Pick of the Litter
by Lindsey Wojcik
December 1, 2011
The trend toward all-natural products is boosting the growth of the natural litter category, and retailers that are prepared to educate consumers stand to profit.



As consumers continue becoming more health conscious, they are more mindful not only of what they put in their pets’ food bowls, but also of what goes in the litter box. Trends in the natural cat litter category are starting to mirror trends in other categories of natural products. In 2010, total spending in the natural litter category totaled more than $36 million—a 9.2-percent increase over 2009, according to IRI, a market research firm.

In the last year, big-box chains in the pet retail business have taken notice of the natural litter category, dedicating more space to these products and spending more money promoting them. Increased shelf space devoted to litters containing sustainable natural raw materials, such as wheat, pine, paper, wood or corn, has alerted consumers that they need to seriously consider natural litter products.

The category is not only attracting the health-conscious consumer. Litter made from raw resources appeals to the eco-friendly consumer. Manufacturers note that an added benefit to litters made from recyclable materials is that these litters are often biodegradable. As pet owners continue to see the benefits that natural litters can offer their cats and the environment, growth for the category shows no signs of slowing.


Growth Spurt

Manufacturers agree that the growth rate of natural litters is outpacing that of the total cat litter category. According to Claire Brant, owner of Equustock, the manufacturer of the pine pellet Guardian Litter, this growth has benefited the category in two ways—it is drawing in manufacturers that are new to the category, as well as, inspiring established companies to branch out. “Maybe they are a producer of other products that aren’t natural, but they want to get in on the growth,” she says.

Niche producers of natural cat litter are also benefitting from the increased popularity of their products. “It has all been beneficial, because [the growth] brings to the surface how litter affects the animal,” Brant adds. For example, since kittens learning to use their litter box are likely to ingest the litter, manufacturers are highlighting that biodegradable litters are also digestible and will not harm cats or any other house pets that may ingest it. Additionally, low-dust litters are helpful to cats and humans allergic to dust.

“Problems tied back to the litter [pet owners] use are starting to become part of the veterinarian forefront,” Brant says, explaining that veterinarians are apt to ask pet owners about the brand of litter they are using to figure out if the product is contributing to a health issue. So, it’s not surprising that people are paying closer to attention to the content of the litter the are buying and seeking out natural brands.

Most manufacturers agree that the term “natural” conveys the message that the products do not contain added preservatives, chemicals or fragrances. Still, Brant says retailers and consumers should not necessarily make that assumption, since some companies have added chemicals back into their products for consumers looking for more traditional product formulas.

As consumers become more aware of the natural category, they will start weeding through the differences in products to find what works best for them, Brant says. Despite the segment’s rapid growth, there are many consumers who have tried natural litters but did not continue using them after their finicky felines rejected it.  Because natural litter has a different texture than traditional litters, it’s important for consumers to take time to transition the cat to a natural litter. Adding a quarter of a cup of natural litter to traditional litter will help the transition.

In response to consumers who have tried natural litter with little to no success, however, Equustock offers a solution—the Guardian Angel Pine Cobble that mimics the texture of traditional litters. “It’s 100-percent pine, so we don’t have the transitions issues with the pellets, where cats don’t necessarily like the texture of the pellet,” Brant says. “The texture is really inviting to a cat that likes to dig and cover.”

Many consumers who makes that transition to natural litter will become lifelong users, says Brent Karstens, president/owner of Elkhorn, Neb.-based Gentle Touch Products. “Many cat owners that use these products swear by them and will never use anything different for their pets,” he says.

In an effort to keep these customers, manufacturers of natural litters continue to innovate their products by providing the conveniences of traditional litters. Mark Hughes, co-founder of Detroit Lakes, Minn.-based Swheat Scoop, says that when the company began 19 years ago, it offered its product in only one size. It now boasts nine different SKUs. “When we first started, we simply ground wheat, sized it and put it into a bag,” Hughes says. “We discovered if we took that grind, made it into a pellet and then ground that pellet, it increased the absorbency 33 percent.”

The tweaked version of Swheat Scoop’s Original litter exposes natural starches inside its single ingredient—wheat—to make it a clumping formula. In addition, the enzymes in the wheat kernel react with enzymes in the cat’s waste to neutralize each other and eliminate odor. Swheat Scoop’s Original formula also taps into another trend that has been on the rise for years—multi-cat households.

The total number of cat-owning households increased by nearly two percent to 8.9 million households in 2010, according the American Pet Products Association 2011-2012 National Pet Survey. In 2010, 29 percent of those households owned two cats and 23 percent owned three or more cats. 


Multiple Innovations

Manufacturers have taken note that many pet owners are inviting more than one feline into their homes and are polishing the way they produce natural litter for these consumers. “We’re seeing increased interest in product innovation and differentiation with things like ‘multi-cat’ and ‘control brands,’” says Marty Phelan, a partner at BPV Environmental, a Byron Center, Mich.-based manufacturer of the post-consumer recycled paper Fresh News Litter. 

As a result, consumers are seeing larger bag sizes and concentrated formulas geared for multiple cat households on retail shelves. Swheat Scoop, for example, has a multi-cat litter with higher concentrations of starches. “It gives our product the odor control and the clumping action,” Hughes says. “The multiple-cat formula is becoming a large part of our business, and it’s only been around for a couple of years.”

Karstens, however, says that most litters on the market these days can be used for multiple cats. “This is a great reason why this category is growing at a rapid pace,” he says. “The all-natural litters really work well in absorbing odor and can last longer.”
 

An Education

Letting cat owners know that an all-natural litter will ultimately last longer and save the consumer money is essential, says Brant. “If you buy the right natural litter, you can save money because you use less— it lasts longer and absorbs more pound for pound,” Brant says. “You’ve got to educate the consumer and help them understand the difference.”

The independent retailer that can increase customer awareness of the natural products their store stocks stand to profit. “Retailers who focus and educate themselves and their customers on the benefits of natural litters are likely to improve customer loyalty and profitability while reducing their [customers’] carbon footprint,” Phelan says.

Retailers should also keep in mind that the natural consumer typically has a higher-household income and is more likely to spend more money than non-natural consumers. “Retailers need to make sure they stock natural litter items that meet the needs of these valuable customers,” says Jack Drasner, business development manager for Wellsville, N.Y.-based Simply Pine Litter.
 

Smart Merchandising

Positioning natural cat litter in the center of the litter section at eye level enables retailers to call out the features, benefits and advantages of the natural litter. “You miss the trade up from the non-natural customer by only positioning it in the natural section of the store,” Drasner says. Signage that reads “all natural,” along with periodic endcap and floor displays can direct a customer’s attention to natural litter. If there is room, Drasner suggests dropping a pallet of the products and running a strong promotion.

Marketing materials provided by manufacturers are especially helpful in educating consumers about natural litters—particularly when store employees aren’t on hand to explain the products to the customers. Brochures, rebate incentives and coupons should be placed near the products. Natural litter should also be included in displays and ad programs and promoted through in-store and online communication.
Shelf talkers are essential in reaching consumers at the display point. Even better, says Brant, are shelf talkers with QR codes that lead consumers to a website that will provide an in-depth explanation of the product’s benefits.

“Over 50 percent of the information the consumer gets is right on the shelf. That’s a very important place for retailers to consider educating the customer,” Brant says. “Dedicating a little space to help the consumer understand really quickly why the product that is standing in front of them is one thing retailers could try.”

However, daily interactions with consumers may be the best way to sell the natural litter to a consumer who may be on the fence about making the switch to natural. “Open a bag in the store and show the difference,” Drasner suggests. “Let the customer experience it with their senses.”