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A deep dive into what pet lovers are seeking in pet food

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As is well documented, more people adopted pets during the pandemic than ever before. Of these, 13% were first-time pet owners. Strikingly close to new parenthood, we were interested in learning more about how these new caregivers, along with their more experienced counterparts, were faring, and what drove their buying decisions, particularly around food. So, we decided to conduct an in-depth study on the current state of the pet care market in the U.S. to see which brands have won the hearts of both consumers and their pets.

People who are new to any game or pursuit turn to online reviews, often in the wee hours, to find out how others are dealing with the same experience. Enter the ratings (stars) and reviews (written commentary) system. Clearly, consumers are more likely to order a product that gets 5 stars than one that gets 2.

Big data at work: We looked at over half a million reviews across the top-three U.S. online pet retailers — Chewy, Petco and PetSmart as well as on Amazon — and also analyzed consumer perception of the top pet food brands by looking at reviews with more than a 3-star rating from 2005 through 2021. What we found began to give us insight into what pet lovers are looking for in pet food, and what drives their buying behaviors. Here’s what we found.

The top three brands built their brand perception one review at a time

Brands can build better marketing strategies by analyzing brand perception and sentiment, basically understanding what people are saying about them. Looking historically at numbers of reviews among the top-five brand competitors gives some clues as to how various brands have embraced marketing online to pet owners. Currently (in 2021) we see Nestlé Purina in the lead at No. 1, followed by No. 2 Blue Buffalo and Royal Canin at No. 3.

Purina gained maximum reviews in 2016 and 2017 and with them a massive lead over their competition. While this has remained quite steady over the last decade, clearly Blue Buffalo did a massive marketing push in 2018, because Purina’s review volumes dropped and they lost the top spot to Blue Buffalo for two years. Purina reestablished itself as the leader, however, and won back the No. 1 spot in 2020 and 2021. Royal Canin has been the most consistent brand, occupying, with the exception of a year or so, the No. 3 spot since 2013.

Customers focused on four key attributes

In order to respond and adapt to consumer feedback, pet food brands need to get to the bottom of what their customers are saying online. It’s pretty hard going through 100,000 reviews by hand, so we put our AI-powered technology to work and culled from these reviews the top themes and product attributes customers are writing about — both positive and negative.

We found that four attributes of pet food — performance efficacy, product characteristics, consistency, quality and safety — were most frequently under discussion, with performance efficacy making up nearly half (43%) of all reviews. Product characteristics came in second at 31%, followed by product consistency at 30%.

What were the highest- and lowest-rated attributes? Performance efficacy was the No. 1 key attribute positively reviewed by customers. It’s a term that covers more specific attributes such as skin, weight, oral hygiene, digestion, and so on — the really critical markers pet owners take into account in caring for a healthy, happy pet. More than 18% of all performance efficacy reviews we looked at were about their pet’s skin, followed by 15% being about their weight.

One item guaranteed to make pet owners feel itchy is when they watch their pets scratch themselves — so it follows that when it came to the attribute with the most negative reviews, “infestation,” of the flea variety, won hands down, with over 50% negative mentions. Customers complained about a given product either causing or increasing the degree of flea infestation in their pets.

The e-commerce equation

The global pet food market is expected to grow to a retail value of more than $121 billion by 2025, with the biggest markets located in North America and Western Europe. In the United States, the physical pet store market is a highly concentrated industry, with just two retailers, PetSmart and Petco, accounting for nearly half of the retail market in 2019 — the same year, as we’ve seen, that Nestlé Purina PetCare held the largest brand share of market for both dry dog and cat food. How did these three giants get where they are?

Online marketing and garnering of reviews has definitely played a major part in their success. Competition is tough and is driven by consumer loyalty, but now there’s also a trend toward smaller, healthier emerging brands — mirroring the grocery sector — that has only heightened with the pandemic. Once their owners find a winner, pets crave for the same brand of food repeatedly, and owners are happy with routine, too — so it’s hard for these upstart pet food brands to gain market share from the big competitors. But little by little, they are winning hearts and palates.

The pet category is growing, not only in sales but in the number of brands that are now selling online, leading to a historic boom in competition. As e-commerce continues to gain traction post pandemic, pet food brands will need to ensure that their digital shelf is prominent and visible in increasingly crowded online channels. Being well stocked with the right products, at the right price; offering strategic discounts; and avoiding out of stocks remains the one surefire way to guarantee customer satisfaction and see continued skyrocketing sales.

Krish Thyagarajan is president and chief operating officer of Data­Weave, a retail analytics firm. He can be reached at [email protected].


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