At a time when 65 percent of U.S. households own a pet—35 percent a cat, 4 percent a small animal and 4 percent a reptile in 2014—according to the APPA 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey, litter and bedding represent a significant product category. Add the increased interest consumers have in natural ingredients and how the products they use affect themselves, their pets and the environment, and the natural litter and bedding market has its work cut out for it.
Many industry experts reported that when choosing litter and bedding for their pets, owners put a high value on product safety—for the pet and the environment.
High Value of Safety
"In 2014, almost 75 percent of adults reported purchasing green products or services, and 40 percent are willing to pay more for products if ethical and responsible practices are guaranteed," said Jane Wasley, brand manager of Ökocat, a brand of Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Wash. "In addition, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of their impact on the earth and are choosing products for their four-legged friends that closely mimic their own purchases: organic, all natural and biodegradable."
Key components in the earth-friendly solutions customers seek are flushable, biodegradable, made from recycled products and made of sustainable materials. Some of the newest litters on the market specifically cater to these customer concerns.
"Rufus & Coco Wee Kitty Clumping Corn Litter is the first litter in Australia to be made from natural, biodegradable and environmentally sustainable corn, [and] it is due to hit the U.S. market in early 2016," said Anneke van den Broek, CEO of Rufus & Coco Pty Ltd., with offices in Cremorne, Australia, and East Yorkshire, England. "Sustainability has been considered carefully in the design. [It] is clumpable, meaning less litter is discarded with each use. It is also made from corn, a safe, biodegradable ingredient. Lastly, it is safe to either flush or mulch in the garden, so less litter ends up in the landfill. Also, the plastic packaging is recyclable."
With the goal of offering customers an environmentally friendly product from start to finish, Next Gen Pet Products produced its Cypress Fresh cat litter from recycled materials and designed the leftover litter to be added to the lawn or garden as compost, said Janice Yamamoto, marketing director for Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Healthy Pet launched Ökocat Natural Cat Litter, a biodegradable and certified flushable litter made from sustainable materials: reclaimed wood and paper, Wasley said.
On the small mammal side, Healthy Pet released a next generation of its best-selling Carefresh line made of natural wood fibers.
Beyond the environment, pet owners want the products they use to be safe for their pets and themselves. Nontoxic and low- or no-dust formulas are highest in demand, sources said.
"Customers are looking for an absorbent, dust-free product that works," said Michael Hollinger, store manager of Choice Pet Supply, which has stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. "Something nontoxic and capable of covering up smells, that’s what is provided with the natural products that we use in our store."
Several manufacturers and retailers, including Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Kent Pet Group Inc., maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, in Muscatine, Iowa; Brian Pratt, assistant manager of Anaheim Feed & Pet Supply Inc. in Anaheim, Calif.; and Kari Marie Schuck, manager at Nature’s Pet Market in Salem, Ore., also reported pet owner concern about clay and chemical litters has increased interest in natural litters.
"In the cat litter selection I’ve begun seeing a movement away from clay products," Schuck said. "Customers are starting to move to the natural side. They are thinking more and more about what touches their cat’s paws when they hop in the box."
Eliminate Performance Anxiety
Ultimately, though, customers are focused on product performance. They want natural litter and bedding options that meet their needs and their pets’.
"Natural litter options that perform well are in demand," Wasley said. "Many consumers want a ‘green’ litter, but they have high expectations for it to perform as well as a traditional option."
Broders agreed, stating that ease of use and performance are what consumers focus on.
"Bottom line, if the litter doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter what it’s made from," she said.
The top three performance qualities pet owners are looking for in natural bedding are odor control, moisture absorption and softness for the pet, said Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sunseed Inc. in Bowling Green, Ohio, adding that the company’s Heavy Duty Odor Control Fresh World Bedding Multi-Pet Formula addresses all three issues.
"It controls odor for up to 14 days with our Odor Blocker Formula, it absorbs up to three times its weight in liquid, and the supersoft crumbles are strong enough to control odor and moisture but soft for furry pets to be comfy," she said.
Healthy Pet formulated its Carefresh line to also address consumers’ top concerns.
"Small animals such as rabbits, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs are among some of America’s most popular pets," said Jim Gorrell, brand manager for Carefresh. "Our new and improved Carefresh complete blends natural wood fibers together with a new proprietary odor control formula to deliver an industry leading 10-day odor control. Our unique process also allows … Carefresh to be ultra-absorbent and soft, keeping homes fresh and small animals cozy and dry."
Cat owners look for natural litters that clump well and offer minimal tracking. Wasley reported that clumping litters are important for the customer and account for about 70 percent of the category, and Rufus & Coco’s van den Broek said that part of the appeal of clumping litters is that they last longer and are simpler to use.
"No one wants to spend time cleaning the litterbox," Broders said, "so litters must clump well and absorb liquid, which allows for easy cleanup."
Low or no dust is popular because of allergies or respiratory concerns for humans and animals as well as the simple desire to only clean the litter tray, not the entire floor, van den Broek added.
Set to Sell
Stocked shelves and educated staff go a long way toward helping this staple category of products move in retail stores across the country.
"We display our products on our shelves and provide extensive knowledge about these products to our customers," Choice Pet Supply’s Hollinger said. "All of our staff is highly trained and well versed on these products."
Anaheim Feed & Pet Supply’s Pratt said they live by the philosophy of "stack it high and let it fly."
"We do our best to have bags and boxes stacked up neatly," he said. "When we get a new litter in, we will often put a litter pan out with a squirt bottle full of water for customers to try it out and see [how] it [works] for themselves."
Van den Broek agreed, noting that in-store demonstrations or an in-store display unit designed to hold a small amount of litter with signage allows customers to physically see, touch and try the litter with liquid.
Christian Kaleta, owner of Predators Reptile Center in Mesa, Ariz., said he mostly uses gondola racks and that placement in the store doesn’t seem to affect bedding sales.
"I’ve put it all over the store, and it doesn’t seem to matter where it’s placed," he said. "Mine is on the bottom shelf, and when customers come in they’ll just ask for the bedding."
Both Nature’s Pet Market’s Schuck and Healthy Pet’s Wasley recommended a less is more approach to stocking shelves.
"Don’t stock too many types," Schuck said. "Have information readily available for customers and keep your selection to a minimum. Get feedback on what is working for customers and eliminate the items that don’t sell and don’t get good feedback."
"The best way to showcase this product is for stores to use it themselves," Kniceley said. "This first-hand experience will increase the store employee’s knowledge of how effective it truly is."
Next Gen Pet Products’ Yamamoto said keeping a bag handy lets customers experience how lightweight a product is.
"People are so accustomed to a bag of cat litter being heavy that telling someone that a bag of Green Tea Leaves [litter] is 90 percent lighter than clay is just a number until you get a bag in their hands and they experience the sensation themselves," she said. "Then the best part is the look on their face when you tell them that bag is a month’s supply for a cat."
Another option is to offer a free bag upon the purchase or adoption of an animal, as part of a "new owner’s kit," Kniceley said.
Retailers also can take advantage of the materials and support many manufacturers and distributors offer. For example, branded manufacturer displays can call attention to a particular product.
"World’s Best Cat Litter also offers video monitors, which are placed right at the shelf level and are a silent salesman for our product," Broders said. "The consumer can learn in 60 seconds about our product."
Communicating with customers can build trust and sales with the right product for that person and their pet’s needs.
"Our litters are sold best if we take a moment to talk to customers about the type of pet, any medical needs or health concerns, and general customer interest in different levels of healthful and natural products," Schuck said. "Talking to customers will always be better than signage.
"Don’t forget add-on sales," she said. "Selling a new type of litter? Maybe mention freshening up that old litter scoop."
What Litter and Bedding Products are in High Demand Right Now?
"Litters like Blue Buffalo’s [Naturally Fresh] walnut-based litter and Swheat Scoop are picking up, as people want something more natural. Brands like World’s Best Cat Litter are also at the top of our natural litter product sales. Following a bit behind the other types is one of the most natural litters we carry: wood pellet litter. Most popularly used for declawed cats and our local shelter cats, this litter is small, good-smelling little pellets of wood.
"In the small pet world, the classic pine-shaving litters are still the most popular. This doesn’t seem to be a changing trend, though recycled newspaper litters are not far behind."—Kari Marie Schuck, manager at Nature’s Pet Market in Salem, Ore.
"The natural litters are the only litters seeing growth in the category."—Jean Broders, senior brand manager for Kent Pet Group Inc., maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, in Muscatine, Iowa
"The most popular is [Zoo Med’s Forest Floor] cypress mulch. It holds humidity, doesn’t mold quickly, is versatile (can go dry, can go wet), and it’s not easily swallowed by the animal."—Christian Kaleta, owner of Predators Reptile Center in Mesa, Ariz.
"Most of the litter and bedding that we sell for cats and other small animals is natural. Carefresh is our best-selling bedding for small animals. It is a paper-based bedding and much more absorbent than pine or aspen. It also keeps the living area of the animal smelling better and is better to look at."—Michael Hollinger, store manager at Choice Pet Supply, which has stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Pet Product News.