All Boxed Up
Litter boxes are not what they used to be-and that is a good thing. Manufacturers are offering an array of new features and colors in the category.
The cat category has been undergoing a quiet revolution. Whereas the cat aisle was once lined with blandly colored plastic bowls, boxes and carpet-covered scratchers—things pet owners would want to hide when company came over—today, it boasts a collection of thoughtfully designed accessories, with design options for every household and lifestyle.
This evolution has affected every segment of the cat product industry, right down to the one segment that is, perhaps, the least likely of all—the litter box. “A lot more thought is being put into how litter boxes look,” says Gabriella DeSantis, vice president of marketing at The OurPet’s Company. “Manufacturers are looking beyond strictly utilitarian aspects of litter boxes and taking into consideration current fashions in home décor.”
The upgrades manufacturers have applied to litter boxes go beyond updated colors—although color and pattern selections have played their parts. Today’s litter box designs include new shapes, such as corner boxes; alternate entry points, like top-access boxes; options that come disguised as end tables or plants; and those with more functionally-focused upgrades.
“The litter box category has evolved greatly,” says Aimee Diskin, director of innovation and product development at Worldwise, Inc. “No longer are litter boxes just a pan with litter inside. Aesthetically, they are much improved, with new colors and shapes that are less of an eyesore in the home.”
Additionally, she says, some models now have added features, like self cleaning or odor absorption. Some even offer antibacterial properties. “Manufacturers are not only thinking about the cat’s interaction with the litter box, but the pet parent’s experience as well,” she explains.
DeSantis agrees, adding that technology in particular has helped make the task of maintaining the litter area much easier for consumers.
Manufacturers also realize that function is just as important as design. “The consumer is not only looking for a solution that will fit well in the home, but one that will also perform well,” says Diskin.
However, designing a box that works well in the home and takes advantage of the latest manufacturing technologies is still only half the battle. The other half? Creating litter boxes that cats will actually use.
“We are more knowledgeable now about what cat’s want,” says Shannon Supanich, marketing manager for Pioneer Pet Products, LLC. For example, she says, litter box cleanliness is important to cats; therefore, it is generally a best practice to have one more litter box than the number of cats that live in a home.
The market also offers a host litter-box features designed to please both cats and their owners. For all these reasons and more, DeSantis says, litter box sales are up.
That is good news for retailers that take the time to optimize the category. Many of these new features and options lead to higher margins and greater profits when the right product mix is chosen and merchandised correctly. “We’d recommend carrying a wide variety of litter box offerings,” says DeSantis. “From simple opening-price-point litter pans to disposable litter boxes to automatic litter boxes.”
Of course, the specific mix will differ from store to store. “Knowing their customer’s demographics will help retailers choose the right litter solutions,” says Diskin. “Offering standard options in both open and closed styles will cater to the needs of most customers; adding touches of novelty, like self-cleaning boxes or travel-friendly ones will capture a smaller niche market.”
However, even the best possible litter box selection will not sell if retailers don’t get the basics right when it comes to merchandising. Retailers sometimes under-emphasize the litter box category—since it is a staple, they often focus on it once a year, and then basically “set it and forget it.”
Unfortunately, that is not the optimal approach, says DeSantis. “The litter box category might not be ‘exciting’ per se, but there are always new and interesting developments from manufacturers, whether they be decorative or functional or technological,” she explains. “And it’s prudent for retailers to keep their finger on the pulse of what’s new in the category.”
On the Sales Floor
Retailers that make an effort to be educated on the latest in the category have to be equally focused on communicating that information to their sales associates. “Retail sales associates may not always be aware of newer litter box technologies or the different types of litter boxes available on the market,” says DeSantis, which means they might not be able to help consumers make an educated purchase. That, in turn, leads the category to underperform.
Besides not educating themselves and their teams, there are a number of other common mistakes retailers often make when it comes to merchandising the category. For example, sales can be negatively impacted when customers can’t easily see the product to evaluate quality or whether or not the box is the right size. “I have walked the litter section in a lot of stores,” says Diskin. “Many put the litter trays and boxes up too high, so they cannot be reached, or there are just stacks of plastic trays.”
A stack of plastic trays also is not very visually appealing on shelf. Instead, stores need to truly make an effort to give litter boxes their moment in the spotlight, featuring a litter display as part of a regular rotation of endcap displays. “It’s all about marketing,” says Supanich. “If you have fun, colorful, eye catching displays it can make [the litter box category] fun.”
In addition to displays, using signage and other point-of-sale tools, which are often available from manufacturers and suppliers, can help bring some life to the category. “Merchandising in the litter category is all about showing the solution, and educating the customer about the product and its accessories,” explains Diskin. “Great signage explaining the features and benefits of the products is helpful.”