Cat Toys Go Viral
Retailers can leverage people’s love for playful felines with a well-curated cat toy category.

The growth of the Internet has been both a boon and a threat for independent retailers—but, if it has done nothing else, it has certainly demonstrated how much cats love to play.

Cat videos comprise some of the most shared, viewed and linked-to content on the web, and they are serving as helpful reminders that cats love to play. So how can independent pet retailers capitalize on this trend within their own stores? The answer is: with a smart, well-stocked cat toy section.

Experts agree that cat toy sales continue to grow. However, they offer up a variety of explanations for what is driving that growth. “The average annual dollars spent on cats is increasing, and cat toys are benefitting from this,” says Kate Foster, corporate communications specialist at OurPet’s Company, which manufactures several brands of cat products, including Cosmic Catnip and Play-N-Squeak.

Jim Boelke, president of Cat Dancer Products, which makes toys, as well as grooming and health care products for pets, holds a similar view. “It seems that as cats become more of a family member, they become a recipient of increasingly better diet, playthings, healthcare and everything else that a family member would enjoy,” he says.

Ruth Anne Miller, founder of pet product manufacturer Cats Rule, has a slightly different explanation. She says that the new attention the cat toy category is receiving has more to do with oversaturation in the dog category. Retailers and manufacturers are finally listening to cat owners, who have been drastically underserved until now.

Regardless of the reasons—which is likely a combination of all of the above—the cat toy category is popular now. Retailers would do well to spend some time reviewing their own sections and making sure they have a strong selection of products.

The classic cat toy selection still has strong sales potential. Catnip toys stuffed with quality catnip, balls, mice and other small objects for kitty to bat around the floor continue to sell well, even during the recent economic woes. Wands and other toys that encourage interaction between cat and owner also remain an important part of the cat aisle.

More recently, however, a new kind of interactive toy has hit the market—a category Miller describes as “self-functioning toys.”

“The toys that are more like little machines or gadgets, where the owner doesn’t have to be involved but the toy can turn on or off, either by a timer, or when the cat decides interacts with it,” she says.

These new toys are often showy—they attract shopper attention and, with proper placement, can even be used to draw customers into the toy section. But perhaps the most compelling reason for retailers to sell these products is the financial incentive, since these toys tend to have a higher retail price-points.

“This helps the top-line sales in the category to grow because the average unit retail goes up as well,” explains Nancy Schmid, director of business development at Pioneer Pet Products. “Small toys like mice, balls and multipacks still sell very well, but at $1.99 to $4.99, it takes a lot of lower-cost toys to make up for the sale of one or two interactive/self-engagement toys that can retail from $14.99 up to $29.99.”

Demand for interactive toys is driving shoppers into stores. “Laser toys have always been popular with cats, but with the availability of videos on social media, they are really booming,” says Jessica MacIntyre, head of marketing at pet-toy company Petsport USA, Inc. “People love to watch videos of cats chasing that little red dot, and they will usually go out and buy one to try and get the same results from their pets.”

Interactive toys aren’t the only trend worth noting. “I think the best news is that there seems to be a move to quality,” says Boelke. “There is an awareness of the importance of better-quality construction for toys that we are giving to pets, which can’t make safety judgments on their own.”

Miller notes that products that appeal to cat owners’ sense of humor are also doing well. “Humor is a big opportunity,” she says, noting that, all too often, many stores have similar selections. “You’re basically asking the consumer to just buy based on price or convenience, and not based upon a great toy.” Humorous products, however, can help a store to stand out and can help bring shoppers back to the cat toy section each time they visit the store. 

Destination: Play Land
Turning cat toys into a destination category can really help boost sales, but it’s something many retailers overlook. Cat toys have somehow become known as an impulse sale, which leads many retailers to stock only a small, mixed selection that they spread out all over the store.

Instead, experts say, retailers should stock a variety of toys, including those that fall into the impulse-buy segment of the market, and build out a dedicated cat-toy section. “People are always prone to impulse buy if they see an eye-catching toy next to the register, but I think most pet owners agree, it takes time to find the right toy,” says MacIntyre. “You want to make sure it has all the qualities you want for your pet—safe, fun [and] interactive—and that can’t be done impulsively.”

Schmid recommends that retailers present toys in subsections, such as catnip toys, non-catnip toys, interactive and self-engagement. “By creating subsections and helping the customer understand the different options in getting their particular cat to play, they will have a higher likelihood of not being overwhelmed and [have a higher] potential of selecting more than one toy,” Schmid says.

Retailers should also be careful to avoid stocking too many similar products. Miller says retailers need to choose their selection with an editor’s eye, making sure to have good products that are different from those stocked by the store’s competition.

Once a retailer has chosen a good mix of toys that includes both impulse and non-impulse buys, they can think about cross merchandising and where to place those toys they want to upsell. Generally, small impulse-buy toys are located by the register, or on a clip-strip with staples such as litter or food. But retailers should also consider toys as a way to help cats get exercise—as such, it may be smart to cross-promote even higher-ticket toys with weight-loss foods.

Regardless of which category a toy falls into, retailers should test it out. “I encourage everybody, whether they’re a buyer from a big store chain or an independent store owner, to make sure they try things out,” says Miller. “Whether it’s their pets, their friends’ pets or customers’ pets, make sure that the product actually does what somebody is saying it does.”

Another way to test toys out is to use products in a cat-adoption area. Increasingly popular in stores, a cat adoption area allows retailers to show products in use, live. Seeing a cat having a good time with a toy may inspire a shopper to think, “I wonder if my cat would like that.”