FROM TOPCO, A NEW PET FOOD

SKOKIE, Ill. -- Topco Associates here unleashed two new upper-tier pet food brands that it hopes will help member retailers recapture category sales lost to mass merchandisers and pet centers.Paws Premium, whose packaging features playful images of people and their critters, replaced Topco's former mainstream line, Pet Club, and is aimed at mainstream and premium customers. The second addition is

SKOKIE, Ill. -- Topco Associates here unleashed two new upper-tier pet food brands that it hopes will help member retailers recapture category sales lost to mass merchandisers and pet centers.

Paws Premium, whose packaging features playful images of people and their critters, replaced Topco's former mainstream line, Pet Club, and is aimed at mainstream and premium customers. The second addition is Paws Professional, a veterinarian-endorsed, super-premium brand designed to compete with Iams and Purina One.

The lines, out in January, comprise more than 100 stockkeeping units, including canned and dry dog and cat food, cat litter, biscuits and treats. They're priced 20% to 25% below their comparative national brands, said Norm Spencer, Topco's director of program management for nonfoods.

"A lot of category growth is coming out of alternate channels," Spencer said, adding that the growth is concentrated at the premium end.

Among grocery categories at Wal-Mart Stores' conventional and supercenter formats combined, for example, 27.3% of shoppers buy pet food and other pet supplies, according to Retail Forward.

Some, like Topco, have responded with premium-tier, private-label lines. Others are experimenting with pet centers, warm and fuzzy signs, and cross merchandising -- even adding organic pet food to their sets, reflecting people's willingness to spend more on their animals.

To support the new lines, Topco offered retailers in-store marketing materials, including floor graphics, shelf-talkers and informational brochures. The cooperative plans to expand the lines to include rawhide chews in the first quarter, and toys and accessories later in 2005, Spencer said.