Sadly, history is always two-dimensional when it’s read in a book or viewed on TV. It’s only relived in 3D when it was originally experienced first-hand. This can be said of wars, earthquakes, floods, pet food recalls and the current pandemic.
Pet Stores are no exception, suffering some major disruptions leading up to the current situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Its unfortunate that many millennials, who now drive the current pet food industry trends, weren’t pet parents back in 2007 when the industry experienced the devasting issue of pet food tainted with melamine imported from China which caused over 30 000 pet deaths. Mention the topic today, and many are not even aware that this even happened. At the time, pet parents affected felt it as a loss of a family member. Rather like the grief many families are suffering now.
I believe it’s important to remind all pet parents when happened back in 2007 and enlighten younger pet parents because they need to know the history and how pet food became what it is today, namely excellent balanced nutrition. The events of 2007 were a global game changer not only in terms of nutrition and but also in where we shopped.
The Rise of the Pet Specialty Stores
As a results of this 2007 tragic event, pet parents started asking questions about ingredients.
It was a launching pad for many new premium brands offering excellent nutrition options and ushered in an era of people wanting to understand the labels they were reading. The call was for real food and real facts.
And it gave pet specialty stores key positioning in the market place. This is where pet parents had to shop for premium nutrition. This was, and remains, their specialty. Apart from the bags on the food shelf, such stores are well versed to offer nutritional opinions and educate. And they were shops that allowed dogs to visit …
In line with the new found popularity pet specialty stores, often called boutiques, came the trend for grain-free foods which, over the years, really gained traction in the marketplace. Other trends came along too, all boosted by the growing human-animal bond, inter alia the customization of the food bowl with fresh food options being sold in stores and of course the option to have pet food delivered on the door step of households across America.
In a recent webinar hosted by Petfood Industry magazine and Watt Global Media, Sean Simpson, associate client director of the pet vertical at Nielsen Global Connect succinctly outlined the history of recent disruptions in the pet food market place culminating in the current Covid-19 drama and how they have affected pet parents and the way they now shop.
Focusing on the last three to four years, Simpson explained that pet food brands had made it their business to focus on very fixed channels. High end products belonged in pet specialty and pet specialty alone. Everything else could be found in the grocery store or pet superstores aisles.
Slowly brands started to come out of their fixed lanes and even started changing lanes in a bid to attract new pet parents. And the lines blurred even more with the growth in online shopping for pet food and other products. Suddenly, it was very easy to sit home and shop endless aisles. E-commerce has been growing like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk.
“Despite the growth in omnichannel shopping, pet specialty was able to hang on to the recognition of being the place to shop of premium nutrition, but they were nevertheless forced to adapt by offering increased services and personalized care,” said Simpson.
Grains or Grain-free
Then, just when pet parents were getting comfortable with the food options available to them and, found what they liked to feed, in 2018 along came the FDA announcement that it had begun investigating reports of canine dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in dogs eating certain pet foods containing a high proportion of peas, lentils, other legume seeds (pulses), and/or potatoes in various forms (whole, flour, protein, etc.)
“We understand the concern that pet owners have about these reports: the illnesses can be severe, even fatal, and many cases report eating “grain-free” labeled pet food.,” said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on their website. “The FDA is using multiple science-based investigative tools as it strives to learn more about the evolution of this outbreak of DCM and its potential link to certain diets or ingredients.”
It came like a bolt out of the blue. And worse, the FDA named brand names … Suddenly pet food manufacturers found themselves scrambling to expand their product lines to include grains. Fortunately, pet specialty was able to explain and offer advice about food choices to perplexed pet parents.
For a few months, whether they were buying grains or grain-free, pet parents still enjoyed shopping in pet specialty stores, taking their pets with them for the outing and a possible treat at the check-out register.
And then along came Covid-19 bringing with it an overnight change in shopping habits.
Fast forward to March 2020, pet parents went online and started stockpiling and online pet food sales soared to dizzying heights – up 77per cent or $281 million – over the same time last year,” detailed Simpson.
“They were stocking up on petfood wherever they could find it. “Subscription purchases also increased 28% from February to March. It’s too early to know if those gains will continue as more areas start to open up from lockdowns and quarantines,” he cautioned.
The Pet Industry is an Essential Service
Because the pet industry is deemed an essential service, all pet stores had to adapt and start selling online if they had not done so before, offering curbside pick-up and same day deliveries.
But pet food is a fixed consumption category; it doesn’t mean pets are eating more pet food. With pet parents stocked to the hilt, there was a sudden drop in pet food sales to figures below what they were at the same time a year ago.
Nielsen reported that pet parents were stocking up on dry food and, in particular, big bags. Previously dry food sales had trailed behind wet food options. There was also an increase in treats.
It’s been really tough of bricks and mortar stores. Even with the lock down loosening, people are thinking twice about having to make an extra stop at the pet store when they can get home and shop online.
With the Covid pandemic, cat parents also stocked up on litter. While beds and toys spiked as people adopted pets at the start of the crisis and continue to do so. Thankfully, a wonderfully positive note in this historical drama.
Doggie Social Clubs
So, what’s next for the pet stores and, pet food aisle in particular? It’s a seriously big question mark. Pet stores have to make it through these tough times. We really need them! It’s like having a Starbucks in your community; people like to go there with their pets. In fact, a visit to a pet store is a great social outing for a dog. There is no question that if you are walking along a sidewalk, your dog will know when the pet store is coming up and and automatically veer inside.
It’s a really great social experience; all those smells, not to mention the possibility of a free treat and being spoilt with new toys and games and seasonal accessories.
According to Brad Kriser, the founder and CEO of Kriser’s, a chain on pet specialty stores with branches within numerous states in the US, prior to Covid-19, more than 40 per cent of his customers actually came into the stores with their pets on a regular basis.
Brad’s modus operandi has always been to invite the companies he works to regularly hold food demonstrations in his stores, hand out samples and presenting opportunities to interact with pet parents. He hosted yappy hour events, fashion shows, and in-store adoptions.
Granted, online sales of all pet products including food is on the rise. There is the convenience factor. But we have to continue to shop local. Pet stores are social clubs for dogs. Hopefully, all the fun events will return in due course. Plus specialty pet stores offer pet parents good advice and education.
All of the above is not something that you are never going to get when you order online from Amazon or any other online e-commerce seller. It’s not in the DNA of their customer service. It’s not included in that box delivered on your doorstep. And never will be.