This article was published in the June 2021 issue of Pet Food Processing. Read it and other articles from this issue in our June digital edition.

Independence Day may be a highlight of summer, but for independent pet care retailers, a parade of products and unflagging support from suppliers helps their business stand out and succeed all year long.

Such support is important at a time when there are some fireworks going on in the marketplace. Demand for pet food and treats is strong. In its most recent report, the American Pet Products Association pegged annual pet product sales as the highest in history, at more than $100 billion with more than 40% attributed to pet food and treat sales.  

“Consumers are getting more discerning by the day, and they also expect retailers and brands to be highly transparent and authentic in how they conduct themselves,” said Kambria Newton, Petcurean.

This growth is accompanied by increased competition across the omnichannel marketplace. Independent pet stores must go up against home delivery e-commerce sites as well as a variety of brick-and-mortar retailers, including pet care chains, supermarkets, club stores and mass merchandisers.

Pet product purveyors have opportunities to network through associations such as the Independent Pet Retailers Association (IPRA), which offers various forums for exchanging ideas and tips. In late 2020, the Independent and Neighborhood Pet Retail Association, also known as IndiePet, was officially incorporated after being founded by a small group of retailers in 2016.

In addition to leveraging peer support through these and other industry organizations, independently owned and operated pet food businesses can work with their suppliers to bolster and distinguish their stores.

These can be mutually beneficial relationships. For one thing, startup and entrepreneurial pet food and treat companies rely on smaller retailers to get their brands off the ground. Working with indie stores also helps larger brands continually extend their buying base.

Petcurean wet cat foodsWith the increase in online buying, suppliers have helped support the retailers’ omnichannel efforts with web, social media and marketing resources. (Source: Petcurean) 

“We work primarily with independent retailers and we find it rewarding because independent retailers are in a unique position to help us create brand awareness and customer loyalty. They are able to work with customers directly and give them an experience they can’t find online. Independent retailers have the opportunity to let customers look at the products, pick them up, smell them and even offer samples of our products to pets,” explained Joey Weichmann, national sales manager for the Vital Essentials line of Carnivore Meat Company, LLC, Green Bay, Wis.

The pandemic underlined the importance of solid partnerships between retailers and suppliers.

“We’ve had great relationships with the suppliers we partner with,” reported Rachel Cloutier, field training manager, Wag ‘N Wash Natural Pet Food and Grooming, Colorado Springs, Colo. “Obviously, we have run into stock issues and problems with receiving some SKUs due to COVID-19, but most of those gaps have been resolved as we hopefully approach the end. We always knew the importance of these relationships, but the pandemic truly showed how vital our partnerships are to the continued success of us both.”

Of course, the COVID-19 year also spurred changes among retailers and suppliers.

“Over the past year, a lot of consumers have shifted their shopping to online platforms, and many retailers have already taken steps to respond to that shift by expanding their online stores and, in many cases, launching new ones,” observed Kambria Newton, trade and communications manager, Petcurean, British Columbia, Canada. “It’s been truly inspiring to see how the entire industry has risen to the challenge of supporting pet parents during this unprecedented pandemic.”


Bridging the digital divide

As many stores have expanded their online presence, they have tapped into their suppliers’ connections and expertise to navigate the new omnichannel environment.

Outside view of Wag N' Wash pet specialty storeIndependent pet retail stores play an important role for many up-and-coming brands and support brand awareness and loyalty for more established pet foods and treats. (Source: Wag ‘N Wash) 

“As a premium pet food maker, one of the ways we are supporting retailers is by launching more customized web platforms, social media channels and marketing campaigns to augment what they are doing in their stores,” Newton said. “Many customers are now conducting their own research before they go shopping, and it’s important to provide relevant and accessible resources to help them make decisions about what products are right for their pets.”  

Individually pet stores can also utilize technologies specifically geared for this industry. eTailPet, for example, offers e-commerce, social media marketing, booking and POS solutions for independent pet stores. Founded by an independent pet store owner a few years ago, eTailPet recently added a new order system with suggestions based on products that are selling well online and in store.


Shelf standouts 

Assortment is another way that indies can set themselves apart during an intensely competitive era.

 “Unique product selection has always been a focus for us,” Cloutier said. “The market is heavily saturated, so we try to maintain an edge by providing our customers with new and fun options.”

Here, too, the dynamic between smaller retailers and smaller suppliers works both ways.

“Independents attract label-focused customers who want those organic and natural products,” Cloutier added. “We love partnering with smaller companies and watching their products move. We have had the opportunity to partner with a number of up-and-coming companies and it has always been a joy to watch their growth and success. Being the doorway for guests to find these incredible products is something we love and will continue to do.”

From a supplier perspective, independent retailers are a pivotal liaison between them and satisfied pet parents.

“We want to form long-lasting bonds; not just put more product on shelves,” said Joey Weichmann, Carnivore Meat Company.

“We believe exclusivity drives demand, so we offer some of our products exclusively in independent stores with no option to purchase online,” Weichmann said.

He cited Vital Essential’s VE RAW BAR as an example, with a unique display only available in independent retail stores.

VE Raw Bar Duck Heads, available exclusively through independent pet retail stores.Many brand offer certain product lines exclusively through independent pet retailers to support the relationship with the retailer and drive demand for those products. (Image courtesy of Carnivore Meat Company) 

New product development can be a boon to merchants and manufacturers. “We use new products as a way to distinguish ourselves from the competition, including the recent launch of a novel new protein source — pork — to our cat food line,” Weichmann added.


Partners in promotions

In addition to carrying their specialty or unique products, pet retailers can turn to suppliers as a resource for effective merchandising and promotions. Cloutier said leveraging those resources makes a difference.

“Our product partners have always been eager to run promotional offers with us,” she said. “We brainstorm different options each time we talk about promotions to give a unique and attractive offering.

“We have many joint benefits from running promotional offers, such as brand awareness, customer acquisition and customer retention for both supplier and retail operations alike,” Cloutier explained.

These days, promotions often include social media as part of campaigns to reach customers wherever they are.

“Social media also plays a role in helping independent retailers distinguish their business, and so we utilize online tools that allow our retailers to share social media posts directly to their page,” Weichmann said.


Talking it out

Whether they are exchanging ideas about e-commerce, the launch of innovative new products or social media topics, independent retailers and their suppliers can maximize communications for the best results.

“Our product partners have maintained excellent communication through the pandemic,” Cloutier shared. “Although store visits were off the table, we maintained communication via phone and video chat.”

Weichmann agreed that touching base is crucial, adding, “We continue to build the relationship through consistent calls, Zoom meetings, staff training and store visits.”

What suppliers share with retailers is as important as how they share it, added Newton.

“One of the key ways we support our partners is through a robust suite of educational resources about our products, which are provided in multiple formats for additional convenience,” she remarked.

Much of the education created for retail partners is related to the nutrition science behind Petcurean’s recipes. Specific nutrition information for each formula is a selling point for independent retailers. Likewise, Weichmann said that communication between the company and its retail partners often includes messaging.

“We also schedule regular trainings to ensure our retailers are educated on the products and their benefits so they can adequately convey those benefits to customers,” he said. “We believe product knowledge helps independent retailers stay ahead of the competition.”

"We always knew the importance of these relationships, but the pandemic truly showed how vital our partnerships are to the continued success of us both," said Rachel Cloutier, Wag ‘N Wash Natural Pet Food and Grooming in Colorado Springs.

Retailers and their suppliers can also share their insights and thoughts about emerging consumer interests and market trends.

“We pride ourselves on listening to pet parents and being responsive to what is important to them. For example, pet parents and consumers want more sustainable products,” Newton noted, citing Petcurean’s shift to recyclable Tetra Pak cartons for wet food recipes and bio-based plastic bags for kibble.

Ultimately, optimized relationships between indie pet stores and their suppliers are driven by consumers and their pets.

“Consumers are getting more discerning by the day, and they also expect retailers and brands to be highly transparent and authentic in how they conduct themselves,” Newton said. “The more we’re able to be responsive to these consumer priorities, the more likely we will be to encourage loyal customers over the long term.”

Weichmann added, “We want to form long-lasting bonds; not just put more product on shelves.”

Read more about pet retail trends.