Specialized Feline Foods

Niche cat diets offer retailers a point of differentiation and a chance to help build a loyal cat-owning customer base.


For many years cats have been second-rate citizens in the pet world–more popular than small animals, but much less so than dogs; in recent years that has begun to change. The dog humanization trend saw pups come from the farm into the home, where they became a member of the family. Cats took a little longer to be welcomed as furry children–but now cat lovers have lost their cat-lady stigma and kitty is considered one of the kids. This new status has caused significant growth in the demand for cat products, especially in cat nutrition.

“Cats are more independent, so therefore there were fewer products developed for them,” says Dr. Phil Brown, Nutri-Vet vice president of marketing and regulatory affairs. He says cats are just harder to develop products for, because of their pickier natures. Additionally, cats are physiologically different from dogs; they are true carnivores and have very specific nutritional needs.

Despite these obstacles, demand has grown and manufacturers have risen to meet it. “The number of products available for cats has increased greatly over the last few years,” says Heather Govea, senior vice president of independent sales and corporate marketing at Natural Balance Pet Foods, Inc.

Because of the phenomenal growth in the category, this year Natural Balance is working to grow its cat line and help retailers meet this need. “Retailers and consumers now have a vast range of products to choose from, including breed-specific formulas, special-needs diets and life stage specific formulas,” she says.

Special-needs diets range from formulas for cats with hairball issues to those with diabetes, which is fairly common in cats. Cats also often suffer from dental problems, weight issues, kidney disease and urinary tract infections–so manufacturers have created diets to help address each of these problems.

Breed-specific formulas meet each breed’s unique needs; for example Maine coon cats often reach over 20 lbs. and a total length of 40 inches. Larger cats experience more stress on their joints and sometimes have difficulty eating smaller kibble. Extra-large kibble sizes that would be impossible for smaller cats are perfect for this breed.

Diets designed for specific life stages help ensure that cats are getting the right nutrition levels for their age group. Kittens need a higher protein level than adult cats to help them develop and grow. Adult cats require a balanced diet designed for their needs as obligate carnivores. Finally, senior cats have a lower activity level but increased potential for health issues, so senior diets include ingredients to help keep their joints mobile and weight under control.

Creating a Connection
The appeal of specialized, niche diets is clear–every pet owner believes their pet is special. Specialty diets allow them to offer their cats a product uniquely suited to its needs and any problems it may have. And every cat has to eat, so convincing customers to buy these products becomes more about showing them the value of offering their cats products that improve quality of life and that also have a “feel good” factor for the owner built in.

Retailers who help cat owners navigate these options with a carefully stocked and merchandised specialty diet section, tailoring to pet owners’ desire to highlight their pets uniqueness, create a stronger connection with that customer. But, as Kirk Dietz, region sales manager at Tuffy’s Pet Foods points out, “Because there are so many foods available to cat owners now, the options can be overwhelming.” In order to avoid this, retailers need to lay these diets out on the store’s shelves in a logical display.

“To make the most of pet food producers packaging, the most logical and shop-able merchandising scheme is to group the products by manufacturer,” suggests Dietz. “A good way to organize within a pet food line is, moving left to right, by life stage, special need and niche.  For example, start with kitten (if available), then adult formulas (organized by flavor), then weight management, followed by senior, hairball, indoor, outdoor, breed specific and so on.”

Of course, the problem for a retailer is that there is limited shelf space available to stock these products. Each store needs to find its own balance between too few specialty diets and too many; stores should stock enough selections so that there is something on their shelves for just about any cat–allowing them to make each owner feel they have found a product that is a good fit–without creating crowded shelves or an overwhelming selection.

Additionally, retailers may want to consider seasonal cat sales trends. “Kitten product sales typically peak in the springtime,” says Govea. “Retailers can take advantage of this by gearing their merchandising to meet this demand.

Seasonal displays, endcaps, and other in-store promotions can capture this audience.” Consider creating “new kitten” packages, with food, toys and scratching and litter solutions, which can help showcase this section and make customers aware that the store stocks products appropriate for their pet.

“Many stores have found great success by teaming up with local shelters and rescues to provide adoption days at the store,” says Govea. “These events draw customers to the store while providing a valuable service to the community.”

A Point of Differentiation
Specialty cat diets also have another benefit for pet specialty retailers. Non-pet specialty channels have increasingly begun to add more extensive pet sections; but often these retailers concentrate mainly on dog sections, meaning they have an even more limited amount of shelf space to cover the cat category than specialty pet stores. They also have difficulty providing the level of support these products need to truly flourish.

Carrying a complete line of products for cats at various life stages, breed-specific diets and diets tailored to improve cats’ health and wellness can differentiate pet stores from their mass and grocery competition. Training employees to help steer customers to these diets and guide them through the selection process can ensure the store becomes the go-to location for the area’s cat owners.

“A major challenge facing the pet specialty store is how to train staff to present solid information based on facts,” says Dietz. He suggests using manufacturers’ point-of-sale (POS) materials to communicate key points to both the cat owner and store personnel. “Each pet food company should provide detailed training on how best to recommend the products they represent.” 

Other tactics include teaming up with other pet professionals and enthusiasts—a local veterinarian can act as a nutrition partner and a consultant; a local cat fanciers’ clubs can put you in contact with people who have detailed knowledge of cats’ needs. “Learnings from these different sources of information can be combined with your own research to build a working manual, and this can form the foundation for your proprietary training program for current and future employees,” says Dietz.

A strong connection to other local pet focused people and companies can simultaneously serve as a cat customer base and a source of referrals–and, when the store’s staff is well educated, customers come to regard them as pet experts furthering the store’s reputation and its bottom line.

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