The Power of Play
by Melissa Breau
December 31, 2011
Cat toys play an important part in an independent pet retailer’s bottom line and in every healthy cat’s life.



Play is important for cats. It helps them first build and then maintain healthy muscles and sound minds, and it can prevent them from becoming overweight.

“Cats are predators with active minds and bodies,” says Lorie Viner, president of Vee Enterprises. “But if their environment doesn’t offer enough stimulus, a cat can become lethargic and even depressed. Cat toys not only bring physical activity into cats’ lives, but also help them flex their minds.”

In addition to offering an opportunity for exercise, play allows the cat to use its natural predatory instincts and can help Fluffy bond with her owner. While that is true for all cats, Viner adds that toys are crucial for indoor-only cats, since play can sometimes be the only outlet the cat has to exercise its body as well as its mind.

But cats aren’t the only ones to benefit from cat toys. These products play an important role in making the cat aisle profitable for independent pet stores.

“The food and the litter bring the people in the stores, but the margins are really on the toys,” says Jim Boelke, president and owner of Cat Dancer Products. “Way too often, [retailers] sell food and only make single-digit margins because the competition on food is so great. [But] if you can get [cat owners] to buy cat toys, that really increases the average margin on sales. Toys generally have a 50 to 70 percent margin.”


Filling the Toy Box
The first step in getting customers to add cat toys to their monthly food or litter purchases is offering a solid product selection. The category has grown beyond crinkle balls, mice and other items cats can bat around on their own. Most cats’ toy boxes today also include at least one interactive toy that allows the cat owner to initiate play, such as a wand or laser light toy. Other types of toys, such as captured balls (where the ball is confined to a track) and plush toys (with or without stuffing), are also growing in popularity.

“Finding a good balance of play values, materials and price points is one of the best ways to build a strong cat department,” says Rochelle Hartigan, director of marketing at OurPets.

She recommends stocking a selection that includes a variety of price points and types. “There has never been a better selection of toys available, with options in sound and action toys, catnip-filled toys, treat-dispensing and interactive toys, and the classics, like feathers and poms,” Hartigan says.

Dan Cook, vice president of DuckyWorld Products, Inc., which makes Yeowww! Catnip toys agrees that the options available today are better than ever. “Cat toys are increasing simply because manufacturers, distributors and retailers are realizing the need and no longer ignoring or downplaying the category,” he says.

Still, retailers have to work to find a good balance between not enough and too much. “Too much selection and one risks overwhelming the consumer, too little and, well, why bother,” says Cook.

He recommends retailers offer six SKUs for each type of cat toy they want to stock—two “good” choices, two “better” choices and two “best” choices. Retailers should also pay special attention to category trends that may be a draw for customers. Experts agree that the two biggest trends in the category are eco-friendly or all-natural toys, and items made in the U.S.A.

“Demand for ‘Made in the U.S.A’ is the strongest trend we have seen of-late,” says Kathleen Johnson, chief operating officer of West Paw Design. “We attribute this trend to the tough economic situation and a desire [American] consumers have to keep jobs in the U.S.A., as well as to the implied safety that comes from U.S.A.-made products versus products that come from overseas.”

Hartigan adds that toys designed especially for nighttime play are also an upcoming trend. “Cats are nocturnal by nature, and we are starting to see more toys for cats featuring lights,” she says. “Last year, OurPet’s introduced a line of Play N Squeak At Night Toys for just this purpose. The toys squeak like a real mouse and light up so cats can chase and pounce even at night.”


Setting up the Section
Once a store has a strong, carefully cultivated toy offering, retailers have to consider merchandising. “Merchandising is often difficult for the independent storeowner,” says Ellen Tsuyuki, owner Nekochan. “They have to balance their limited space with the need to carry a good selection of product and still make a living.”

That makes presentation particularly important.

A toy section that appears crowded can turn customers off and hurt sales, because individual products get lost. Instead, retailers should organize toys in a way that looks cohesive and that allows a customer’s eye to naturally wander over the options available. Manufacturers disagree on whether it’s better to group products by manufacturer or type, but they agree that having an organized selection is important. “Retailers need to do some of the sorting for their customers by cutting out redundant and widely available toys, and selecting the best product in each category,” says Tsuyuki.

The toy section should be located in an area that every cat owner has to go through during every visit. “Stores, in my mind, should be set up so that you have to walk through the cat toy aisle to get to the food or litter,” says Boelke. “Like a grocery store—the milk is always way in the back.”

Signage can then be set up to highlight toy products and catch the attention of customers who may just be passing through.

Toys can also be set up in a small display near the register or cross-merchandised with other cat items. Since toys encourage cats to be active, retailers can market toys as a way to get cats to exercise by strategically placing a few toys in a display or on clip-strips near weight -loss foods. Signage can explain how these toys will help them meet their goals for the pets’ health.

Similarly, toys that clearly market all-natural dyes and materials might sell well near products for cats with allergies or near all-natural diets and litters. Dangle toys or catnip products can be merchandised near scratching posts and cat towers.

Education shouldn’t be restricted to self-serve options, however. The store’s staff should understand the importance of toys and actively help educate customers about the benefits playtime can offer their cats. “Retailers need to be at the leading edge, that’s what makes them valuable to their customers,” says Tsuyuki.

Staff can use the same strategies that stores use when cross-merchandising products. For example, when a customer asks about weight-loss options or brings a weight-loss food to the register, staff should mention how toys can help cats lose weight. “My opinion is that if retailers get a little more proactive about cat toys, they can sell 15 to 20, maybe even 25 percent more,” says Boelke. “I think that if they were selling 25 percent more cat toys they would see a real increase in their margins.”