Petco Now Offers Fresh Food - Good business or Smart Business?

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As the already unbreakable bond between human and companion animals grows even stronger, big business is salivating at the thought of another gravy train.

Appeals to “mom and dad” and “pet parents” to feed their fur-children “complete” or “balanced” nutrition fill the airwaves between bites of reality TV or the news (which are now interchangeable). Everyone from New Balance to Blue Buffalo claim to offer some variation of the quintessential diet for our pets.

But conscientious shoppers are less inclined these days to automatically defer to the celebrity-chef spokesperson or their vet (who may have a signed deal with a pet food company to tout their brand). Many proactive pet owners are checking labels, doing their homework and concluding that fresher is better. And one of the top players in the pet retailer world has noticed.

Petco, the number two pet retailer in the U.S. according to Pet Business’ 2018 rankings, has teamed up with JustFoodForDogs, a Southern California purveyor of human-quality pet food, to bring us quality and transparency in pet food preparation. Beginning later this year, Petco shoppers in select stores will be treated to a front-row view of what exactly goes into their pets’ meals.

JustFoodForDogs staffers will craft their fresh, signature meals made entirely from USDA-grade meats and local produce in “exhibition kitchens” and pantries placed within hundreds of Petco stores. Nutrition consultations will also be available to curious consumers. Essentially, the kitchens and pantries will become “stores- within-a-store.” Founded in 2010 in Los Alamitos, JustFoodForDogs operates 12 open-kitchen stores throughout Southern California that produce thousands of pounds of pet food per day.

“The customer has complete visibility into the [food-making] process,” Rebecca Frechette, Petco’s executive vice-president and chief merchandising officer, told the Los Angeles Times. Customers are able to smell the food “and, if they want, even taste it.”

In 2017, Americans spent more than $29 billion on pet food, according to the American Pet Products Association, though just 5% of dog owners purchase human-quality food most often.

Petco executives hope that their collaboration with JustFoodForDogs will attract more discerning buyers - including millennials - who are statistically most inclined to treat pets like family and shop at pricier, independent pet retailers. Petco is trying to keep pace with industry-leader PetSmart. Last year, PetSmart acquired the highly-popular online retailer, chewy.com, in addition to expanding its physical empire to more than 1,400 stores.

Putting stores within stores is “ . . . a smart move,” said Miro Copic, San Diego State University marketing lecturer. “It gives Petco a point of difference for higher-spending customers.”

But there’s more to good business than expanding your customer base and closing in on your nemesis.

A “smart” business must be conscious and caring of its patrons. Because a top-tier option like JustFoodForDogs may be beyond the budgets of some pet lovers (a 7-oz. bag of chicken and rice runs $3.95 while a 72-oz. supply costs $24.95), Petco should offer nutritious alternatives at lower price-points - and scale back on big-name products that offer little nutritive value. How far will Petco’s fresh-and-organic image fly if 30-pound bags of dog food listing fillers as their prime ingredient are piled up near JustFoodForDogs’ healthy kitchens and pantries?

Unless Petco truly wants to join JustFoodForDogs in making a tectonic shift in pet nutrition consciousness, these kitchens and pantries may end up becoming the best houses in a bad neighborhood.