The humorous depiction of Astro, the dog from “The Jetsons” who takes daily walks on a treadmill, is no longer far from reality as pet owners continue to look for ways to use technology to not only make their lives easier, but also to make their pets’ lives more luxurious.
A recent meme circulating on social media sums it up: Captioned “Sometimes I wonder if I spoil my cat, seeing him in with his iPad in his yurt,” the image features a cat fixated on the screen display while cozied up in a kitty-sized tent. The hilarity of the meme underscores the way pets are living in this day and age, which gives grocers plenty of ways to fetch more sales.
Pet Aisles Get Smart
The techie mentality is trickling into the pet retail world. Manufacturers are beginning to offer high-tech items to help grocers move their pet aisles into the digital age.
For example, Nestle Purina has technology in the works that will futurize pet aisles with digital touchscreens that shoppers can interact with to find the best products for their pet, and then have those products highlighted in the aisle with under-shelf lighting.
Additionally, Freshpet is testing a “smart” refrigerator for its fresh pet food that can alert retailers when something needs to be repaired, and even when it is time to restock the product.
Referencing Samsung’s smart refrigerator TV ad that reminds its owner they’re almost out of milk, Scott Morris, president and co-founder of Secaucus, N.J.-based Freshpet, says, “We’re using some of that technology to move toward a smart fridge” for retailers. It will be able to warn them “when the temperature is off, the lights aren’t working, or the compressor that generates the cold air is using a lot of energy, which means it may break down soon. It may also be able to tell us if something is out of stock and needs to be reordered.”
The pet aisles of many supermarkets are growing more and more reminiscent of the perimeter of the store as refrigerators begin to become a mainstay. With the demand for premium, fresh pet food on the rise, grocers need to start thinking more critically about refrigerator placement in pet departments to keep up with the needs of their shoppers.
Retailers can take a page out of Target’s book when looking at how to modernize their pet food sections. According to Morris, the mega-retailer is exceptionally good at bringing in newer items and authorizing them early on, as well as merchandising and supporting them in high-profile locations such as endcaps.
Target has also been using refrigerated display cases for premium foods for several years. The trend has clearly caught on, evident in the success of Freshpet: The company had zero refrigerators in stores in 2006, and today it has 18,000.
“Refrigerators help retailers’ aisles look good and even grab attention,” Morris says. “You see a fridge with a big header and it draws you down the aisle, and I’ve seen evidence of that over the years.”
Competing With E-Commerce
With e-commerce on the rise, some consumers are turning to online shopping to avoid lugging heavy bulk bags of dog food and kitty litter to and from their cars. However, this does not mean there is no hope for brick-and-mortar grocery stores. Building enticing pet sections that become a destination or spicing up a click-and-collect or grocery delivery service can help retailers hold their own in today’s digital shopping climate.
For example, Morris says that because the company’s products are refrigerated, and therefore difficult to ship, shoppers who desire these premium pet foods will flock to their nearest grocery stores to pick it up instead of logging into their Amazon account. For those who don’t have time to grocery shop, the items can be hand-picked and delivered to people’s homes through services such as the ever-growing Instacart.
Joe Toscano, director of trade and industry relations for St. Louis-based Nestle Purina PetCare, says the growth of e-commerce brings both good and bad news for grocery retailers.
“A retailer with a well-established pet department needs to have an in-store experience that’s better than it’s ever been,” Toscano says. “Offering the right products at the right price and presented in the right way will help drive in-store sales. Grocery retailers tend to have shoppers in their stores almost weekly, so if they can show pet owners that they have in-store what the consumer is making an extra trip to pet specialty or online for, they can certainly win.”
Additionally, Toscano calls click-and-collect programs “absolutely essential to meeting the lifestyle needs of today and tomorrow’s ever-powerful pet shopper.”
Peter Seidita, director of sales strategy and execution for Meadville, Pa.-based Ainsworth Pet Nutrition, further urges that consumers’ go-to pet products be available wherever they shop, which includes online.
“Ainsworth Pet Nutrition is working with our grocery partners to share best practices when it comes to e-commerce insights,” Seidita says. “We feel there are real opportunities to leverage brick-and-mortar assets and attract new customers with such things as pickup and delivery services.”
The Mark of Millennials
The importance of e-commerce is largely being driven by millennials, who demand access to the most premium products in the most convenient way possible.
Toscano says that at 75 million strong, millennials are not only the largest living generation, but are also now the largest pet-owning generation. Citing data from American Pet Products Association (APPA), millennials surpassed boomers by three percentage points last year to account for 35% of all U.S. pet parents, and are getting their first pets by age 21 on average, compared with the typical baby boomer, who waited until age 29.
“This generation will make a big impact on the category, as they decide how to allocate their $3.39 trillion in buying power on their ‘starter children,’” Toscano says. “Millennials demand more from their own food than other groups, spending a premium for healthier fare at a rate that’s 1.5 to 2 times the rate of boomers, according to a 2015 Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Survey.”
Making the Most of Space
E-commerce aside, there are still plenty of shoppers who are looking for an exceptional in-store experience, and the pet aisle is no exception. Many retailers have been targeting these pet-loving, brick-and-mortar shopping consumers by thinking of ways to make their pet sections a destination.
For example, Minneapolis-based Lunds and Byerly’s has stepped it up a notch by attaching Bone Marche pet markets to some of its stores. The pet boutiques are separate from the main store, with an independent entrance, meaning pets are welcome in the store as long as they are leashed. A pet waste bag and disposal area are located outside the entry doors of Bone Marche, which stocks premium products across all categories covering a variety of species, including cats, dogs, rabbits and even fish.
“The pet department in most grocery retailers has continuously been a key driver for traffic,” says Leslie Yellin, EVP of Moonachie, N.J.-based Multipet International Inc. “Retailers have figured out the strength of the pet department by knowing that most trips to the store in some way involve pet.”
Another way for retailers to win over shopper loyalty, especially among millennials, is to do good in their communities and even on a national level. According to Toscano, millennial pet shoppers are more receptive to retailers and brands that run promotions supporting a charitable cause, such as purchases linked to donations or that offer a sustainability platform. “Millennials also tend to seek out (and stay loyal to) brands and products that are supporting their local communities,” he says.
One retailer doing an exceptional job in this department is Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets, which has been running its Paws for Pets program every May for a decade. In the initiative, shoppers are given the option to review a list of items needed at pet shelters to purchase and place in a donation cart at the front of the store; to make a donation at the register; or to donate online. The program is estimated to have helped over 150 local
shelters this year and raised a record $309,000 in 2017.
“Every year, it has grown in terms of customers engagement,” says Ron Bonacci, VP of marketing and advertising at Weis. “It’s been a real success for us, and we have adopt-a-thons in which the shelters come to the stores and we do events. It’s a satisfying cause to support. When they say that more than 60% of households have a pet that is part of the family, there is no better way than to help that need.” He says he often comes across a few store managers that have ended up adopting a dog at the events themselves.
Manufacturers Make Waves
Manufacturers have also been doing their part. For example, American Nutrition Inc sponsored the Arizona Pet Project’s 15th annual Hero Awards, which “celebrates the heroic efforts of service or personal survival by animals who have acted to save the life of a person, performed services within the community or overcome their own circumstances to survive and thrive against the odds.”
“We believe in giving back for meaningful causes at American Nutrition,” said Steve Mills, SVP of customer brands and co-manufacturing, in a statement. “We are honored to again be sponsoring this amazing event and to be able to increase our participation from 2017. There’s nothing better than celebrating heroic animals while simultaneously raising funds and awareness for a well-deserving organization, and it’s something we’ve been looking forward to since last year’s event.”