Treats, Chews and Toys to Keep Small Animals Occupied

Sales of small-animal treats, toys and chews are often thought of as add-ons to larger purchases, but attention to price point and the competitive advantages that a wide selection offers can help pet specialty retailers stay competitive in the segment.

Small-animal sales tend to be seasonal, but, overall, the segment is growing, retailers reported.

"Small animal in general is growing for us," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "Customers who are not quite ready for the responsibility of a cat or dog are opting for the small animals now. The industry has improved upon habitats, toys and diet for these creatures. Parents see small-animal pets as a way to teach their children responsibility for a pet without the work involved with a cat or dog."

Customers interested in small animals continue to skew to the younger side, which contributes to the seasonal appeal of the segment.

"The small-animal segment is very cyclical," said Carol Hoover, owner of Carol’s Critters in Tallahassee, Fla. "Sometimes I’ve got so many small animals that I have absolutely no room. This summer, apparently it was hamsters that were popular. I sold every single hamster I [had], and I haven’t gotten new ones back in. So it really just depends. There’s nothing you can predict."

Hamsters were especially popular over the summer months, other retailers agreed.

"We do really good business with hamsters," said Laura Hook, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "At the beginning of the school year, we typically see a little bit of a decline just because everybody’s busy. But we sold a ton of hamsters over the summer while kids [were] out of school."

Customers are increasingly aware of the health aspects of treats and chews, and how these affect small-animal health.

"We are excited to see retailers and customers aligned with our belief that enrichment is essential," said Lucas Stock, communications manager Oxbow Animal Health in Omaha, Neb. "From the retail perspective, we’ve been impressed with the quality of merchandising around these products. Retailers see the value in offering a robust enrichment set to reinforce the daily importance of these products."

There is also a growing emphasis on health when it comes to making treats and chews for small animals.

"Small animals can get diabetes and [conditions] like that," Hook said. "So a lot of treat manufacturers have switched over to alfalfa treats with a little bit of flavoring or dried fruit."

On the Market

A Natural Fit

As pet owners become increasingly discerning about the products they buy for their pets, manufacturers of treats, toys and chews for small animals are focused on providing enrichment and quality nutrition for these diminutive companions.

Oxbow’s new Enriched Life natural chews line is designed to promote instinctual behaviors in small animals, such as chewing, hiding and exploring, said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health in Omaha, Neb.

"At Oxbow, we recognize that supporting the health and happiness of pets transcends nutrition alone," Stock said. "Our chews are made with natural materials including untreated wood, hay, plant-based fibers, and vegetable dyes to ensure the health and safety of pets."

An emphasis on natural products is increasingly apparent in consumer consciousness, and this extends to the small-animal segment.

"Our natural chews are performing very well across the board," Stock said. "It’s exciting to see customers purchasing multiples to provide a variety of regular sensory experiences for their pets."

Many customers are purchasing more than one of a given product, retailers agreed.

"We see people buying multiples when it comes to small-animal pets and sparing no expense when it comes to their habitats," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "Oxbow is one of our best-sellers when it comes to small animals. Their new Enriched Life line is selling very well for us."

Products with healthful, natural properties are doing well, sources reported.

"Wholesome chew treats made from natural, nutritious ingredients such as alfalfa hay are very popular," said John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development for Ware Pet Products in Phoenix. "These are compressed to promote clean, healthy teeth. … We are proud to continue to innovate and customize to help pets of all sizes offer fun, health and function to care for these little pets in a bigger, better way. Rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters continue to be very popular pets."

Keeping their pets engaged and entertained is important to customers seeking toys for their small animals. Zoo-Max Exotic Ltd., a manufacturer in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, produces its Build and Snap line to allow customers to customize an enrichment experience for their pets.

"Sometimes customers think that small animals don’t need toys," said Bernard St-Cyr, company director of Zoo-Max. "The segment is growing at a rate of 10 to 20 percent per year. It’s important for retailers to display toys and chews in their cages so that customers can see the concept and easily understand their pet’s needs."

Price Point

Cost Counts

Many small-animal treats, toys and chews sales are repeat sales or add-on sales, and customers are sensitive to price point.

Carol Hoover, owner of Carol’s Critters in Tallahassee, Fla., is sensitive to her customers’ demand for affordable small-animal treats and toys.

"I usually try to keep all of that stuff $5 and under," Hoover said. "Most of our stuff is priced around $2.50, and nothing is more than $5."

Still, the exact threshold on price point varies widely between customers, retailers reported.

"Some customers are sensitive to price point, and others don’t flinch at all," said Laura Hook, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "Most chew toys for hamsters are not very expensive—I’d say $7 and below. Some people are careful and only offer a toy. But I’ve seen ladies fill up their bags for bunnies and guinea pigs without even thinking about it because they know they have to keep them busy."

Because enrichment and engagement are so important for small animals, retailers find some customers will spend a little more on their purchases.

"Small-animal owners are willing to spend on their pets," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "They love to see how their pet is going to interact with a toy or if the pet is going to accept a new treat. The pet owners want to interact with their pet, so giving the pet a new treat or toy is a great way to entertain the pet and the owners."

There has been a shift in the marketplace to highlight the importance of enrichment for small animals.

"Enrichment purchases have largely been impulse buys," said Lucas Stock, communications manager Oxbow Animal Health in Omaha, Neb. "Offering a robust, premium offering of natural chews and customizable play centers is the first step in transforming these impulse buys into regular, basket-building purchases."

Consumer Education

Encourage Enrichment

Merchandising treats, toys and chews for small animals often involves using special promotions and creative techniques. Many pet specialty retailers rely on education and promotions to help drive sales. It is important to make customers aware of the importance of including chews and toys in their pet’s environment.

"We always encourage customers to have new toys in the habitat for their pet to chew on and play with, to keep the pet from becoming bored," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "We educate customers on the importance of enrichment, on having items for these pets to chew on to keep their teeth in the best condition."

Using engagement between customers and their pets and highlighting the need for enrichment are key aspects of promoting the category, industry participants stated.

"Building promotions around enrichment is one basic way to promote these products," said Lucas Stock, communications manager at Oxbow Animal Health in Omaha, Neb. "We recommend cross-promotions around food and hay that work to link enrichment to other everyday essentials. These items make a very effective and visually appealing endcap as well. We encourage retailers to use social media to spread the word on these products."

Customers are open to learning about their pets’ health needs.

"People respond to the need for chews and toys to keep their pets stimulated," said Laura Hook, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "Chews and wood toys are a necessity to keep small mammals’ teeth down. I do see people coming in for Oxbow. They make awesome vitamin C drops and digestive and dietary alfalfa pellets to eat. We do really well with the Oxbow treats."

Special promotions and events can help build awareness of the category and improve customer retention.

"We have small animal-specific event days now twice a year, and so many people bring out their small-animal pets to join in the fun," Davis said. "We set up a photo station, and one of our marketing team [members] has put together props specifically for small pets, including tea cups, a tiny blow-up flamingo and fake flowers. These are all used to creatively put together a fun photo of customers’ pets. … Our photographer takes the photos for free and posts them on our Facebook page for the owners to download."