News Industry Profile Town Country Petfoods



Industry Profile: Town & Country Petfoods
17th October 2018

By Sandra Pearce

The growing demand for natural food and the impact of Brexit forced Town & Country Petfoods to have a long, hard look at what it was doing and how – and the impact on sales has more than proved that it’s on the right track

Town & Country Petfoods don’t do things by halves. Not only has the team overhauled its ranges, it has launched a new website and is working hard on new products, due for release next year.

From left: Faye Maughan, Gayle Eason, Peter Parkinson and Emma Stutz at Crufts this year

Marketing director Peter Parkinson says there were a number of factors that propelled the family business down the new road. For a long while, everything was ticking along according to plan. New products made it to market at a regular pace, sales were on track – by 2012, retail sales were around the £25m mark – and everything was, well, nice and steady. “And then two big things happened to shake up the market,” he said. “One was the growing trend towards natural, the other was a potential game-changer for everyone – Brexit.”

It was timely to reassess its offering. He said: “We looked at our range closely. Were our products still what the market wanted?”

Pet owners were now placing the same emphasis on their pet’s nutrition as they had on their own food. He said: “The demand for natural was growing. At the time, we realised many of our pet foods, like Spoil Me! and Tempt Me!, were already delivering on natural, but we just weren’t talking about it onpack. We needed to look at the natural sector, but with a HiLife slant.”

On the Brexit front, Town & Country Petfoods sources a lot of its ingredients, such as tuna, from Thailand. It means more than half the business is sourced using other currencies – Brexit brought a new challenge to this aspect. “The saving grace was our long-term relationship with our suppliers,” he said, “some of which go back to when the business was first set up.”

The It’s only natural dog range launched this year

So with the natural trend, Brexit and fluctuating currency, the Parkinson family took ‘a long, hard look at the market’, conducted research on dog and cat with focus groups, and carried out extensive market analysis. Emma Stutz, marketing and communications manager, said: “We have a lovely, loyal customer base who tell us what they like. We are a market-facing company and if the market is changing, we have to change, too. It is important that our ranges fulfill all needs and expectations.”

Going all in
It was time for an overhaul. The moment of truth came last August when the spotlight was turned on HiLife’s cat portfolio with the launch of its new It’s only natural grain-free complete wet diets, complementary luxury wet recipes, and treats made from 100% freeze-dried chicken or duck breast.

For Town & Country, honesty is the only policy.
Peter said: “When we offer natural products, it’s important they’re what they say they are. There is nothing hidden, no hidden ingredients.
“We replaced our Tempt Me! cat range with the grain-free It’s only natural, and it came in with a bang. This year, we did the same for dogs, and the effect on sales has been significant.”

Molly poses with hamper box

The It’s only natural range for dogs has six recipes, including chicken breast with salmon and potato and chicken breast with sweet potato and kale. He added: “So far it’s worked. It’s only natural has completely replaced the sales of one product with the other, and also grown our customer base.”
Emma said: “The launches exceeded our expectations, and online reviews are great. Even better, we have brought new customers onto the brand.”

HiLife ingredients are all natural

But that’s not all – why stop when you’re on a roll? Apart from a major overhaul and rethink of its product offering, the company has now ‘split its proposition into three pillars’:

• It’s only natural: As already explained, this brand launched last August into cat, but its dog and cat food now account for about a third of all business.

• Family favourites: Think mum’s shepherd’s pie or roast dinner. This category is all about the tried-and-tested ‘classic recipes’ that have been around for a long time, such as the semi-moist Feed Me! dog food, the Treat Me! and Chews Day! ranges of treats and chews, and the HiLife Special Care dental chews. Incidentally, HiLife’s rawhide dental chew is the country’s top seller, attributable to its focus on quality rather than price.
“Our customers love these Family favourites, and there would be an outcry if we discontinued the ranges here,” said Peter. “Feed Me! is unique. There is nothing else like it on the market and it is the biggest part of our business, and the leading semi-moist food in the UK.”

• Value First: This category comprises the Pets Pantry and Perfection brands, which use the same high-quality ingredients but offers only a limited range of recipes, keeping costs down. Available only through discounters, they are, however, ‘best in class’, he said.

Explaining the three pillars concept, he said that previously, its Indulge Me! brand was its super premium offering and Essentials, the budget end.

“That’s how we set it up, along horizontal lines. Now we have three pillars, so within our It’s only natural range, we can theoretically have a super premium offering and also cut across all levels. We want people to be able to feed their cats or dogs HiLife high-quality ingredients whatever their budget, and we’ll always be best in class. It’s about offering pet food they can trust, so what it says on the front of the packet is what you will find inside and on the back,” he said.

With retail sales currently at £40m a year, Town & Country Petfoods offers more than 100 products. The restructure was ‘a big shift’ and at times ‘uncomfortable’, says Peter candidly, but ‘it was the right thing to do’.

Wholesome hamper is a popular choice among owners

Opportunities galore
When you’re on a roll, you might as well see where the ball stops rolling. Well, in the case of Town & Country, the ball is still rolling and with it came a doubling of the marketing and technology departments in six months.

Faye Maughan is spearheading marketing for New Product Development, and one of her first tasks was to review the range.
She said: “We’re already working on several opportunities. It’s all about keeping the ranges concise and on target, to ensure customers ‘get what they love’. The natural trend is continuing and we’ll be right there with it. You can see it in the market moving across all tiers, and stretching to packaging as well.
“We have this fantastic group of loyal customers, but we also want to attract new customers. To grow into this marketplace, we have to be relevant.”
Watch this space, because new products are arriving in the first half of next year.

HiLife is winning new converts all the time

A complete picture
With everything that was going on, the HiLife website was in urgent need of a makeover. Work on it started last June, but was pulled at the 11th hour ‘because it was not right’, said Peter. “So when Emma joined us, I asked the new team to start over and now the website (launched in July) is seamless, and conveys the company values, ethos and philosophy very clearly.”

Emma said: “It is also much more functional. For example, our Shop pages let customers search for a specific product and find out instantly who’s stocking it on the high street or online. We’ve introduced our latest social media posts onto the website, with content being refreshed all the time, and updates are both factual and fun, allowing owners to interact with us and respond. We put out polls, votes and competitions, and many of our customers will also upload videos of their pets.”

HiLife now has 100,000 followers across all formats, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn – but there is still a lot of work to do on social media to attract new customers. “It’s about having the resources and time to do this properly,” said Emma.

We are ‘ready for the next chapter’, says Peter. “Now we have to land all these great opportunities, but we have a bigger team now and a better chance to gain more share. We’ve got the right products at the right time in the right place, and a great team doing the work. We are poised for growth.” 

Humble beginnings - the original door sign at the Town & Country office in Melton Mowbray

A helping hand
Believing it is important to give something back, Town & Country Petfoods supports two pet charities – one dog and one cat.

It’s been supporting Pets as Therapy for more than 10 years, a charity through which volunteers take their pets (usually dogs) to places such as hospitals, schools and residential homes, so people can interact with pets. Every year at Crufts, a PAT dog is crowned the HiLife PAT Dog of the Year. This year’s winner was Inca, who with owner Sheena Scrimgeour visits local hospitals every week, a high school, prison and the University of East Anglia.

The family business supports the feline charity Cat Chat

Town & Country Petfoods also supports Cat Chat, a national charity that helps rehoming groups and rescue shelters to rehome cats. The charity sets up a page for rescue groups on its website and promotes it at no cost. Every year, it sources homes for more than 8,000 cats across the UK. It also has a dedicated section for overlooked cats – cats that have been in care for months or even years. If you’re looking to adopt a cat, the Cat Chat website can show you cats in your area seeking a new home.

Early days
Town & Country Petfoods was set up in 1974 by John Parkinson and supplied chains including Boots the Chemist with their own-label brand of pet food – yes, HiLife was originally a Boots own brand. In 1987, the pharmacy chain axed its pet food sales and John bought the HiLife brand from Boots. Son Tony (now MD) joined him first, followed by his daughter Julie and son Peter.

Over the years, HiLife built up its portfolio and has wide distribution through independents, grocery, discounters and online, serving up 50m dishes and treats every year to cats and dogs across the UK.