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Piece of the pie

Online retailers are gobbling up more pet food sales than ever. What does this mean for the industry and for veterinary practice customers?

Piece of the pie

There’s no way around it — online retailers are changing the global marketplace. That includes the pet products channel, where heavyweights like Amazon, 1-800-PetMeds and Chewy are rolling out more customer-friendly shopping options and product choices. Nowhere is this more evident than in pet food sales, the largest spending category in pet products.

According to Packaged Facts research, 6.2 percent of pet food sales were made online in 2013. In 2017, the number was 16.2 percent. When the market research firm asked pet owners whether they were buying pet products online more than they used to, 6 percent responded that they strongly agreed with the question in 2012. In 2017, it was 20 percent.

Packaged Facts estimates that overall pet food sales increased by almost 6 percent and topped $26 billion in 2017. The market is forecast to continue on a respectable growth trajectory annually through 2022.

“Much of the growth in the pet food market can be attributed to the rapid acceleration of online sales, particularly with behemoths Amazon and Chewy.com,” said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts. “Internet sales of pet products are outpacing and even stealing sales from other channels, notably pet superstores, tying in to Millennials becoming the key pet market consumers.”

“But the internet isn’t simply robbing Peter to pay Paul, and nor does this omnichannel era mean that it’s all about the internet. There are other, perhaps even at times under-the-radar developments that are driving pet food growth.”

Today’s Veterinary Business spoke with Sprinkle about consumer spending habits and where he thinks the veterinarian fits in to the pet product sales conversation.

In what ways have you observed that consumer shopping habits are changing overall? How is this impacting pet products and services?

Sprinkle: Of course, the internet has changed everything through the convenience it offers, the access and the endless-shelf choice. But more generally, the internet has made everybody else change, to try and find a truly strategic way to incorporate it and simultaneously compete with it. So, it is not just whether you buy your pet food or pet meds over the internet; it’s considering what everybody else that’s not on the internet is doing to make up for the fact that a large portion of consumers are going to buy their pet food and pet meds on the internet.

More broadly still, there is a humanization trend — pet parenting with a mindset of having human-type products for our pets, especially our dogs and cats. That has led to a premiumization of products that mimics human foods and medications, whether that’s a dog food with a name like “Grandma’s Pot Pie” or dog food that contains superfood ingredients or a chondroitin glucosamine pet supplement.

Values shopping also comes into play. By values, I don’t necessarily mean value brand or lower cost. Everybody loves a bargain, but even your prosperous, affluent pet owners who are spending $50 for a bag of superpremium dog food are still looking for good prices and are not just an open wallet. By values, we’re getting into “What is the nature of the company? To what degree does the manufacturer support pet causes, adoptions, pet rescue? What views, or lack thereof, do they have on sustainability and ecological issues, or livestock animal welfare?”

Sales of dog food online are growing rapidly. What are some reasons you attribute to this?

Sprinkle: Once shipping of products purchased from the internet became financially viable once there was an infrastructure in place, that really opened the floodgates for online shopping of pet products. Previously, it was mainly limited to segments like pet medications, which are compact and lightweight, or to miscellaneous specialized products with those attributes. Once shipping cost was solved as a major issue, then you had this incredible convenience as an asset. Home delivery, regular automatic deliveries, ordering online and picking it up at the store — whatever you wanted.

Ordering dog food online especially makes sense given the proliferation of specialty formulations. There are a lot of specialized formulations for pet foods — senior, grain-free, high protein, active lifestyle, skin and coat, etc. Juggling and mixing and matching all those specialized formulations leads to a huge proliferation of SKUs. Maybe a pet superstore can accommodate that, or a Walmart to a degree, but no brick-and-mortar store can compete with the internet on this score.

That’s important for people —for themselves as well as for their pet —who are looking for increasingly customized products that work for them and their pet’s specific life stage, size, breed, digestive issues and even DNA. Plus, subscriptions and autoship functions that help the internet seller of products compensate for shipping costs have essentially locked in loyalty with those functions, sweetening the pot for the pet owner with a bit of cost savings, which can also help tip buyers toward more upmarket, human-grade brands. The most successful e-tailers — Amazon and Chewy — emphasized autoship solutions early and often. That’s a big part of their model.

When a recent industry survey asked pet owners whether “I trust scientific research information on pet nutrition and pet food that’s given to me by my vet,” 26 percent said they strongly agree, while 35 percent answered they somewhat agree. What do you make of that?

Sprinkle: The 26 percent is not that great, but it’s a better percentage than those who trust information from websites or retailers. Veterinarians have an advantage, but it is not as much as an advantage as it should be or needs to be for the veterinary business.

I may not see this the same way as everybody else. Should veterinarians be more of a profit center for pet products? Certainly for pet medications, flea and tick preventives, heartworm, etc. But what about pet food and other types of pet supplies? Independent veterinarians are reluctant to be merchandisers or storekeepers, in keeping with their skills, training and medical perspective. And they generally don’t have adequate warehousing or display space set-ups or want to have them.

But what if we start with different questions. Should veterinarians play more of an advisory role in relation to client’s growing range of pet wellness concerns and often unreliable hodgepodge of information? I think so, keeping in mind that the main questions of a customer with a healthy dog or cat are about pet food and nutrition, with pet meds second. So then how can veterinarians do so without straying from their main medical mission? At least part of the answer, I think, is being willing to thoughtfully and even proactively address a client’s broader pet wellness questions in the context of annual checkups, which has the purely medical benefit of encouraging annual checkups.

Veterinarians have one foot in a consumer products market. They are not simply in a medical services market. They need to think in terms of consumer needs and consumer questions. From a retail perspective, their position is very unfavorable compared to online. Credibility-wise, though, veterinarians have trump cards if they play them.