In the Box
by Melissa Breau
August 1, 2012
Like food, litter is a staple in the cat aisle; but unlike food, the sales potential in the litter category is often overlooked.



Litter and the products associated with it—boxes, scoops, odor eliminators and the like—have long been staples in the cat aisle. But while other staples like food and treats inspire creative displays and promotions, litter and accessories are sometimes overlooked by retailers, which may only carry a minimal selection and neglect to promote the offerings they do carry.

That is a mistake. The category is still a growing one. As evidence, just look at Next Gen International Corp., which manufactures all-natural cat litters made from different species of wood; CEO Stan Yamamoto says the company has seen double-digit annual growth every year since 2005, when it was founded—even despite the poor economy.

If retailers take the time to merchandise and sell this category appropriately, it can be a major boon to their bottom line. 

 “When we first started selling cat litter, we often heard customers say, ‘Our cat goes outside, so we don’t use a litter box,’” says Yamamoto. But pet humanization has changed the perception of cats; whereas they were once perceived as entirely self sufficient, they’re now seen as part of the family—that has brought a shift from outside to inside, which has made litter a necessity.

That shift has been encouraged and helped along by the pet industry itself. “There has been a push in recent years by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and a lot of other organizations to really elevate the cat to a higher level,” says Gina Zaro, marketing director of Precious Cat. As pet owners have become more educated about their pets’ needs, they’ve taken more of an interest in the products they buy to ensure their purchases will satisfy those needs. And that includes the litter category.


Looking at Litter
The one thing every cat owner cares about most when selecting litter is that their cat will use it. “[Not using the litter box is] the number-one behavior reason cats end up in shelters,” Zaro says.

In addition to wanting a litter their cat will use, cat owners look for products that will block odor and that are easy to clean—which often leads them to clumping/scoopable litters, says Katie Tasker, associate brand manager at American Colloid Company.

Then there are the factors that cats themselves care about when it comes to their litter box. Just as they are with their food, cats can be very picky about their litter—factors like pellet size, texture, particular scents or manufacturing material may cause a cat to turn up its nose and look for an alternative, like a potted plant.

That makes it essential for retailers to carry a varied selection of litters, so all of their cat-owning customers can find a choice that they and their cats agree on. In addition to stocking options that differ by each of the factors cat owners care about, retailers need to consider how they can differentiate themselves from mass and grocery retailers, which can often afford to offer litter products at lower price points. 

In order to make this easier for retailers, companies like Precious Cat market their products as solution-based, which helps retailers match specific litters to the cats (and their owners) that have specific needs. For example, the company offers respiratory relief products that are designed for cats with respiratory problems. Precious Cat also offers cat attract products, which are designed to teach cats how to use the litter box and draw in cats that may be inclined to eliminate elsewhere.

And then there is the classic differentiator for independent pet retailers—education. “Cat owners want information; they want education,” says Zaro. Having store staff who understands the products on the shelves and can explain the benefits of various products, will go a long way toward building loyalty in the cat aisle. That means another important consideration for retailers should be the product’s appearance and what educational materials come with (or on) the product.


Selling Accessories
Once a store has a solid selection, the next step is maximizing sales within the category. Cross-merchandising plays an important role in the litter category. Products like litter boxes, scoops, odor eliminators, litter mats and the like are all items that customers are likely to purchase less often than they purchase litter, but are likely to bring a higher profit for the store.

Fortunately, they are items that cat owners always need—however, cat owners aren’t always aware of the range of products that exist. Consider the litter-box category, for example: within that one category, there are various shapes, sizes, automatic/self-cleaning litter boxes, covered/uncovered boxes and more. Or consider the scoop category—not every scoop will work with each and every litter. Retailers need to offer enough selection so that they have scoops that will work with each litter they carry.

It’s up to the retailer to showcase the options on the market and to educate customers about the choices they have—and then to help guide that customer in finding the choice that’s right for them. As with litter, offering a diverse product selection is the only way retailers can be sure they will be able to properly match customers with the items that satisfy their kitty’s needs.