Feeding our furry friends

Premium pet food is on the rise. Make your store a destination for picky pet parents


We’ve all come to recognize the common buzz words used on the packaging of healthier, cleaner foods: organic, all natural, no artificial flavours or colours, non-GMO, gluten free, high protein.

Those same descriptors can now be found on the labels of premium pet foods, which are being packaged, marketed and presented as being of the same quality as human health and wellness-focused foods. Over the years, the category has spawned sub-categories and specialized formulas that address specific dietary needs and sensitivities of the pet based on such things as size, breed and age—not to mention the wide-ranging offerings of treats, supplements, and raw and refrigerated/frozen foods.

The market for these premium pet foods is proving to be “a very reliable and healthy driver” of pet food sales, says Dewey Warner, food analyst with global strategic market research firm Euromonitor International. Global figures show that last year consumers spent more than US$90 billion on pet food, up from about US$54 billion in 2008. And in Canada alone, total retail sales of pet food topped US$1.7 billion last year, with US$472 million of that amount spent on premium dog and cat food.

The main factor influencing this market is the humanization of our pets— they’re now considered part of the family and companions rather than animals that need to be tamed, says Warner. A key driver of this trend, he adds, are the single and childless millennials, whom industry analysts refer to as “pet parents” and their pets as “fur babies.”

Where do Canadian pet parents shop for their fur babies’ food? According to Euromonitor, last year online sales were up, comprising almost 3% of our pet food market, while 97% of purchases were made at brick-and-mortar retailers and vet clinics.

To make your grocery store a destination for picky pet food shoppers, “you need to provide what consumers are looking for,” says Mary-Ellen Schick, a category manager at Longo’s, noting the big pet food trends are natural, organic, better-for-you, fresh/refrigerated or frozen/raw. “And then you need to communicate to your customers that you have the offerings they need.”

Longo’s carries a number of premium pet foods that include such brands as Nature’s Recipe and Crave. They were one of the first Canadian grocery retailers to launch refrigerated pet food into the Ontario market and, more recently, introduced a frozen raw option in partnership with Hungry Hunter, made by raw dog food producer Big Country Raw.

Debbie Pelczynski is the president and CEO of Your Healthy Pet, a holistic line of food, supplements and treats for dogs and cats sold at Sobeys as well as independent health food stores and pet food specialty stores. She suggests grocers would do well to address those consumers who prepare homemade meals for their pets. “They should also consider stocking nutritional supplements, or miss out on a 50% margin,” she adds, noting that “probiotics and fish oils are No. 1 sellers for me.”

In fact, some smaller grocers choose to focus more on pet treats and supplements than regular pet food, like Pete’s Frootique & Fine Foods in downtown Halifax: “They’re easy to grab and don’t take up as much shelf space as bags or cans of pet food,” says Frank Yunace, the store’s operations manager.

He acknowledges there’s a growing market for more natural, fresh, raw meat pet food; in fact, some of his customers regularly come in to buy pieces of raw meat, like marrow bones, for their pets. When it was suggested he could further cater to their needs by making available fresh, ready-made items (such as pieces of raw chicken, sweet potatoes and spinach) packaged in handy tote bags, Yunace said he would “absolutely” consider it.

How else can retailers boost their pet department sales? Yunace suggests tapping into the expertise of local treat makers and suppliers that come into the store with samples and information sheets, and to consider “being creative through social media” as a way to reach customers. Pelczynski also suggests grocers grab the attention of shoppers by holding demo days, handing out samples and coupons as well as recipe cards for homemade pet food. It might get pet parents to reconsider the grocery store as a destination for their pet’s needs.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s February 2019 issue.