets the best food available with some additional added convenience.
“In light of recent recalls, pet owners also are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of raw diets,” he said. “They’re intrigued by all the stories they’ve heard about the benefits but seek reassurance that they won’t be putting their pet or family in harm’s way.”
The Five Star Raw brand, which is U.S. Department of Agriculture certified and inspected, is still in its first 12 months of business, so its entire line is new, Jemal said, adding that the frozen 1-pound chubs are available in Chicken & Vegetable, Beef & Vegetable, Chicken, Beef & Vegetable, Duck & Vegetable and Turkey & Vegetable varieties.
Eric Emmenegger, senior brand manager for Instinct, a brand of Nature’s Variety in St. Louis, said the company is passionate about continuing to drive the momentum of the frozen and freeze-dried raw categories.
“We see two overriding trends in what consumers are looking for: convenience and tailored offerings,” he said. “Consumers are more aware than ever before of what they’re feeding their pets, and that awareness is driving ever-increasing demand for raw. But they’re also looking for easy ways to incorporate raw that don’t interrupt their current feeding routines. That’s why we continue to expand the Instinct product line with offerings that enable consumers to feed raw frozen in ways that work best for them and their pet.”
In February 2016, the company launched frozen Instinct Raw Boost Mixers as a simple way to add the pure, real nutrition of raw to their pets’ current kibble by mixing or topping, Emmenegger said.
Merchandising and Display Tips
At Concord Pet Foods & Supplies, the frozen foods obviously are in the freezer, but Nature’s Variety has its own two-door freezer with signage on the front noting the benefits the food provides, Mutschler said.
“We try not to overdo signage on the freezers because you want people to be able to see inside,” Mutschler said. “As the category has grown, we are now starting to put a second double-door freezer into our store sets so we can expand into other brands.”
As for raw-freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, over the past year, the stores have been working to create a whole section dedicated to these products next to the freezers.
“We have call-out signage where we can, and then all employees are trained on the key things in order to help consumers with their questions,” Mutschler said.
Recently, Vital Essentials retailers were offered high-quality wooden display racks to showcase Vital Essentials products, resulting in a greater percentage of sales for the stores, Viegut said.
The company’s commitment to educating and supporting pet owners and retail partners is evidenced by raw seminars that are conducted by members of its team and its expert animal nutritionist, Dr. Richard Patton, Viegut added.
“Web and social media is also leveraged as a vehicle to reach consumers and create awareness of the category,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Pet Product News‘ special supplement, Natural Pet News.