Cat owners want the best for their pets—and that includes the litter, litterbox and associated accessories they use.

Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products, a manufacturer based in Cheyenne, Wyo., said that cat owners are looking for problem-solving litters but still want choices that “deliver on their promises to be low dust, hard clumping, and low tracking with no perfumes or additives.”

Dr. Elsey’s newest product launched this year. Paw Sensitive is a litter designed for senior cats and cats with sensitive paws. It has a finer, softer texture. According to Zaro, this premium scoopable litter offers superior clumping ability and is ground to an ideal granule size that provides a more comfortable texture for a cat’s tender paws.

Jean Broders, director of marketing for Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Pet Group, maker of World’s Best Cat Litter, noted that since the pandemic started, new concerns around human and pet health and wellness have arisen.

“This rise in focus and concern has caused pet owners to find ways to keep themselves and their pets healthy,” Broders said. “This also applies to the purchase of cat litter. The more educated consumers become, the more they are understanding that there are safe and healthy choices in litter.”

Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products, a manufacturer in Laguna Niguel, Calif., added that the work-from-home situations many have found themselves in have also been eye opening in terms of litter choices.

“Coming out of a year in my home office—right next to our litterbox—I have learned it’s easier to ignore a smelly litterbox when you aren’t spending 24/7 in your house,” Yamamoto said. “That makes a good cat litter a must-have.”

This year, Next Gen Pet plans to debut a new concept for its Timber Fresh product: a hybrid wood litter.

“One of our biggest hurdles is that some cats really love clay,” Yamamoto explained. “Our new Timber Fresh formula will incorporate a percentage of bentonite to the wood to provide a texture cats used to clay will be comfortable with but offers the superior odor control you’d expect from a Next Gen cat litter. One of the best benefits of our new Timber Fresh formula is the success rate for transitioning from clay to Timber Fresh.”

Retailers also reported that their customers are more on top of what litters their pets are using than before.

Alison Schwartz, general manager at All Pets Considered, a retailer with two stores in Greensboro, N.C., said that the store’s litter category has continued to fare well. All Pets Considered has always had a sustainability focus and does a lot to educate pet owners on making earth-friendly choices. Because of that, Schwartz said the non-clay-based litters sell really well.

Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat and Dogs, Too, a pet store in Denver, said that World’s Best remains a top seller at her store followed by corn litter and walnut shell litter. She said that her customers specifically come to her store for non-clay-based options.

In terms of the litterbox itself, Green said that traditional boxes are still the most popular. She has seen a movement away from enclosed boxes.

Schwartz added that certain litter accessories are gaining some traction. She’s noticed a bit more interest in litter mats as well as different types of scoops.

When it comes to litterboxes and their accessories, pet owners are often willing to pay a little more if they perceive that there is added value in a product.

“Consumers are more eager than ever to give their pets everything they need to keep them healthy and happy,” said Jennifer Thompson, category product manager for waste management at PetSafe, a brand of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Radio Systems Corp. “The litterbox and litter industry has seen spending increase dramatically year-over-year. Customers are willing to pay a high price for a reliable product that will make their lives easier so they can spend more time with their cat.”

Along with that, Thompson said that pet owners are incorporating more and more “smart” pet products into their lives. That’s translated to a trend in connected, self-cleaning litter boxes.

“Consumers often search for the most technologically advanced items for their home, so it only makes sense that they would do the same for their pets,” she continued. “Customers want an even more convenient solution to managing their cat’s waste, so we decided to meet this need with our new PetSafe ScoopFree Smart Self-Cleaning Litter Box.”

The ScoopFree Smart comes with the same features as the ScoopFree Self-Cleaning Litter Box, but it now allows pet owners to monitor their cat’s health and control the litterbox using the My PetSafe app. Owners can have peace of mind 24/7 that their cat is healthy and their litterbox is clean, even when they are away, according to the company.

Merchandising and Consumer Engagement

Calling Attention to the Category

Promoting litter and related products in pet speciatly stores comes down to engaging with customers. Of course, it’s also important that shoppers actually get a chance to see those products.

For that reason, Alison Schwartz, general manager of All Pets Considered, a retailer with two stores in Greensboro, N.C., has started putting litter on display in the cat food section so that cat owners who don’t usually buy their litter at All Pets Considered see that it’s available—and that it’s competitively priced.

“So often, consumers just don’t even know what’s out there if they make a beeline for the food aisle,” Schwartz said.

Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products, a manufacturer based in Cheyenne, Wyo., said that making use of social media platforms can also be a really valuable way to educate clients on what you have to offer.

Schwartz noted that Facebook Live has been a great tool for reaching customers and talking about litter options.

Building trust with customers and letting them know that you have carefully cultivated and tested the products in your store can also make a huge difference, added Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products, a manufacturer in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

“As a consumer, specialty retailers are some of my favorite people to go to for news on the latest and greatest,” she said.

If customers know that a retailer has thoughtfully selected litter products—and can answer questions about them—it instantly gives that store elevated status over the grocery store. Like so many other things, it really does boil down to customer relationships.

Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat and Dogs, Too, a pet store in Denver, said that customers trust the choices available at her store.

“Most of the time they’ve already done their homework, but they also know that we take pride in the choices we carry,” she said.

New Litter: Making the Switch

Coaching cat owners through the process of switching litters can be a differentiator for independent retailers.

Gary Roberts, owner of Pet World, a pet store in Lakewood, Colo., said that success often comes down to one-on-one conversations with customers. He said they’ve had some luck helping cat owners make the switch in litters by answering their questions and educating them on the differences.

“Most of the time, people want their litter to be able to check certain boxes such as less tracking and better odor coverage,” Roberts said. “We’ve been able to switch some of our customers to a higher-end product if it can check those boxes for them. Then they see the value in paying a little more.”

Gina Zaro, marketing director for Dr. Elsey’s Cat Products, a manufacturer based in Cheyenne, Wyo., said it’s important to remember that cats are extremely texture driven and gravitate toward litters that provide a good paw feel. When it comes to helping customers make a change, Zaro said it’s important that retailers are available as a resource. Oftentimes, Zaro said that cat owners are looking for products that will address specific issues for their cats.

“Retailers can ask their customers specific questions about the number of cats they own and if they are experiencing specific issues like nonuse of the litterbox,” she said. “In switching litters, it can be helpful to mix the new litter with the old litter, slowly switching over to the new substrate. Another option is to add an additional box with the new litter to give your cat a choice. Cats always do better with choices.”

Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products, a manufacturer in Laguna Niguel, Calif., agreed that slow and steady wins the race when it comes to a litter switch, as most cats don’t like change.

“We usually suggest that people start by mixing a quarter of their new litter with three-quarters of their old litter,” she said. “[The ] next week, if all goes well, switch to half and half, and then forward from there. The most important thing to remember is that sometimes no matter how hard you try, some cats just don’t want to use a different litter.”

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“Price point will always have a place with a large number of customers—including those who are interested in upgrading from what’s available at the grocery store. They’ll ask what superior products we offer—but then they’ll want the one available at the lowest price point from amongst those choices.”—Gary Roberts, owner of Pet World in Lakewood, Colo.

“The cheapest litters out there are the kind you can buy at the grocery store—and we don’t carry those. So, just by coming here the customer has already made a conscious decision to spend a little more. I do think if customers see the value, they’ll spend a little more. Most of the customers who come to us are already educated on why the litters we carry are better.”—Sue Green, co-owner of The Whole Cat and Dogs, Too in Denver

“The changes in the market have been awesome to watch. Natural products used to mean you had to sacrifice quality and price to help the environment. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore. A happy and healthy litterbox can be good for your cat, family, the environment and your pocketbook!”—Janice Yamamoto, director of marketing for Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif.