Cath Jesse, innovation consultant for Vital Pet Group talks to pbwnews editor Justine Thompson
1. Can you tell us about your work with Vital Pet Group around innovation?
I have been working to identify innovation opportunities and strategic partnerships. The company is well known for having the widest selection of pet products but the management team was keen to ensure they were also the right products that retailers could sell through, use to attract more customers and generate good returns. By analysing the core range, looking for gaps and examining trends and new developments, we’ve been able to identify some new opportunities that might otherwise have flown under the radar.
2. It’s quite an unusual role, what was your career path?
Retail buying and product development has been the focus of my career for over 20 years. I began in fashion before moving into pet seven years ago, first as senior buyer at Pets at Home and then as innovation manager. It might not seem like a logical progression but, like many people in the trade, I love animals and have owned ponies and dogs, so it was a move I felt very positively about.
Over time, I became really enthused by the potential to work with up and coming innovative brands looking to enter the pet space, realising that I could act as the voice of the retailer and share my insights into pet ownership. In 2019, I set up as an innovation consultant and have since enjoyed working with some really exciting, high quality brands.
3. What do you think are the strongest trends for retailers to consider when selecting products?
I think everyone will be aware of what an important driver ‘natural’ has been for the past few years. That hasn’t diminished during the pandemic and sustainability is also coming increasingly to the fore. With so many products out there, we’re starting to see a bit of a focus on functionality where products solve a problem for the pet owner.
Expect to see some development around lockdown puppies and all the challenges those new owners face around training and socialisation. As lockdown lifts many of those young dogs are going to be lacking experience of crowded environments. Anxiety-reducing products can even be used in-store so pet owners can see their effects in action. Not only does that provide the experience that shoppers crave in bricks and mortar outlets, it also recognises the bond that exists between pet and owner and communicates that we care about pets and are sensitive to their needs. Make the store visit memorable for word-of-mouth recommendation or social sharing.
4. What are your top tips for retailers introducing new and innovative products into their stores?
Always aim to create an engaging space in a position that is visible to appropriate adjacencies and which may also be visited by the target customer. This cross-selling, category-driven approach can be so powerful. Consider the type of purchase behaviour associated with the target customer and use point of sale and other marketing to engage with this behaviour. Ensure that colleagues are true ambassadors for any new product launches, their knowledge and passion will shine through to create an engaging sale if they also have positive experience of the products themselves. When well-trained people talk knowledgably about products, they can support their recommendation through trials, free samples or money-back guarantees.
For those with online businesses, look at creating bespoke blogs, branded pages and home page activity, as well as social media posts focusing on education and how people search online to solve problems.
5. What opportunities lie ahead given the growth in the sector from newly acquired lockdown pets?
Many people have lived very different lives this year and as we emerge from lockdown there will be a few new challenges. We’re fully expecting the focus around home and garden to remain strong, while staycations, either genuinely at home or within the UK, are front of mind for many people. Travel accessories for car journeys, training or boredom-busting toys and puppy and kitten products are set to do well.
On the nutrition side, natural and home-prepared food will grow as a reflection of the continuing humanisation of pets. Retailers who don’t have freezers yet should look to create a space – it’s something that is supported at Vital with lots of freezer deals available to get people started.
More than ever, pet owners view their pet as an important member of the family, so don’t miss out on seasonal opportunities around Easter, Halloween and Christmas this year – they are likely to be bigger than ever. And a counter display of treats is a must-have.
6. Are there categories that you feel ‘make or break’ an outlet?
Nutrition is key and pet food still accounts for the bulk of sales made in specialist. While our evidence suggests that premiumisation is a strong driver in this marketplace, with many ‘trading up’, it’s still
important to get the ‘good, better, best’ balance right and to choose the right mix and balance of brands.
Be open to swapping out for exceptional new opportunities that reflect changes in consumer demand. People will travel some way and past other outlets for destination brands, especially if the full range is stocked to provide choice. It’s about being open to future best sellers.
7. What’s the biggest missed opportunity when it comes to gaps in a retailer’s portfolio?
Any retailer that hasn’t considered pet in the current climate! We’re in a great position right now – not only have most pet outlets been able to stay open throughout, most are experiencing a huge upsurge. Now is the time for confidence and to aim to grow.
8. Many suppliers have faced challenges in producing particular lines during the pandemic – how can retailers make sensible choices when forced to switch from their usual brands?
Brexit, container issues and ingredients supply due to the pandemic have certainly caused disruptions. Try to discourage bulk buying, which creates a problem for the whole supply chain and leads to shopping around when supplies run out. Don’t trade down, trade up if products are not available, as there is a lot to suggest that’s where pet owners are moving to.
Work with your wholesaler – they can often suggest an alternative on promotion and by passing on the savings, you can incentivise pet owners to switch when their usual brand isn’t available.
9. How can retailers balance risk against potential gains when evaluating a new product or brand?
A combination of understanding what works for you as the retailer and knowing your customer base, their values and the trends that influence them is key. Be open to new opportunities with all of this in mind. Brands that don’t innovate tend to dwindle over time and that can be hard to recognise because it is often a slow process. Track sales and be alert to changes.
Look more carefully at brands where there is support from the brand owner in terms of promotional funding and external marketing – their confidence is often well-founded and they will create awareness and help drive sales.
10. Which new brands and products are you excited about this year?
We have some really exciting brands coming through. The Pet Brands Dream Paws range flew out of the warehouse last year and the range has been extended for 2021. The Elkwood range is looking really great – with Rattlesnaps offering a treat and experience all in one. It’s proving to be a bit of a
talking point with influencers.
We also have two new launches we are excited about in the natural/ sustainable category. We expect both to deliver a big brand experience retailers can really get behind and we’ll be sharing news soon.