When picking out litter, cat owners are looking for products that fulfill several key needs.
"Customers want a litter experience that is consistent," said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. "They want a litter that is low dust, controls odor, is hard clumping and low tracking."
At Pets Naturally in Traverse City, Mich., store manager Andrea Margelis said that cleanliness and effectiveness are features cat owners are seeking from their litter.
"Our customers want a good clumping litter that does not crumble when scooped out, is not tracked through the house and that effectively eliminates the odor," she said. "We also get interest in litter that uses natural fragrances or is fragrance free as well those that are environmentally friendly and made of natural materials."
Cat owners are certainly thinking about their pets when they make litter choices, but Eliott Cundiff, store manager for Daminger’s Natural Pet Foods in Sewell, N.J., said that cat owners also have their own needs.
"A lot of our customers are really bothered by the dust that can be created with litters and don’t like breathing it in," Cundiff said. "They’re obviously making the association that if they don’t like the dust, neither does their pet. Similarly, a lot of our customers say they don’t like the strong scents associated with certain litters—often saying it bothers their allergies—so we’ll get requests for unscented litters."
Zaro said that the humanization of pets trend so frequently talked about in the pet industry is also impacting the litter segment. She said this is evident in consumers’ search for litter solutions that solve health and behavioral concerns. Cat owners are concerned about keeping their pets healthy.
"Customers want superior products with proven results for their cats," Zaro said. "They want litters that address specific issues like inappropriate elimination, upper respiratory issues or stress issues. Customers are more educated than ever, and they want specialty products. At Dr. Elsey’s, we believe litter can be loved by cats and their owners."
Because cat owners are looking for products that address specific needs, Dr. Elsey’s recently launched Clean Tracks, a clay litter with medium-grain particles. It offers low tracking and low dust, and it is unscented.
Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, said that her company is also responding to the demand for problem-solving litter with its Advanced Series Picky Cat formula, which addresses the issue of cats not using the litterbox.
"It addresses the No. 1 reason cats are surrendered to shelters each year, which is going outside of the box," Broders said. "This formula provides a natural, safe solution to a problem that more than 50 percent of households will face at one point in time. It combines the concentrated power of corn with a natural plant-based ingredient that naturally attracts cats to the box. With the trend being toward products that fit specific consumer needs, this product meets those unmet needs."
An Ideal Mix
When considering precious shelf space, pet specialty retailers said they curate an optimal product assortment by selecting cat litters they believe in most. Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat and Dogs, Too, in Denver, said that the store is small, and she is always thinking carefully about the products she chooses to carry.
"We carry litters that work well and that we use at home with our own cats," Green said. "We have all the litter lined up in the front of the store, allowing customers to make an easy selection, but we’re always available to weigh in if they have specific needs."
Sherry Redwine, co-owner of Odyssey Pets in Dallas, said that the fact that different cats—and cat owners—often have different preferences makes it important to have a good variety of options.
"We carry a smattering of everything so there is something for everyone—wood based, pine based, clay, flushable and more," she said. "Some people can’t carry a 40-pound bag of clay litter and are willing to pay more for wood- or paper-based litter since it weighs less. Still, cats can be very picky about texture, so if a cat is used to a certain type of litter, you don’t usually want to change it."
Putting together an ideal product assortment can give retailers a competitive edge.
"In today’s competitive marketplace, cats and their pet parents want choices," said Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo. "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. It is also important to not overwhelm customers. This can be achieved by curating brands and choices that are in line with trends and creating cohesiveness at the shelf."
Rick Rockhill, COO for Lucy Pet Products in Westlake Village, Calif., said that a thoughtfully selected product assortment gives independent retailers the opportunity to showcase their uniqueness.
"The massive corporations who run mega brands want retailers to believe that only products with multimillion-dollar ad campaigns deserve to be on the shelf," Rockhill said. "But retailers understand they cannot make a profit selling products that are at Walmart, Target and dollar stores. Smart retailers look for products that have a truly unique claim or technology and build an assortment of products they can get behind."
He added that a key to creating an optimal product assortment is to involve employees by getting them to use products and share their experiences.
"By doing so, consumers will hear authentic recommendations and will be drawn to what the store employees suggest," Rockhill said. "Recent surveys continue to show that shoppers view the pet store as a credible source for information and help for their pet."
Getting More Customers in the Door
Because cat litter is one of those items that can be purchased at mass retailers and online, independent retailers face a challenge when it comes to drawing more customers in to their stores to purchase litter. Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products in Englewood, Colo., said that becoming a trusted source is crucial to getting pet owners to shop at independents.
"Retailers are in a unique position in that they have the opportunity to provide individual customer care and trusted knowledge to their customers [that they will not receive] shopping in big stores or online," Zaro said. "They have the opportunity to develop a relationship with their customer and to become the expert in all things pet. Retailers really need to blend the convenience of online shopping with the unique advantages of in-store shopping. Many retailers are rising to the challenge by providing more innovative POS and pickup/curbside options."
Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, agreed that the store experience is a differentiator.
"Recent trends show that consumers still want the in-store experience of being able to touch, feel and learn about products," she said. "They also love personalization, which is where independent retailers can win. I was recently in a pet store where I repeatedly saw consumers walking into the store and the associates were greeting them by name and pulling the consumer’s preferred brand off the shelf before they even asked for it."
Broders said that retailers should get to know their customers and learn about their very specific needs.
"This applies to litter as well," she said. "With so many choices, it can be confusing. Take the time to understand what challenges the consumer is facing and recommend a litter that provides a solution."