BITING BACK

Dogged by increased competition from mass merchandisers, warehouse clubs and pet superstores, supermarkets are fighting back with an extensive assortment of dog biscuits and other pet treats.A large assortment of pet treats -- coupled with an expanded pet department with a broader selection of food, grooming needs and other ancillary items -- can attract shoppers down the aisle and increase impulse

Dogged by increased competition from mass merchandisers, warehouse clubs and pet superstores, supermarkets are fighting back with an extensive assortment of dog biscuits and other pet treats.

A large assortment of pet treats -- coupled with an expanded pet department with a broader selection of food, grooming needs and other ancillary items -- can attract shoppers down the aisle and increase impulse sales, retailers report.

And many retailers are finding success with "high-protein" dog biscuits, such as the lamb and rice or chicken and rice formulas. With their high-quality ingredients and fancy designs, these biscuits look more like they belong in a butcher's case than on a supermarket grocery shelf.

Milk-Bone, Purina, Heinz, Friskies/Alpo and Kal-Kan are among the manufacturers offering high-protein biscuits for the supermarket trade. These upscale biscuits are helping supermarkets compete with veterinarian and pet store-exclusive offerings from Iams, Hills and other brands.

"The lamb and rice dog biscuits are the best-selling of all the new flavors," said Lupe Anguiano, grocery buyer at Handy Andy Supermarkets, San Antonio. "Anything with lamb and rice in it has done well."

Overall, dog-biscuit sales at Handy Andy have been "very good," Anguiano said.

"There is a lot of heavy advertising from the manufacturers, which is really helping sales. There is a lot of promotion going on right now," he explained.

Steven A. Heggelke, director of merchandising for Bozzuto's, a wholesaler based in Chesire, Conn., said sales of high-protein dog biscuits continues to grow.

"While the share of the category is relatively low, it enables us to compete with the pet superstores," he said. Bozzuto's feels it is important to merchandise the items with its standard treats and biscuits to take advantage of any "trade-up" opportunities, said Heggelke. Heggelke said the high-protein items have not hurt the sales of the standard dog biscuits and treats.

Bruce Colvin, category manager at G&R Felpausch Co., Hastings, Mich., said the segment is doing quite well in his stores.

Felpausch occasionally advertises the biscuits and treats through a "Pet Gazette" circular insert that it runs about four times a year in conjunction with its wholesaler, Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich. The "Pet Gazette" features pet-related items like canned and dry food, toys, treats and carriers.

Pam Resser, a marketing assistant at St. Louis-based Ralston Purina Co., said resealable packaging is the latest trend in pet treats, along with an expanded variety.

Sales of dog biscuits/treats/beverages increased 3.8% to almost $585 million for the 52 weeks ended March 29, 1998, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Nabisco's Milk-Bone is the largest brand, followed by private label and Purina Beggin' Strips.

Officials at Nabisco, East Hanover, N.J.; Heinz Pet Products, Newport, Ky.; Kal-Kan Foods, Vernon, Calif.; and Friskies, Glendale, Calif., did not return phone calls seeking comments about their products.

Cheryl Robertson, communications manager for Supervalu's Northeast Region, Belle Vernon, Pa., said the wholesaler's Pittsburgh division has had success with Milk-Bone's Super Premium chicken variety biscuit.

"From a sales perspective the item had a slow start for us," she admitted. "In-ad and in-store promotion was relatively ineffective in increasing sales. However, movement has picked up considerably since January when Nabisco ran a freestanding insert with a $1-off coupon.

Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., attracts an upper-class clientele, so it does a good job selling both the "top-end" and "low-end" dog biscuits and bulk rawhide, said Pat Redmond, buyer.

Because of the success of the Milk-Bone product, Supervalu is also contemplating adding a private-label super-premium biscuit, Robertson said.

Supervalu is among the companies that are increasing its pet-aisle offerings in a bid to win back sales that have been lost to other classes of trade.

The pet department of its new County Market store in Somerset, Pa., spans two full aisles and includes an assortment of food, treats, toys, cages and dog houses.

Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., is also looking to increase its department offerings to compete with Pet Mart, said Philip Jarrett, grocery buyer.

Rosauers is in the process of expanding its pet departments by adopting the Ralston Purina/Hartz Mountain category management plan. To date, five stores have been converted, with positive results.

"This shows people that they don't have to go to the PetsMarts; they can get it all at Rosauers," Redmond said.

John Corcoran, category manager at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said even though most pet-treat sales are impulse purchases, price is still a major factor.

To spur impulse sales, Big Y often uses a wing display to merchandise the 4-pound bag of its private-label biscuits.