Small Mammal Housing Faces Headwinds

Although the small mammal category has experienced a demographic shift, with more people in their twenties purchasing smaller pets in lieu of dogs or cats, competition from big-box stores and online vendors means pet specialty retailers are having to get creative to hold onto small animal housing sales.

Housing for small mammals is a necessary purchase for customers seeking a new pet, but increasingly, pet specialty retailers have to compete with sales of used enclosures and discounted product from nontraditional retail sources. 

"What we’ve found, especially out here because we’re in such a rural area, is that most people are getting their caging off of Craigslist used," said Claude Berthelot, owner of Feathers, Fur & Scales Pets and Supplies in Danielsville, Ga. "It’s very rare that we’re selling an animal with the enclosure and everything else. Typically they’ll go out and get one or they’ll buy it online, through Amazon or something like that."

In some cases, though, retailers have been able to compete in the market for used caging as part of their regular business.

"We do something other stores don’t do," said Kathy Mische, co-owner of Furr and Finns Pet Store in Falcon, Colo. "We carry used equipment [including enclosures]. It does pretty well for us. People are always looking for bargains."

Retailers are also often stuck in something of a Catch-22 when it comes to offering animal housing, as competition squeezes their ability to stay competitive on pricing, while at the same time, customers want a one-stop-shopping experience. 

"Retailers must offer complete solutions for the range of unique needs of every animal species that they support," said John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development and sourcing for Ware Pet Products in Phoenix. "The last thing a customer wants is to have to go to two or three stores to meet housing, accessory and food needs. This lack of convenience feeds a migration to buying online, but offering a one-stop shop and providing the customer the opportunity to touch and feel the habitats in person still offer tremendous benefit."

Focusing on customer service and offering live small animals also seems to help retailers retain customers and grow business.

"The internet and big-box stores both are pretty much killing the independents," said Daniel Schneider, manager of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "The only way you can make it as an independent is to have really good customer service and quality, healthy animals."

Customer Education

Knowledge Drives Sales

Successful pet specialty retailers reported that educating customers offers a distinct advantage when it comes to besting the competition and succeeding in the small animal category. 

"We want to be the first ones to educate customers," said Brittani Johnson, co-owner of Critter Cabana in Newberg, Ore. "This is what we found to work best. Many customers are doing all their research online, and they’ll come to us for advice also, almost to test us. It’s like they want to see if we’re a trustworthy source or not compared to whatever they learned online."

Big-box competition in the small mammal category can be fierce, but specialty retailers find that focusing on their educational expertise allows them to stand out.

"Being a small pet store and having animals, we really worked hard on the education factor," said Kathy Mische, co-owner of Furr and Finns Pet Store in Falcon, Colo. "[Customers] can’t get some of that information from the bigger box stores."

Focusing on animal health also helps bring in customers.

"We focus on the health aspects of our animals," said Daniel Schneider, manager of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "We get our animals from individuals that raised them, so we’re lucky."

Price Point 

Different Strokes

Prices for small animal housing have generally gone up in the past few years, industry professionals reported, and, in some cases, customers are extremely price sensitive. 

"Habitats are hard because they’re so expensive these days," said Kathy Mische, co-owner of Furr and Finns Pet Store in Falcon, Colo. "With smaller cages, you have to stay pretty low [when it comes to prices]. As you get bigger, a lot of the cages are $100, and many customers don’t really want to go over $100. They want to be way under that, so that makes it tough. The used market works well for us."

As is typical in the independent pet retail business, price point is often market-dependent.

"On the retail side, customers are usually OK with anything up to $40," said Daniel Schneider, manager of Fish n’ Chirps Pet Center in Denton, Texas. "After that, sales start getting a little more sluggish."

Customer experience plays a role in what price point is acceptable, as well.

"With anything, there is a range of pricing for small animal habitats, which are based on a variety of circumstances," said John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development and sourcing for Ware Pet Products in Phoenix. "It depends on where the customer is in the cycle of ownership."

First-timers tend to be more price sensitive, Gerstenberger stated, and the $49.99 level works well for these customers. Millennials living in smaller spaces are not as price sensitive, he added, and pet owners who have been caring for small animals for a longer period of time prefer habitats with more features and aren’t as sensitive to higher price points.

Though it can be difficult to carry a range of housing options to satisfy every price point, offering a wider selection and focusing on attractive displays can help drive sales. 

"What has been true in the past is true still today," Gerstenberger said. "Displaying a habitat out of its box and assembled is the best way to help a potential customer envision it in their home and understand the benefits that the habitat will provide to the pet."

New Products

Making It Homey

Several new small-animal enclosures have appeared on the market, and many meet customer demand for both whimsical designs and housing that looks goods in consumers’ homes. 

"There has been a shift in trend, and pet owners are now much more interested in housing options that fit more seamlessly into the family’s living space," said Jason Savitt, president of Prevue Pet Products in Chicago. 

While Prevue still offers many housing designs in a variety of colors to appeal to younger pet keepers, Savitt said the company’s most recent offerings in the category have a more neutral color palette.

The company recently introduced its Deluxe Critter Home, which offers seven-sixteenths tight wire spacing and no gaps or pinch points, and is designed to appeal to customers who want a larger enclosure, with four levels, three ramps, five platforms and a hammock, all of which are removable, Savitt said.  

The trend in the category is decidedly toward larger enclosures, both pet specialty retailers and manufacturers reported.

"Kaytee is proud to announce a new CritterTrail Super Habitat that will boast 540 square inches of endless living space for large-breed hamsters or gerbils," said Mary Ann Loveland, associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods at Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden & Pet Co. 

The habitat includes a comfort shelf, a safety ramp, and a port door connector to expand to other CritterTrail habitats and accessories, Loveland added.

Overall, manufacturers are aware of the demand for both functional and aesthetically pleasing housing options, and are working to design enclosures for small mammals that fit the bill.

"Pet parents are seeking a solution that not only caters to the unique, behavioral needs of their pets, but also offers safety and fits better within the home," said John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development and sourcing for Ware Pet Products in Phoenix. "Trends in small animal housing continue to be creating environments that are both functional and fashionable, meaning something that complements home décor, versus the traditional super-colorful or mixed-color cages."