The premium cat food category has seen steady growth over the past few years, with sales driven by factors such as greater awareness of pet nutrition, increased availability of formats beyond kibble and canned, and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.

'Not only did cat ownership grow over the last two years, but people have become more concerned about their own personal health, as well as that of their pets,' said Rob Cadenhead, general manager for St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, the parent company of manufacturer Hound & Gatos. 'With that, consumers have started taking the time to read ingredient labels more carefully. … They seek brands that take a science-based stance and utilize clean, simple and natural ingredients.'

The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a retailer in North Royalton, Ohio, carries only super-premium brands. Owner Christine McCoy said the store's cat food sales were up more than 16 percent in 2021, with wet cat food up more than 27 percent.

'I feel that cat customers are purchasing premium foods at a faster rate than dog owners [are] switching,' McCoy said. 'It may be that cats are fed a smaller portion and there are so many options now available for premium diets.'

Upgrading a cat from a value diet to a premium diet can cost just a few extra dollars per week, whereas sustaining a dog, especially a larger breed, on a premium diet is simply a larger financial commitment, explained Roman Shpak, senior brand executive for Kormotech, a Lviv Oblast, Ukraine-based manufacturer. Kormotech is the parent company of Optimeal, a new-to-the-U.S. pet food brand.

The likelihood of cat owners to convert to premium diets varies by location, said James Conaway, the Southern California territory manager for NutriSource Pet Foods, a manufacturer in Perham, Minn.

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'In the cities, consumers are just as likely [as dog owners] to buy premium food for their cats,' he explained. 'They are well-informed and concern themselves with the details. In my more rural areas, I see more of our middle price point foods leading sales. I find that there are more animals per household in the rural areas. The pet food budget has to spread further.'

Raw and freeze-dried options for cats continue to increase in availability, though there are still significantly more options for dogs, said Brandon Forder, vice president of Canadian Pet Connection, a retailer in Meaford, Ontario, Canada.

'Freeze-dried and dehydrated raw foods across the board are the fastest-growing segment of my business,' Forder said. 'Cats, as obligate carnivores, should really be on a raw diet, but for whatever reasons, people may have bacteria concerns or they don't want to handle raw meat all the time. The dehydrated raw offers all of the benefits with really none of the inconvenience [of raw feeding].'

Another trend Forder is seeing is cat owners focusing on finding foods with a specific measurable like grain free, organic or a particular protein. There is also huge consumer demand for sustainably minded brands, he noted.

'A lot of customers are not necessarily looking for the brands that just make the healthiest food,' he said. 'They're looking for brands that make healthy food but also have smart, environmentally conscious, sustainable philosophies.'

Shelf-worthy Solution Diets

Many cat consumers are seeking specific attributes in pet food, but with manufacturers offering foods that are formulated to meet cats' varying health needs, retailers are well positioned to offer the solutions their customers expect.

Optimeal introduced its entire cat food line to the U.S. in late 2021. The company's meat-first options include eight dry recipes like Grain Free Chicken & Veggies and a Turkey & Oatmeal weight management formula, as well as four wet pouch recipes. All Optimeal products are specifically formulated to provide immunity support, Shpak said. Optimeal diets are available for distribution through Phillips Pet Food & Supplies.

Evanger's Dog & Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., rolled out its new EVx Restricted Diet line for cats in late 2021. The company identified common feline health issues and created five solution recipes: Weight Management, Senior and Joint Health, Low Phosphorus, Bland Diet and Urinary Tract. Consumer response to the canned diets has been so positive that it has been a challenge to keep up with demand, said Evanger's owner and president Holly Sher.

Retailer Education -  Lean on Your Manufacturers

With the right product knowledge, independent pet supply retailers can boost sales in the cat food category and establish themselves as the go-to pet nutrition source for cat owners in their community.

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'It's important that retailers are well educated in this category and the specific brands they carry,' said Rob Cadenhead, general manager for St. Francis, Wis.-based Gott Pet Products, the parent company of manufacturer Hound & Gatos.

To build their understanding of the benefits and differentiators of the cat foods they carry, retailers should be able to turn to their manufacturers for a wide range of educational materials and trainings for store leadership and employees, manufacturers agreed.

As Optimeal introduces its products to the U.S. for the first time, arming retailers with the information they need to speak knowledgeably about its product line is a priority.

'We recently sent our retailer partners a 40-page training booklet as well as a comprehensive catalog that covers every item in our dry and wet food line,' said Roman Shpak, senior brand executive for Lviv Oblast, Ukraine-based Kormotech, Optimeal's parent company. 'Our sales force is constantly in the field conducting training sessions, and store staff members can always contact our help desk for advice. In short, we do everything we can to help them confidently recommend a range of immunity support formulas that are unique to the industry, with innovative packaging that's second to none.'

For nearly 20 years, manufacturer Evanger's Dog & Cat Food Co. in Markham, Ill., has put out an annual calendar that includes a problem-solution feeding guide and lets retailers know its specials far in advance. For example, one month the manufacturer may run a sale on all its Against the Grain canned diets, and another month it may offer a deal on all its organic SKUs.

'The calendar is just a wealth of information—it's a great, great tool,' said owner and president Holly Sher. 'It talks about problem-solution, rotational feedings, optimal nutrition, what to do with allergies, organic [foods]. … Everybody submits their dogs and cats to get in the calendar, and they win prizes. The retailers get it for free; the general public just pays whatever it costs me to send it out.'

Marketing - Give Them a Taste

Retailers can promote premium cat food in a number of ways, and some of the best strategies to encourage owners to try new foods—samples and satisfaction guarantees—take into consideration the picky nature of cats.

'Sending home sample bags of food for cat owners to place in a small bowl next to their current foods, that will give their cats an opportunity to try [it], and if they do like it, it offers variety,' said Christine McCoy, owner of The Natural Pet Enrichment Center, a retailer in North Royalton, Ohio.

Even giving out cat food samples to customers buying dog food can be beneficial, said Kelly Burns, territory manager of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah for NutriSource Pet Foods, which is based in Perham, Minn.

'In over 50 percent of dog households, there's a cat, and if we can give them a taste of what we have to offer, we're sure to get a new customer,' Burns said.

McCoy also suggests retailers guarantee the food they sell, especially canned foods. She tells customers to rinse out the can or pouch and bring it back for a refund if their cats turn up their noses. Owners are more willing to try new foods with picky cats if they know they can be refunded, she said.

The Natural Pet Enrichment Center has also had success with mix-or-match buy 12 cans, get 10 cents off deals.

Brandon Forder, vice president of Canadian Pet Connection, a retailer in Meaford, Ontario, Canada, said cat owners are hungry for nutritional information. The retailer offers only premium brands in the top 5 percent tier of quality. Each year, the store ranks the top 10 Canadian cat and dog foods on its blog. Forder said the lists are unbiased, as the store has no exclusivities or partnerships that help certain brands rank higher than others.

'That is a tremendous resource for cat owners when they are looking to find healthy options for their pets but they're not exactly sure what to go with,' he said. 'They want to know what is the best and how does it stack up with the others.'

The top 10 lists create a great sales funnel and 'real quick call to action,' Forder said. Customers are able to click links that go right from the list to the store's site, where they can purchase the products directly, often with a promo code.

by Page Gilbert

 

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