Instincts Gone Wild
by Melissa Breau
December 1, 2012
Cats are born with strong natural instincts that can be destructive when not managed correctly — smart retailers can help cat owners tame kitty’s wild side so the two can co-exist.



Domestic cats of today still have many of the same natural instincts as their big-cat ancestors. Most of the time, those instincts are harmless—cat owners love to watch their feline friends stalk and pounce on imaginary prey—but sometimes kitty’s wild side can lead her to claw a brand new couch or dig up all the house plants. It’s times like those that cat owners find themselves frustrated with their pets.

Most cat owners understand that their cat is simply acting on instinct, but sometimes that leads them to believe there is nothing they can do about these bad behaviors. Smart pet retailers recognize this and work to help cat owners by offering up products that can help focus those instincts in a healthy and non-destructive way.

There are numerous products available to help break a wide range of bad habits—everything from being overactive at night to helping kitty self-groom more effectively. But it’s up to pet store staff to let customers know those products are out available and how they can help redirect a cat’s actions in a positive way.


Scratching the Surface

Unwanted scratching is probably the single biggest issue cat owners run into, says Frank Novak, product designer and founder of Scratch Lounge, the three-sided cardboard scratcher for cats. The problem occurs when kitty takes an unhealthy liking to a certain piece of furniture, section of carpet or the new curtains. She then returns regularly to sharpen her nails in that prime spot.

Terry Hannaford, CEO of Omega Paw, agrees. “Dogs naturally chew, cats naturally scratch,” he says. “When Omega Paw makes products, we normally go after solution-based products, something that tries to address an issue.” He says that the solution when it comes to scratching is to provide an alternative, as well as some incentive for the cat to switch.

Of course, every pet retailer has had a cat owner complain that they purchased a scratching post, only to have their pet ignore it. Such situations should be viewed as opportunities to help customers. Staff employees should be taught to explain ways of getting cats interested in the post each time one is sold, either with incentives to scratch where the cat owner wants kitty to, as Hannaford recommended, or deterrents to make kitty not scratch where she’s gotten used to doing it.

An incentive to switch might include catnip on the scratcher, or providing treats when the cat shows interest in it. “If you have that scratching post in the room [and it has been] catnip treated [then placed] somewhere or anywhere near the sofa, the cat isn’t going to care about the sofa; it’ll go straight to that post,” says Hannaford.

These kinds of incentives let the cat know this new object in the home belongs to her and rewards her for using it. This kind of reward-based training is well known and understood when it comes to dogs —treat training is perhaps the single most popular training method out there with dog owners—but it’s often overlooked when it comes to cats.

Deterrents can also be used to help control unwanted behaviors. Placing some sticky paper on the counter, for example, can make it easier to teach kitty she doesn’t belong up there. And spray-on repellents can be used to persuade her that the houseplants aren’t nearly as interesting as she used to believe.


From Service to Signage
Pet store employees can’t share valuable recommendations on behavior control unless they’re aware of those solutions themselves. “I’ve found that the retailers that do the best are educating all of their store staff on what the benefits of the product are specifically,” says Hannaford. “For example, if you want to deal with the issue of litter, there are so many different options; I went into one of the large pet stores once and I found there were 54 different boxes of cat litter. It’s overwhelming if you have to read each individual package, so what they are going to do—in an ideal world—is ask someone in the store.”

Employees should be trained to understand how each item in the cat aisle can contribute to bettering the relationship between cat and owner. That means getting familiar with the cat instincts that can make these pets less than ideal companions and learning which products can teach them to mend their ways.

With something like litter or a litter box, where the cat owner is likely to just ask for help, the key is to make sure staff understands some of the basic differentiators and knows how to ask customers questions that will let them figure out what product will be the best fit.

But what about products that offer solutions to problems that cat owners have, but may not know can be solved? Often, these products wind up stuck in an out-of-the-way place where cat owners may never see them and certainly will never buy them. “If you take one or two [of a product], you put it on a lower shelf, and nobody talks about it—good luck,” says Novak.

Even if these products are displayed on a clip strip or an endcap, if they lack the proper signage explaining what they do, cat owners may skip right over them. However, sales will be much stronger when the store highlights behavior modification products as solutions to the problems cat owners are likely to face and encourages customers to ask staff members additional questions.

One example of effective signage comes from a store that is located about an hour away from the Omega Paw offices and stocks the company’s self-cleaning litter box.  The store took six of the litter boxes out of the packaging and stacked them on the floor, with a sign that said, “Ask me how it works,” says Hannaford. Then they trained everyone on staff how to use it. “That individual store sold more litter boxes than some chains of 20 stores,” he says.

Retailers can also tailor signage to highlight a product’s features more directly and offer a solution some customers didn’t know were available. For example, the store could post a sign saying, “Hate cleaning the litter box? Try a self-cleaning box! Ask me how it works.” By positioning the product as a solution to a dreaded task, the retailer increases the likelihood of making more sales.

This tactic can be used for any of the products in the cat-behavior modification category to ensure that cat owners are not only aware that the products exist and the benefits they offer, but that they also are encouraged to ask questions and seek more information. After all, what cat owner wouldn’t want to learn more about a product that will solve a problem they previously thought unsolvable?

Pet retailers who use this strategy—pass along their expertise to their employees and then leverage that knowledge with sales supporting displays—will build better bonds between cats and their owners and better sales for their stores. And no one ever has to know that it wasn’t all done on instinct.