Freeze-dried and dehydrated products provide a convenient way for dog owners to incorporate raw foods into their pet’s diet—at home or on the move—and give pet specialty retailers plentiful options to meet that demand.
Freeze-dried and dehydrated dog foods and treats offer many advantages to pet specialty retailers, enabling them to build inventories that are closely aligned with some of today’s most dominant trends—namely the growing interest in raw diets and the inclination of dog owners to take their furry buddies with them everywhere they go. Thanks to the freeze-drying and dehydrating processes, these desires are no longer at odds, since these products are extremely shelf-stable and highly portable—characteristics with a strong appeal to consumers.
The long shelf life of raw freeze-dried and dehydrated foods and treats isn’t only a benefit for pet owners; it’s a big plus for retailers as well. First, there is less loss of inventory due to expired or spoiled foods. And secondly, these foods make it possible to offer customers and their dogs the benefits of feeding a raw diet without having to install refrigeration, saving them space and money. Consequently, many pet specialty retailers have become converts, right along with pet owners, says Jen Loesch, general manager for Sojos Pet Food, a Minneapolis-based provider of freeze-dried, shelf-stable, raw meats, toppers and oven-baked dog treats.
“More and more retailers are taking advantage of the growing demand for freeze-dried; these foods are by far the fastest growing category of pet food,” she says. “Numbers vary, but from what we’ve seen, the category is growing at a rate of 30 to 40 percent per year. That puts alternative diets on a trajectory to become a major player.”
Kyle Frautnick, founder and president of Primal Pet Foods, Inc., agrees consumer purchasing of freeze-dried and dehydrated products has been on the upswing, particularly over the last three to five years—momentum he attributes to the growth of the raw category.
“Freeze-dried and dehydrated products offer comparable superior nutrition, as well as ease of use for the consumer,” Frautnick explains. “As the retail and consumer interest in this category has grown, a significant number of pet food brands have entered the market with freeze-dried and dehydrated products of various sorts, creating the current growth trends and influx of such products into the marketplace.” Headquartered in Fairfield, Calif., Primal company manufactures raw frozen and freeze-dried foods and treats for dogs and cats.
Clearing up Confusion
Still, there’s a bit of work to be done when it comes to raising retailer and pet owner awareness. Although Loesch says more pet owners are dialing into the benefits raw diets confer, some confusion persists that retailers should be prepared to address.
“There’s a need for education,” she says. “For some longtime kibble or canned users, misconceptions of raw food continue to persist. Perhaps they think raw food is too hard to prepare or too expensive, or not safe for their pets or their family. But knowledgeable sales associates can quickly break down those barriers with facts—then make a clear, common sense case for the advantages of freeze-dried and dehydrated raw.”
Pet owners should also be educated about the longer shelf-life of these products—something that even retailers with a good grasp of the category may not fully understand, says Kyla Sternlieb, founder and president of Under the Weather, a South Burlington, Vt.-based provider of freeze-dried bland diets, supplements and hemp-based chews for dogs.
“They also may not know that these meats rehydrate to a state very close to freshly cooked meat in appearance, taste and smell,” she says. “It’s important to educate retailers and staff so they can educate the customers.”
This touches on the most important piece of information pet specialty retailers and their staff should be certain to pass along to their customers, says Frautnick—the need to rehydrate freeze-dried and dehydrated foods (this may not apply to treats and foods used as toppers). As he explains, a food’s moisture content plays a critical role in pet health. Consequently, retailers must ensure that those customers intending to embrace an everyday feeding regimen with freeze-dried and dehydrated foods understand how essential rehydration is, especially as demand for these products continues to expand.
There is also some confusion among retailers and pet owners when it comes to price, causing both groups to believe freeze-dried and dehydrated products are too expensive, says Andrea Bourne, marketing manager for PureBites. Located in Montreal, the company makes minimal-ingredient, raw freeze-dried dog and cat treats.
“A lot of pet stores are still looking at the weight of the bag versus the number of treats in the bag,” Bourne explains. “These treats are very light because water is removed from the raw protein. However, when you pick up a bag of PureBites, there are lots of treats inside.”
Charles Bachmann, president of NRG U.S. Division, confirms the “value equation” for freeze-dried and dehydrated products can be challenging for retailers to transmit to pet owners who may be more familiar with conventional foods and treats. The U.S. division is located in Oak Harbor, Wash.; the factory is Smart Nutritional Research Group doing business as NRG Pet Products, in British Columbia, Canada.
“Comparisons of kibble and dehydrated foods can be difficult and show dehydrated products to be more expensive, especially if you are only comparing the weight sticker and price of the package. [But] comparison to kibble is really not possible,” says Bachmann, who advises that retailers focus on the quality and nutritional value these products offer.
“Frozen food is a more direct quality comparison,” he adds. “But people often European shop for frozen food and seldom buy enough for a month at a time. A clear value equation that compares calories helps to communicate the value of dehydrated whole foods.”
Heating up Sales
Inspiring sales of freeze-dried and dehydrated foods first means touting the health benefits these products offer dogs, such as greater digestive comfort, potential relief of food-related allergies, more energy, improved skin and coat, and just overall enhanced wellbeing. There are additional benefits pet specialty retailers may not even be thinking of, such as lighter and smaller packaging, says Sternlieb.
“This is an advantage for senior customers and employees who stock shelves,” she says. “These products also take up less shelf space and are lighter for shipping, if they have internet sales.”
To spark sales, Sterlieb suggests placing informational signage about product qualities and benefits on the shelves and at the point of sale. “Or, if staff members wear a button that says, ‘Ask me about freeze-dried/dehydrated food’ this may also spark a conversation that leads to sales,” she says.
During this conversation, staff should be certain to inquire about:
• Age and size/weight of the dog.
• If the pet has any allergies, health issues or food sensitivities.
• What the dog is currently being fed (food and treats) and the protein source. Unless the dog is exhibiting symptoms of allergies, it may be best to keep the pet on the same protein.
• Why the pet owner is considering a freeze-dried or dehydrated food or treat. For example, improvement in the pet’s health or appearance? A desire to feed the pet a raw diet? Interest in limited-ingredient foods and treats? Convenience, portability, products that store longer?
• How much of the diet do they want these foods to comprise? (Remember Frautnick’s caution about the importance of rehydrating if freeze-dried or dehydrated makes up the bulk of the diet.)
Keep in mind that for the budget-conscious or those taking baby steps into this category, many freeze-dried and dehydrated foods can be used as toppers to the dog’s usual diet. This approach can also help the pet seamlessly transition to a raw diet.
As for merchandising this category, be a little creative. For example, Frautnick advises creating a stand-alone alternative food section to differentiate these products from conventional options. This will not only help them stand out, making it easier for customers already buying freeze-dried and dehydrated foods to spot them, it will also arouse curiosity in shoppers not familiar with freeze-dried and dehydrated products, again giving store associates an opportunity to explain them and tout their benefits, he explains.
Loesch says retailers also benefit when they place these products in high-traffic locations. If the store has a travel section, this area is also an excellent place to showcase freeze-dried and dehydrated foods and treats, since their portability is a big selling point. Seasonal endcaps may also prove worthwhile; those themed around spring and summer when people (and pets) are on the move are a great place to stock these light-weight foods. Because of their smaller package sizes and shelf-stable characteristics, they could even make good stocking stuffers, so including them in holiday endcaps or displays is another possibility.
Also, offer a nice assortment of multiple brands—retailers are always more successful when they do so, says Frautnick, explaining that a deep assortment can help ensure the ability to meet a broader spectrum of pet needs. It can also help stores remain competitive, he says.
“With the demand for these products on the rise, and the general demand for higher-quality pet food, retailers have the opportunity to enhance their offerings by stocking freeze-dried and dehydrated foods and treats,” Frautnick says. “Offering a distinct set of high-quality products will differentiate their stores from national specialty chains that don’t sell a wide variety of alternative pet food products.”