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Independent Pet Retailers: You're Not a Shopkeeper

  • Published on August 24, 2020

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How do you lead, instead of follow?

Recently I’ve been saddened to see the number of retailers bending to what the industry wants them to do, or to sell. The reality is that manufacturers and distributors are controlling retailers and pet parents – and most of us are failing to recognize it. We’re more than ‘shopkeepers’, and it’s time to start acting like it, rather than letting others define us. Many of us have education and experience that is relevant to the consumer and that qualifies us to help them make decisions. We know our industry; we are intimately familiar with the pain points and where risks are and in order to fix them, we need to stop selling ourselves short. We also need to start calling BS on much of what is going on. In light of COVID we have a huge opportunity to create change we so desperately need and most of the retailers I see are letting that opportunity pass them by.

Our Warning Signs:

So what change am I talking about? Think about how frustrating is it to see pet food companies continually faced with legal trouble, cutting corners, manufacturing inadequacies, or exhibiting blatant lack of transparency? Evanger’s is coming back into the independent scene – and I’m not really sure why we, as independents, are letting them. Significant and widespread sanitary and food handling problems at their facility dating back as far as 2006 as evidenced in a lawsuit and citations filed by The Village of Wheeling resulting in restitution payments.[1] Further, other significant problems were regularly in the news from 2008-2017. These included further citations, FDA inspections, warning letters and contaminant recalls which resulted in sick pets, some of which died.[2] Personally, I these types of egregious issues are reckless and unforgivable. Even as a ‘shopkeeper’ I cannot, in good faith, sell a brand like that to my customers. 

Champion Pet Foods is another recent example that has caused a lot of significant issues for the independent pet channel. Issues include but are not limited to: lawsuits involving contamination from heavy metals, false ingredient sourcing claims, and false advertising claims.[3–6] And oh, how could we forget their grand entrance into big-box retail? What about their deafening silence over the DCM scandal? Did they step up and make nutrition data for their food available? No. Did they do anything to help solve the problem? No. Did distributors push back to hold them accountable? Also no. Instead, they let the retailers fight the battle for them, and are potentially causing more issues for us with ancient grain options. These moves have significantly tarnished the reputation of small pet food companies and retailers. And in the wake of these issues many independent retailers are left with the feeling that the only option is to stock to grain-inclusive options and major manufacturers such as Hill’s, Royal Canin & Purina. 

Why Aren't We Mad?

The problem with giving multiple ‘second chances’ is that it perpetuates bad behavior of pet food companies. Instead of raising the bar we as independents are effectively lowering it. This does us no favors. Instead, we’re ultimately making more work for ourselves, inflicting our own wounds – and therefore selling ourselves short. Why don’t we have the confidence to advocate for companies manufacturing food transparently? Why are we not advocating for nutritional adequacy testing? Why are we not rewarding the brands that do their due diligence? Why are we bending to what the customer thinks they want – rather than informing them so they can make an educated decision? Why didn’t DCM prompt us to do this? Why haven’t FDA citations and recalls prompt us to do this? Why are we acting like this is scary? I don’t know about everyone else but I’m getting really tired of pet food companies pitching me a new grain-inclusive line with zero science behind the product or calling me and telling me they are reformulating because it is ‘what the consumer wants.’ When are we ever going to learn?

Wouldn’t it be less expensive and less damaging to put the time, effort and money behind an education campaign? Or better yet – wouldn’t it be a better spend and more ethical move to validate already existing products to prove nutritional adequacy and check for contaminants? Why are we reformulating or introducing new products when we don’t even know if there is anything wrong with the old one? These actions are literally a band-aid that do nothing to solve the problem – which is that most pet food companies do not do their due diligence. For those that are advocating WSAVA brands for this reason – they’re right!

Self-Inflicted Wounds

For too long we’ve recognized issues and been victim to manufacturer and distributor negligence. They clearly are not ‘on the front line’ dealing with dozens of consumers daily explaining the complexity of DCM or recalls secondary to formulation errors and contamination. They are also seemingly completely unaware that we’re able to do this better than most veterinarians. As a result, we’ve seen a shift in the types of products we are expected to sell, which subconsciously tells the consumer that we cannot be trusted. It is also setting us up for failure being that many manufacturers that are selling us the ancient grain pet food lack data to prove nutritional adequacy. So, what is going to be our story when those start showing up with problems? How can we, and independent retailers expect to get ahead if we keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result? When the next scandal or recall happens, we won’t be able to act surprised and as if we are the victim, because we will have done it to ourselves.

Way More Than A Shopkeeper

We’re more than shopkeepers, and to call ourselves that is insulting – in my opinion. We’re much more than that. We’re supposed to be the truth seekers, truth tellers, callers of BS. Every independent pet store owner I know got into this business to help, and to make things better. In the wake of DCM and COVID I see more and more retailers bending to the “big guys”, rather than rising to the challenge to educate consumers and hold manufacturers (including the 'big guys') accountable. These actions keep us right where manufacturers want us - because they'll never have to rise to the occasion and actually do the work. It appears that most indies do not realize the power they have – no matter how small your shop is. Our united voices and collective actions can have a monstrous impact on both manufacturers and therefore on consumers. It’s time to start asking questions, and it’s time to start saying ‘no’ to new products that have not had their adequacy verified. It’s time to start demanding transparency alongside nutritional data from manufacturers – this is how we can protect ourselves, and the pets we serve and build our reputations up to what they should be.  Nicci is the owner of award winning NorthPoint Pets & Company, located in Connecticut. She is also the Founder & CEO of Undogmatic Inc. Her undergraduate and graduate education includes biology, chemistry, business and nutrition. She has worked in the pharmaceutical industry on multiple R&D projects and has had the privilege to learn from leading international figures in the human and pet health industry. She regularly lectures at national conferences, including federal, state, and municipal K9 events. Her current research involves identifying pathogenic risk factors and transmission among raw fed pets through a comprehensive worldwide survey.

1.         Village of Wheeling v. Evanger’s Dog & Cat Food Co., 399 Ill. App. 3d 304 | Casetext Search + Citator. Accessed August 22, 2020.

2.         Seattle FSN 1012 FAFF, Washington 98104-1008. Deadly barbiturates preceded by 9 years of pet food problems. Food Safety News. Published February 7, 2017. Accessed August 22, 2020.

3.         Judge Dismisses Deceptive Labeling Claim Suit. Accessed July 18, 2020.

4.         Lawsuit over Champion Petfood wild-caught trout claims. Accessed August 22, 2020.

5.         Champion Petfoods Not Liable for Trace BPA in Product. Accessed August 22, 2020.

6.         More phony “Made in the USA” pet food claims under attack; Multiple class action lawsuits filed | Poisoned Pets | Pet Food Safety News. Accessed July 17, 2020.

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