Cat Litter That Goes the Distance

Today’s consumers are increasingly interested in natural and organic products. The market has grown enough that they understand the benefits and see the value. Still, they’ll pass on a product if it doesn’t perform. 

"It’s not just natural food anymore—consumers also want to buy other pet products like cat litter that are free of harmful chemicals and synthetic perfumes that are just added to cover up the odor," said Leslie Ellis, consumer communication manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Wash. "Products made from sustainable resources that are biodegradable are better for the environment. However, consumers do not want to give up performance—especially when it comes to odor control and cleanup."

The humanization trend has crossed over into litter, said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo.

"Clients want superior products for themselves and for their cats," Zaro noted. 

She said Dr. Elsey’s focuses on making litter that meets consumers’ demands: low dust and tracking with hard clumping and no scent. 

"Cats do not like scent in their litter, and the scent and texture of the litter can impact cats not consistently using the litterbox," Zaro said. 

There are several factors driving the natural trend, but the biggest is safety. Over the past few decades, consumers have become increasingly aware that true health can only be achieved by eating well, exercising and avoiding exposure to toxic materials, said Dr. Steve Tsengas, CEO of OurPet’s Co. in Fairport Harbor, Ohio.

"This same lifestyle mode is increasingly followed as related to their pets," Tsengas added. "After all, they are members of the family."

New in Cat Litter

Next Gen Pet Products recently launched Timber Fresh, which combines more than a decade’s worth of experience focused on making the most efficient and cost-effective litter yet, said Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for the Laguna Niguel, Calif., company.

"This all-natural litter provides excellent odor control while invoking a woodland feel with the power of hinoki cypress, which helps control odor and resist bacteria and mold without the use of harsh chemicals," Yamamoto said.

OurPet’s Co. in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, also has a new litter on the market. Switchgrass Natural Cat Litter with BioChar uses switchgrass as a main ingredient. This hardy, wild, native grass of North America does not require fertilization or toxic spraying, meaning there is less chance of toxic contaminants turning up in the litter, according to the company.

Talking Cat Litter with Customers

Many consumers start their research online and then want more information when they are at the retailer, said Leslie Ellis, consumer communication manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Wash.

"It is very important that all store associates receive training on any products but especially premium natural products so that they can explain the unique differences and why they are better for their pet and the environment," Ellis said. "Healthy Pet uses a program called Experticity, which is a free online training program available to all store associates for Carefresh and Ökocat products."

An educated retailer is what can make the difference between a customer shopping at the local grocery store or purchasing litter from a specialty pet retailer, said Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

"The most successful retailers are those that have taken steps to be well educated on the benefits and advantages of new products entering the marketplace," Yamamoto said. "Consumers are looking to retailers to provide more natural litter options to fit both their needs and the needs of their cat."

Retailers who know and understand their shoppers will be able to direct them to a litter that fits their needs, said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo.

"We provide retailers with Litterbox Solution Booklets that provide client education and solutions for litterbox use and other cat-related health and behavior issues," Zaro said.

World’s Best Cat Litter, a brand of Kent Pet Group in Muscatine, Iowa, also offers information for sales associates. The company’s simple, educational "pocket pieces" quickly explain World’s Best Cat Litter’s differentiator and how the litter meets consumers’ needs, said Jean Broders, senior brand manager for World’s Best Cat Litter.

"The key for success in selling a natural litter is understanding the product and how it performs by taking advantage of educational information that the brand offers," Broders said. 

Because many of these products do cost more, it’s important that retailers are armed with information about what makes them worth the added cost. Brad Hannah, national sales manager for Otter Co-op, a consumer’s cooperative in Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada, that also manufactures a brand of cat litter, said that consumers often are willing to pay more for a premium product—if they understand the benefits. And that’s a very important "if."

Hannah added that he has noticed a clear trend of consumers seeking out specialty SKUs that are not available through the ordinary grocery channel or on Amazon.  This is where retailers can shine if they capitalize on the opportunity.

Get Creative With Cat Litter

Merchandising cat products is always a bit tricky, as retailers admit cat owners tend to be set in their ways. If they find a product they like, they often stick with it.

"Cat owners tend to be very loyal to a product that has worked for them—so it may take a lot to change their mind," said Darrell Perkins, co-owner of Fin & Feather Pet Center in Richmond, Va. "But if you can show them how it’s better, it can be done. Odor control and as little dust as possible are the two key factors that need to be demonstrated for cat owners."

Showing off product is important. However, due largely to their bulk size and weight, cat litters typically are stored on a low shelf. This makes it hard to entice new customers, let alone try something creative. But Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif., said that the fact that her company’s product is lighter allows retailers to display the litter more prominently.

"The vast majority of litters naturally gravitate toward the bottom shelves," Yamamoto said. "But because Next Gen litters are 90 percent lighter than clay litters, stores are able to place our product on higher shelves. It also means people are more apt to pick up a bag of Green Tea Fresh or Cypress Fresh and learn firsthand exactly how much lighter our litters are."

Ryan Oaks, general manager of Mini-Critters in Sioux Falls, S.D., said that he has found it is helpful to combine litter displays with other cat products. This might attract cat owners even if they purchase their litter elsewhere.

"We’ll combine litter with cat toys, litter scoops and other accessories such as litterbox additives," Oaks said. "We try to make it a one-stop shop where you can stop and get everything you might need. While a lot of people still buy their litter at the grocery store, a one-stop-shop display just may encourage them to try something new."

While it’s not always easy to sway consumers, actually being able to see what differentiates a product is helpful. Leslie Ellis, consumer communication manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Wash., said retailers should try setting up a display where consumers can see the product outside of its packaging—and maybe even touch and feel it. Helping them to see the different textures will provide a better understanding of what sets the product apart.

Brad Hannah, national sales manager for Otter Co-op, a consumer’s cooperative in Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada, that also manufactures a brand of cat litter, said that nothing sells litter like a display that the store cat utilizes. It’s basically a walking advertisement. 

"Still, displays and merchandising are really invaluable—an endcap alone can increase sales by 50 percent," Hannah said. "If the staff is bored, that’s the time for managers to encourage them to channel their creative side and come up with ideas for merchandising."

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Pet Product News.