Seeing Green
by Melissa Breau
March 1, 2012
Sustainable, natural and eco-friendly products continue to grow their market share in the cat category but retailers must be smart about their sales strategy.



While experts agree that the green trend continues to grow, consumer demand for these products is evolving. The economy has pet owners more concerned about value than ever before, and educated consumers are no longer swayed by inauthentic efforts to make a product seem green. They are also more interested in how well a green product functions—the item must not only be good for the environment, it must also be the best possible option for their pet.

That’s particularly true within the cat section. When a cat owner comes into the store, it’s often because they have a problem they need to solve. “Kitties don’t need as many products as dogs, so when there’s a customer in [the store], they’re usually there for a purpose,” says Juliann Eskite, founder of Juno’s Garden, which manufactures Pal Kitty grooming products. “They have a question, they have a problem, and they need a solution. If it’s a green product, that’s great. And if there isn’t a green product out there that solves their problem, they probably will make another choice. But I do think if they have a choice between a green product and another, I think customers are still really motivated by that.”


Focus on Function
Pet owners have become more eco-conscious, but an eco-friendly descriptor on a product often still serves as more of a differentiator in today’s cat aisle than a deciding factor. There are exceptions; some stores, for example, have a particularly eco-conscious customer base. The majority of products in the cat aisle, however, are specifically created to meet everyday, common needs.

Larry Wright, president of The Green Pet Shop, says that what customers find on store shelves boils down to demand. “In terms of functionality, there’s always going to be a little bit more of a demand [for a product that is necessary] than a luxury-type item or an optional item,” he says.

This means retailers need to be smart, not only about which green cat products they bring into their stores, but also about how they choose to market and merchandise those items—especially since green products tend to be more expensive than their traditional counterparts. “Green products are most costly to manufacturer hence the higher cost to the retailer and consumer,” says Josh Feinkind, president of RefinedKind Pet Products.

Higher-quality ingredients are more expensive, and that cost does trickle down. But sometimes the price difference isn’t as significant as people assume, says Spencer Williams, president of West Paw Design. “When we use an organic cotton on our smaller stuffed beds for cats, the [difference in wholesale] price on an entire bed may only differ by a dollar or two,” he says.

Manufacturers understand how the economy has impacted consumers and are working hard to provide options that are both green and economical. “We make a conscious effort to keep our treats reasonably priced for our consumers,” says Catherine Hoffmann, owner of Bell Rock Growers. Although she admits that healthy treats do cost more, she explains that it’s because of the premium ingredients and high meat content. “I think most customers understand that—just like they do with their own food,” she says. 

While those higher costs are passed down to the end consumer, price points have dropped considerably since the trend first took off, and there is a wide range of green products available today at a variety of price points.

Retailers should stock these items the same way they do any other category: by offering pet owners choices. In most product categories, retailers often stock a low- to moderately priced option, along with a more premium product—one that may not offer much more in terms of function, but might be more ascetically pleasing or better quality. “And a customer may be willing to pay for that. The green conversation is much the same,” says Williams. The key is to understand how important green is to the store’s customer base and to purchase price points and quantities accordingly.


Talk the Talk
Once a retailer has added eco-friendly options to its shelves, it needs to ensure that the staff is knowledgeable enough to sell them.

“I think the best thing retailers can do to make sure they sell a lot of product is train their employees in how to talk about the products and what the benefits are,” says Bobbi Panter, owner and creator of Bobbi Panter Pet Products. “That’s what separates a really successful store.”

Staff members should be familiar with each product and, if possible, try the products themselves. According to Art Simon, co-founder of Molly Mutt, this personal experience allows for a more sincere testimonial. Instead of coming across as though they are just trying to make a sale, it allows them to offer insightful advice and helps them believe in what they are selling—which really makes a difference, Simon says.

For customers who are less concerned about buying sustainable and natural products, the secret seems to be focusing on safety and value. “Part of the demand [for green products] comes from people making conscious decisions about the way they want to spend their money, and the other part of that demand is the realization that they are inherently safer products,” says Frank Callari, chief stacks officer at Cat House Systems, which manufacturers the eco-friendly cat furniture brand Catty Stacks.

Cat owners are already immersed in marketing messages explaining the benefits of buying natural and eco-friendly products for themselves; pet retailers just have to help them understand why those same qualities are even more important for their pets. Natural and organic products, by their very nature, lack many of the fillers and chemicals that go into conventional pet products. That means they are often healthier and safer—especially since cats chew, scratch and lick everything around them. 

“Our messaging is more along the lines of, what are you putting on your animal? What is the content of that product you’re putting on your animal?” says Justin Jones, president of Espree Animal Products. These selling points are often already present on product packaging, but additional signage meant to appeal to pet owners who are health conscious can help ensure success.

Retailers should also consider setting aside a separate section for green products, either where they group all green products together or within each product category. For example, Jones suggests having a mini-section of green grooming products, where their eco-friendly and sustainable qualities are called out and explained. Another alternative would be for the store to set up a display or endcap with green cat products.

Earth Day is April 22 and an endcap is the perfect way to use the holiday to start a conversation about green. Cat grass in particular lends itself to creating a visually appealing display that can help grab customers’ attention. “I’ve seen some really cute things done that can really be eye catching and get the customers thinking about what they’re buying,” says Eskite—which naturally leads to more customers buying more green products. And that’s good for the pet, the customer, the store and the environment.