Gone are the days when a small-animal pet owner could grab any old cage to house their rabbit, guinea pig, ferret, gerbil or hamster. Today’s pet owners understand that every species has its own needs and the habitat should cater to the specific animal, industry insiders report.
Small-animal habitats must appeal to an ever-expanding range of adult pet owners and include their desires and tastes in product designs, packaging designs, etc., said John Gerstenberger, vice president, product development and sourcing, for Phoenix-based manufacturer Ware Pet Products.
"Shoppers in the small-animal category continue to look for affordability," he said. "As an expanded market that includes both younger and older demographics as well as families enjoying small animals as pets, they are looking for products that do more than just meet their pet’s unique needs . . . they are seeking new and different, innovative and better quality at a reasonable price."
The key features Gerstenberger sees pet owners looking for in small-animal habitats are: comfort, safety, behavior-friendly features and benefits, and space efficiency.
Since a lot pet owners treat their pets like family members, many also seek habitats in which their pet can easily interact with the family, said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist—small animal for Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet.
For this reason many customers appreciate wheeled cages, according to Debbie Kee, co-owner of Kee’s Aquarium & Pets, a pet store in Shelby Township, Mich.
"That is becoming very popular," she said. "They are nicer looking, and they can be moved from room to room."
Providing enough space for their pet is also top of mind for pet owners, insiders noted.
Large, safe and fully accessorized habitats provide a higher quality of life, "which is what every pet owner should want to provide for their pet," said Ken Korecky, founder and CEO of Exotic Nutrition, a Newport News, Va.-based manufacturer.
"We have been seeing trends towards larger, higher-quality living spaces for small animals," he said. "Most big-box stores offer animal habitats that fall short when it comes to size and quality."
Merchandising & Marketing
Moving Habitats out the Door
Many times, the cost for a new small-animal habitat, especially the higher-quality ones, can be more than the cost of the pet itself. That’s why a high-quality habitat that is safe and will last many years is always a good investment versus a lower quality one that will only last a fraction of the time, industry insiders report.
Retailers need to work hard to show all the benefits a habitat can provide in order for a customer to see the value.
"Small animals frequently start as a small hobby but can grow very quickly once pet owners gain more experience and interest in these pets," said Ken Korecky, founder and CEO of Exotic Nutrition in Newport News, Va. "Unfortunately, many retailers don’t have the same education about small pets as they do about cats or dogs, so retailers can boost sales by educating their employees."
John Gerstenberger, vice president, product development and sourcing, for Phoenix-based Ware Pet Products, said the company "passionately" encourages retailers to have at least one pre-assembled small-animal habitat on display on the shelf, as this is a tried-and-true way to increase small-animal habitat sales.
"[It’s] not an easy task for many retailers due to space constraints, but most will tell you their sales increase when a customer is able to see how a cage is set up and they can touch it," he said.
At Kee’s Aquarium & Pets in Shelby Township, Mich., the staff takes all habitats out of their boxes and sets them up so people can see what they look like and how much room they will take up in their home, said co-owner Debbie Kee.
"A lot of people appreciate that we assemble it and let it go out the door that way," she said. "Our store is intent on selling the right habitat for the right animal, and [we] encourage customers not to put their animal in one not designed for it."
Retailers need to be proactive in getting customers involved in creating a customized new habitat for their pet, said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist—small animal for Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet.
"For example, encourage customers to expand their CritterTrail living space," she said. "Each CritterTrail habitat has a modular design to create customized living space for pet hamsters, gerbils or mice. Retailers can help excite customers about the customization by offering a variety of different CritterTrail Fun-nels, Look-Outs, Loops and wheels as well as a wide assortment of the CritterTrail Habitats."
Give ’Em Their Dream Home
Pet product manufacturers recognize that habitats for small animals are not a one-size-fits-all category. As such, they are introducing products for specific species as well as addressing safety concerns pet owners might have with their pets’ homes.
Exotic Nutrition, a Newport News, Va.-based manufacturer, recently debuted its newest habitat, the Mansion Cage. It features complete metal construction and absolutely no plastic pieces, which is extremely important for animals that like to chew, such as chinchillas, rats, degus and other rodents, said founder and CEO Ken Korecky.
Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet, offers an Open Top Playpen Habitat to allow owners to easily interact with their pet guinea pig or dwarf rabbit, said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist—small animal. The habitat converts from a 24-in.-by-24-in. habitat into an open-top playpen when pet owners simply open the rooftop and lay over the side panels, she noted.
"With the top open, pet owners can easily reach into the habitat and pet, play or feed their small animal, making the pet owner feel as though the pet is part of his/her own living space," she said. "While at the same time, [it offers] the safety and security of a traditional habitat."
Kaytee offers three lines of small habitats: the connectable CritterTrail line for hamsters, gerbils, or mice; the playful CritterHome for rabbits or guinea pigs; and the sturdy My First Home line made for a variety of small animals, Nicklas noted.
This month at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., Ware Pet Products is launching two to three new small-animal habitats.
"We have listened to feedback from our retail patterns and small-animal owners themselves to develop new products that cater to the unique needs of small-animal pets," said John Gerstenberger, vice president, product development and sourcing, for the Phoenix-based company.
The R&D Process
Manufacturers do a great deal to find products that are better suited for today’s small animals and pet owners.
For instance, Exotic Nutrition works closely with breeders to help develop species-specific cages.
"Our customers are our greatest assets when it comes to research and development," said Ken Korecky, founder and CEO of the Newport News, Va.-based company. "We love to hear from our retail stores and their staff, and we greatly value the feedback—positive or negative. Our research starts with the feedback they provide, then we can continue developments based on this information."
He added that there are always opportunities for growth when it comes to making higher-quality habitats at a lower cost. Rather than cutting corners to cut back on costs, Exotic Nutrition relies on new technology and manufacturing processes that can help bring high-quality habitats to price-conscious pet owners, Korecky said.
At Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet, innovation is always top of mind, said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist—small animal.
"Our [research and development] group is constantly exploring new habitat structures, materials, and accessories to provide small pets with secure habitats and ample living space," she said. "Our habitats are designed for easy cleaning and pet care."