NONFOODS: Pet Food: Grocer's new best friend

At first it seemed that Stephen Fahrig's timing couldn't have been worse. The category manager for nonedible grocery at St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets, Inc. had completed the installation of a new fresh dog food concept in the pet centers of 26 stores, just as news of the massive pet food recall broke.

As luck would have it, though, while consumers fled wet dog food in droves, sales of the fresh products, which Schnucks displayed in custom refrigerated cases, skyrocketed.

As it turns out, the new offering, supplied by Secaucus, N.J.-based Fresh Pet, Inc., is free from such problematic additives and preservatives -- and the resulting risk of contamination -- found in other wet foods.

"The Fresh Pet products have no additives," says Fahrig. "It's all fresh products. Meat and vegetables and things like that. It had none of the wheat gluten and additives that aren't needed for pets to have a healthy lifestyle, and because of this, [the line's] sales weren't affected by the recall. In fact, we probably benefited by it, as pet owners sought out healthier products."

Minimal processing

Indeed, refrigeration is the only preservative used by Fresh Pet, according to the company. Unlike dry and canned food, which undergoes thermal processing to sterilize it, the meats and vegetables of Fresh Pet products are cooked with minimal heat to maintain their high nutritional value, so they must be refrigerated.

They contain none of the chemical preservatives commonly found in dry, canned, or semi-moist foods, such as BHA, mixed tocopherols, sugars, glycerin, and propalyene. They're also formulated for Pandean or PAN (pasteurized, all-natural, and nutrient-dense) diets. PAN is a scientific descriptor for fresh pet food that adheres to the principle of minimal processing to retain nutrient value, is fresh-meat-based, and contains all-natural ingredients.

Schnucks already had a strong relationship with its pet-owning customers, cultivated over the years via social and educational pet events. Thus, simply getting this ingredient message out to consumers was all Fahrig needed to do to spark interest in the new products.

Chub-by sausages

The products merchandised in each refrigerated unit represent Fresh Pet's two brands, Deli Fresh and Homestyle Select. Each consists of 70 percent fresh meat, mixed with carrots, peas, and brown rice to form a complete meal.

Aside from the refrigerators, which Schnucks places either within the pet aisle or as an end cap in a split aisle, the packaging is what makes Fresh Pet products stand out.

"When we opened the replacement store, there was so much talk among consumers about the refrigerated pet food," says Fahrig. "It's such a unique item, and people are like, 'Wow, when did you get this?'"

Each product is chub-packed, similar to the processed meats one would find in a meat or deli case, in sizes that range from one pound to three pounds. Trial sizes are also available, and Fahrig found these invaluable from a promotional standpoint.

"The thing that's driving the Fresh Pet sales is that they have a trial size [priced at] $1.99, and they do a lot of coupon promotions with it, so shoppers can basically get a trial size for free," says Fahrig. "We've actually had demos with associates explaining the program and the nutritional benefits of the products. What we're seeing is that first, shoppers pick up the trial size with the coupon, because it's such a unique product. Then they move up to the pound-and-a-half or three-pound size. It's a natural progression. We're already seeing repeat purchases in the category after shoppers pick up trial offers."

According to Fahrig, the bulk of Fresh Pet customers view the offerings as an occasional healthy treat for their dogs. "If you own a pet, it's like having a child, and pet owners feel good because they're feeding them something they love that also happens to be good for them," he says. "Each product also has dates on it, so you can see how fresh it is. It's a well-thought-out concept."

The good-for-Fido aspect of the products also fits in well with the strong interest in health and wellness among Schnucks shoppers. "It's addressing a high-profile topic," notes Fahrig. "We don't see natural and organic being a fad, we see it as being a lifestyle going all the way down to pet ownership. If shoppers are doing it for themselves, why not [for] their pets?"

Still, Fresh Pet products may not be for everybody, so Fahrig picks his target markets carefully. "We look at the demographics for superpremium pet food, and that's what we use for placement," he says. "The ideal market is middle- to upper-middle income. It leans toward baby boomers and empty nesters, who don't mind spending a bit more to pamper their pets -- especially where the dog actually replaces kids."

One trend he's increasingly hearing about from shoppers is mixing a blend of dry food and Fresh Pet products. "There are extremes, such as people who will feed their pets nothing but Fresh Pet, but that can be costly for many shoppers," he says.

To further thrust the new products into the spotlight, Fahrig is planning a series of events to educate his pet-owning shoppers on the benefits of healthy pet foods. "It's part of our vision, where we have the pet center and surround it with various activities involving the community.

"Our relationship with pet owners is a huge part of our pet strategy," adds Fahrig. "We're focused on getting information to our consumers about pet ownership and what's good for their pet, while at the same time providing fun activities people can do with their pets."
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