A Crash Course on Carriers
Cat carriers have come a long way in the last few decades, especially when it comes to safety.
Once upon a time, a cat carrier was a pretty simple thing. Most cat owners didn’t travel with their cat often, so when they did, they just used a cardboard fold-out carrier with enough ventilation holes to ensure the cat got fresh air.
Fortunately, the carriers hitting store shelves these days barely resemble those carriers of old. Today’s carriers are safer, more durable and comfortable, easier to carry, and a whole lot more attractive. They come soft-sided, hard-sided, with or without wheels, and in every color of the rainbow. There are carriers designed to be strapped into a car with a seatbelt and others that slide easily under an airplane seat.
In other words, they are better in every way.
Penny Johnson is executive vice president at Sturdi Products, which has produced cat carriers for the last 20 years. She says the company has seen sales grow every one of those years. “People are traveling more, not only with their dogs, but with their cats,” Johnson explains.
Michael Leung, who co-owns Sleepypod with Melony Lee, agrees. “Nowadays, I think people are taking their cats out more often, so they’re willing to spend a little bit more on quality travel products.,” he says.
Yet, all this product diversity means it can be harder than ever for cat owners to decide what to buy—and for retailers to decide what to stock. If stores have too much selection, the choices are likely to overwhelm shoppers; too little and shoppers will go somewhere else to find something they like.
So, how can pet stores build out a good selection? While each individual store should build an assortment based on its own customer base, stores should generally make sure to stock various options to meet a range of consumer needs and preferences—for example, soft- versus hard-sided carriers. Stores should also make sure to carry SKUs suitable for short car rides, such as to the vet, and others for long car rides. Assortments should also include carriers that are accepted by multiple airlines, for cat owners who plan to travel with kitty by plane.
There are two factors that Dan Hawk, president of Gen7Pets, says are particularly important: ease of use and safety—and he understands how those two factors work together better than most. Before entering the pet industry, he worked with Graco Children’s Products, where he became a licensed car-seat installer. “One of the most important things I learned through that whole process was that if you make something easy to install, [customers] will use it,” he explains. “If you don’t make something easy to install, then one day, they won’t use it and accidents happen, injuries occur.”
He has taken that lesson to heart at Gen7Pets, making sure the company’s Carry-Me Pet Carrier is easily strapped into a standard seatbelt for added safety during car travel. It’s also why the carrier has a strap that can slide down over a suitcase handle, like a briefcase would, making it easier to travel without jostling kitty.
In addition to seatbelt compatibility, cat carriers often come with additional safety options. “Tethering is great,” says Johnson. “Also, we feature zipper safety clips,” she says, which keep an intrepid paw from undoing a carrier’s zipper and allowing its occupant to escape.
Rather than relying on theory for safety, many companies are actually running crash tests on their products. “We’ve been safety testing our products for eight years now, and I think finally it’s catching on,” says Leung. “People are realizing, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to buckle in our pets just like we buckle in our children.’”
However, he cautions retailers that the pet industry differs from the car seat industry in one important way: the children products industry has strict government guidelines, which the pet industry doesn’t. That means retailers have to be wary and check into manufacturers’ safety claims.
There are a number of other features that are important in this category. “Carriers should have plenty of ventilation,” says Tara Whitehead, marketing manager for MidWest Homes for Pets. “Wide doors or openings are helpful, as you place your cat in and out of the carrier.”
She adds that padding on the bottom of the carrier is important for cats, “so he doesn’t slip and slide inside with the movement of the carrier.”
It’s also essential that cat carriers are easy to clean, since there’s always the chance the pet will have an accident or get carsick.
Another factor that cat owners consider is what to do with the carrier when it’s not in use. Hawk says some cat owners want something that folds up flat for easy storage when they’re not using it.
Other cat owners are seeking multi-purpose carriers, with a focus on comfort. “People are looking for a nice pad or bed within their carrier, [because they] are using their carriers not just for travel but also in the home, opened up as a bed so that the cat gets used to being in there,” says Johnson.
These types of features can be key selling points when communicated well—however, experts agree that most independent pet stores could benefit from additional education on this category.
“Storeowners are very good at engaging when it comes to food, but sometimes, on the product side, they’re less engaging,” says Hawk. “I think we need to be just as engaging on our hard goods as we are with our food—and we’ll sell more hard goods if we do that.”
Leung says storeowners could specifically benefit from a better understanding of the materials used in carriers. “Storeowners don’t really understand the difference between a polyester exterior versus a nylon exterior, or what is machine washable and what is not,” he says. He adds that a little extra education passed along to the sales staff would really help them make better carrier recommendations and help them explain to cat owners how to keep their carrier clean.
In fact, many retailers miss a real opportunity to talk to cat owners and learn more about them and their cats. The carrier category can open the door to discussions that can lead to add-on sales. Asking carrier shoppers where they’re planning to go is a great way to open up the conversation. If they’re going to the vet, staff can ask if their cat is coping with a health issue—and if so, the sales person can suggest some products to help address the issue. If the customer is going on a trip, the store’s staff can ask about other travel products the customer uses and suggest a travel litter pan or bowls.
“Cat carriers can be cross merchandised with cat treats, small toys, carrier pads and other items that can accompany the cat during travel,” adds Whitehead.
The important thing, says Hawk, is to be friendly and engaging with customers. “The more you find out about that pet and that human, and what they’re doing with their pet, the more you can meet their needs,” he explains.
Whether it’s a cat carrier, food or a toy, the sales person won’t come across as trying to get the customer to buy items they don’t want; instead, Hawk says, “the customer will feel like you’re actually helping them meet their need.”
For Felines On the Go
Sturdi Products, Inc., (sturdiproducts.com) will unveil the cheetah-print design of the SturdiPet Walking Vests for cats at Global Pet Expo this month. The SturdiPet Walking Vest provides cats with safety, comfort and style. Unlike many walking vests or harnesses, the vest features an adjustable multi-size snap closure, and it comes in small or medium. In addition to the new cheetah print, it is available in persimmon and a limited-edition animal rivers print. Each harness comes with a five-foot leash.
Retail staff should also know which carriers are suitable for air travel. “A lot of times people will ask, ‘What airline will this fit? I’m flying on United this week, but when I come back, I’m flying Southwest.’” He says employees need to be prepared to answer those kinds of questions.