It used to be consumers didn’t have much choice when it came to pet furniture. The product design and construction was consistent—crates, beds or climbing trees made of plastic or metal, likely covered with an inexpensive, scratchy synthetic fabric, built to withstand pets’ incessant chewing, scratching or shedding. Durability, not aesthetics, was key. But that’s changing, thanks to the growing number of consumers who are asking retailers to stock products made of kinder, gentler materials for their pets. Retailers asked and manufacturers started listening. Over the past five years, more products made from natural materials have started appearing on store shelves—products that are not only attractive to both humans and their pets, but are good for the environment, as well.
The Natural Look
Natural pet furniture is built from materials derived from natural sources, such as hardwoods, heavy-duty cardboard, sisal, cork, or bamboo. Some manufacturers have fully embraced the all-natural approach and also print their packaging or promotional materials with soy-based inks. These materials are non-toxic, non-synthetic and are either made from recycled materials or are biodegradable and will not contaminate a landfill at the end of the product’s lifecycle. At first, the market for these natural products was very small, but as consumers have adopted a more eco-conscious mindset, product lines have grown. Consumers are willing to pay more for well-built products, and manufacturers have developed more elaborate designs and using higher-quality, sustainable materials in their construction.
These natural products have been well received by shoppers and their pets alike. According to some experts in this product category, pets’ sharp sense of smell and tactile ability can easily tell the difference between natural and synthetic products.
Frank Callari, “chief stacks officer” at CatHouse Systems, says that felines’ sensory systems are especially sensitive, and they have gotten an excellent response to their CattyStacks product, made from heavyweight corrugated cardboard. “Cats are more drawn to this type of texture or smell than plastic or nylon,” he says. “They love to rub their face against the cardboard and lounge on it. This has to do with the fact that it is natural and not synthetic. Cats feel more comfortable around natural products.”
Pets might be more in tune with the difference in texture and smell, but it’s often the aesthetic value that appeals to the owner. “People like the fact that [our products] blend well with their home décor,” says Nancy Swartzentruber, president of Dynamic Accents, which uses hardwoods like white oak and some aromatic cedar in their designs. “Rather than an unsightly wire kennel or piece of metal in your doorway, you have a beautiful piece of furniture that also serves as your dog’s crate. They are a little more expensive than wire or plastic, but again you have that cross-functional usage—it’s an end table and a pet crate.”
Consumers want to invest in a product that is not only versatile, but also attractive and durable. “These are the same consumers who buy furniture [for their home], so it’s important to get them to understand that this furniture can also serve a purpose for their pets,” Swartzentruber says.
Pet owners often convert their animals to the same eco-friendly lifestyle that they follow, but this has typically meant switching their pets to an organic diet or buying an accessory, such as a leash or collar made from natural materials. Furniture, on the other hand, is a larger purchase, and retailers may have to work a little harder to educate their customers about the difference between products and the benefits of investing in the more expensive product. Consumers are doing their homework and are better informed than ever before, however.
Manufacturers say that products made from synthetic materials still dominate the marketplace, but both consumers and retailers are seeing the value of the natural furniture lines. Swartzentruber says that Dynamic Accents uses a lot of oak in their products, and their customers immediately recognized the quality of this hardwood. “When we entered the market with oak, consumers understood that the products are made to be more durable,” she said.
Besides the aesthetic benefits it provides, all-natural furniture also offers a safety element. Animal lovers won’t have to worry as much with an item made from natural materials if their pet is a big scratcher or chewer, says Feinkind. Even if the pet swallows small pieces of the furniture, the products normally don’t contain harmful dyes or chemicals that could make them sick.
Explaining the Difference
As far as cost, manufacturers say that pet owners can expect to spend a bit more on the natural furniture items, but the quality of the craftsmanship often ensures that these products will have a longer lifespan than something made from synthetic materials.
“We value our relationship to the consumer, and we find that they’re usually willing to pay a little more for better quality,” Swartzentruber says. With both manufacturers and consumers more sensitive to the average household budget, it’s vital that retailers stress the fact that an all-natural item is more of an investment, but with the higher-quality materials being used, the item will likely not have to be replaced within a few months.
Retailers should be familiar with the product lines sold in their stores, but not just the materials used in the construction of those products. They should have a working knowledge of the manufacturer’s philosophy and company mission, as well as being able to provide their customers with resources such as a website or product brochure to assist them with their buying decisions. Additionally, retailers should have signage or displays that explain the difference between natural and synthetic items.
Some manufacturers suggest that retailers dedicate space on a shelf or the floor, if not create a full-fledged display that shows the difference in the materials and quality of the natural pet furniture over the synthetic items. For example, Callari says that many retailers he works with stack the Catty Stacks boxes in creative ways to highlight the product’s durability, lightweight construction and easy assembly. Endcaps are also a great way to make the natural items stand out from their competition. Many retailers have areas of their store dedicated to natural and organic pet food and accessories, and this would be another appropriate placement for these products.
Despite the fact that the natural furniture items often cost more than their synthetic counterparts, manufacturers are confident that consumers will continue to invest in the higher quality of the natural pieces. Consumers want to feel good about the purchases they make for their pets, and doing the right thing for the environment is an added benefit. “Eco-consciousness has been growing. When given an eco-friendly alternative, people seem to go for that,” Callari says. “If you have two choices people go for eco-friendly. People are usually willing to spend a little bit more.”
Manufacturers are prepared to tailor future product offerings to this shift in consumer thinking. “A few years ago, recycling wasn’t that big of a deal, but now it’s a major part of many households,” Callari says. “The need for natural products will only increase. People are coming to realize that there are limited resources. We can’t just keep cutting down trees and burning fossil fuels. People are starting to become educated, science is becoming more prevalent, and people are starting to ‘get it’.”