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Product Merchandiser Focus: Litter & Pet Bedding

Posted: July 27, 2012, 3:00 p.m EDT


Perk Up Litter and Bedding Sales
Even consumables benefit from smart marketing methods that help speed up the purchase pace of these necessities.
By Cheryl Reeves

With the ever-increasing number and variety of pet substrates on the market, retailers may be faced with the conundrum of choosing which products to place on valuable shelf space. In addition to the product selection challenge, today’s hyper-competitive marketplace means numerous promotional strategies are needed to ensure litter moves steadily off the shelf and out the door.

When stocking litter and bedding for a variety of pets—from birds to critters to cats—package design, creative shelving solutions, new product introductions and special promotions all help to influence customers to rethink their purchasing habits and decisions, according to interviewed manufacturers.

Cat litter
“Substrate is a must-have, but any retailer who isn’t promoting what’s new is missing the boat,” said Rich Whiting, vice president of sales and marketing for American Wood Fiber in Columbia, Md. “New products mean a higher ring at the register.”

Alternative, natural cat litter is driving growth in the sector, Whiting added. What’s more, he said it’s essential to show and tell consumers why these innovations are worth consideration—and money.

“For instance, the calling card of many new litters is that they are much lighter in weight,” he said. “Tell customers that they will be getting the same number of uses at half the weight. This also means saved shelf space for the retailer.”

Another key message involves spelling out why many animals need more than just one substrate.

“Retailers will notice customers leaving with more purchases under their arms when they promote the fact that some animals need both a litter and a bedding product,” said Marsha Seekins, director of marketing for Absorption Corp., in Ferndale, Wash. “A litter for absorption and odor control, and a soft, comfy bedding layered on top to offer enrichment opportunities for foraging, nesting, burrowing and playing.”

Shelf Savvy Sells
Bud Warren, owner of Pet Emporium in Mount Pleasant, S.C., said he doesn’t believe in a backroom. Instead, every product he has in stock is out on the floor and every week a truck comes in with new merchandise.

“If a customer has to wait for a salesperson to get what they want, they might leave,” he said, adding that he devised a way to efficiently shelve large bags of litter for easy shopper access: His shelving system works like an “inverted Pez dispenser.”

Natural and Eco-Friendly vs. Regular
When it comes to pet substrate, retailers can choose to sell everything from the greenest litters to other types that offer value yet deliver less eco-friendly benefits. Manufacturers discuss definitions for each, and offer tips on how to teach consumers the difference between products.

“Natural litters should contain no artificial additives and are considered a clean product. Products that are eco-friendly are also good for the planet on some level, for example, recycled. And a ‘regular’ litter would have some processing involved. A retailer could put a sign up that explains the difference between terms.”

“Natural means what you’d find in nature, for example, wood. Eco-friendly litters are a recycled by-product of a natural material that would otherwise be put into the landfill. There are ecological benefits for the planet, as well as health benefits for the pet. This is something that a retailer can discuss in a newsletter or on their website.”
—Rich Whiting, vice president of sales and marketing at American Wood Fiber in Columbia, Md.

“An example of a regular litter is a clay-based product. Natural means unprocessed but it’s not doing anything for the planet in terms of sustainability. Cellulose, for example, is eco-friendly because it’s a by-product of pulp paper, left over fibers that would otherwise go into the landfill. Other features of an eco-friendly product are biodegradable or compostable. An endcap featuring the greenest litter and bedding products can help tell the story.”
—Marsha Seekins, director of marketing at Absorption Corp., in Ferndale, Wash.

“I took a wire slat grid and divided it down the center,” Warren said. “Then, I adjusted the slat front so that bags of litter can be loaded at the top and pulled out from the bottom.”

At Polly’s Pet in Universal City, Texas, litter and bedding products are positioned on shelves so customers can read and see packages clearly.

“The new, recycled paper substrates are doing great,” said Alissa Surran, the store’s assistant manager. “We sell more exotic animals such as hedgehogs and sugar gliders that are sensitive to smells, so our customers are looking to see the word ‘unscented’ on the package.”

Because there’s a huge amount of emphasis on new types of packaging, from standup pouches to compressed packages, Whiting suggested that retailers arrange shelves to offer a billboard effect to nicely show off a brand family.

Creating a shelf display that shows off packaging to best advantage will ramp up sales, Absorption Corp.’s Seekins said.

“Our packaging is designed to work as eye candy, drawing people in to read the educational information on the bag,” she said. “It really works to put thought into how things look all together on shelves.”

There should be an area to show off bulky litter and bedding sacks, too.

“It’s not a sin to have a section of big, value-priced bags,” Whiting noted. “In fact, once consumers try a standard sized bag of litter and like it, many will want to buy the larger bag to save money. So test new products in smaller bags and if it’s a winner, stock the big bag.”

Keeping litters together in one area while devoting ample space to bulk bags is how Don Benson, the owner of Rivertown Feed & Pet in Petaluma, Calif., displays litter in his store.

“Not only do customers want variety in litter selections, they also want to be able to pick from a few different sizes,” Benson said.

Signage Boosts Bestsellers—and What’s New
Educational signage can make the difference between a sale—and a time-pressed customer walking out the door empty-handed.

“Smart signage is a very important contributor to increased profits,” reported Gina Zaro, marketing director for Precious Cat in Englewood, Colo.

In support of consumer education, Zaro said Precious Cat produced a Litter Box Solution booklet that retailers can place around displays. The booklet is also available on the manufacturer’s website.

“Because elimination issues are common with cats, pet owners will probably have questions about, for instance, why their pet isn’t using its litterbox,” Zaro said. “Informational booklets, signs and posters will help deliver answers to questions quickly.”

Small animal bedding
Buy one, get one free (BOGO) promotions make for attention-grabbing signage and help to push new pet product, said interviewed manufacturers.

“To a consumer, there is no more potent word than free,” American Wood Fiber’s Whiting stated.

Retailers can use BOGOs as a means of introducing a new product, Seekins said.

“The best way to do it is to tie two products together; for example, buy this new litter or bedding and then get a bag of food or treats for free,” she said.

Videos are another way to catch consumer attention and should be considered as signage, too.

“People love videos featuring cute animals, so this is an excellent way to introduce new products,” Seekins reported. “We do a video contest that’s very popular, and the winner gets a year’s supply of CareFresh. Retailers could do something similar.”

No Place Like Home
Habitats should be considered a merchandising tool along with displays, social media and coupon promotions.

“Outfitting a habitat correctly helps retailers make the most of their real estate,” Seekins noted. “Include the best products because even though it costs a bit more money for premium substrates, those products will sell.”

Habitats are particularly effective in getting kids’ attention who might normally be bored, Seekins added. Seeing a lively animal in a world of toys and colorful bedding will provoke a need to have what they see for their own pet.

Industry Voices
Do Buy 1, Get 1 Free promos work for you?

“We don’t do BOGOs because we keep our pricing fair and don’t see how doing that kind of a promotion would profit us much.”
—Don Benson, owner of Rivertown Feed & Pet in Petaluma, Calif.

“From time to time, yes, we offer a BOGO special with manufacturer participation. Mostly we do periodic discounts of 20 percent off a particular bedding.”
—Allissa Surran, assistant manager at Polly’s Pet Shop in Universal City, Texas

“This is something we’re considering doing in the near future, but haven’t tried it yet.”
—Scott Wilson, vice president of purchasing for Uncle Bill’s Pet Centers in Fishers, Ind.

“No, I don’t like the idea of BOGOs. It’s also tough to get manufacturer support. Anyway, we don’t discount too much on consumables. If I’m going to promote products together, I’d rather sell a kit.”
—Bud Warren, owner of Pet Emporium in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

“Birds are beautiful in displays; however, I would suggest that more retailers also consider including small mammal habitats,” Seekins advised. “Kids love to see them moving around gathering materials and snuggling in bedding.”

However, retailers should only put items that they sell into a habitat.

“Once, I went into a store that had toilet paper rolls being used as toys in a hamster habitat,” Seekins reported. “Show off what you’re selling, not something makeshift that a customer doesn’t have to buy.”

Showing off animal habitats at Polly’s Pet keeps customers moving around and discovering new items, Surran said.

“If it’s in a habitat, that’s what they want, especially new pet owners who don’t know what litter or bedding to buy,” she said, noting that she announces new animal arrivals on the store’s Facebook page, which is also used to discuss animal care and offer coupons.

“We don’t use social media to hit people over the head with heavy advertising.” Surran added. “That would turn them off.”

Another idea to build buzz and help animals is to advertise a cat litter rescue program on Facebook, Precious Cat’s Zaro said. Since many cats are abandoned because they don’t use the litterbox, she suggested putting together shelter kits: litter, a box, discount coupons and an elimination solution booklet.

“Think about total creation, from displays to habitats to special promotions,” Seekins said. “That makes for a circle of value to enrich retailers, pet owners and pets.”

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