A Messy Business
Litter boxes are much more than just a place for waste; they are advanced solutions to the most pervasive problem associated with cat ownership.
In its most basic form, litter boxes are pretty simple products—after all, everything you need to know about them is right there in the name. They are boxes for litter, right?
While that may have been true once upon a time, the category has evolved by leaps and bounds in the last five to 10 years. “Sales in the litter box category are more robust than ever, and new solutions are coming to market at an ever-increasing rate,” says Chad Elmore, category manager of waste management at PetSafe. “With an increase in urban living, along with consumers’ busy lifestyles, more than ever pet parents are looking for hassle-free and advanced waste-management solutions.”
That is to say, the litter box category no longer consists entirely of small, plastic boxes—although those items are certainly still an important part of the category.
Instead, starting with the introduction of automatic self-cleaning litter boxes, the industry has seen higher-price-point litter box solutions hitting the market and doing remarkably well. “This was something never heard of before,” says Shannon Supanich, marketing manager of Pioneer Pet Products. “Manufacturers understand that cat owners still want convenience and cleanliness when it comes to their homes and pets, and with these busy gadget-driven households, products that make life faster, simpler and cleaner should always do well.”
Retailers have seen the category continue to grow as manufacturers got the message that consumers wanted something new from this segment of the category.
Randy Wilson, president of Good Pet Stuff Company, says it was the push for design-conscious products that spurred the creation of the Hidden Litter, a litter box that is disguised as a high-quality planter, similar to what a consumer might use as household décor.
While this focus on home décor isn’t particularly new—pet humanization brought about many types of products for pets that were designed to match a pet owner’s personal style preferences—the difference, when it comes to litter boxes, is dramatic and unique.
In some categories, design-conscious products merely mean carrying a few extra designs (when it comes to bowls, for example) or perhaps offering products at a few new price points—such as with climbers and scratchers. However, in the litter box category, the difference in price points can seem extreme.
Whereas a basic plastic litter box might range in price from a few dollars to somewhere around $30, newer litter boxes that are either design-focused or that are self-cleaning may run anywhere from $70 to several hundred dollars.
Wilson says that customers are more accepting of these higher price points than many retailers realize—automated litter boxes proved that, he says. “If you give the customer what they are looking for, then oftentimes they see the value and they’re willing to pay for it,” he explains.
Rich Williams, cofounder of Modko, which is best known for the Modkat—a top-entry litter box with a modern aesthetic—agrees. “I feel that people used to think of the litter box as a necessary evil, or as an afterthought,” Williams says. “The experience of shopping for a litter box would be selecting the best of the worst.”
That has changed. Most cat owners have to interact with their litter box daily, he points out. “People wanted a nicer option, something a little more thought out, and I feel that is what we have now, more of a selection of nicely designed litter boxes.”
Litter Boxes Front and Center
Higher price points mean that retailers have to change how they think about the category; it’s no longer sufficient to just hide litter boxes on a shelf. “A lot of retail shops I have visited have a small selection of litter boxes either tucked into the bottom shelf or up high on an unreachable shelf,” says Williams. “This is most likely to make room for higher-turnover items, like food and snacks.”
This placement means litter boxes are only discovered when a cat owner already in need comes looking. But retailers who opt to bring in newer, higher-end litter boxes will be disappointed by that strategy.
Instead, these new products need to be featured and promoted. “When you can, especially with a litter box like ours, which is more visually appealing, demonstrate it—have it set up,” says Wilson. Sometimes floor space simply doesn’t allow for that, he acknowledges, but when it does, having an assembled product on the sales floor can really be a showstopper.
“If the products are interesting enough, a retailer could have a window display for a few weeks, and this would be something new to offer foot traffic,” says Williams. “We have two retail stores that have our products on display in the window year-round because they bring in so much foot traffic.”
It is also important that retailers make sure sales associates understand that these kinds of products are a trend. “Knowing what’s available makes a huge difference in purchasing [decisions],” Wilson says. Employees need to know that not only are these options available, people may actively be looking for ways to hide their litter box.
Back to the Basics
Of course, retailers should not throw the baby out with the bathwater—it is important that they continue to offer a few basic options as well.
Marie Glover is chief operating officer at K-Kat, LLC, which manufactures “It’s The Scoop,” a high-end metal litter box scoop. Glover and her husband, K-Kat’s founders, also run Tabby Town USA, a cat rescue where about 80 cats typically live underfoot, so they have a lot of experience with what matters to the cats. “We’ve found different cats have different needs,” says Glover.
Specifically, she says that older cats, especially those that have been de-clawed, may need shallow litter boxes that they can get into easily; and most cats and kittens seem to prefer a larger litter box that they can move around in easily. Some cats prefer covered liter boxes; others will only use an open box.
“A retailer needs a good selection, because cats have picky preferences when it comes to their litter boxes,” Glover says.
Many retailers limit their selection because of space concerns, but in truth, it’s a delicate balance. “Litter boxes take up a lot of space,” acknowledges Supanich. “So if you try to keep only small boxes because of space, you may lose sales simply because you don’t have a box that is big enough to fit most adult cats. A good selection of boxes to meet all cat preferences and home spaces is important.”
That said, even basic litter boxes are now available in more colors and patterns than ever. “There is much more variety and selection of products that come in many colors and sizes [than there used to be],” says Gordon Walker, national sales manager for Fresh News Recycled Cat Litter.
Retailers should also take note of new litter box options that are designed for specific functionality—Walker points out litter box options made of materials other than plastic, such as paper or cardboard litter boxes. Some of these products were designed as options when traveling; others are made to make frequent litter changes easier for cat owners, who can just toss the entire box, for example.
No litter section would be complete without at least a few accessories. Litter scoops, deodorizers, litter box liners and pads to catch litter from kitty’s feet are all good add-on products in this section.
Ultimately, retailers will each need to decide which products are the best fit for their individual customer base. The best way for retailers to choose a good product selection is always to listen closely to their customers.
However, it is likely worth it for most independent pet retailers to at least consider a few higher-end options as a way of differentiating themselves from big-box stores and mass retailers. “To stand apart, look at some of the higher-quality, designed products for cats,” says Williams. “You may be surprised to find your high-end cat market being underserved.”
Once the store has the right balance of good-better-best litter products and accessories, displaying them in the right place within the cat aisle is equally important.
“Make sure the litter boxes and accessories are merchandised near the cat litter,” says Walker. Marketing and merchandising these products near each other is a great way to create product awareness, since litter is a staple that cat owners purchase regularly.
“Cat-waste management can be a messy business; finding the right solution at the shelf shouldn’t be,” Elmore says, agreeing that litter boxes, accessories and litter should all be merchandised together. “Customer should not have to guess where to find their accessories. This experience should be seamless.”