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Indies Name 16 Pet Brands They Look to for Innovation

Retailers admire and remain loyal to these brands because they bring "the new" to their respective product categories.

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MEMBERS OF THE PETS+ Brain Squad were eager to name names when asked which brands help them bring innovative products and support to their customers. These 16 companies got the most mentions.

1. TALL TAILS

Erin Paitrick of Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming in Summerville, SC, praises not only the toys Tall Tails makes but also its Brand Block program. “The program helps our business in many ways. We receive the product at a great discount, not only when we first purchase but also for all of our ongoing re-orders, and obviously that creates a higher margin for sales. That would be enough if it was the only benefit, but they also send us T-shirts, which staff love and which help promote the product and prompt fun conversations, which in turn helps sell the product at a rapid pace. They send free samples of the product so we can use them on the sales floor, offer them to staff to test out and have first-hand knowledge when creating their sales pitches, and I also use the toys in gift boxes when we are asked for donations. This gets the Tall Tails name out, which in turn, allows us to easily make additional sales.” Paitrick adds, “The care they show for us is obvious, and because they make my job easier, they get my vote for leading the pack in innovation!”

2. NEXPET & GRANDMA MAE’S COUNTRY NATURALS

For Doug Staley of Pet Palace of New City in New City, NY, the innovations Barry Berman has brought to the pet industry — a co-op for independent pet retailers in NexPet and a line of pet food and treats sold only to indies with Grandma Mae’s — earn his company and the organization their spot on this list. About the products, Staley says, “The brand isn’t footballed around nor sold in big-box retail. This has helped our business remain competitive and has given us an opportunity to put our heart into a product line that won’t be ripped out from under us. NexPet and Grandma Mae’s are coast-to-coast preaching and teaching indies how to effectively remain competitive in an ever-changing retail environment. Barry is a true supporter and believer in the indie pet movement.”

3. AUSTIN & KAT

Four Muddy Paws in St. Louis, MO, is part of the company’s new Store Display Pilot Program, which provides retailers with focal-point displays, character cutouts, creative landscapes and stick-on characters. Owner Jeff Jensen says, “It really pops in-store and tells their story very well. It’s the best in-store merchandising tool we’ve seen. From packaging to merchandising, it all ties together. They provided all kinds of graphics and cutouts to use including Christmas, which helped set us up for the holiday season as well as customize it for our shop during non-holiday times.” The program also provides participants, who fill out surveys and provide photos, with additional creative items, and the company works with the retailer to optimize engagement and even build customized elements specific to their store. Plus retailers get additional samples and sneak-peaks of upcoming products.

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4. BAY DOG

Karen Komisar of Sea Dog Pet Boutique in Annapolis, MD, appreciates the product development and pricing from gear maker Bay Dog. “The Liberty Harness is a game-changer for smaller-breed dogs and our business. It’s easy to fit, and the fit is great. We have a lot of small dogs who come into the store, and the Liberty Harness is the perfect option for them for several reasons: First, it’s made of lightweight, super breathable material that helps keep pets cool. Second, it’s a step-in harness with a slide-lock on the latch that keeps it from coming open. And the best part: the price! MSRP is $16 to $18.50 for the whole line!”

5. GF PET

“One brand I have found to be an innovator in the industry is pet apparel company GF Pet,” says Corey Heenan of Boutique and Pet Spa in Altamont, NY. “Every year, they come out with new styles and colors to keep things fresh and exciting. While this is great, and definitely makes dressing up your kitty or puppy super fun (they have some really cute stuff), the real innovation comes from their patented Elasto-Fit Technology, which expands for the perfect fit.”

Heenan explains, “The underside, or front, of their coats/jackets are super stretchy to accommodate pets of all different shapes. One of the biggest complaints I get about pet apparel is, ‘It’s so hard to find clothes that actually fit my dog.’ Whether they are barrel-chested or exceptionally long, GF Pet has thought of everything. In addition to the super stretchy ‘waist,’ there are also built-in elastic pulls with a locking spring toggle on the bottom so you can shorten it up at the booty if the coat hangs off too far, to keep it in place.

“Sizes range from 3XS to 4XL (the latter fits a Great Dane or Bernese Mountain Dog), are super easy to use (there are no sleeves to wrestle with, just peel, wrap and stick) and are produced with high-quality materials. They even have a recycled-materials line, which is awesome. Little touches like the Velcro square tab to hold the hoods back and reflective piping for nighttime-walking safety really make them stand out, in addition to the overall quality and construction of their products. In my opinion, they are the best at what they do, and I am so glad I found them.”

6. SODA PUP

Retailers have seemingly endless options when it comes to chew toy type and shape from this company. Kaye Busse-Kleber of Bark On Mulford in Rockford, IL, shares why Soda Pup remains one of her go-to brands. “People really love that they’re made in the U.S.A. And with rubber and nylon options, there’s usually one that will work with a dog’s chewing style. All of the designs are bright, fun and easy to merchandise, fitting in with our themed displays.” She adds, “They’re always coming out with new and relevant designs, so that definitely helps our shop as we can offer the latest options to our customers.”

7. NORTHWEST NATURALS

Shari Wilkins of Lake Dog and Their People in Eufaula, OK, points to this company’s freeze-dried toppers as just one example of innovation. The toppers help her introduce raw feeding to kibble customers in novel ways, both in terms of delivery and proteins. “They offer functional toppers in shaker bottles: Chicken Breast & New Zealand Green Mussels, Beef Liver with Turmeric, Salmon with Shiitake & Maitake Mushrooms. Also, Goat Cheese, Beef Blood, Veggie & Fruit, and Whole Egg.”

Wilkins also appreciates the retailer support Northwest Naturals provides that looks beyond competition. “Melissa Bateman, our rep, has given us advice about partnering with other brands to offer a full selection of healthy options outside of what NWN offers. One was to do a sundae bar for dogs as a special event.” She suggested using the company’s freeze-dried food and treats as topper offerings for frozen yogurt made with OC Raw or Boss Dog goat milk, both of which have products in the same raw category.

8. SOLUTIONS

This brand earned the most mentions from indies when we asked for examples of innovation in the pet industry. Karen Conell of The Bark Market in Delavan, WI, says, “Their use of fermented ingredients is a game-changer. The digestibility and bioavailability is unmatched. You can easily feed half as much Solutions as other raw diets; that is how nutrient and calorie dense it is. As a longtime raw feeder, I can’t deny the difference in how it feeds and how the pets respond.” She adds, “The goat milk line is unlike any other I’ve seen, fermented raw goat milk with gut-friendly herbs and ingredients steeped into it makes Tummy Butter and Better Butter teas. A life-saver for any pet with tummy issues, poor digestion, inflammation. Dogs and cats love it. From the care in choosing and the quality of ingredients to whom they collaborate with and how they produce the products, it’s is a labor of love.”

Connell also praises the Solutions retailer support. “Their loyalty and partnership with indie pet retail is critical; they want retailers willing to learn, educate clients and sell their food in their stores. They make this possible by publishing everything you’d ever want to know in detail, about every product, in PDF form, online. Roxanne Stone is tireless in educating retailers and pet parents about Solutions and what makes it different.”

9. SAVAGE CAT

Jennifer Thomas of Lucky Dog Pet Grocery & Bakery in Lawrence, KS, explains why she nominated Savage Cat for this list. “Savage Cat is at the forefront of businesses in the pet industry that truly value pet health all while serving their customers. The innovation in Savage Cat is the overall philosophy of a company that not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. With many companies I encounter in our industry, I often find contradictory ingredients or sourcing that don’t align with the values presented by the brand. They source all of their Organic-Certified proteins from local farms, and are concerned with animal welfare including the ones used in their food. The packaging for the most part is curbside recyclable. The packaging they use for direct-to-consumer shipping have biodegradable components. From the ingredients to the packaging to the whole-prey options and innovative treats, I believe they are unique in the pet industry.”

10. P.L.A.Y.

“I nominate P.L.A.Y as an indie innovator because I find their products to be cleverly designed, well made and a great price point,” Susan Nagel-Rees of Winky’s Pet Boutique in Chester, NJ, says. “Their dog and cat toys stand out in a crowded field. My customers are automatically drawn to them for their eye-catching design and craftsmanship. The toys are head and shoulders above others in quality and innovation. The Barkin Brunch toys are a big seller for multiple holidays, and everyone loves the Merry Woofmas Good Dog Stocking. This toy in particular stands out among all my other Christmas toys — it’s great for Instagram photos, and that’s so important now. The price point is amazing at only $11.

She adds that P.L.A.Y.’s sustainable efforts adds another layer of innovation. “My customers are drawn to the design, and multiple people comment on the company’s B Corp status. This matters to both myself and my customer base. It shows that really high-quality products can be designed and manufactured while adhering to social and environmental standards. P.L.A.Y. proves all of this can be accomplished while still keeping prices competitive, and that’s why I have nominated them.”

11. INCLOVER

About InClover, Stephanie Wright of Bend Pet Express in Bend, OR, says, “The brand has come out with some of the best supplements I’ve used, and in the last few years they’ve innovated even more! They really hit the mark with the product, usability/accessibility and marketing.”

She points out the company’s BioRen Kidney Health as an example of innovation in product development. “It’s an exciting supplement to have on the market. It removes a barrier for consumers to support urinary and kidney health. It contains d-mannose, which I would often recommend to support cats with cystitis or crystals, but I would have to send them to a website or human supplement store to find it.”

Bend also says about the products and new packaging rolling out. “They worked with an artist to call out the natural ingredients in the design, the NASC Quality Seal stands out nicely, and it’s just gorgeous to look at. As a consumer, I would not hesitate to have this container sitting on my kitchen counter!”

12. SWELL GELATO

Molly Lewis of Dog River Pet Supplies in Hood River, OR, calls herself fortunate to have Debbie Hendrickx as a vendor and neighbor. But having Hendrickx bring her gelato cart personally to events at the store is just one of the reasons Lewis nominated the brand for this list. “Debbie loves to develop new products with wholesome, simple ingredients that dogs love. She tests products on locals, and always asks for honest feedback. She listens intently and makes changes as necessary. I think she is incredibly generous with samples, which is not financially easy for a small independent manufacturer.”

Lewis adds, “Debbie’s attention to how her products look from a retail perspective is one of the features I appreciate most. She used to work in retail fashion, so she understands that a product must have an immediate positive visual impact in order for someone to want to buy it. Her packaging is simple, bright, clear, cute and happy, and there aren’t too many words or disparate fonts or any unnecessary images. You know immediately what the product is and who it’s for.”

The retailers also appreciates her friendship with this brand owner. “Debbie is a positive and encouraging person. She and I have regular coffee dates where we bounce creative ideas off each other and help one another navigate the challenges of being an independent business owner. She is a wonderful support, and I am lucky to call her my friend.”

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13. FLUFF & TUFF

More than a few members of the PETS+ Brain Squad appreciate the company’s innovative and frequent new designs. “They make the cutest toys! Every year they come out with numerous new toys to keep the line fresh. Customers look for new ones every time they come in,” April Lawrence of Bone-A-Patreat in Des Moines, IA. says. “This company started 20 years ago, and I am always impressed with the growth and leadership year after year. They also are one of the few indies left. We love them and sell almost 5,000 toys a year! Great company, and Ellen Lawson should be proud!”

14. WEST PAW

“When I think of innovation, the first company that comes to mind is West Paw Design,” Diane Mullen of Winni Paw Station in Wolfeboro, NH, says. “Their recycled, sustainable products have been a mainstay in my business since I opened in 2008. Their ‘Love it Guarantee’ makes it easy to sell their products. They are always improving their products by increasing durability and quality. For example, the different generations and enhancements to their naps. I started carrying their Eco Naps, then their Nature Naps, Montana Naps and now their Big Sky Naps. The informative, eco-friendly tags on their merchandise allow customers to browse and learn without feeling pressure from a sales associate.”

Also on her long list of reasons why the company stands out: “West Paw’s recycling center for Zogoflex toys is another model of innovation. It grabs customers’ attention and encourages questions and engagement. Partnering with Earth Animal and their Funnl toy was a novel approach, too. That gives us an add-on sale to both products. They regularly introduce new products rather than copying. For instance, their brand-new Feast Mat, which is two-sided and offers both a slow-feeder and lick mat, is totally new.”

15. WOOF

Another often-mentioned brand for its Pupsicle line, “Woof really hit it out of the park,” Andrea Demmons of The TailGait Market in Asheville, NC, says. “The Pupsicles product is dynamic, and while that is the important part, the packaging is also excellent in that it explains the benefits in a readable fun fashion. So many products have too much on their packaging, and it all turns to a blur for a customer.”

About the toy itself and its pre-made Pops and Treat Tray, Demmons says, “It is great for the store because there are three parts to purchase, they can choose one or all three, and they come back for more pops or more goat milk for the tray, so excellent repeat sales. We’ve had several customers purchase one to try, then come back so each of their dogs have one. Mostly our customers love it, so that is always good for our store!”

16. PET RELEAF

Denise Strong of Pawz on Main in Cottonwood, AZ, has a long history with Pet Relaaf and sees innovation throughout the company’s products and business practices. “Back in 2015, I spent five months researching distributors of CBD hemp products before choosing Pet Releaf. My list was long, and it included a long line of ‘Hemp Hustlers,’ but Pet Releaf and its founders stood out above the rest. I embraced their simple honesty and integrity in the way they conducted themselves and their business. In my personal opinion, their commitment to providing trustworthy and effective products is beyond reproach. They offer tours of their farms in Colorado, and they oversee their production process ‘from plant to pet.’ They utilize sustainable, regenerative-farming practices with wind-powered facilities, and their belief is that healthy people, healthy pets and a healthy planet are all connected.”

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