Making Playtime Work at Retail

Retailers are harnessing the power of play as manufacturers offer cat owners greater variety in the toy category.





Cats are natural predators, and stalking, hunting and pouncing are how they develop the careful balance and quick, quiet feet that they’re so well known for. So when a cat owner brings home a kitten or cat for the first time, one of the primary ways they’ll bond with their new friend is through play.

Play is also one of the best ways to help cats expel their energy in a healthy, non-destructive way. Everyone has heard horror stories of cats that have destroyed houseplants and furniture because they were bored. Toys offer cats a productive outlet for that energy, giving them something to target instead of a pet owners’ home. That means playtime is a serious business in the cat category.

Manufacturers are aware of the important role toys play in a cat’s life and in its relationship with its owner—which is why the variety of products available on the market has grown exponentially in the last few years. Balls, mice and wands are still popular, of course, but new toys incorporate all sorts of new technology into the category.

Take the new SuperCat line from Quaker Pet Group (QPG) as an example. Concerned that cats quickly became bored with a toy once its catnip smell wore off, QPG decided to look at the technology used in scratch-and-sniff stickers for kids and adapt it for cats. The result is a line of products with a long-lasting, extended-release, catnip scent, encapsulated in small catnip bubbles. As cats play, the bubbles burst, releasing the stimulating scent and keeping cats engaged for long periods of time.

For similar reasons, laser, interactive, voice-command, LED, GPS, motion-sensor and motorized interactive toys are all also on the rise. “Sales have been increasing over the past two years,” says Shannon Supanich, marketing coordinator for Pioneer Pet Products. “It all has to do with suppliers being more innovative with their toys and offering more motorized cat toys. Motorized cat toys allow pet parents to give their cats needed mental and physical stimulation, even when they are away from the home.”

Spencer Williams, president and owner of West Paw Design, can also testify to the category’s growth. “West Paw Design’s cat toy sales were up eight percent during the 2012 holiday season, compared with the 2011 holiday season,” he says. “We were up six percent year-over-year.”

As long as cat toy sales continue to grow, retailers should expect the number and variety of products to do the same as manufacturers work to meet consumer demand. Manufacturers are also gaining a better understanding of the unique ways cats play.

Cats are not all alike—they may be notoriously picky eaters, but as any cat owner can tell you, they can be equally picky about their toys. Different cats find different sounds, types of movement, textures and scents stimulating, making it important that retailers stock a sampling of toys so cat owners can find the product that will best engage their individual cat.

“We feel the best way to merchandise these toys is to group them in their category so customers understand that each type of toy gives their cats a different way to play,” says Supanich. Grouping toys in this way is important, since cat toys come in so many different shapes and sizes and can easily look cluttered.

Williams suggests pet retailers take those groups and try to make them fun for pet owners by creating vignettes tailored to various types of cat—he suggests, for example, displays in key traffic areas tailored for “the cat who has everything,” “the lazy cat,” and “the frisky feline,” which showcase products in a fun and smart way that makes it easy for pet owners to choose a toy for their cat based on its personality.

“Staying on top of your visual merchandising is key,” says Williams. “Product displays can get cluttered quickly on busy days, and a pile of cat toys that are not organized can deter sales. Make sure you have an eye to organization and have sales associates reorganizing products that get picked through.”

Grouping toys into various sections also helps cat owners navigate through a store’s selection.

“Providing consumers a guide to cat toys and helping them understand what makes [the toys] unique will help consumers understand what they need to purchase,” says Cristen Underwood, director of marketing at Quaker Pet Group. “POP signage about the features and benefits of toys will help consumers choose the best product for their pets.”

It’s essential that retailers get this category right. After all, consumables such as food and litter may bring customers into the store again and again, but margins are often low on those products, even when stores capitalize on the push for better-quality foods and sell items that are on trend. By comparison, cat toys can have as much as a 70 percent margin. That gives retailers a chance to make up for the low profits in the consumables category—so long as they can convey the importance of play to pet owners and inspire them to bring home new toys for their pets on a regular basis. 

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