On the Road Again
Cats have come a long way, from vagabonds to homebodies to travel companions, leaving retailers a huge opportunity to capitalize on the travel category.
While dogs have long been constant companions to their on-the-go owners, for many years, cats were left behind. Although considered family members, cats were viewed as homebodies, with a reputation for being such poor travelers that many owners kept even veterinarian visits to a minimum.
But this is changing. “With public awareness [through programs] like Animal Planet’s Cats 101 and the popularity of cat videos, people are letting go of old assumptions about cats and understand that felines can be great travel companions,” says Penny Johnson, executive vice president of Sturdi Products, Inc.
Michael Leung, lead product designer and co-founder at Sleepypod, agrees. He says that the number of cat owners who worry about taking their cats to the vet are decreasing, and cats are receiving regular veterinary care more frequently as a result. But it doesn’t stop there. “We have [also] been seeing a lot more airplane travel for cats,” says Leung.
So what does that increase in travel—both near and far—mean for pet retailers? It means that the cat carrier category, which once was fairly limited, has blossomed. Yet, since carrier options have ballooned in recent years, retailers must be choosy about the items they stock on valuable shelf space. There are a multitude of criteria to consider when choosing a carrier assortment, but there are four features that top that list: safety, durability, comfort and design.
A carrier’s main purpose, says Johnson, is to secure a cat during travel. This is particularly important during car travel. Yet that wasn’t always a focus for shoppers. For many years, a carrier was simply considered to be a containment device—and few people considered the injuries a dog or cat might suffer during an accident or the damage they might inflict upon those around them if, for example, they became a projectile during a crash.
“Before, people didn’t really think about the safety aspect of dogs and cats in cars,” says Leung.
As pets increasingly came to be viewed as part of the family, however, safety became a more central component of carrier design. For the last five to six years, Sleepypod has actively crash-tested its carriers the same way child seats are tested.
Today, Leung says today’s pet parents are much more aware of the importance of safety when traveling with pets. “We see that a lot of people are more aware that you should strap in your dog or your cat just like your child,” he says. “That’s a very important thing for people to know.”
The Center for Pet Safety, a nonprofit organization that tests harnesses, is a great resource for retailers who want safety tips and educational tools they can use to help educate shoppers and their staff about best practices.
Made to Last
Second only to safety, durability is also a major factor to consider when choosing a cat carrier. Cats are notoriously flexible, with sharp claws and teeth. “Cats are very good at figuring out how to escape an uncomfortable situation,” says Johnson. “If a carrier is not to a cat’s liking, some are very nimble pawed and can work a zipper open, and out kitty will go.”
Imagine what would happen if a cat got loose at an airport or a public location far from home—most cats, even those that are not usually skittish, would be overwhelmed by the situation and try to hide. “We’ve heard some stories where they’ve gotten loose in cars, and I guess that’s easier to control,” says Leung. “But if they’re in a public place? That would be impossible.”
Because of that, ensuring that carriers are constructed in such a way as to prevent cats from working their way free is critically important—and it is not just the zipper that retailers and shoppers should pay attention to.
“They need to be really aware of the construction of the carrier, especially the mesh windows, because we’ve heard from many customers out there that they’ve had carriers where the cats are able to chew or claw through the mesh,” says Leung.
Comfort & Cleanliness
Once shoppers know a carrier is safe and durable, their next concern will likely be whether their cat will accept it. Many pet parents have been in the car with an unhappy cat at least once, and have endured meows of sadness from a pet that hates traveling in the carrier. For that reason, comfort is paramount.
“Pet parents want their longtime companions to be comfortable and are looking for products that could help,” says Johnson. That means the bedding itself should be padded, and the carrier should be designed to both allow airflow and protect the cat from the occasional bump that happens during travel.
Helping cats adapt to this new space is also an important part of the process. “Cats can be very particular about confined spaces and will not be forced into a carrier without a struggle,” says Johnson. “A feline who knows the carrier and has accepted it as a place to sleep will be more comfortable and have an easier time when traveling.”
Sleepypod has even gone so far as to design their carriers—or “mobile pet beds,” as they like to call them—to double as comfortable beds around the home when not in use for travel purposes. It allows the cat to familiarize itself with the carrier as a bed first, which helps with comfort when traveling.
Still, even a cat familiar with its carrier may get motion sickness or have an accident—after all, unlike dogs, which are trained to hold it until someone is available to let them outside, cats are used to having a litter box available at all times. With this in mind, carriers should also be easy to take apart and clean, with removable and washable padding inside, in case a cat should have an accident.
It is also a good idea to recommend that cat owners bring cleaning supplies and paper towels with them so that they can clean up any messes right away—these items make for great upsell opportunities and can be cross-promoted near carriers to help increase awareness and add-on sales.
Color Selection and Variety
Once retailers have evaluated which products to carry based on safety, durability, comfort and cleanliness, it is time for the fun part—looking at individual carrier designs, colors and patterns.
The crucial thing to remember is that carriers sell best when they are assembled—so retailers need to think about how the carriers will look side by side on display within the store. Overstocking this category can lead the section to look cluttered, negatively impacting sales—yet it is important to offer diversity.
“Even if I’m a person who might buy a carrier that’s in black—maybe that’s my favorite color—the bright colors will attract me to that section to have a look,” says Leung. “So a lot of stores think, ‘Black is going to be the best seller, so I’m only going to stock in black,’ but that’s a problem because then you don’t have bright colors and the whole assortment to attract the customers to take a look in the first place.”
With the right selection retailers should expect to see cat carrier sales continue to grow in their stores as cats hit the road.