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Small Mammal Marketplace: Starting Off Easy

Posted: May 14, 2010

Pet Product NewsBeginning small mammal owners continue to look for certain attributes in habitats for their pets as the number of cage offerings increase.
By Peggy Scott

Innovation is a constant in the small mammal product category, with new offerings for these pets consistently lining the shelves of pet stores.

This innovation is especially apparent in small mammal habitats, including those for beginning owners. As habitat numbers expand, though, certain attributes remain ‘musts’ in the minds of first-time small mammal owners, and retailers are responding with a focus on merchandising these products and customer education.

Housing for ferrets and other small animals
Many beginning small mammal owners look for habitats that are easy to clean and offer quick access to their pets.Courtesy of Ware Manufacturing Inc.
“Ease of cleaning is of top importance,” said Dave Hitsman, director of product development for Ware Manufacturing Inc. in Phoenix. “People are looking for pull-out trays, multiple door openings, even a complete side that opens all the way. That’s what consumers want—easier access and easier to clean.”

Diane Vair, product marketing manager for Marshall Pet Products Inc. in Wolcott, N.Y., also stressed the value of these two features.

“The easier it is to clean, the better,” Vair said. “We’re always looking to improve accessibility. And latches have to be secure.”

People are always going to want ease of maintenance in a pet home, agreed David Masur, co-owner of Animal House Pet Store in San Diego. He added that his customers also want choice.

“We carry Super Pet, [Hagen’s] ZooZone, even some custom-made homes made by a local company,” Masur said.

With recent product introductions, the number of habitat choices for customers is expanding. Both Super Pet and Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. recently debuted new looks to their beginner-friendly CritterTrail and Habitrail Ovo lines, respectively. Introduced at the Global Pet Expo, held in March 2010 in Orlando, Fla., the updated lines are designed to be easy to clean. The CritterTrail habitats will be available in summer 2010 and are suitable for hamsters, dwarf hamsters, gerbils and mice, according to Judy Heffron, senior marketing manager for Super Pet, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Also on the minds of pet owners is the issue of space for their small mammals’ habitats.

“Hamsters, the No. 1 pet for small children, are usually kept in the child’s room, but you often have trouble finding space,” Hitsman said. “So last year, we (Ware Manufacturing) developed a full-size hamster cage that hangs on the wall. It has burrows for natural life uses. It has cubicles and other spaces. It addresses the animal’s life style, and space concerns.

Industry Voices
What are the best ways to merchandise beginner habitats and cages for small mammals?

“We are firm believers in full-care [starter] kits. Every small animal has to have a cage. The best way is to put on the floor a complete starter kit with food, bedding, care book, bottle, treat. Get them off to a good start. Tell them, ‘You pick the hamster, we have this kit.’ They’ll know what they need.”
—Dave Hitsman, director of product development for Ware Manufacturing Inc. in Phoenix


“Ideally, our homes would be assembled and on display, but you can’t always have that. Have literature and brochures right next to the animal. It helps if people can see how much room they need for their pets.”
—Diane Vair, product marketing manager for Marshall Pet Products Inc. in Wolcott, N.Y.


“I’ve always believed in the ‘one-through-four’ step program. Merchandise in a way that guides people through the purchase from cage to food. Pick from these four cages, pick bedding, pick food, etc. And put things eye-level for kids.”
—Jeremy Moser, director of marketing for North American Pet Products in Corona, Calif.

“This year, we have introduced a square, tall cage: the Critter Universe,” he continued. Hamsters have depth perception problems. This cage is multilevel, giving them room, but ramps run underneath every opening to the next floor so the hamster can’t fall. And there are cubicles across the back. If you take a common behavior and incorporate it into the design, it’s better for everyone. And because it still has to be easy to clean, it has a pull-out tray.”

Having the right cage is just the beginning of making sure a new pet owner starts off on the right track, Masur noted.

“Here in California, we have to hand out care sheets with every animal,” Masur continued. “And, we have a starter kit checklist we go through.

They have to have the basics. And no animal goes out the door without a proper home. If they don’t buy one because they have one at home, they have to bring it in so I can see it is suitable. I can’t go home with the pets, but this is close.”

When offering habitats and other items for beginning small mammal owners, “old school” is still a viable option for some retailers, such as for Bethany Varnum Stockman, who owns the Laconia Pet Center in Laconia, N.H., with her brother, Brett Varnum.

“For more than 30 years, our starter kit has included a 10-gallon glass tank as a house,” Stockman said. “We find out as much as we can about the caretaker, such as age, and then, for $40, offer a starter kit that has the tank, screen cover, food, shavings and a water bottle. It’s a great way to get started. If you keep it clean, odor isn’t a problem.”

Stockman added that this is the perfect time to provide the kind of personalized service that can result in a customer for life.

“We will make you a starter kit and give you discount on everything in it if you want a different type of litter or bottle,” she said. “We’ll customize, and that encourages customers to come back.”

Jenny Olson-Paden, co-owner of Pet Planet in Lee’s Summit, Mo., has also had good luck with starter kits.

“We have a few of the manufacturers’ kits, but we also prepackage our own starter kits,” she reported. “And most people seem to like the mix-and-match way—this food and cage, with that type of bedding.”

Hitsman noted that the more a habitat’s design can make the pet a part of the household, the better it is.

“Our cage systems are attachable to a playpen—a wire pen with a solid washable floor,” he added. “You can give the pet a little exercise and interaction because the child can sit on the floor and play with them.

“We’d like to help kids keep in touch with warm, real animals,” he continued. “It helps keep them interested in pet care. The ‘gateway’ pet used to be parakeets and goldfish. Now it’s the hamster. If a child does well, they move on to more complicated creatures. It’s our responsibility to get people into the hobby and keep them interested.” <HOME>

*This bonus content is a continuation of the Small Mammal Marketplace article “Habitats for beginning small mammal owners center on accessibility, minimal cleaning and species-specific needs,” which appears on pages 80-81 of the June 2010 issue. Please refer back to the magazine for the full article. Click here to become a subscriber.

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