HACKENSACK, N.J. — Some pet supply store owners say the trend of customers seeking pet food containing all-natural ingredients might cost customers more, but it has brought a growing number of better-informed pet owners into their shops.
In 2007, a massive recall of pet food that contained the chemical melamine, which is used in fertilizer and plastic utensils, shook customers’ preferences from generic food that contains corn, wheat or soy toward hormone- and steroid-free, grass-fed, all-meat ingredients, owners said.
In fact, through May 2013, the percentage of dog food brands claiming to be “gluten-free” was 28.6 percent, up from 12.6 percent in the full year of 2012, according to a report on United States pet food trends last year by Supply Side Animal Nutrition Insights. In the same report it said natural pet food accounted for $1.5 billion in sales in 2009, and was projected to outpace the sales of traditional pet food over the next five years.
This shift in what customers wanted to feed their pets forced some store owners to expand their offerings of pet food, which added costs to their bottom line. But it also helped build trust with their customers. While large retailers like Petco offer organic and all-natural food, the owners said being a smaller store offers them the opportunity to talk one-on-one with customers and offer specific food recommendations for certain breeds of dogs.
“There is absolutely a push for better ingredients,” said Susan Weinrich, the owner of Westwood Pets Unlimited in Westwood, N.J. “Customers now want grain-free, high-quality food for their pets.”
Weinrich said over the past five years the number of brands offering higher quality ingredients in their pet food has skyrocketed. She estimated that as many as 25 to 30 brands are offering holistic ingredients, and her store offers about 10 of those brands, she said. Over the past few years, Weinrich said she has attended trade shows, seminars and devoted hours to self-educating herself about the ingredients used in pet food.
But the demand from customers for higher-quality pet food has driven up the cost on both ends of the purchase. Weinrich said a five-pound bag of lower-quality food once cost her about $8 to order, where the higher quality food popular today will cost between $16 and $18 for a 5-pound bag.
“The idea for customers behind good quality food is that you’re spending money now, but will save it in the long run when you don’t have to go to the vet down the line,” Weinrich said.
Shawn Kim, the owner of Mama’s and Papa’s Petshop in Englewood, N.J., said he has seen an influx of customers coming to his store looking for better quality food, rather than shopping at supermarkets or chain stores.
While the high-quality food costs him up to 15 percent more for each bag, Kim said his customers are willing to pay higher prices on the retail side of the purchase.
“At least in our community, we are seeing that customers are willing to pay a little extra because in the long run, they are actually saving money with the healthier food,” Kim said.
Karl McQuilken, the owner of New Jersey’s Wholistic Paws in Ridgewood and Bark Ridge in Park Ridge, said his stores sell only all-natural pet food.
“People love their pets and are passionate about their pets, and we’re seeing that at our store,” said McQuilken.
But Weinrich said that while all-natural pet food is driving traffic to her store, the food has the lowest markup of the items she sells, so the key to remaining profitable is getting customers who come in for the healthier dog food to buy some of the other items she sells in the store — such as accessories or toys for their pets.
“The dog food isn’t a money maker, that’s for sure,” Weinrich said. “When people realize that our store is knowledgeable and can direct each individual customer to a specific brand of food that is the right fit for their dog, they will oftentimes find something else in the store to buy. That’s where we make the money.”
McQuilken said most of his customers ask questions about different ailments their pets might have, and he then directs them to the best pet food that would fit that individual pet.
“While the all-natural food is a little more expensive, most people are willing to pay it because of the connection they have with their pets,” McQuilken said. “How can you put a dollar sign on that?”