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Small Mammal Marketplace: Treating Pets Like Family

Posted: August 5, 2013, 11:30 a.m. EDT

Bursting with fresh, natural delights, critter treats and hay innovations target highest quality nutrition.

By Cheryl Reeves

These days when small animals get the munchies, what they’re increasingly being treated to is a veritable cornucopia of garden and field-fresh veggies, fruits and hays. The traditional idea that treating is synonymous with a sugary, guilty pleasure is being usurped by the modern understanding that every calorie, every ingredient, counts. Other benefits, such as dental and digestive help, serve to sweeten the sale in this evolving product sector.

Moreover, according to industry insiders, because small mammal owners are typically parents with children, the product decisions these consumers make are also driven by a desire for pesticide-free treats and hays to protect their kids--as well as their little pets.

Courtesy of ZuPreem.

Treating in the Best Interest of the Animal
"Consumers continue to discover that the terms ‘healthy’ and ‘treat’ don’t have to exist independently of one another,” said Melissa Ross, marketing operations manager for Oxbow Animal Health in Murdock, Neb.

Ross reported that a fast-growing number of consumers are adopting the idea that providing overly-processed, unhealthy treats doesn’t fit with an otherwise healthy, species-appropriate diet involving hay and fortified food.

To meet this rising demand for critter snacks that emphasize pet wellness, Oxbow Animal Health most recently introduced two new treat products to the marketplace: Organic Barley Biscuits and freeze-dried Simple Rewards Strawberry and Banana Treats. Ross added that there are even more exciting new small animal treat products in her company’s pipeline set to release later this year.

At For Other Living Things, a pet store in Sunnyvale, Calif., consumers will find a plentiful and varied selection of healthy small animal treats, said owner Anita Ledtje.

"We have a large following of small animal owners and I think this is because I refuse to sell anything other than highly nutritious products that are free of pesticides, too much sugar and artificial ingredients,” Ledtje noted. "The guiding philosophy here is what’s in the best interest of the animal.”

While some retailers may tempt sales by stocking sugary, artificially colorful critter treats that appeal to children, Ledtje remains steadfast in stocking for animal health above all.

"At my store, we are very interactive with customers. I discuss nutrition with the parent so that they understand what each little animal needs nutritionally, and that the pet is a living, breathing being and not a child's toy,” said Ledtje, adding, "This is also a great way for their kids to learn, through the pet, about the importance of eating well, even with snacks.”

A treat line Ledtje said she loves is the American Pet Diner Smacks brand because these treats offer a big healthy payoff with all-natural ingredients, assorted vitamins, Omega 3-delivering flax and brewer’s yeast to improve digestion.

Other products she likes for small animals aren’t necessarily made for them specifically, but are still compatible with a critter’s dietary needs.

"Mrs. Pasture’s Cookies for Horses is a nice pure treat that’s great for chinchillas. And, while Henry and Sons’ Original Vegetarian Cookies are technically a dog treat, these snacks also deliver a lot of fresh, quality nutrition to small animals, too,” Ledtje noted.

Caroline Charland, the president of Bunny Bunch, a manufacturer and a boutique with two locations in Montclair and Fountain Valley, Calif., said people love to bond with their pets by giving them treats and that’s why it is so important that these tidbits are health-enhancing.

"Once you explain the danger resulting in too much sugar in treats, for example, obesity and gastric bloat, pet owners tend to start making smarter treat purchasing decisions. Lower vet bills and a longer lived pet are great motivating reasons to choose treats wisely,” Charland said.

Indeed, based on the demand to treat small animals to more all-natural snack options, Bunny Bunch introduced California Crispies earlier this year. This treat features a medley of organic, locally grown flowers and leaves, plus crispy twigs to gnaw on for optimal dental health.

Sheila Crane, the owner of Pet Works, a store in San Antonio, Texas, agreed that there are more small animal customers looking for less sugar and chemicals in favor of more nutritional value in treats.

"We’re selling lots of small animal treats, and sales have definitely increased since the recession first hit,” she reported. "It’s mostly the moms who are making the treat purchasing decisions, and they are looking for fruits, vegetables and more good things to reward their little pets.”

Give Customers Varied Hay Options
Manufacturers have observed that hay is a critical component to most small pet diets, and retailers can profit well by stocking a fresh and varied assortment to correspond to species-specific life stages, tastes and supplemental health requirements.

"We like to remind stores that hay should make up at least 75 percent of a small herbivore's diet and should be available at all times," said Oxbow's Ross. "Variety is a key focus and we also encourage retailers to educate customers on the fact that all grass hay varieties (alfalfa is different) are nutritionally interchangeable."

In addition to offering a variety of hay, retailers should focus on stocking the freshest hay available, according to Gail Shepard, the director of marketing at ZuPreem in Mission, Kan.

"Consumers generally base their hay purchases on freshness and color," she pointed out.

Pat Barbuto, the manager of Selmer's Pet Land, a store in South Huntington, N.Y., said his customers are very focused on only choosing hay that has not grown stale sitting in a warehouse waiting for distribution. At his store, he said, dependably fresh Oxbow hays are bestsellers, as well as the store's own brand, Selmer's Timothy Hay, that is delivered directly from a local farm and bagged weekly.

Beyond freshness and color, consumers' interest is peaked by hay that delivers extra supplemental benefits.

For example, a new hay product added to Absorption Corp.'s Carefresh line is a timothy hay that is promoted by the manufacturer as offering digestive and dental benefits when combined with the Carefresh complete dietary menu.

A recent developing trend in the hay sector concerns how to minimize the mess hay can create, reported Shepard.

Bunny Bunch's Charland agreed, which is why she is launching the new Bunny Bunch Hay Container later this year.

"While hay is hay and it's going to get messy, a special storage container can help a bit and also add a decorative touch," she said. "My container will be available in purple, white or black and the wire construction will allow pet owners to conveniently slip in a fresh bag of hay."

Another new product that addresses hay mess management is Dunlea Farms' Tidy Feeder, a carton that contains hay and is designed to hang inside a cage. The product also doubles as a toy that challenges a critter to dig and extract the hay.

Top Key Selling Points in Critter Treat and Hay Products
According to Gail Shepard, the director of marketing for ZuPreem, in Mission, Kan., these are five cutting-edge consumer concerns in the treat/hay sector that retailers should focus on to ramp up sales:
1. All natural ingredients, pesticide-free. Pet owners want products that are natural and wholesome for their small pet. This makes the product safe for the pet and also safe in the home where children are often handling the food, treats and hay. ZuPreem tests and monitors products for pesticides.
2. Bonding Opportunities. Popular items for treats and hay include items that are activity-based and provide opportunities for the pet owner to interact and further bond with their pet.
3. Package Descriptions. Pet owners want clear, detailed product descriptions. These are smart consumers and they are cautious with brands that add a lot of 'fluff' copy.
4. Affordability. Our market research tells us that treats need to be no more than $4 for an approximate 3-oz. unit.
5. Convenience. Consumers want simple and direct education in-store and online plus time-saving, bundled, species-specific product displays.—CR

Know Your Critter Customer: Young, Busy and Tech Advanced
Manufacturers assert that due to the critter category being the starting point for a family pet, retailers need to provide as much education as possible. Moreover, the most successful promotional strategies will be designed to engage this very youthful market.

"ZuPreem has found that the small animal category turns over every two or three years," Shepard pointed out. "New small animal customers are always coming to the pet store's aisles, so retailers need to provide on-going education."

Proactive marketing ideas Shepard suggested include: in-store events and doing one-stop display bundling of critter food, treats, hay, water bottles, toys and cages. She said bundling is a very effective way to get extra sales from busy customers who dash in for one thing and don't have time to browse in various sections of the store. Having everything grouped in one display is a powerful way to appeal to this time-pressed consumer.

To quickly grab the attention of this sector's youthful customer, stores should also parlay the power of social media.

"The small animal owning customer is younger, tech savvy and more digitally interactive than most other pet owners," Shepard noted.

Still, another way to simultaneously help animals in need and boost profits is to reward customers who adopt from a shelter.

Ledtje said she rewards her customers who rescue an abandoned small animal from a shelter a 20 percent discount coupon.

Another successful promotional strategy at For Other Living Things, said Ledtje, is her store's annual Bunnyfest event.

"Bunnyfest features product vendors, veterinarians, educational demonstrations and more. Recently, the event has grown so successful that it outgrew the store and we had to start renting a hall," Ledtje said.

In the end, Oxbow's Ross said it's up to the retailer to creatively maximize treat and hay sales by calling attention to quality, innovation and species-specific health needs via a variety of marketing strategies.

"We recommend retailers focus on selling multiple varieties of these products at each purchase, either by running specials or through consumer education. In the case of hay, by mixing and matching varieties, customers will encourage hay consumption and learn which type their pet enjoys most," she said. <HOME>


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