The cat food category is one of the most contested pet care segments at the retail level, with mass merchants and grocery stores constantly challenging pet stores for position as the go-to source for feline nutrition products. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that cat owners have generally trailed behind dog owners when it comes to adapting new trends. Ultimately, cat products do tend to follow the same general trends as dog products, albeit a bit later, so it’s easy to predict the next big thing. This makes it easier for mass merchants and grocery stores to respond to those trends, allowing them to better meet demand and forcing independent retailers to carefully vet their selections in order to differentiate themselves.
Still, that doesn’t mean that independent retailers can’t hold their own within their local market. Fortunately, it’s possible to keep cat customers coming back for more with a dash of education, a heaping of customer service and a solid merchandising mix.
Education is where it all starts. “The best thing that independent retailers can do is offer knowledge that people can’t find in mass merchants or grocery stores,” says Tedd Ellis, vice president of marketing at Kent Nutrition, pet division. Because pet is only one category among the many that mass and grocery channels carry, it’s almost impossible for them to provide the same in-depth information that a pet specialty retailer can.
The first thing that retailers must understand about feline nutrition, says Marie Moody, founder of Stella & Chewy’s, is that, “Cats are obligate carnivores. So in the wild, they wouldn’t have eaten a lot of carbohydrates or sugars; they ate raw meat.”
As Moody notes, domesticated cats require a high level of meat in their diets to ensure they receive the right levels of necessary nutrients. Hydration is also important. Cats often don’t get enough water—a common cause of kidney and urinary tract problems. A quality diet that better meets those needs leads to a longer, healthier life.
The Value of Understanding
Once a cat owner understands the science behind their pet’s nutritional needs, the value in feeding a premium diet is clear. That means independent retailers gain a significant advantage, because they’re no longer forced to compete with mass and grocery retailers on price. Instead, it becomes a matter of stocking products that offer value—in other words, good food with a strong nutritional profile.
Because they focus on low prices, grocery and mass channels often cannot afford to offer higher-quality (and sometimes more expensive) pet foods. And, since their selection is often limited to a single aisle, these retailers are also unable to bring in a large selection. Therefore, pet specialty retailers can differentiate themselves by following the opposite strategy: a higher level of quality, as well as a wider variety.
That wider variety should include a few of the lower-priced foods—and perhaps even a few of the same brands offered in neighboring grocery stores. Those foods can serve to bring customers through the door—customers who can then be converted to a better diet.
Seizing Every Opportunity
If a store adopts this strategy, it is important that every staff member understands how to recognize key opportunities for customer education. When a customer picks up a lower-priced product, sales associates should see that as a chance to ask about that customer’s cat’s health—a simple, “How’s Fluffy doing?” may reveal that she’s been a bit itchy lately or that her fur isn’t as soft as it used to be, allowing them to explain how a higher-quality diet might help.
Further, if staff members understand the importance that water plays in a cat’s diet, they can sell wet foods to any customers who only purchase dry. “I have never witnessed an associate suggest a wet or raw food to [a customer] to try with their dry food diet as a mix or fed alone,” says Christine Hackett, president of Petropics Gourmet Whole Foods, LLC. “Every dry food bag sent out that door is lost sales in canned or raw food—not once, but for every future purchase made by that dry food customer.”
Still, it is essential for retailers to understand that suggestive selling is a type of customer service and should feel like help to a pet owner. “Good listening skills, good product knowledge and good communication go a long way,” explains Hackett. She adds that retailers should always remember the customer is boss, and they should be careful to never cross the line from helpful to pushy.
Play With Your Food
Of course, up-selling from one food to another isn’t the only way to increase a pet store’s bottom line. Even the best foods often have relatively low margins when compared to other product categories. With this in mind, retailers should utilize the traffic-building potential of the food category to drive impulse sales in some of the higher-margin categories through cross-merchandising.
“It’s easier to merchandise by product type,” acknowledges Ellis. “But if you can [place] off-shelf displays in the food aisle, [for items] like toys for example, that’s helpful.” Any promotional item that makes people feel like they’re getting a little bit of a deal—especially if it’s fun—will be a good fit for this type of merchandising strategy, he says.
The wealth of cross-merchandising opportunities available to pet stores is another strength that they have over their non-specialty competitors. “Grocers are a little bit restrained on what they can offer in terms of accessories, which helps the independents be a little bit different,” says Ellis.