When pet retailers think about travel products, they often think only in terms of summer sales—products sold to customers who take their pets along on vacation. While that is certainly a major sales driver of travel products, it is not the only one, and consequently, there is a growing number of cat travel products on the market today that are designed to meet cat owners’ needs year round.
“Travel can mean a quick visit to the vet, a longer car trip to enjoy a family vacation, or an urgent need to evacuate before or after a natural disaster, like a hurricane,” says Penny Johnson, executive vice president of Sturdi Products Inc. “Whatever the reason for traveling with your cat, it’s best to be prepared.”
It’s up to retailers to carry the products cat owners will need and to educate them on the importance of having those products in their home. Fortunately for retailers, that has become much easier in recent years.
“With education—like Animal Planets’ Cats 101—people are letting go of old assumptions about cats and understand that felines can be great travel companions,” says Johnson.
This growing awareness has led to a rise in the number of felines on the go and has created steady growth in the cat travel product category, especially when it comes to cat leads and harnesses. “Yes, cats can be leash trained,” she adds. “Walking your cat on a leash opens the door, so to speak, to safe exploration when on the road or short neighborhood outings.”
Melony Lee, co-founder of Sleepypod, seconds this. “Cats do travel well, and the misconception people have about cats not liking to travel is false,” Lee says. “They just need to be trained to go out. Our cat goes out with us all of the time. She walks on a leash and loves going out with us.”
Ready, Set, Go
A complete cat travel selection will include cat carriers, harnesses and/or walking jackets (which are harder for small cats to slip out of), cat leads, a portable shelter, litter pans, bowls for food and water, and carrying cases for other necessary odds and ends, such as toys, vet records, medications, food and litter. The specific selection each store offers will depend on the available floor space and its customer demographic.
For example, carriers with shoulder straps may be more popular at a store in a metropolitan area where people primarily travel by foot or mass transit, while options that strap into a car seat for safety are likely to be in higher demand in the suburbs. Similarly, a retailer’s assortment is dependent on how much space it has to showcase those items. A smaller store might choose to bring in only a few samples of each product type, whereas a larger store may be able to have each type in a multitude of colors and options.
Regardless of store size or demographic, however, there are several features retailers should pay close attention to when choosing which products to stock. Safety should be a top concern. Cat harnesses need to fit snugly, or cats may wiggle out of them; and carriers meant for car travel should strap in or have features to stop the carrier from flying across the car—and potentially injuring its occupant—in case of a sudden stop.
Comfort is also extremely important. “Cats are very good at figuring how to escape from uncomfortable situations,” says Johnson. “If a carrier is not to a cat’s liking, some are very nimble-pawed and can work a zipper open—and out kitty will go.”
Likewise, they may work their way out of an uncomfortable harness or refuse to use a litter box that is too small or oddly shaped.
Other factors worth considering are how easily a product can be cleaned or how mess-free it is. Carriers that come apart to allow for easy cleaning and bowls designed specifically to avoid spills in a moving car can also be helpful.
Crossing the Finish Line
It’s important for retailers to review each product and select those with the features their customers are most likely to need. “Please choose carefully,” Johnson says. “Some carriers, particularly, lack the infrastructure to ensure pet safety and comfort and generally are not recommended for airline or travel requiring containment over several hours.”
Once a retailer has done the research and carefully selected which products to stock, the next step is making sure the products’ benefits and features are communicated to customers. The best strategy is twofold, says Lee. “Have fun and informative displays, and train staff to know the products and benefits well,” she says.
It’s important that cat owners realize the multitude of uses for these products, so signage that highlights emerging trends, like emergency planning for pets, can help get the message across.
Retailers should also make sure employees are prepared to discuss important details about products and how to use them. For example, they should be able to explain to customers the proper fit for walking harnesses.
“We have talked to many employees at stores that do not know the features of the products they sell,” says Lee.
Since this is still a growing category, many customers are likely to have questions. If customers can’t find a satisfactory answer to their questions before they leave the store, however, chances are they’ll leave without the product they were considering—in other words, the store loses the sale.
Furthermore, cats are well known to be creatures of habit. This means in order to ensure long-term success, store personnel should be prepared to share a few tips for helping cat owners introduce their pet to a new travel product.
For example, retailers should suggest that customers purchase carriers or shelters well before they intend to use them, so their pets have to time to become comfortable with them before leaving on a trip. Johnson says cat owners should never force a cat into a carrier or shelter. Instead, once the cat discovers the new product on its own, the owner should provide lots of praise and a treat, if appropriate, to create a positive association. Then pet owners can try the product at home for a short period of time, later expanding the length of use as their pet becomes more comfortable. Sharing tips like these will prevent otherwise unnecessary returns and help ensure both store customers and their cats are satisfied with their purchase.
Staff members should also be able to demonstrate how a product works before a customer purchases it. “Packaging that can be opened, allowing the customer to look and feel the product—but can also be easily replaced in the packaging by the store personnel—is important,” says Johnson.
Once cat customers understand the role each product in the cat travel section plays, they’ll be ready to go—but cats won’t be the only ones on the move. With the right support, feline travel products sales can become a significant part of the cat section in any store.