Niche Fulfilled

Pioneer aims to infuse the independent retail market with innovation.


A person can glean a lot about a company by looking at the types of meetings it mandates and conducts regularly. For example, at Pioneer Pet Products, based in Cedarburg, Wis., there’s a committee that convenes weekly to brainstorm ideas for products and to discuss SKUs that are in some stage of pre-market development, with the goal of leaving no stone unturned in the company’s efforts to advance the pet product market with innovation.

“There are no foolish ideas and no dumb ideas at this meeting,” says John Lipscomb, president of Pioneer, makers of Pioneer and Smart Cat branded products. “All ideas are explored, and it’s a fun and raucous meeting that happens at least once a week.”

Harnessing all that brainpower is paying off for the seven-year-old division of GHL International, Inc., which has prioritized innovation from the start. Innovation and manufacturing prowess make up the substratum on which the company is built and for which the company has come to be known, Lipscomb says. The fruit of the company’s efforts is a growing lineup of top-selling products, including the Smart Cat Ultimate Scratching Post, which was conceived and launched to meet cat needs previously left unmet in the market, and Pioneer waterers–fountains that provide pets with fresh, running water.

Pioneer’s niche seems to be, well, filling niches. The company designs products to fill gaps in the market–products that are meant to address consumer and pet needs in a novel way. The scratching post’s height, for example, is what distinguishes it from competing products on the market, says Lipscomb. Constructed with a sturdy sisal fabric, it’s 30” tall, a perfect height to meet a cat’s need to stretch and exercise its back. 

Pioneer’s latest introductions come with the same promise to solve a problem or address a need. The Big Mouth Scoop, for example, sifts cat litter so well that the litter runs through “as if it were water,” greatly reducing the dust discharge released by other scoopers, Lipscomb says. The company also sought to raise the bar on cat toys recently by introducing the Tiger Mobile. The battery-powered toy moves on its own, three-dimensionally, and actively engages the cat, coming to life in 20-second intervals when powered up.

Lipscomb says the industry can expect more innovation from Pioneer in 2011, with product unveilings scheduled for Global Pet Expo (March 16-18 in Orlando, Fla.) Meanwhile, 20 products are in development, and each will be patented.

The Long Haul
On the road between product conception and product launch lies a process through which Pioneer decides the fate of each of its inventions, and of course, there is a dedicated committee for that, as well. The committee determines how a product might be developed to meet specific pet needs at a price point the market can handle. If necessary, the committee seeks input from retailers and distributors. This commitment to product development has never waned, even during the recession. Lessons learned from how other consumer product manufacturers reacted to past recessions helped guide the company's strategy.

“3M was a company that came out of the recession of the 1980s really well, and the reason it did was because it did not reduce its budget for research and development,” Lipscomb recalls. “We took a lesson from that, and we, in fact, increased our budget for innovation during the recession.”

Having proven successful in various distribution channels, such as catalog and Internet sales, Pioneer is pushing to expand its reach into independent pet specialty stores, he reports.

“It’s not easy to get the attention of small retailers, but they are a large part of what we believe to be our future,” he says.
The challenge of reaching what can seem like a daunting number of small chains and mom-and-pop shops is forcing the company to ramp up its marketing skills–not an ingrained company practice yet, he points out.

“Our expertise is not marketing–it’s product design and manufacturing–but we’re seeing the Internet as a good, strong conduit to do so,” he says.

Freight costs have threatened to hamper Pioneer’s efforts to penetrate the market. The company is considering adding a warehouse in Reno to reduce the cost of doing business on the West Coast, but is still formulating its approach to the East. The company, however, is certain that it is on the right track.

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