Fresh Take on Litter

The cat litter category is highly competitive-but it is a product segment that also offers a lot of opportunity for retailers that handle it correctly.


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There is no worse feeling as a cat owner than the moment a friend comes to visit, and upon opening the door, wrinkles up their nose. Fortunately, a good litter—and a knowledgeable pet specialty retailer—can play a major role in preventing a cat owner from ever experiencing that level of embarrassment.

“Most retailers understand that their customers want an odor-free home,” says Shannon Supanich, marketing manager at Pioneer Pet Products. “No one wants visitors to make comments about their cats.”

Experts agree, however, that odor control is not the only feature important to cat owners today. “Generally, people are looking for litters that are low dust, hard clumping, [and] have low tracking,” says Gina Zaro, marketing director at Precious Cat.

Combined, these features make for a litter that is easy to clean and almost undetectable. “The cat litter box is one of the least attractive requirements of owning a cat,” explains Supanich, which means cat owners want it to attract as little attention as possible. 

Of the many types of litter on the market for their cat customers to choose from, most offer these features to varying degrees, but none is perfect for every pet owner, says Stan Yamamoto, CEO of Next Gen International Corporation.

“There is yet to be one cat litter that will satisfy 100 percent of cat owners,” says Yamamoto. “We continue to work on developing the ‘perfect’ cat litter, and perhaps one day we will—but until then, retailers will have the difficult task of stocking a variety of litters to meet most customers demands.”

That means picking through the many options to decide which ones to stock and which just aren’t fit for their individual store.

Litters are made out of a wide variety of materials, including traditional clay, paper, wheat, corn, pine, walnut, silica pebbles, wood, soy bean, and even green tea. There are also those made specifically for multi-cat households, lightweight litters and scented litters.

“You need to have a four- to eight-foot set of litters in your stores,” recommends Gordon Walker, vice president of sales at BPV Environmental. “When you have more than one facing of a SKU, sales can increase by 25 to 30 percent on a brand.”

Choosing which specific items to stock, however, will depend on what’s important to each store’s unique demographic and how the store positions itself within that market. Still, most stores will benefit from a minimum of a few traditional SKUs and a few alternative or natural SKUs.

Traditional litters continue to hold a significant share of the market, but the trend toward natural litters is growing. “The demand for clay litters will always exist, but as consumers become smarter and demand products that are safe and easy to use, natural litters will continue to grow,” says Jean Broders, brand manager of World’s Best Cat Litter.

Walker points out that natural litters also offer two other advantages for retailers: in general, they offer higher margins, and they’re not as readily available in all channels. 

As such, natural and alternative litters can serve as a differentiator, helping pet stores stand out from the mass and grocery channel, where the focus is on price. Instead, retailers can position themselves as focused on value—catering to a more selective clientele with higher-end products.

 “Many of the clay and clay clumping litters are also available at all of the mass merchants and grocery stores, so [retailers] should keep in mind that customers who buy those brands will also pick up that litter anywhere it is convenient,” says Supanich. By comparison, alternative or natural litters may or may not be available at grocery and mass non-pet outlets, so pet retailers would benefit from checking out those other stores and paying attention to what they do and do not carry.

They might even be able to use the more traditional brands those stores do carry to bring customers to their own stores, says Supanich. Stores that draw in shoppers with traditional brands can then take the opportunity to promote the alternative litters only available through the pet specialty channel.

Choosing the right strategy all comes back to figuring out what customers want, whether by asking them directly or by testing out natural and alternative SKUs to see how they perform—or both.


Manufacturer Support

Once a store has chosen which litters to carry, or chooses a new litter to add to its mix, it makes sense to look into any sales support manufacturers can provide.

Unlike some categories, litter can be fairly competitive, which results in manufacturers actively looking for opportunities to partner with retailers to help them boost their sales. Most litter manufacturers offer sales incentives, marketing materials and educational tools to help retailers be successful with their products.

Zaro says Precious Cat offers a customer solutions booklet. “[Retailers] can put it out on their counter with the holder; it addresses different specific needs that cats have and specific litters that would go with those needs of cats.” That’s in addition to traditional shelf talkers that the company is happy to provide stores.

Yamamoto says, in some cases, Next Gen International Corporation works with stores to give free or discounted trial bags to cat owners to help convince them to switch.

And Broders says World’s Best Cat Litter actually provides stores with video monitors that sit at the shelf level and include a 30-second video to help education shoppers on the features and benefits of their product. They also offer a rewards program that retailers who carry their products would be smart to take advantage of.

Most manufacturers are also willing to help with educating employees. Employees need to understand each individual litter in the store and what its strengths and weaknesses are, so they can help shoppers find the best solutions for their cats. When possible, it’s ideal to have employees test products in their own homes, so they can get a realistic idea of how the various SKUs work. Since that is not always possible, another alternative is to test various litter features in-store. For example, clumping litter can be demonstrated with water.

Beyond just understanding the individual litters, however, it’s important that employees also know how to look at the bigger picture when it comes to the cat category. “If someone is asking for a product to clean up cat urine, they probably have a cat that’s not using the litter box,” says Zaro. “It’s just important for those retailers [and their staff] to really take cues from their clients to see what they’re really looking for in a cat litter.”

This kind of understanding of the bigger picture can lead to much happier, more loyal shoppers—not something to be undervalued in a category they can also shop at their local grocer—and, as a result, a boost in store sales within the litter category.

According to Supanich, overall litter sales in the pet category appear to be growing between 2.5 and three percent annually and are forecasted to continue that steady climb through 2018—and yet may independent retailers continue to overlook and undersell in this category.

That means there’s a really opportunity there for smart retailers who take the time to create a solid litter sales strategy to educate their teams, and enjoy the sweet smell of success.

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