Cat owners value effective, problem-solving cat litters, and many are willing to trade up for better-quality litters once they prove their worth.
"Cat parents, especially millennials, are looking for litters that are easy and effective," said Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter. "They want performance, but they don’t want what goes along with the maintenance of the box, so the litter they choose has to work hard at odor control and clumping."
When cat owners shop for litter at Premier Pet Supply stores in Michigan, they’ve often already been unhappy with grocery store-bought litters and are looking for something better, said Samantha Henson, a certified clinical pet nutritionist and merchandising manager for Premier Pet Supply.
"A lot of cat parents don’t start thinking much about the litter they’re using until a problem has already arisen," Henson added. "But once they’re dealing with an issue, they are eager for a solution. This might be that the cat is not using the litter or that it is tracking it out of the box."
For Nic Smith, a sales associate at Andersen’s Pet Shop in Montrose, Calif., some of the biggest concerns raised by cat owners in general have to do with their pets’ digestion. For example, many customers switch to raw in order to help with digestion, but a cat owner’s choice of litter may also play a role. Many find that when cats lick their paws after using the litterbox, the material might cause digestion problems, Smith said.
"That’s why many are choosing natural litters like those that are corn or walnut based at our store," Smith added. "Of course, we still have plenty of customers that prefer clay litters. Cats are picky, and some will really show a preference for one type."
The natural litter category is growing, said Luana Francischini, marketing director for Pembroke Park, Fla.-based Petfive Brands, maker of Sustainably Yours natural cat litter.
"Consequently, cat owners are offered more and more options of cat litters made from renewable crops, such as cassava, corn, grass and other plants," Francischini added. "More than ever, pet parents desire sustainable litters, but they don’t want to compromise in terms of performance, so the alternative litter options must live up to what they promise."
In addition to litter composition, manufacturers are paying closer attention to potential litterbox problems and are devising solutions. This includes dust and tracking concerns.
"When developing new products, we address solutions for cats and their parents," said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. "Our newest product, Clean Tracks, is an unscented natural clay, medium-grain particle that provides low tracking and low dust. Low tracking is a very important attribute, because it provides cat owners more time to spend with their cats, and less cleaning litter tracks."
Cat owners also want the task of cleaning the litterbox to be hassle free.
"Not all clumping litter is equal, and consumers are now realizing that," Francischini said. "Clumping litters that offer exceptional binding power make scooping much simpler and faster. Furthermore, strong clumping is directly related to the elimination of odor, which is the No. 1 problem every parent wants to solve. The ammonia smell is distinctive of cat urine, and finding a definitive solution to this problem, instead of trying to mask it, is also key."
Surveying the Competition
Keeping Sales in Brick-and-Mortars
Independent retailers know that when it comes to litter sales, it can be challenging to compete with big-box stores, grocery stores and internet sellers. But retailers who have been successful with this feat are those that position themselves as experts and offer litter that cat owners can’t find elsewhere.
"Once customers see the results, they’ll keep coming back when it’s a product they can’t simply buy at the grocery store," said Nick Kuhm, owner and manager of Pets & Such in Salt Lake City. "The challenge is to get them to take that leap and try something new."
Anything that retailers can do to differentiate themselves is key.
"As consumers, we love personalization and great customer service," said Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter. "Independent stores can offer both of these benefits to consumers. Know your customers, anticipate their needs and provide that extra service they can’t get anywhere else. I was recently in a small pet store where the employees greeted each customer by name and headed to the shelf and pulled the customer’s preferred brand off the shelf for them. It was great to see that personal relationship."
Retailers should demonstrate and discuss the attributes of the high-performing litters they stock, advised Luana Francischini, marketing director for Pembroke Park, Fla.-based Petfive Brands.
"We offer demo kits to every independent retailer that takes on our Sustainably Yours line, and the initiative has paid off," Francischini said. "Clumping, dust—or lack thereof—scent, texture and color are all important criteria to consider when choosing a litter, all of which are tangible and can be adequately shown in an intimate independent retail setting. This personal and hands-on approach to shopping is what many pet parents want and ultimately can’t get from larger-format stores."
The Impact of Price Point
Getting Over the Cost Hurdle
For independent pet specialty stores, pricing can make it difficult to convince consumers to buy cat litter in these outlets instead of at mass retailers and grocery stores or online.
Nick Kuhm, owner and manager of Pets & Such in Salt Lake City, said that price point is definitely a concern for many of his customers—some of whom are simply unwilling to try something that costs more.
"Getting over that hurdle of encouraging them to try something better—but that costs more—is tough for us," he said. "Some people are just unwilling to budge on price."
Millennials, however, might be more willing to pay for premium litters.
"There will always be customers who shop by price, and there are plenty of lower-quality litters out there to satisfy this type of consumer," said Luana Francischini, marketing director for Pembroke Park, Fla.-based Petfive Brands, maker of Sustainably Yours natural cat litter. "On the other hand, according to the latest American Pet Products Association (APPA) survey, millennials now represent the largest portion of pet owners in the U.S. This generation is diligent and is willing to pay more for products that deliver more in terms of efficiency and sustainability. When we consider a product that is part of the cat’s daily routine, like litter or food, it seems evident that the price won’t be the most important factor in the buying decision."
Nic Smith, a sales associate at Andersen’s Pet Shop in Montrose, Calif., said that the retailer also gets pushback on price, but Smith combats this by explaining to customers that they can use less litter and therefore get more use out of it when using a higher-quality product.
"People are willing to come to a specialty retailer and pay a little more once they see the value out of what they’re getting," Smith added.
Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, also noted that because premium litters last longer, they’re worth the investment.
"Our brand is a little more expensive on the shelf, but because it lasts a long time, it actually saves the consumer’s money over time," Broders said. "If a consumer sees the added benefits and performance of a premium-priced litter, they are willing to make the investment. Most won’t settle for inferior performance once they see there are better options—even if it means a higher shelf price."
Even so, Broders said that variety is important.
"The independent stores are a great place to offer premium products and to provide education to consumers on why it’s important to choose those products, across all categories, including litter," she said. "It’s still important to offer options in [different] price points and to let the consumer make the choice based on their own preferences."
Product mix and fair pricing are critical in today’s competitive marketplace, said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo.
"Cats and their pet parents want choices," she noted. "Retailers need to be ahead of the trends and understand the needs of their customers in order to provide thoughtful information and a path to the right choice."