A Place at the Table

The cat food category offers ample opportunities to retailers that take the time to get it right.


The canine segment seems to reign supreme in the pet food market, but the cat food market may be more substantial today than many realize.

Research suggests that dogs still dominate some pet ownership statistics. According to the American Pet Products Association’s (APPA) 2013/2014 National Pet Owners Survey, only 45.3 million households own one or more cats, versus 56.7 million households that own dogs. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story.

“The size of the cat food market may come as a surprise to many,” says Ron Jackson, assistant to the president at Hi-Tek Rations. “There are 95.6 million cats owned as pets in the U.S. and only 83.3 million dogs,” says Jackson, citing the APPA survey.

Strong cat-ownership figures spell opportunity for retailers that demonstrate expertise with feline issues and care, especially when it comes to nutrition. After all, every one of those 95.6 million cats needs to eat. In recent years, there has been a growing focus in the industry on what cat owners are feeding their feline friends.

“There has been a great deal written in books, blogs and social media driven by veterinarians campaigning for consumers to address the special dietary needs of felines, identifying moisture as a vital pillar of nutritional health,” says Christine Hackett, president of Petropics, makers of Tiki Cat and Tiki Dog Gourmet Whole Food. That’s because cats are uniquely adapted to get the moisture they need from the food they’re eating, and the added moisture can help them maintain a healthy urinary tract.

As a result, says Pam Ore, who works as Nulo’s western sales manager, “People are feeding a variety of foods to their cat. They’re not just putting kibble in the bowl and walking away. Increasingly, cat owners are paying attention to the nutrition and are looking for a really good-quality combination of dry and wet foods for their cat.”

Many cat owners are even shifting entirely to wet, says Hackett. “In fact, we’re seeing a movement to designate the entire month of August as ‘Cat Hydration Month;’ that is really starting to pick up traction across the country,” she says.

Retailers can take advantage of this movement by taking the month to educate and expose consumers to wet food options and why it’s important to their cats’ overall health and wellness.

Beyond simply educating consumers about the importance of canned or wet food in their cats’ diets, it is essential that retailers have a good working knowledge of each individual food they offer. “We always recommend that our retailers have a full knowledge of what they are selling,” says Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods.

Most manufacturers are more than willing to help educate retailers. For example, Nieman says Fromm provides retailers with literature, training seminars and a dedicated customer-service staff, including a veterinarian and nutritionist. Retailers should be sure to take advantage of these kinds of tools and education opportunities so that they and their staff are always up-to-date.

According to Ore, staff members all too often know a great deal about dogs but are less confident when it comes to cats. “They’re afraid to engage a cat customer in conversation because they don’t want to look stupid,” she says.

“If a retailer can invest a little time in really focusing on cats and training their staff about some of the differences and some of their unique needs, it will really pay off in making that recommendation or that consultative sell successful for everybody,” Ore adds.

Many cat owners today are looking for that perfect helpful expert. They have read the literature or heard information about why nutrition matters, but few are truly secure in their ability to navigate the cat food aisle and choose a diet that’s good for their cat. Again, this presents a great opportunity for retailers to build a relationship with their cat-owning customers. “My experience is that customers who have cats, once they find something that works, they tend to be very, very loyal,” says Ore.

When it comes to actually educating staff on talking to cat owners, Chanda Leary-Coutu, senior manager marketing communications at WellPet, says there are several specific things to discuss. “A key approach to training employees on food labeling is understanding the order in which ingredients are listed, where the ingredients are sourced, and what the nutritional value and health benefits of these various ingredients are,” she explains.

Picky Eaters

Of course, once an owner finds a diet or diets that fit the nutrition standards they’re looking for, the next question will naturally be, “Will my cat like it?”

Retailers need to be prepared to answer this question. “We offer free samples for retailers and customers for our many available choices,” says Frank Hon, vice president of global sales at Canidae. “We’ve always had a satisfaction-guaranteed policy on all of our foods, offering a full refund or replacement for customers.”

Handing out samples and discussing these special return policies are good ways to give a shopper the confidence they need to give something new a try, while taking on very little risk.

“Most confident brands offer return policies as appropriate,” says Ian Eberle, vice president of sales and marketing, the Americas and Asia Pacific, at MPM Products.

However, retailers shouldn’t only mention these policies and freebies to shoppers unsatisfied with their cat’s previous diets. “Most cat owners are considered ‘repertoire feeders,’” says Eberle. “[They enjoy] trying different brands and recipes until they find a chosen few that their cats love and thrive upon.”

Still, retailers may be able to make better recommendations by asking a few questions about the cat’s current diet, assuming kitty has been happily eating it. “The thing with cats is palatability,” says Ore. “Cats tend to be pickier than dogs. So it can be very difficult to find just the right texture, just the right combination that the cat will accept, and then also make it be really good for them nutritionally.”

Looking at the texture, shape and size of a cat food, and talking about how picky each shopper’s specific cat is, can help staff members make a more informed recommendation. That also means texture and palatability are factors retailers need to consider when choosing which diets to stock.

Of course, palatability cannot be retailers’ only concern. Consumers are increasingly focused on ingredients. “Pet parents are becoming more savvy when it comes to reading labels and are looking for high-quality, healthful and nutritious food and treats for their feline companions,” says Leary-Coutu.

Experts agree that which ingredients and which diet trends become popular correlate to what cat owners are eating themselves. “We are seeing more diets for both dogs and cats that reflect trends in human food and consumption,” says Jackson. “From wellness diets that promote gluten-free formulations to a variety of ingredients that reflect haute cuisine, the Boomer generation, in particular, is treating their pets more like children than ever before.”

Those trends sometimes involve more education, so shoppers understand what they’re buying and why it’s worth the sometimes-higher price point.

“Consumers naturally select products based on the cost of the products as it relates to the perceived quality and value of the content within,” explains Hackett. “Retailers who are equipped to inform consumers about the differentiation between products tend to be very successful at influencing ‘trade ups,’ and the exploration of brands and products they may never have tried.”

Beyond one-on-one conversation, merchandising can also convey the benefits of better nutrition and help cat owners navigate the food aisle. Since food is such a huge traffic driver, Hackett says it’s natural to look at those stores that have been most successful for merchandising ideas. “The greatest success stories tend to demonstrate some common merchandising strategies in regards to food,” she says.

According to Hackett, the common factor that many of these success stories share include a cat-food aisle segmented by format—dry foods together, canned foods together, home-prepared foods together—instead of purely brand blocked, with cans on top and dry below.

Alternatively, some stores opt to continue brand blocking, allowing customers to build relationships with trusted brands while also easily exploring new brands and products.

Regardless of how the products are grouped, however, Hackett stresses the importance of having the foods merchandised in a clean, orderly fashion that reduces visual clutter. They should also be clearly priced, with clean product descriptions. Placing a sign at the top of the shelf with information on the products can also help build a brand story and lead to more informed shoppers.

Nieman agrees. “A neat store with visually impactful displays, good use of marketing materials and a variety of product options will often stand out among the rest and help to start conversations with shoppers,” he says.

With 95.6 million cats living in US households, doesn’t it make sense to get that conversation started now?

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