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Tempting Treats and Captivating Chews

Dog owners are shopping for treats and chews that offer functional and safe ingredients, with sourced and made in USA items leading the pack.

By Sandy Chebat

Published: 2018.08.06 09:00 AM

Sales of dog treats and chews remain strong, and the category continues to experience robust growth, according to industry insiders.

“Treats are one of the fastest-growing categories,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Dogswell, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands. “As the relationship between pets and people continues to evolve, the desire we have to make our pets happy continues to increase. Treats are one way to do that.”
The trends in this category mirror those found in pet food, insiders said.

“The pet treats and chews market closely follows the major trends in pet food overall because many of the same marketers, brands and formulations are at play,” said David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md.-based market research firm. “Grain-free, natural, functional-ingredient, novel-protein and U.S.-sourced treats are some of the most sought- after types of treats.”

Sprinkle attributed the focus on U.S.-sourced and -made products to previous pet food recalls.

“The threats posed by Chinese-made jerky treats are still impacting the pet treats and chews market, with pet owners in the U.S. continuing to scrutinize pet products to ensure that they are both made and sourced in the U.S.,” he said.

Curt Jacques II, president and CEO of West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., agreed.

“Consumers still want all-natural, domestically produced chews,” he said. “Durability, safety and ‘lasting qualities’ are top of the list.”

As a result, detailed product labels and company transparency rank high with savvy pet owners.

“We are seeing a trend in the importance of each ingredient in each recipe,” said Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif. “Alongside this, consumers want transparency—to know the origin of ingredients.”

At All Natural Pet Supply, which has two locations in Vancouver, Wash., manager Katia Rossi said her customers desire treats containing fewer ingredients and labels they can easily read and understand.

“Freeze-dried treats are on the rise; they are selling really well,” she added. “And training treats still are popular.”

Heidi Liedeker, owner of Meat for Cats and Dogs in Portland, Ore., said that her customers are looking for “natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, along with single-protein options.”

Industry insiders also reported a rise in the prevalence of functional treats, including those that provide dental benefits, offer extra nutrition or otherwise improve pet health. As a result, superfood ingredients, such as cranberries, goji berries, coconut oil, seaweed, kale, açai, kefir and chia, are on trend, Sprinkle said. 

“Whether treating a specific condition or simply providing a wellness boost, functional treats form a growing segment of the treats market,” Sprinkle said. “Packaged Facts’ June/July 2017 National Pet Owner Survey shows that 70 percent of pet owners agree that pet treats offering functional benefits are an important part of their pet’s health care. A similar percentage (71 percent) agree that they prefer to buy pet treats with extra nutrition or that address health concerns for their pets.”

New Products

Manufacturers Focus on Variety and Nutrition 

This year, many dog treat and chew manufacturers have focused their efforts on launching products with unique proteins, low calorie counts and nutrition in mind.

Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn., added three treats to its Bonus Bites line for dogs: Freeze Dried Beef, Dry Roasted Beef Lung and Freeze Dried Chicken Hearts. The 100 percent grain-free treats are made from USA-sourced, all-natural, high-quality muscle protein and organs, and they contain no fillers, added flavorings or preservatives, according to the company.

The high-protein, low-calorie treats are also designed to break apart easily for use in training. The Beef Lung flavor comes in a 2-ounce bag, while the Beef and Chicken Heart flavors come in 3-ounce bags.

In March, Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., introduced its Thinkers treats in a smaller format. The company’s Mini Thinkers contain locally grown vegetables and come in three recipes: Pumpkin with Turkey, Sweet Potato with Turkey, and Carrot with Turkey and Peanut Butter.

The manufacturer also launched Wild Caught Baltic Sprat, a whole-fish treat that contains no preservatives and comes in a 3-ounce bag. The fish are sustainably caught off the coast of Estonia and slow roasted to retain the nutritional benefits, according to the company.

In June, Whitebridge Pet Brands in St. Louis relaunched its Dogswell treat brand, adding four new proteins: beef, salmon, turkey and lamb. The line was also expanded to include treats formulated to support skin and coat health. New formats were designed to appeal to picky dogs, older dogs and dogs with sensitive teeth and gums. These include Dogswell Jerky Minis for small dogs; Dogswell Tenders, a chewy chicken breast treat in a natural fillet shape; and Dogswell Skin & Coat, which includes biotin, zinc and vitamin E. The company also increased the level of supplementation in the treats for improved canine health, said company officials. 

Customer Education

Engage Pet Owners with Questions

The best approach to educating dog owners about treats and chews is through face-to-face conversations, industry insiders reported. 

At West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., the store’s employees educate first and sell second.

“We don’t want [staff] to ‘sell’ a customer a bill of goods, but instead, we want them to help our customers by being problem solvers and educate them on the latest nutrition and information to improve the quality of their animals’ lives,” said Curt Jacques II, president and CEO.

Jacques said the staff is educated through weekly training meetings, and the store also hosts in-store seminars on nutrition for customers.

“This information—along with newsletters, e-mail blasts and Facebook posts—keeps our customers on the cutting edge of the information pipeline,” he added.

Engaging customers and asking targeted questions is another way pet specialty retailers can help pet owners select the right treat or chew. 

“Treats are fairly simple, and it only takes a minute to point out a few key things that pet owners should consider when choosing a treat for their dog,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Dogswell, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands.

She said retailers can start by finding out what owners want to achieve. For example, do they want to train their dogs, reward their dogs or indulge them?

Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., agreed and recommended asking customers how their dogs have reacted to different treats.

“It helps if your associates are able to trial treats and fully experience each brand for themselves,” she said. “Being familiar with ingredient panels helps them point the customer in the right direction.”

Katia Rossi, manager of All Natural Pet Supply, which has two locations in Vancouver, Wash., said she offers personal testimonials. In addition, she shares feedback from other customers. 

“We also hand out samples for them to take home and will point out the single ingredients,” she said.

In-store demos provide effective opportunities to educate dog-owning customers about treats and chews, said Kathleen McCarron, founder of Portland Pet Food Co. in Portland, Ore.

Steering the conversation toward a pet’s health can also be beneficial. 

“If you truly want to be a resource, educate on using treats in a way that doesn’t increase obesity but still can be used to make the pet happy and for training,” said Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn. “Giving too many treats is unhealthy no matter how healthy the treat is, so remind pet owners how they can maintain a healthy lifestyle for their pets.

This way, you truly become a resource for whatever the pet needs for its lifetime.

“It also creates that connection and makes you a go-to location for everything they need for their pets,” she added. “You’re not just selling products but selling information and helping with lifestyle.”

Effective Displays Move Products Faster

Savvy placement of treats and chews, along with cross-merchandising, can boost sales of these products, according to industry participants. Here are four strategies pet specialty retailers can employ to move inventory and spice up sales.

1. Front and Center

“Regardless of their function or purpose, treats are, in many cases, still an impulse buy,” said Ann Hudson, vice president of marketing for Dogswell, a brand of St. Louis-based Whitebridge Pet Brands. “Put them near the front of the store or in a place that really stands out. Simplifying the shopping experience through merchandising and secondary placements will drive higher sales.”

Nichole Nonini, marketing director for Plato Pet Treats in Fresno, Calif., agreed, adding, “Front window displays aren’t used to their potential. If a store can effectively tell a story from their window display that can resonate with a consumer, then they already come in curious about what they see in the window.”

Easy customer access is important at Meat for Cats and Dogs in Portland, Ore.

“We use open shelving to display our treat bags at eye level and keep our chews in metal buckets that are easy to see and grab from,” said owner Heidi Liedeker.

2. Counter and Endcaps

“The golden location of counter and endcap displays can never go wrong,” Nonini said. “Endcaps are front and center and capture the attention of the shopper, while counters are great for impulse buys.”

West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., use special displays to promote sales in this category.

“We custom built portable treat displays that we position near the checkout for added impulse sales,” said Curt Jacques II, president and CEO. “Our endcaps are changed twice a month, and we select treats to ‘feature’ at our checkout.”

Katia Rossi, manager of All Natural Pet Supply, which has two locations in Vancouver, Wash., said the best-sellers at her store are on an endcap on pegs.

3. Partner with Food

Because pet owners take feeding their dogs very seriously, Nonini recommended merchandising treats and diets together.

“It’s wise to merchandise premium treats with premium food brands,” she said. “Oftentimes, we see there is limited loyalty in the treat category, but consumers have been buying the same food brand for years. If consumers can align the quality of food and treats they purchase, then dogs will reap those nutritional benefits tenfold.”

Melinda Miller, CEO of Bravo Pet Foods in Manchester, Conn., agreed.

“The more stores do to tie in diets and treats and help customers see the shared attributes of particular brands, that helps educate the consumer and makes it easier for them to move forward with these healthy items,” she said.

4. Samples

Several retailers reported success with samples.

“We also will use new product treats to give to our customers’ dogs, with their permission, for instant palatability success sales,” Jacques said.

All Natural Pet Supply places treats in glass jars atop a cabinet and tapes the package in front of them so customers can try them with their pups, Rossi said.


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