Super Natural Litter
Natural cat litters are becoming increasingly popular with cat owners who are looking for options that are gentle and healthy for both pets and the planet.
While the average consumer will never chain herself to a tree or participate in a peaceful climate-change-related protest, more shoppers than ever are paying attention to environmental issues. This concern for the environment—both inside and outside the home—is motivating an unprecedented number of shoppers to seek out natural, sustainable and eco-friendly options in many product categories. In the pet industry, cat litter is chief among those categories gaining momentum with all-natural and earth-friendly options.
Manufacturers report that sales of natural cat litter are strong these days, thanks to growing consumer awareness of the benefits these products offer both pets and the planet—and companies such as Next Gen Pet Products are successfully catering to this emerging consumer consciousness.
“We have been fortunate to see the pet product market continue to grow every year,” says Stan Yamamoto, CEO of Next Gen International Corporation. “Likewise, the natural litter segment continues to see rapid growth as people and companies shift to more natural products. In our company’s short ,10-year history, we have seen double-digit growth every year, and we expect that trend to continue.”
The trend toward natural litter is largely being driven by cat owners who are looking for alternatives to traditional clay products. These consumers are bypassing more conventional options and favoring products that boast biodegradability and eco-friendliness among their most notable characteristics.
“Today, people are paying more attention to the environment and trying to use products that are more earth friendly,” Yamamoto says. “For years, cat litter was simply disposed of in landfills—I have heard estimates of as much as two million tons of cat litter goes into landfills every year. Why not use a product that will degrade over a relatively short period of time and reduce landfills?”
In response to consumers’ concerns about the disposal of cat litter, manufacturers have reengineered these products to feature ingredients that biodegrade naturally and lessen the burden on already taxed landfills. Litters made of wood or grass and other plant-based materials are becoming increasingly popular with eco-conscious customers.
World’s Best Cat Litter, for example, is made from corn. “It’s a renewable resource,” says Jean Broders, brand manager of World’s Best Cat Litter. “World’s Best Cat Litter is also flushable—tested by NSF International—so less waste is filling up landfills.”
Manufacturers say these products offer a host of other advantages beside biodegradability. Cats themselves benefit from many of the latest introductions in the category, says Shannon Supanich, marketing manager at Pioneer Pet Products. In fact, she says developing a 100-percent safe litter was among Pioneer Pet’s primary goals when creating SmartCat litter.
“We are becoming so much more aware of the dangers of unnatural products,” she says. “[As with] food, we are also realizing the benefits of all-natural products.”
A major factor fueling shoppers’ attraction to natural litters is the desire to avoid harsh chemicals and any substances that can potentially cause pets harm. “Our pets are part of our family,” Supanich adds. “We want what is best for their health.”
To fulfill this demand for healthful litters, litter companies have focused on harnessing the power of Mother Nature to create products that are good for pets, as well as the environment. “Next Gen uses only sustainable ingredients such as recycled wood and green tea to manufacture our products,” he adds. “The wood is carefully inspected to ensure that we are not using wood with paints, varnish or chemicals.”
Still, the most eco-friendly and natural products will be a disappointment to customers if they simply do not work. As mindful as some manufacturers are about the composition of the litters they produce, consumers often have doubts about the efficacy of these alternatives. Shoppers’ wariness is understandable, since natural products—particularly the earliest introductions of natural alternatives in any category—can sometimes be less effective than products made with traditional and proven ingredients. In the cat litter category, clay has had a long-standing reputation for being highly effective and inexpensive. For these reasons, clay litter continues to perform well on pet store shelves.
Fortunately, several natural cat litter manufacturers, well aware that performance is key in the litter category, are heeding the call for products that can compete with traditional litters. Jane Wasley, brand manager of Healthy Pet, says that retailers have the opportunity to offer natural products that effectively solve problems and meet cat owners’ needs—thanks in particular, she says, to the latest innovations in the category and the availability of its recently debuted ökocat brand.
“Consumers also want products they can trust will provide a greater level of care and performance—a purchase they can feel good about—[as well as] the benefits of an eco-friendly, natural choice,” Wasley explains.
She adds that Healthy Pet invested a great deal of time in identifying the product characteristics natural customers are seeking and willing to pay more for during the development of its ökocat litter.
“We’ve made sure we are not only touting those features [natural and eco-friendly], but also delivering a high performance, eco-friendly solution,” Wasley says.
Clearly, manufacturers’ efforts are paying off. The natural cat litter category already has a steady customer base that can be directly attributed to these companies’ success at developing strong natural options. “As with products that consumers are buying for their own personal use, whether beauty products, cleaning products, etc., they are using natural products that perform—or outperform—conventional products. So, the understanding that natural products in the pet category will perform as well as, if not better is expected and understood,” she says.
Among the most important features pet owners look for in a natural cat litter—or any litter—is odor control, Yamamoto points out. “The environmental benefits of our litters is also important, but if Next Gen litters did not control odors, [cat owners] would not be using our products,” he says.
The ability to form clumps also ranks high among desirable traits in a kitty litter. Clumping litter revolutionized the category decades ago, and it remains a top seller. It makes clean-up easy and quick, while extending the life of the litter. It took some trial and error for natural litter manufacturers to replicate the clumping action of traditional products, but these companies have made significant strides recently.
“In the past, natural litters just didn’t clump the way consumers wanted them too,” says Supanich. “That is why we spent over a year perfecting our product. We wanted to make a natural litter that truly out-clumped clay, everyday.”
Litters that are truly low dust have gained a great deal of traction with today’s cat owners, as well. “There is no dust for consumers or pets to inhale,” says Broders of World’s Best Cat Litter. “There is the concern that silica dust may cause respiratory issues in pets and humans.”
While the natural-litter category has already attracted an admirable number of fans, retailers that want to maximize the sales potential of these products need to put some effort into educating themselves on the category, as well as merchandising their litter assortments.
Yamamoto says understanding the value of natural litter is among the most important steps toward being able to effectively convey the products’ worth to cat owners. “Education is really the key,” he says. “One of the biggest misconceptions is cost. People tend to compare litters by cost per bag, or cost per pound.”
According to Yamamoto, while a pet owner may go through a box of traditional litter every one to two weeks because of the build-up of odors, a six-pound bag of Next Gen’s litter can last one cat anywhere from four to six weeks. “Now, compare the cost of one six-pound bag of Next Gen litter versus 40 to 50 pounds of clay,” he adds. “The next question is which would you rather carry home?”
Retailers that can successfully communicate this value may find themselves converting traditional litter users to natural varieties. However, these retailers also need to understand the category enough to recommend the appropriate products for customers’ specific needs. Wasley says it comes down to being able to speak to “the performance attributes of each type of litter and material and make solution-oriented recommendations.
“Some cat owners might not care if their litter tracks dust through the house, as long as it clumps like a rock. While others want natural-wood-smelling, cleaner litter that performs well in absorbency and has anti-bacterial features.”
Using effective point-of-sale materials to highlight product features can be particularly helpful, especially during times when there is no one on the sales floor to provide customer assistance. Most manufacturers in the category have at least a few tools that retailers can put to good use. World’s Best, for example, provides endcap signage, banners, channel strips, window clings, as well as a 30-second video highlighting its products’ benefits.
“We offer a ‘silent salesman’ video monitor that helps to sell World’s Best Cat Litter at the shelf level,” says Broders.
Manufacturers also suggest putting out open samples of litter, giving shoppers the opportunity to touch and see the product for themselves. Being able to display a litter’s clumping action can also be a great tool—especially for customers who are new to the category or when promoting new products. “Retailers may set out a small water dispenser by the litter, so people can see how fast it clumps,” Supanich says. “As always, product knowledge is important when new products hit the market.”
As for how and where to position natural cat litters on the shelves, Wasley urges retailers to “break up the ‘sea of sameness’ on the litter wall. Break out naturals into their own set so you draw in that user, while creating interest that possibly sways—and upsells—the clay user.”