Thinking Inside the Box
by Melissa Breau
August 1, 2011
The kitty litter category is often ignored, but with a little attention, it can be a great source of repeat sales for pet specialty stores.



Tucked into every cat aisle beside the cat food is another category that is often overlooked. Like food, kitty litter drives repeat traffic into the pet store, making it a powerful tool for driving cat product sales. However, while pet stores can leverage obvious points of differentiation between their food selection and a competitors’, strong competition from mass and grocery–where cat owners can purchase cheap alternatives during the regular trips they make for non-pet products–can make selling cat litter a challenge for pet specialty stores. Points of differentiation do exist; retailers simply need to carefully cull their litter selection, work hard to make these features clear to cat owners through merchandising and offer excellent customer service.

“Cat litter is a very important buying category for cat owners,” says Marty O’Brien, who handles marketing at Purr & Simple All  Natural Cat Litter. Yet, in his experience, the cat litter section is often self-serve–“I am rarely approached and asked if I need assistance while looking at litters,” he says. “Retailers should keep in mind that this consumable can mean repeat customers.”

All too often, pet store employees assume that if a customer is coming in for yet another bag of kitty litter, they don’t need help; but asking a pet owner if they’ve been satisfied with the product they are using can begin a conversation and create an opening for an employee to address any issues the customer may be having. “If a salesperson guides me, the consumer, to a litter that improves my lifestyle, is economically sound, and healthier for my cats, you may have created a long-term relationship,” says O’Brien. 

For example, cat urine is particularly notorious for its pungent, over-powering odor–meaning it should come as no surprise odor control is the number-one concern cat owners have when choosing a litter product for their homes. If a customer has been using a product but says they are still having odor issues, a store employee can suggest trying a new litter product or upsell the customer on an odor eliminator that can be added to the litter.


Addressing Needs

In addition to odor, cat owners want a product that is low dust, healthy, easy to maintain and won’t track through the house, says O’Brien.

Lisa Mak, senior brand manager of Cat’s Pride, an Oil-Dri Corporation brand, agrees, adding that cat owners are also interested in value, and when it comes to scoopable litters, the ability to form hard clumps is key. She also says that an important but under-considered feature of litters is their weight. “We’ve talked to consumers and found that the heavy weight of clay litter is one thing they really don’t like,” she says. This discovery led Cat’s Pride to introduce its new Fresh & Light product, designed to be easier to carry and pour than heavier scoopable litters, without sacrificing performance.

 It’s important for a store’s employees to consider individual cat owners’ needs when helping a customer choose the right litter, says Gina Zaro, marketing director at Precious Cat. “I think they need to look at the age of the cat, if the cat has any special needs, [and] if it’s a long-haired cat or short-haired cat,” says Zaro. Precious Cat specializes in litters that provide specific solutions to issues cats face, like Respiratory Relief, a recent release designed specifically for cats with respiratory problems. The company also makes Cat Attract and Kitten Attract  products, which feature a natural herbal attractant that uses scent to draw the cat to the box. This is particularly useful for an adult cat that’s coming into the home for the first time or for kittens who are just learning to use the litter box. By helping cat owners solve these types of problems, retailers build a relationship that leads to customer loyalty and offers cat owners something they can’t find during their weekly grocery shopping trip.

In addition to a variety of products formulated to address specific problems, a number of non-clay litters are also available. “Paper products, wood products, wheat- and corn-based products have become more popular with consumers,” says Bryce Purtzer, co-owner Stutzman Environmental Products. “They are positioned as a premium product, and while they may be a little more expensive, I think that retailers can get a little bit better margins on some of these products.” And, as with solution-focused litters, these non-traditional products allow pet speciality stores to differentiate their selection from the big box stores.


Accessorize
Of course, the litter category isn’t just confined to litter itself. “Litter aisles tend to be well-traveled space because cat owners need this item frequently,” says Rochelle Hartigan, director of marketing at OurPet’s, makers of the Smart Scoop brand. “Most cat owners dread the task of scooping and maintaining the litter box, so providing solution-oriented products nearby can result in big add-on sales. Providing basic accessories such as scoops and litter catching mats, as well as high-end alternatives like automatic litter boxes, in the aisle or on a featured space like an endcap can be an easy way to reach shoppers.”

This kind of cross merchandising can increase sales, but it is also important to have a well-informed staff. Educated store employees can make a big difference in the sale of litter accessories. “Educating the floor team about benefits of accessories like litter box sprays that prevent waste from sticking to the box and help control odor, litter catching mats that reduce litter tracking, and automatic litter boxes that take on the daily chore of scooping can make have a very big impact on sales results,” says Hartigan. “And, customers who get great information appreciate and return to a store for more solutions.”