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Small Mammal Marketplace: Accessorize Habitats with Feeding and Water Products

Posted: Sept. 26, 2012, 3:45 p.m. EDT


Helping owners keep their pets’ water and food accessible, fresh and tidy, along with promoting eco-friendliness, can boost sales and encourage repeat business.
By Michael Ventre

Small mammals require big ideas, at least when it comes to keeping them fed, hydrated and comfortable. As a result, and because there are so many different varieties of small mammals, there is a corresponding plethora of new concepts and products in the category of feeding and water accessories for them.

Keeping a steady stream of water into the waiting mouths of gerbils, hamsters, rabbits and other small mammals is job one for producers of such items—and for the retailers who offer them to their customers.

“One of the most important ones is a secure water bottle that does not leak,” said Carli Bushoven, sales and marketing coordinator for JW Pet Company in Teterboro, N.J. “With the water bottle’s angled spout, it is not only easier for small animals to get the water, but it also ensures that the bottle will not leak. Features like this are in demand right now.”

Feeders & water bottles for hamsters, rabbits and other small aniamls
Engaging cage accessory displays can encourage customers to ask questions. Photo by Sherri L. Collins/Bowtie Inc. at Nature Pet Centre
Water is the lifeblood of Napa, Calif.-based Lixit Corporation, which specializes in small animal feeding and watering products. What’s new in that category involves not just one item in particular, but the vast array and sheer numbers that now fill the shelves, reported Howard Pickens, the company’s national sales manager.

“We have a water bottle for basically every kind of scenario for every animal and for every price point,” he said.

One of the latest products that Pickens is excited about is a feeder-fountain. Lixit already has a chicken feeder/waterer on the market. It has a reversible base: one side is used for water, the other for food.

“We’re just introducing one now for rabbits and we feel it’ll be high volume,” Pickens said. “We expect it to be a hot item and we’ll introduce it at SuperZoo in September.”

When it comes to bottles, retailer Kelsey Hopper, assistant manager of Pisces Pet Emporium in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, said the trendy item these days is an old-school glass water bottle for small mammals.

“Eco bottles that are glass, and 100 percent chew proof,” she noted. “They’re surprisingly the same price, or very similar, to the plastic water bottles. I find that they’re pretty popular because most people are looking for things that will last longer. Rats and guinea pigs tend to chew the plastic bottle. Also people these days are into eco-friendly products.”

When Dunlea Farms Pet Hay in Jerseyville, Ontario, Canada, created the Tidy Feeder, it had in mind a cereal box designed for small mammals. The company rolled out the new product in the past year or so to retailers in the Northeast and some other independent pet stores.

“It’s like a cereal box hanging on the front of the cage,” said Michael Trauttmansdorff, Dunlea’s president and founder. “You tear open the front and the animals eat right out of it. You hang it on the cage. There’s a one- to two-week supply of hay in it.”

The benefit of that product is it eliminates waste while helping to keep the cage clean, Trauttmansdorff said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to make sure that hay is always available in the cage,” he said. “So it’s a way to store a significant amount. It helps their dental health and digestive health to be able to forage. Rather than feed them pellets, which causes them to be prone to overeating, hay is primarily fiber so there’s not too much risk of weight gain.”

The movement toward natural products isn’t lost on the category of small mammal feeding accessories. Heather Cappel of Ware Manufacturing in Phoenix identified bamboo as a substance of substance.

“One of the strongest trends we are seeing right now is toward natural items for small animals,” Cappel said. “This is what led to the development of our line of bamboo feeders, which includes three bowls and a hanging feeder/treat dispenser.”

At Wee Fishie Shoppe in Juneau, Alaska, co-owner Emiliano Ruiz said he sees a lot of water bottles and feeder bowls made of recycled plastic. The problem is that his customers seek metal.

“They complain, for instance, that their hamsters and gerbils chew the bowls and eventually they have to buy more bowls; One guy said his rabbit chews one a week,” Ruiz said, adding that he finds it difficult to get metal bowls.

“We used to sell them 10 years ago, when we were able to get them” he said. “The biggest one was $19, but you only had to buy one. One of the last ones we have here in the store is about 12 years old, and it’s only now starting to rust.”

For Tammie Swinney, owner of Alligator Alley in Oklahoma City, long-lasting items are also the trend she sees at the moment.

“For feeders, we use ceramic bowls for guinea pigs,” she said. “I also carry the glass water bottles. They seem to be easier to clean and sanitize. I primarily carry the Hagen Living World bottle, mostly because of price point.

“I sold a guinea pig yesterday and showed (the customers) different bottles, and they went straight for the heavier-duty glass bottles,” she added.

In terms of displaying items at Alligator Alley, Swinney prefers to stock something that has some crossover appeal.

“I have limited space,” she said. “So if I can point out a bowl or feeder that works in two different areas (like reptiles and gerbils, for instance), that’s very helpful.”

There is also demand for multipurpose products that can cater to a small mammal’s every whim. JW Pet’s Bushoven noted that her company’s new PetVille habitat line has a dorm, a studio and a condo.

“These three new habitats also come with a water tube and feeding dish, as well as pop-ups, an exercise wheel, lookouts, climbing tubes and more,” she said, adding that these habitats have unique “easy clean” features that have made them popular items among small-mammal aficionados.

When it comes to making a marketing push, Lixit’s Pickens said in-store use of small mammal products is his recommended method of getting the word out.

“In the past , the really specialized pet store was a very strong part of the pet industry,” he said. “Outlets that sell live animals are the lifeblood of this category. If you don’t have the animals out there to use your product, you’ll sell less.”

Ware’s Cappel concurred about the importance of showing the product at work in the store.

“We suggest that the strongest way to market a feeder or a feeding accessory is to use it in an in-store display so that customers can see it in use at the time of purchase,” she said.

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