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Waste Not

New options are available in natural cat litter.
By Kerri Danskin

One might think that the cat litter market with its many mainstream options would be fully saturated at this point in time, but the natural market is proving that consumers are open to new options.

Stan Yamamoto (left) and Harold Higa of NextGen International Corporation marketed their natural litters at Global Pet Expo this spring in Orlando, Fla.
Cat litters are now available in many natural forms including corn, wheat, wood and even coconut. Some retailers are devoting more shelf space to these options as consumers demand litter that’s more eco-friendly.

“For 11 years pretty much what we’ve aimed for is the natural market,” said Susan Southwick of Animal Spirit pet store in Cambridge, Mass. “We’ve tried to follow along with the products that are coming out there.”

Animal Spirit carries a number of options in natural litters, but finds the Feline Fresh pine litter to be very successful.

“Probably the one we like the best is the pine because it’s the most popular,” Southwick said. “We also use it at home and for our cats at the store. Per pound it’s the best deal.”

Initially she was concerned that trees were being cut down to make the litter, but when she learned that Feline Fresh is made from wood pieces that would otherwise be wasted, she felt better about selling it.

“We saw the company at one of the trade shows and they were giving out saplings,” she said. “Then we knew there was a concern for the environment there and understood they weren’t cutting down trees.”

Compostable, flushable, clumping, biodegradable: these are just some of the many buzzwords associated with natural litters today.

One of the more unusual formulas is Kitty’s Crumble, which is made from coir. Also known as “coir fibre pith,” this material is produced by extracting the long fibres from coconut husks.

Mike Emanuel, managing partner at the company, also called Kitty’s Crumble, said the litter came about largely by accident. He and his colleagues had been marketing a coir product called Original Mulch Block, which is used in landscaping because it is porous and holds about four times its weight in water, he said. Looking to expand their business, they were trying to develop a product for industrial use to clean up oil spills. They visited service stations where mechanics do oil changes and asked them if they needed something to help clean up.

“A lot of them said they used kitty litter,” Emanuel said. “So then the lightbulb kind of went off for us.”

The cat litter product was released at SuperZoo in 2009 and is now available at over 300 pet stores in 25 states and on
Another product, World’s Best Cat Litter, came from a similarly diverse background.

“World’s Best Cat Litter’s parent company is a producer of ingredients made from corn that are used in food, pharmaceutical and industrial applications,” said Jean Broders, senior marketing manager for the company. “They have been in business for over 50 years. … About 13 years ago, our research and development department was challenged with the assignment of developing a cat litter from corn—as we understand the amazing capabilities that corn has in absorption of odors.”

Stan Yamamoto of NextGen International Corporation said his company’s wood and green tea litters have been very popular in Japan for about 10 years and growing in popularity in the United States for about five years.

“From what we’re hearing, a lot of the consumers are looking for a litter that’s more natural and that clumps,” he said. “They’re looking for something without fragrances and chemicals.”

Marketing Natural Litters

It’s one thing to decide as a retailer to carry natural litters, but it’s another thing entirely to convince your customers they need to start buying natural too.

Emanuel recently attended the America’s Family Pet Expo in Costa Mesa, Calif., and observed some trends among the consumers walking the show grounds.

“I don’t think a lot of people think about what their cat litter is made of or where it comes from,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow transition to helping people understand the environmental impact of the entire lifecycle of the product.”

“I think the best way to sell this product is to get people to try it,” Yamamoto said. “We give the store owners a bag and ask them to test it at home. Most of the time they’re 100 percent convinced.”

Both Yamamoto’s and Emanuel’s products can be used for gardening after cats are finished with them, which could be used as a value-added bonus for customers.

“They can clean out the waste material and throw the rest of the litter in the yard and water it down,” Yamamoto said. “It’s finer than sawdust.”
Emanuel’s suggested pitch is similar.

“We’re just letting the cats use it before it takes a trip to the garden,” he said.

Retailer Jo O’Brien of Rainforest Pets in Cocoa, Fla., finds a litter with multiple purposes easier to sell. Among her natural options is Pet Ecology Brands Inc.’s Perfect Litter Alert, which allows cat owners to check for bladder infections, track diabetes and test for pregnancy.

Her store also sells a lot of Nature’s Miracle litter, which is made from corn cob granules.

“I got a deal on it originally at a [trade] show and it’s done reasonably well for us,” she said.

While natural litters are not among O’Brien’s most popular products, she remains committed to stocking them, she said.

“I’ve got a couple people who swear by it and come in for it regularly,” she said.

The decision to stock or not stock natural litters is not an easy one for retailers, nor is deciding whether to expand the category when shelf space is limited.

“I would like to expand our section, but I just don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford it,” O’Brien said.

If the current potential for growth in the natural cat litter segment is uncertain, faith in the green movement as a whole is not.

Emanuel noted that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer by revenue, is currently developing a “green target” system to inform shoppers of the environmental costs of the products they buy in their stores.

“If that’s happening, I don’t think we’re talking about a trend that’s going to fade away,” Emanuel said. <HOME>

This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Natural Pet Product Merchandiser. Click here to become a subscriber.

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