WellPet’s Wellness brand’s move from paper to plastic packaging and use of high-end graphics reflect major trends in pet food packaging. Photo courtesy of Bemis Packaging

by Rick Lingle, Executive Editor

The American Pet Products Assn. estimates that Americans spent nearly $50 billion on their pets in 2010, of which $18 billion was for food. That’s a mountain of kibble, meat, meat byproducts, vegetables and other assorted ingredients-along with a doggone lot of packaging to contain it. This packaging amounts to approximately $600 million, according toBemis Co.,the largest flexible packaging vendor in the North America and the market leader in this segment.

Bruce McKay, Bemis’ director of business development, is responsible for the pet food segment. He has 15 years of industry experience on both sides of the pet food fence, having been on the packager side earlier in his career as general manager for pet food manufacturers in Canada.

“We’ve seen in the last 10 years a proliferation of different approaches to diets and formulations in pet foods,” McKay says. “The market has gone from balanced diets to ‘functional foods,’ akin to what has occurred with nutraceuticals in the human foods market. With that change from a commodity of kibble in 50-pound bags, pet food package graphics and marketing have become more sophisticated with a number of new formats and applications. There’s been an explosion of SKUs, brands and sizes in this market.”

As an example, Bemis’ effort with WellPet, a pet food packager based in Tewksbury, Mass., included a switch from paper to plastic, and a range of sizes for the recent reintroduction of the super-premium Wellness brand.

The major considerations, according to WellPet packaging development manager Chris Small, were to find what materials would perform well from a filling, sealing and palletizing standpoint, and what materials would best protect, preserve and promote the super-premium products.

The multilayer structures used for 25 items, ranging from 4- and 6-pound stand-up pouches to 15- and 30-pound bags, rely on reverse-printed oriented polyester, metalized polyester, and an inner layer of polypropylene/linear low-density polyethylene.

“These structures offer many benefits, including the ability to showcase high-impact graphics along with a resistance to dimpling and insects,” Small says. “The line has enjoyed great success and continues to benefit from strong sales growth and market penetration.”

McKay offers six trends in pet food packaging:

1. More consumer convenience features: Stand-up formats, reclosable packaging, zippers, handles and spouts.

2. SKU proliferation: More diets, sizes and formats that require extra flexibility and nimbleness by suppliers.

3. From paper to plastic: Laminated films are increasingly replacing paper as the preferred material for upscale brands because of its superior strength and graphic qualities.

4. Advanced graphics: Major brands are looking to improve graphics with enhancements like matte finishes, metallized inks and high-gloss finishes.

5. From rollstock to premade bags: Pet food manufacturers are increasingly looking to pack their products in premade bags, as opposed to forming them on their own lines, to achieve better quality and flexibility

6. Emerging sustainability interest: While there is interest in sustainability options by manufacturers, most are waiting until a better post-consumer recycling infrastructure is in place.

The range of flexible packaging in the pet food market reflects high-level printing and barrier packaging across a spectrum of bag and pouch sizes. Photo courtesy of Coating Excellence Int’l

Paper or plastic? It's plastic

For larger package formats, there has been a move away from multiwall paper bags that comprise multiple plies of kraft paper with a moisture-barrier inner layer of film. A fast-growing alternative has been durable, colorful woven bags, a specialty ofCoating Excellence Int’l,which is owned by Mason Wells/P.E. Since 2006, CEI has accelerated from selling zero bags to more than 100 million bags per year into the pet food market, according to president Michael Nowak. CEI’s bags, typically used for bags containing 20 or more pounds of product, are made of woven polypropylene laminated with reverse-printed biaxially oriented PP. They offer an attractive presentation and are tear-resistant, Nowak points out.

Last year, CEI introduced a woven pinch-bottom bag that is heat-sealed rather than sewn shut. The benefits include a store-shelf facing edge without ugly stitching. One of the first introductions is for a private-label dog food from Safeway.

The packaging is better from a sustainability standpoint because it is an all-PP construction, and because empty polymer bags take up half the volume of paper, Nowak explains. “‘Downweighting’ is a good thing because customers save money, but the sustainability aspect is becoming more important than the savings,” says Nowak.

Daniel Staker, executive vice president ofPlastic Packaging Technologies,a company with a decade of experience in pet food packaging, concurs: “Sustainability concerns and source-reduction initiatives have helped drive demand for higher-performing films, including high-barrier, laminated structures that incorporate less material, but provide greater barrier properties that extend product and shelf life.”

McKay and Nowak agree that there’s more interest in recyclable structures than in biomaterials.

For bags of all sizes, shelf impact is driving more use of high-end graphics. “Eight- to 10-color print is a requirement for pet food packaging,” says Nowak. “No amount of colors is too much.”

Downward trends

McKay also points to a general shrinkage in bag sizes. For example, 40- and 50-pound bags that were common years ago are giving way to bags in the 32- to 34-pound range. This reflects a consumer trend to buy more frequently and an increase in the channels where pet foods are available, from specialty stores to supercenters, he explains.

The demand for downsizing picks up dramatically for smaller sizes, particularly in stand-up pouches. As CEI launched into larger sizes of pet food bags, it found that a lot of customers need smaller ones, too. It now offers pouches and bags along with the larger woven bags.

Stand-up pouches are as hot in pet foods as they are with human food.

“We’re seeing stand-up pouches replace [rigid containers] as in the broader packaging market,” Nowak says, “especially premade pouches that allow smaller pet food companies and smaller orders to be accommodated.” In one recent development that carries this trend to its inevitable conclusion, Nowak reports seeing single-serve pouches of pet food.

Whether for Spot or Fluffy, there are pet foods packaged to fit every pet’s-and pet owner’s-needs.F&BP

A typical box and graphics break through the pet food “noise” at retail with a natural look. Photo courtesy of Directions Inc.

SIDEBAR: Pet food boxes play on emotional cues

In a general sense, this pet food packaging is a good example of the importance of leveraging emotion to further the brand/consumer relationship. It also demonstrates that there’s a home for boxes in a market of bagged, pouched, trayed and canned pet foods.

 Last year, Kaytee Products Inc., Chilton, Wis., launched nature’s BENEFITS, a line of natural foods for pet birds (parakeets, cockatiels and parrots) and small animals (hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and rabbits). The granola-style food line is targeted to consumers looking for a natural food for their pet. Natural colors and elements, including rich animal photography, combine with muted tones and kraft paperboard to give the line an earthy, organic look.

 “Stores typically merchandise these products by type of animal rather than by brand or manufacturer,” says Aria Grant, art director withDirections Inc.,Kaytee’s design agency, which worked collaboratively with converterGreat Northern.“Our goal for shelf impact was to combine a range of visual cues that worked in concert to create a strong position of all-natural and environmental awareness.”

That’s as much a reality as impression, according to Kay Thomson, senior marketing manager, Kaytee Pet Bird: “The brown kraft box isn’t merely a package printed to look natural; it truly is natural. The color and style of the package provides the natural-food shopper a quick way to identify a product that appeals to them because it will appeal to their pet.”

Great Northern’s StrataGraph high-end printing process uses UV inks on paperboard certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. The box is 100% recyclable and can be used by the pet for foraging, shredding and tunneling.

“There are a number of all-natural foods for pet birds and small animals on the market, but none of them are in a package of this style,” Thomson says. “The use of the box is a bold statement within this industry and indicates that Kaytee is willing to take some risks in order to promote the product and the brand.

“Our buyers and retailers have been very excited about the unique look of the package and have expressed that that it’s a great way to promote an all-natural product.”