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10:13 PM   October 20, 2014
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Harnessing a Growing Market

Cat walking gains acceptance as consumers look to protect their felines.
By Tom Barthel

Even independent-minded cats might accept a harness if it means they can play outside. Courtesy of Lupine Inc.
A growing number of cat owners are enriching their pets’ lives with controlled outings. Retailers who provide viable options, along with the right safety and training information, help ensure their customers’ success with cat outdoor activities, such as exploration and exercise.

“We noticed a big increase in [harnesses] last year,” says Bronwyn Jones, manager of Cat’s Meow in Portland, Ore. “People are just now coming around to the idea that indoor cats get bored. They want to give their cats a better quality of life. Harnessing allows that to happen.”

As harnessing gains popularity, the number of available products retailers can sell is increasing as well. It was just a short time ago that a single product dominated the category. Now, an expanding range of options is available.

“There used to be one small-animal harness, and it was lumped in with use for cats, hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets,” says Krista Nixon, senior brand manager at Premier Pet Products in Midlothian, Va. “We’ve definitely seen maturation in the cat-product line. People are looking for more colors, higher-end construction, better fit, more sizes—so it’s not just a cookie-cutter, one-fits-all product.”

Convincing the Skeptic
While the increase in harnessing products is enticing many cat owners, some may still be skeptical. Educating staff members on the category’s finer points is a great way to overcome public wariness.

“Harnesses don’t have the prominence in the cat market that they do in the dog market,” Nixon states. “People are a little taken aback; it’s a novel concept still. Send a few samples home with your staff. That way, when customers come in and have questions about the product, your staff can answer with first-hand knowledge.”

A holistic approach to marketing harness products stresses the benefit to both the cat and the local wildlife. This tactic works particularly well with cat owners who also enjoy feeding wild birds.

“Here in Portland, the Feral Cat Coalition has a big TV campaign on using harnessing to protect the bird population,” Jones reports. “It’s a great means of controlling cat behavior, as well as preserving wild birds.”

Harnessing on Display

Cats can explore their surroundings safely when harnessed to their owners. Courtesy of Premier Pet Products
Displays that highlight products in action improve customers’ understanding of how harnesses work.

“Some of our products have really good pictures on the front and good signage on the product itself,” says Lori Olson, owner and manager of Pet Parade in Minot, N.D.

Up-front visuals also help bring greater attention to the harness category—an especially important display technique for a “relatively” new product category.

“Every now and then we put one on our mannequin in the front window, Jones says. “It advertises that we have them.”
In addition, pairing harnesses with matching products encourages add-on sales.

“Display coordinating leashes next to the harnesses for an easy cross-sell,” Nixon says. “You can easily suggest that the pet owner up-sell to a matching leash. That’s an easy combination to make.”

Custom Fitting
Winning sales strategies present only half the process for the cat-harness category. In order to succeed with these products, customer education is paramount. An ill-fitting harness can have negative consequences.

“The cat will back right out of an improperly fitted harness,” Jones states. “You’ll hear from people, ‘Well, I’ve tried that before, but the cat just backed right out of it.’ The harness was just not properly fitted for the animal.”

Talking points should always include specific guidelines for fitting the harness.

“You really want to make sure the connection around the abdomen is flush against the cat,” Jones advises. “A finger should slide in [between harness and cat], but it shouldn’t easily glide through—it should require effort. You want it to be a firm fit."

“We also have two shop cats,” Jones adds. “So we can demonstrate to the customer how to put the harness on.”

The first fit is the most crucial, so careful inspection is necessary. Have your customers monitor their cats for several minutes during the initial harness fitting and recheck it often to make sure the harness conforms to the cat’s at-rest shape.

“A harness should be put on a cat and left for 10 to 15 minutes,” Nixon reports. “Sometimes, a cat will bloat as you’re fitting the harness around them.”

Safety First

Sell Harnesses: It Could be the Law

Lori Olson, owner and manager of Pet Parade in Minot, N.D., doesn’t have a choice about whether or not she’ll stock a full line of cat harnesses and leads. It’s the law.
Four years ago, her local government passed a feline leash law.

“Ever since then, our leashes and harnesses have done very well,” reports Olson.

Olson says the legislation resulted from a large feral-cat population that caused a wide variety of problems in the community.

“We had a problem with too many of them getting loose and getting hit by cars, getting into people’s garbage and causing too much trouble,” she says. “They’re pretty strict about it, too. They really keep an eye on people to ensure cats are properly leashed, harnessed and confined. They don’t want them wandering all over.”

Olson confirms a steady increase in her sales because of the legislation and finds her customers eager to comply with the law, realizing it protects both the community and their pets.

Once a cat becomes accustomed to wearing a harness, consumers need to know that it must not replace a collar.

“A cat should only wear a harness while being taken for a walk,” says Dave Jensen, president of Conway, N.H.-based Lupine Inc. “It’s just one more thing a cat can get hung up on. Since most harnesses are not built like collars [which have safety releases], you wouldn’t want a cat running around the house with a harness on.”

Even sedate cat activities can interfere with a harness.

“We like people to watch their cats [wearing harnesses], making sure the cats don’t get caught up in them,” Olson says.

Pairing long leads with harnesses can give cats enjoyable (yet controlled) backyard outings. However, it is important to emphasize that leads are not tie-outs—harnessed cats need supervision.

“We never advocate a cat being left outside, tied up like a dog—ever,” Jones says. “A cat can roll and tangle itself in the harness and lead.”

Training Tips
Sending customers home with a few basic training tips also helps them to successfully introduce their cats to a harness, which may take weeks—and lots of patience.

“We give people the best advice we can about how to do it,” Jones says. “We print out various web pages that have how-tos on harnessing. If some customers’ cats are strongly motivated by food, add-on sales of training treats may get their pets warmed up to using a harness.

Nixon agrees that cat treats are a great way to accelerate a cat’s harness acceptance—and boost add-on sales.

“You can suggest the pet owner use the treats freely when getting [the cat] acclimated,” she says.

An initial harness sale can lead to other purchases—from training treats to leads to waste bags—that enable customers to enjoy the outdoors with their cats. If advice and encouragement accompanies each purchase, retailers can win over the most skeptical consumer. <HOME>

Click here for a related PDF: 10 Steps to Harness/Leash Training Your Cat


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