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Small Mammal Marketplace: Chews Wisely

Posted: Dec. 19, 2011, 6:40 p.m. EST

Small animal owners want variety, which in space-challenged stores means stocking wood products first and adding on from there.
By Jaime McLendon

Natural but fun. Fun but natural. No matter how it’s spun, small animal owners prowling the chews aisle know what they want: all-natural products that are “interesting,” “relevant,” “new” and “different”—and that’s just the beginning, pet-specialty retailers reported. From loofah bites and wood chews to pumice rings and gnawable furniture, owners may delight in nothing more than handpicking their pet’s newest munchie.

Indeed, retailers need to stock a wide selection of chews and rotate them often, said Judy Heffron, senior brand manager at Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Super Pet.

That’s easier said than done, retailers retorted. The challenge with variety, they noted, is space. The solution, according to wholesale buyers, is thoughtful selection.

Reap Wood Product
Perhaps the wisest—and most beneficial—chews investment is in the wood category. According to the American Pet Products Association, which conducts the biannual National Pet Owners Survey, 39 percent of small animal owners reported buying wood chews in a 12-month period in 2010. That’s up from 34 percent in years past.

guinea pig

Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws Inc., a 5,000-square-foot store in Harleysville, Pa., dedicates two endcaps to chew toys for small animals. Store owner Pamela Herron said wood chew toys are especially important for keeping hamster teeth from elongating and possibly breaking. For consumers, this dental-health benefit, which isn’t restricted to hamsters, makes wood chews a plan-to-get product.

“They’re not an impulse buy because we recommend them with every purchase of food, every purchase of Timothy hay,” Herron said. “We see them as something that is required for all our chewer animals.”

Christina McClanahan, manager at Animal House Pets in Lexington, Ky., agreed.

“These are planned purchases,” she said, noting that employees are responsible for letting customers know that chews are a necessity. “When they get chewed up, owners come back in to replace them.”

Wood chews come in a variety of forms, including furniture (e.g., Penn-Plax’s S.A.M. Small Animal Doll House Wood Furniture); treat cores (8 in 1’s Wild Harvest Wood Chew Centers Honey Bars); balls, blocks; and twigs and sticks (Super Pet’s Tropical Fiddle Sticks and Ware Manufacturing’s Fruit Twig Nibblers).

Mayer’s Pet Shop in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada, stocks different wood chews for various types of small animals. These include Vitakraft Sunseed Honey Sticks, Super Pet Crispy Surprises and Gimborn Gnaw Bones, which store owner Liane Balek pointed out are naturally sterilized. The idea, she said, is to keep things fresh and gauge consumer response.

“Customers try them all once,” she noted, adding that the most popular are those that are both a chew and a treat. “I don’t buy huge quantities because it doesn’t make sense to just have it all sit.”

New Products in 2011
Super Pet launched Crispy Surprises in spring 2011 along with Carousel Chew Toys and Crunchy Play Pops. Available in fruit- and veggie-themed shapes, they’re made from wood, loofah and cornhusk. The loofah, a popular choice among manufacturers these days, also provides a flossing benefit that consumers appreciate, retailers reported.

More-recent Super Pet offerings include chews in a variety of natural materials, such as sisal, loofah, rattan, pumice and wood. For example: Super Pet’s Fish ‘n Chips Chews and Pumice Block Chew Toy.

“Response has been tremendous,” Heffron reported.
Other manufacturers are just as quick to meet consumer demand for variety. Most, it seems, are filling bulk orders for natural items.

Merchandising Strategies
Appealing to consumers’ good judgment can make good business sense. Here are five tips from both manufacturers and retailers.

1. Set consumers’ sights on visually appealing displays. Create eye-catching package towers; fill aesthetically pleasing or unusual-looking bins and buckets that double as conversation pieces; draw in customers with movement, such as rotating spinner displays; and dress up aisles with colorful, handcrafted signage.

2. Let ’em touch. Host daily petting/feeding hours that allow customers to see a product in its package, open it and give it to the animals themselves. This provides an opportunity for customers to not only interact with the animals, which children especially enjoy, but also to form an association between a positive experience and the product responsible for the pet’s satisfaction. Just make sure the animals aren’t already full and that you choose a product you’re certain the animals enjoy.

3. Chat ’em up. Or let demonstration videos do the talking for you. Videos might not be necessary for most chew products, but even a quick mention of its benefits can push customers to respond. At the very least, you’re giving customers something educational to listen to.

4. Keep odor at bay. A stinky store means offended noses, less foot traffic and less chew (and other product) sales. Keep animal habitats clean so odors won’t linger and send customers running for the door.
5. Offer people chews, too. People like things that are free. Turn the give-a-penny-take-a-penny tray into a saltwater taffy station (signage featuring hamsters, rats and critters is helpful). This may work especially well if children are in tow and helps remind customers to add chews to their purchase. 

Natural is [still] in demand,” said Sherry Redwine, owner and operator of Dallas-based Odyssey Pets LLC.  

Early last year Odyssey Pets launched Lucky Buck Wafers, made of naturally shed deer antler.

On the softer side of natural are chews made with animal-satisfying hay, which for some small pets is crucial to their well-being, industry participants reported.

Companies such as Murdock, Neb.-based Oxbow Animal Health, Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio, and F.M. Brown’s Sons Inc. of Reading, Pa., offer a variety of chewable hides. The latters’ product line also includes the coconut house Coco Cabana and Timothy Hay Herbs N’ Hay Edible Tunnels. F.M. Brown’s also features alfalfa-stuffed wood chews and chews made with pasta. Many manufacturers also have hay cubes and blocks, which are simple, but practical.

Ware Manufacturing of Avondale, Ariz., is developing cornmeal, alfalfa and Timothy hay chews for 2012, part of its strategy to always give consumers something different, said Heather Cappel, the company’s creative coordinator. In September, the company followed its 2011-launched Alfalfa Fields chew treats, made of all-natural compressed alfalfa, with Carnival Crops, a line of colorful chews made from cornhusk, corn leaf, sisal and loofah materials. The line includes three hanging toys: Flower Chew, Hula Chew and Party Flavors.

“Retailers are interested in natural chews with colorful designs or unusual shapes that give them an added fun factor,” Cappel said, adding that combinations of different textures and kid-friendly shapes are in demand, too.

Retailers confirmed this trend.

“A lot of times the children are choosing the toys, so bright colors and packaging are important,” Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws’ Herron said, noting that she recently brought in quite a few Kaytee and Ware items because of their visual appeal and longevity. Another big hit with Herron: Super Pet’s Nut Knot Nibbler, which she orders every week and admires for its shape.

“[Small animals] like balls,” she said. “Bunnies can actually pick them up and throw them, and guinea pigs can push them around.”

Herron, who said she introduces a new endcap at least every three months, prefers balls to hanging items because hanging items can be tough for animals to chew.

“They push them away as they try to chew on them,” she said. “With balls, they can pin them in a corner and chew.”

Fun Experiments
Balek, of Mayer’s Pet Shop, and other retailers reported success in stocking chews of all kinds near livestock and cages, as well as near essential items such as food. New items are often showcased on rotating endcaps, at the front of the store and in small animal habitats.

“I try new things all the time,” Herron said. “We get the same customers week after week, so they want to see something different.”

As it turns out, different is the name of the game at many stores.
While straightforward wood chews, such as Napa, Calif.-based Lixit Corp.’s Critter Gnaw Dents and Critter Chopsticks, are arguably the most recommended, manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike are experimenting with different styles and fun designs that put the “toy” in chew toy. These include mobiles, kabobs, buildable bites and puzzle combos.

Several retailers predicted that the big trend in 2012 will be combination chews, which promote dental health and pique the interest of pets and owners. Next to these, they said, consumers have increasingly little reason to buy simpler chews unless the price is considerably lower or they come in a value pack.

That’s good news for retailers. Products that pull double or triple duty translate to more room for variety—and more variety means increased likelihood of satisfied customers and repeat business.


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