Posted: October 15, 2013, 11:45 a.m. EDT
Manufacturers and retailers agree this segment holds the potential for big business.
By Patricia Morris Buckley
"Small mammal food is definitely a strong category for us,” said Justin Ramirez, manager of Incredible Pets, with locations in Auburn, Carmichael, Grass Valley, Roseville and East Sacramento, Calif. "It’s right behind dog and cat food as far as sales go.”
Some of those sales might be due to the increasing diversity in food-related products for the category, said Brent Weinmann, president of Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio.
That could be the reason Karen Walsh, owner of Vet Med in Franklin, Mass., said that while small mammal food isn’t a big part of her pet store, it’s growing.
Small mammal food is in almost as much demand as cat and dog food. Sherri L. Collins/I-5 Publishing at PetStop Warehouse
"It’s taking up more and more of my store,” she said. "It’s starting to drive the segment for us.”
To fully understand the category’s potential, there are certain truths you must know about food for small mammals, such as rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets and chinchillas, manufacturers and retailers noted.
Small Mammal Owners Are Different
Owning a small mammal is often a different experience than sharing space with a dog or cat. First, they don’t live as long.
"The hard reality is that a hamster will live two years,” said Weinmann.
But that might be changing.
"Twenty years ago, no one brought their rabbit to the vet,” said Patty Michaud, co-owner of Sweet Meadow Farm, a retailer in Sherborn, Mass. "Now people are getting their small mammals spayed and neutered. Because the animals are getting better nutrition, they’re living longer.”
Two Types of Owners
"The first [owner] is the purist or serious hobbyist,” said Gail Shepard, director of marketing for ZuPreem in Shawnee, Kan. "They are highly knowledgeable and tend to purchase mostly timothy hay products.
|Something to Chew On|
More small mammal owners are becoming aware of the value of chews for their pets, according to industry insiders.
"It’s definitely a growing market,” said Brent Weinmann, president of Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio. "People are becoming more and more aware of the value of chews. As their knowledge grows, they realize how much their pet needs them.”
Today’s chews come in a variety of shapes, materials and types, and can be made of wood, pumice or seeds. Some are shaped like small mammal-friendly objects, such as apples, carrots or even lollipops. Some are even habitats, such as chewable huts.
"These pets need something to chew,” Weinmann said, "or they’ll chew the wires of their cage.”
Small mammals need chews for three reasons, he added. The first is because their teeth never stop growing. Chews prevent teeth from becoming so long that pets can’t eat properly, he said.
Chews also give small mammals an activity to occupy themselves with, said Patty Michaud, co-owner of Sweet Meadow Farm, a retailer in Sherborn, Mass.
"They basically use it as a toy,” she said. "If it’s an apple stick, they like to strip the bark.”
The entertainment value is good for their mental health as well, she said.
"If they sit in their cage all day, it gets boring,” she said. "It’s important that they have something to do.”
Justin Ramirez, manager of Incredible Pets in Auburn, Calif., reported that chews do very well at his location. One trick he’s learned is to place chews in with his animals on display.
"Like with the snack shed, they like watching the animals chew on it,” he said. "A lot of them will laugh and then purchase one for their pet.”
Mike Simms, owner of Critter Pet Shop in Allen Park, Mich., also has seen success with chews.
"They really sell for us,” he said. "And if people ask us about what they need for their pet, we recommend them.”
As consumers become better educated, they realize that chews are not just a treat, said Weinmann.
"They see how much their pet needs chews,” he added. "Then they realize that they’re not optional.”—PMB
Nutrition is important to them, and they’re willing to pay a little more for it. They are the ones buying for their pet.”
The second kind of owner is the family or child. In this case, Shepard said, it’s usually the parent making the food-buying decisions.
"These buyers enjoy purchasing variety and like the convenience of something they can pour into a bowl,” she said. "Something that looks more enticing to them outweighs nutrition.”
Quality vs. Cost
According to Justin Ramirez, manager of Incredible Pets in Auburn, Calif., small mammal food runs about $8.99 to $12.99 per small bag.
"They’re not looking for the cheapest food,” said Mike Simms, owner of the Critter Pet Shop in Allen Park, Mich. "They’re still looking for good quality. But cost still does matter to them.”
Shepard puts the top dollar amount for food at around $15 per bag.
"Maybe that’s because they paid less for their pet, so it’s not as big of an investment,” she said.
"That’s why we get a little more value-minded customers. These customers aren’t as loyal either. They’re more apt to go to another brand if it has the same look and slightly lower price.”
Like many other segments of the pet market, small mammal food has been influenced by the trend toward natural ingredients.
"We see this as a human trend that translated to dogs; then filtered down to the birds and small animal market,” said Weinmann. "So it’s higher on the consumer’s mind.”
Natural foods can include orchard grass, flowers, seeds, carrots and herbs, but the major player in this field is timothy hay.
"The internet has a lot to do with how much better educated customers are about the nutritional value of the hay,” Weinmann added. "The larger chains also put a big push on hay sales, and that created customer awareness.”
The good news is that customers aren’t as cost conscious when it comes to all-natural food, said several retailers.
"I have to order more timothy hay every week,” said Vet Med’s Walsh.
To Treat or Not to Treat
Treats can be honey sticks, dried fruits, seeds or yogurt, and shaped like everything from fruit to cupcakes.
Treats aren’t necessary for a small animal’s health, said Ramirez, but some owners like to spoil their pets.
Still, "it’s not like a dog or cat owner who wants to spoil their pet so they treat it more like a human,” he said.
Instead, it’s a way for owners to bond more with their smaller pets, said Shepard.
"But treats are much more price oriented,” she added. "I’d say the best price point is around $4. Treats also come and go with fads.”
While Ramirez reported that treats don’t do well in his store, Simms has had a different experience.
"We sell a lot of treats,” he said, "especially the fruit ones and the yogurt drops.”
Both Shepard and Weinmann suggest inquiring about customer needs in order to make suggestions. Shepard advised taking this a step farther in courting the small animal lovers—the kids.
"Bring the kids into the store so they can experience what these animals are like,” she said. "Work with the local school, or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Give them a coloring page to walk away with.”
She also recommended that retailers offer promotions, such as free chew giveaways with a bag of food on Mondays.
Walsh suggested that retailers stock only high-quality foods so that pets eat more, which increases sales. She’s also a big fan of using tools provided by manufacturers, such as shelf talkers, to educate customers on what they need to keep their pet healthy and happy.
"You’ve got to find creative ways to drive this category,” said Shepard. "Find ways to get families more involved with the purchase of a small animal as a pet.”
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