Cat and dog owners are treating their furry friends to ultra-premium meals that include functional ingredients and high-end protein sources.
Sales have soared so high that pet and specialty stores aren’t the only ones selling such SKUs anymore.
Most supermarkets carry ultra-premium national brands. Select chains have even launched their own private label products to capture a portion of the ultra-premium pie.
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets recently introduced two new lines, Evolve and Natural Life. Each brand includes one variety of grain-free pet food and reflects several other ultra-premium trends.
“We offer two tiers of Publix private level pet food, one being a premium variety. Publix brand dry dog food has everything people love about premium dog food, including real meat, with lamb or chicken as the No. 1 ingredient,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the chain. “Its recipe does not include corn, soy, wheat, or artificial colors or flavors. And Publix premium brand dry dog food is made with whole grains, fruits and vegetables.”
In addition, the supermarket also carries Publix Premium Chicken & Rice dry cat food in 3.5-pound and 7-pound sizes. These private label products go head to head with national lines, according to Brous.
Euromonitor International expects cat food to continue to derive most of its growth from cat treats and in the premium dry and wet cat food categories. And, just as in the dog food category, health and wellness trends such as grain-free, natural, organic and metabolism-boosting formulas also permeate demand and premium product assortments in cat food.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, uses marketing messages like, “Feel good about what you feed your pet while getting a great value, too,” with its organic and natural 365 Everyday Value pet foods. Publix also promotes the healthful connection between people and their pets.
“Pets are viewed as part of the family, and providing proper diets and nutrition is one of the biggest ways people show love and care for their four-legged friends,” said Brous.
Real meat, poultry or fish is the No. 1 ingredient in Purina’s Beyond brand. The line does not contain corn, wheat or soy, or artificial colors or preservatives.
“We believe the most important daily decision we make for our pets is what we feed them,” promotional materials for Beyond read.
Blue Buffalo has built its entire business on this principle. The brand’s motto reads, “Love them like family. Feed them like family.”
The manufacturer is so confident in its holistically balanced wet and dry dog and cat food, it provides an online comparison tool that enables users to differentiate Blue Buffalo items from other brands on the market.
The main areas of comparison on the site include, “Always has meat as the first ingredient,” and “Always includes veggies and fruit.” The remaining considerations are “never contain poultry bi-product meals,” “Never contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives,” and “Never contain corn, wheat or soy.”
Such formulas are what differentiate standard varieties from premium products, according to Serge Boutet, animal nutrition consultant at SB Nutrinnov Consultants.
Highly advanced formulas include nutrigenomics, prebiotics and other functional ingredients like amino acids, herbs and glucosamine, making the distinction even more prominent.
“Compared to premium, super-premium pet foods tend to have alternative protein sources like wild boar, bison and even kangaroo,” said Boutet.
They also contain functional ingredients such as organic acids, carnitine, betaine, enzymes, prebiotics, probiotics, glucosamine and other biologically active ingredients that provide health benefits beyond nutrition. Some are used to address joint problems, heart health, weight reduction, immune response and they contribute to overall pet wellness.
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The foods aren’t intended for treating existing ailments. They are preventative, aimed at staving off common problems so pets remain healthy and live longer, he added.
“Due to consumer demand, many national premium brands, like Purina’s Beyond, Walmart’s Pure Balance and Hill’s Science Diet, have reformulated their regular pet foods so they are truly natural products with cleaner labels,” said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. “In response, shoppers are beginning to expect higher quality and greater nutritional benefits from even the most basic foods.”
Soon, what people presently view as “premium” will become mainstream. And ultra-premium will be considered “just premium,” he said.
Some savvy supermarkets have created premium wet and dry pet foods, plus additional line extensions.
“Hy-Vee is one of the few retailers that has a wide variety of store brand pet products,” said Wisner. “Its Paws Premium line doesn’t just include premium pet foods. It also consists of treats, toys and other accessories.”
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Along with Paws Premium wet and dry dog and cat food, the West Des Moines, Iowa-based chain sells a $60 “Man’s Best Friend Gift Basket” filled with Paws Premium Chicken Basted Chip Roll, Chicken Basted Braid and Chicken Basted Bone, Chuck Wagon branded treats and Pet Head shampoos, plus a Paws plush toy and Paws stainless steel dog dish.
Whatever the type of premium products they produce, retailers shouldn’t just copy what’s already out there, said Boutet.
Retailers should not be afraid to create their own formulations, to be innovators rather than followers who simply mimic national brands with similar private label items, he said.
“A chain could easily discover the next big thing in super-premium pet food formulas, but it will require an investment to do so,” he said. “Because this category is so competitive, retailers creating store brand products should buy the formulas so private label manufacturers cannot duplicate them for other customers.”
Pet food partnerships
Chains that choose not to make their own products should consider selling private label pet foods made by larger retailers in noncompeting markets. This is a great way to offer private label without having to invest in research and development or manufacturing.
Supermarkets with private label lines shouldn’t wait to be approached though. They should also proactively seek out such partnerships to sell into markets where they do not have stores, said Boutet.
Kroger Co., Cincinnati, is selling a new ultra-premium pet food set that includes grain-free, American-made kibble, wet canned food and all-natural chews from free-range, grass-fed Brazilian cattle from the brand “I and love and you,” according to the all-natural pet food company.
With sales of super-premium pet foods trending upward, savvy supermarkets can dig their claws into a larger portion of the profits by following these steps:
• Merchandising control: Retailers ultimately determine shelf sets in their stores. “They should shelve their brands at eye level, showcase store brands in special displays, offer sample packs and hang signage comparing price and ingredients to national brands,” said Serge Boutet, animal nutrition consultant at SB Nutrinnov Consultants.
• Don’t be a copycat: The category is thriving. So supermarkets, even small ones, should aim to produce pioneering products that aren’t just knock-offs of national brand. Innovative formulas will give them a paw up on the big dogs, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill. “If a smaller chain like Wegmans can reach enough critical mass to develop its own Simply From Nature line of premium pet foods, other retailers can do the same,” he said.
• Educate employees: According to Packaged Facts, 22.7% of people in pet-owning households shop for their animals at supermarkets while 27.6% prefer pet stores. “People usually go to pet stores because of their knowledgeable staffs,” said Boutet. He encourages supermarkets to educate workers on the vast array of formulas on the market. They should also be trained to point out store brand products first.
“Kroger is a great fit for us, and we are excited and honored to be featured as one of the few ultra-premium brands in their new natural pet food set,” said Steve Ball, CEO and co-founder of “I and love and you,” in a statement. “This partnership with Kroger allows us to expand our presence and reach consumers in dynamic new ways, while making it easy for pet parents to deliver whole pet health and shop for their entire family in one place.”
In support of the launch, “I and love and you” will implement a series of in-store and online marketing initiatives, Kroger shopper marketing programs, event marketing, targeted sampling, and demo programs alongside grassroots marketing initiatives.
Kroger did not respond to SN’s request for comment.
Trader Joe’s, Monrovia, Calif., sells other brands. It also has a store brand line of premium pet products. Varieties include everything from 5.5-ounce cans of Chicken, Turkey & Rice and Ocean Fish, Salmon & Rice to 22-ounce canned Chopped Lamb & Rice Dinner and 6.6-pound bags of dry Wholesome & Natural Dog Food Formula.
Wet and dry food aside, raw pet food is one realm of premium products most retailers have shied away from thus far.
“While the raw pet food segment is getting more popular, it represents less than 1% of the total market,” said Boutet. “The main issue with raw foods is the resulting high level of pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella in the animals’ digestive systems which makes their stool more contaminated.”
With these concerns and a slew of recalls in recent years, it’s difficult to predict what the future will hold for the raw pet food segment, he added.
Euromonitor International predicts continual category growth for dog food. Its 2014 to 2019 forecast included “a 2% Compound Annual Growth Rate at constant 2014 prices to reach $16 billion in the U.S. in 2019.”
Continuing premiumization trends and natural/organic product mixes will support dog food’s growth, according to the report.
The firm also anticipates a growth in cat food value sales by a CAGR of 2% at constant 2014 prices in 2014-2019, with the total cat food market size reaching $7.6 billion by 2019.
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