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Safety is a prime concern for the smallest of pets, and that drives sales trends in small-animal bedding and litter. Category experts report that customers want more natural and nontoxic options for their small animals.

“More and more consumers are looking for and choosing only natural, nontoxic products not only for themselves and their home and family, but also for their pets,” said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and promotions manager for Healthy Pet, a maker of small-animal bedding and cat litter, based in Ferndale, Wash. “They look for products and brands that are made in a sustainable way, and that do not harm the environment.”

The demand for natural is seen in color and fragrance preferences as well.

“Natural-colored bedding continues to be the most popular,” Ellis said.

Sarah Hudson-Sims, data wrangler for Pets On Broadway in Portland, Ore., said the movement toward natural products in the small-animal category has taken off in the past couple of years, so the store’s “favorite manufacturers have moved away from strong scents and bright colors toward unscented or lightly scented beddings in more muted or natural colors.”

“Overall, pet parents seem more interested in natural and sustainable products,” she said. “There’s an industrywide trend toward ‘green’ products with minimal additives, and that trend is perfect for the small-animal bedding category.”

This shift comes from the desire to protect the health of small pets so they can live a longer, healthier and happier life, said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health, an Omaha, Neb.-based manufacturer of food and supplies for small animals.

“Customers shopping for bedding and litter desire safe and effective products that they can trust for their beloved pets,” he said. “Customers increasingly want bedding and litter that is free of scents or fragrances, as both artificial and natural scents can harm the sensitive respiratory systems of small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs.”

Other customer requests include odor control and absorption.

“One of the biggest stressors when it comes to caring for a small animal is odor,” said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Kaytee, a brand of food and supplies for pet birds and small animals manufactured by Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet Co.

Because of this, “consumers are shifting to paper bedding, especially natural options with odor-controlling claims,” Nicklas added.

Other popular attributes in bedding and litter for small animals include pellets as a base layer beneath paper bedding, smaller flakes that fluff up and create less dust, crinkle papers for burrowing and harder wood products safe for chewing, industry insiders shared. Ultimately, odor absorption is the most important feature to most small-animal owners, Hudson-Sims said.

“They also would love it if it didn’t look ‘dirty’ in between cage cleanings,” she said. “That’s a tall order, and realistically they only get that with spot cleaning and regular full cage cleans, but they would sure love it!”

On the Market

Best-sellers in Bedding and Litter Products

Manufacturers in the small-animal litter and bedding category offer pet owners a variety of options to meet consumers’ increasingly discerning preferences.

“Many millennials treat their pets like part of the family,” said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and promotions manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Wash., “And they’re willing to spend the money for higher-quality bedding.”

The manufacturer’s best-selling bedding continues to be the original Natural Small Pet Bedding. Made from scratch using raw, natural paper fiber, the 99 percent dust-free bedding offers 10-day odor control with twice the absorbency as shavings, said company officials. Customers can choose from natural, white, blue and confetti colors in 14-, 30- and 60-liter sizes.

Oxbow Animal Health recently updated the packaging for its two top sellers. Pure Comfort bedding is made of 100 percent pure, never-printed paper for pets of all sizes for odor control, moisture absorption and easy cleanup, said Lucas Stock, communications manager for the Omaha, Neb.-based manufacturer. This bedding contains no additives or fragrances, he added.

Eco-Straw is an all-natural pelleted litter made of 100 percent wheat straw. The dust-free litter is formulated to clump when wet for easier spot cleaning and absorbs 300 percent of its weight in moisture, he added.

Kaytee, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet Co., offers Clean & Cozy Extreme Odor Control bedding with 14 days of odor control or your money back, said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist. The paper bedding is 99 percent dust free, absorbs six times its weight in liquid, and has a soft and fluffy texture to encourage burrowing or nesting, company officials noted.

Consumer Education

Savvy Retailers Make for Savvy Customers

Customer education is a critical part of improving the lives of small-animal pets and the experience of owners, whether they are new to living with small animals or not, and savvy pet specialty retailers understand their role in the important work of consumer education.

“Our animal-care team spends a lot of time with pet parents talking to them about their options and what to watch out for when choosing anything that goes into their pet’s cage,” said Sarah Hudson-Sims, data wrangler for Pets On Broadway, a store in Portland, Ore.

Specialty pet retailers reported that training staff on how to work with consumers is important for the health of the animals in their customers’ care as well as the store’s overall success.

“If not educated about the pets [people] have and choose to care for, there can be serious health problems, such as ingestion and choking,” said Mika Warner, sales staff member at Animal Crackers Pet Supply in Corvallis, Ore. “Our store essentially has meetings once or twice a month to talk about a certain type of product as well as specific animals themselves. We want to pass on knowledge, even if we don’t necessarily carry every product.”

Many manufacturers recognize both the importance of education and the role they can play in this process.

“When store associates receive ongoing training and product knowledge, they are empowered with both information and confidence to field consumer questions and help lead their customers into making the best buying decisions for their home and pets,” said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and promotions manager for Ferndale, Wash.-based pet food and supply manufacturer Healthy Pet. “In-person education is one of the best ways to provide store associates with information because it gives the opportunity to talk through it together, practice a mock customer inquiry and field questions directly.”

Because it’s difficult to conduct in-person training in all stores, the company provides training videos to educate retail associates at their convenience, she said. The manufacturer also participates in retailer training meetings to educate store managers so they can share the information gathered and educate their associates.

Personal experience is an excellent way to glean and be able to share important information. Pets On Broadway’s animal care staff all have pets at home, Hudson-Sims said.

“They’re basically educating themselves through experience,” she added. “We present products and explain the advantages, and they try them out and tell us how they actually work. It also makes it easy for them to talk to our customers.”

Three specific areas of education were recommended by industry insiders.

1. The purpose of litter/bedding for small animals

“Some customers do not always understand the purpose of litter or don’t know that litter and bedding can be used together in their small pet’s habitat to create a substrate that wicks moisture away from animals with a plush, comfortable top layer,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Omaha, Neb.-based Oxbow Animal Health, a manufacturer of food and supplies for small animals.

2. Proper cleaning and care of litter/bedding

“In many occasions, pet owners become frustrated because of the cleaning and odor that comes with the responsibilities of owning a small animal,” said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet Co.’s Kaytee brand. “Educating consumers about the advantages of a bedding like Kaytee Clean & Cozy bedding helps to reduce those concerns.”

Giving small-pet owners a recommended schedule for care and cleaning is helpful, Stock added.

“Bedding and litter are an essential part of a small companion mammal’s habitat,” he said. “Because pets spend so much time living on these products, customers especially need to be educated on how often bedding and litter should be spot cleaned and completely disposed of and replaced.”

3. Dangers to watch for

“There are serious health risks to using the wrong kinds of bedding, like respiratory issues and if they eat some types of bedding—and small animals will nibble on everything you put in their cage,” Hudson-Sims said.

Making consumer education a top priority in small-animal bedding and litter will protect pets and lead to repeat business.

“Not only will this education drive frequent, repeat sales of litter and bedding,” Stock said, “but it will help pet parents provide their animals with a clean living space to help prevent painful and costly respiratory, skin and foot issues.”

Assortment Optimization

A Wise Use of Space

Having a variety of product helps ensure robust sales of small-animal bedding and litter products, pet specialty retailers report. However, when space is at a premium, curating a lean but effective assortment is key to maximizing sales in the category.

“It’s a balance of providing options for people but not providing too many,” said Sarah Hudson-Sims, data wrangler for Pets On Broadway, a pet store in Portland, Ore. “We have selections from six manufacturers, and we’ve talked through the reasons we stock them and have gotten feedback on them from our animal care associates.”

At Animal Crackers Pet Supply in Corvallis, Ore., retail space is limited, so the store must be very selective in its assortment.

“If we had the space, I’d like to see four brands or a handful to choose from, and a variety of different types,” said Mika Warner, sales staff member. “You don’t want only one option available, but a diverse variety.”

While wood beddings remain relevant, Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Kaytee, a brand of Franklin, Wis.-based Central Garden & Pet Co., said consumers are shifting to paper bedding.

“It is important to focus on paper bedding offerings within your assortment,” she said. Within the paper bedding assortment, it is important to offer various sizes and even colors.”

Pets On Broadway carries several bedding and litter products for customers.

“A staff favorite is the Oxbow Pure Comfort, which we’ve found to have very little dust and to fluff up very well,” Hudson-Sims said. “[Oxbow’s] Eco-Straw is also a great pellet litter to use as a base layer under the paper bedding. Carefresh’s Complete beddings have been around for a long time and have always worked well, and they’ve recently come out with a frequent buyer program through Astro.

“Kaytee’s Clean & Cozy line has a bit smaller of a flake, so it fluffs up wonderfully and is very low dust,” she said. “We also carry FiberCore’s Eco-Bedding, which is a great crinkle paper bedding. It’s really the best for enrichment since it’s so good for burrowing, and it’s naturally absorbent.

“Additionally, a lot of small animals like to tunnel, burrow or make nests out of their bedding, so providing them with types that are conducive to that type of behavior is very important to their long-term happiness and well-being,” she added.