Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Pet Food Trends Learn to Stay

On a recent visit to my local pet food store, I noticed a sign alerting customers that they will no longer be selling Iams, Hills Science Diet, Eukanuba, or any other dog and cat food that does not meet their pet food ingredient standards.

This would not be surprising from a small mom 'n pop store, but from Pet Food Express - the 5th largest pet specialty retailer in the U.S. - it is an eye opener.

A few years ago, it would have been impossible to run a successful pet food retail chain while ignoring top-selling brands from Proctor & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE:CL), Nestle (ETR:NESR), and Mars (a privately owned company).

These days, however, consumer demand for higher quality pet food mirrors human food trends. Driven by recall after recall of imported and US-based foods, consumers are demanding less diluted and more pure ingredients. Especially for dogs, whose natural diet does not require large amounts of carbohydrates, these owners can easily perceive glutens, sugars and fillers to be bad.

Similarly, the human trends toward the ancestral diet, or what we're genetically inclined to eat, has its corollary in dog food, for example with breed-specific lines by Royal Canin. Also, many new and smaller brands offer a range of top-quality protein types for those selective pet parents. If a breeder recommends a salmon protein for a Lhasa Apso, for example, the owner is motivated by the wide selection to choose a good one.

Just a few of the popular dog foods sold at Pet Food Express hitting the mark for the California crowd include D.N.A., Taste of the Wild, Grandma Lucy's, Wellness, and Stella and Chewys. Together these smaller brands certainly fill up the shelves.

Pet Food Express notes that national manufacturers also offer top-of-the-line products, which are sold at their stores. However, Colgate-Palmolive's only brand is the Hill's line, so they seem out. That would also include most, if not all, Nestle brands.

But Proctor & Gamble's Natura Pet line and Mars' Royal Canin and Nutro brands make the cut, signifying how these companies have adapted to new - and apparently permanent - consumer spending habits, that emerged after the 2007 pet food recall and continue to strengthen with each news story about sickness from the food supply.

Indeed, Colgate missed the "drive toward natural" in the US, according to the Financial Times, and will reformulate and relaunch Science Diet this year ("Investors seek bigger bite of pet food," by Louise Lucas and Barney Jopson, The Financial Times, Sep 30, 2012).

Another trend, yes, but this one seems to align with innate health requirements for companion animals. Pet Food Express' decision to implement its Pet Food Ingredient Standards is emblematic of a new landscape in the highly competitive pet food industry. In other words, these trends have legs.

NB: this post covers the premium pet food market, but it should be noted that many billions of dollars are spent annually on value brands sold by Nestle, Mars, and Wal-Mart. Learn about both ends in our 2012 Pet Industry Research.