Herp-itats are Hot

It’s been said that home is where the heart is. But for pet store retailers, reptile homes are where the heart of your herp-related sales can come from.

That’s because, unlike your typical shoebox variety plastic hamster habitat or conventionally compact bird cage, terrariums and enclosures for cold-blooded critters tend to come relatively larger, higher priced and often require add-on products at the time of purchase like heat and UVB lamps and undertank heaters. All that bundled merchandise can add up to a tidy profit for your operation—provided you stock the kind of cages customers clamor for, say the experts.

Reptiles and Their Domiciles Find a Home
Ask Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand/Healthy Herp in Newark, California, and he’ll tell you that reptile habitats—and herp products in general—have come a long way into the mainstream over the past few decades.

“Back in the 1980s, reptiles were often kept in the back of the store or in the fish room and usually out of sight,” Oneppo said. “Fast-forward to today and reptiles are prominently displayed in stores, with many stores specializing in reptiles. Reptiles being more mainstream and people being more conscientious of their pets’ needs makes selling the proper habitat setup a whole lot easier.”

Richard Allen, owner of Reptile Rapture, a pet store in Madison, Wisconsin, says his store only carried a limited array of reptile homes when he opened his operations eight years ago. Today, by contrast, there’s an abundance of worthy terrarium SKUs to stock.

“The two brands that practically have the reptile habitat market cornered are Exo Terra and Zoo Med, which we carry a lot of,” Allen said. “One of the newest, which has been a big hit in our store, is Zoo Med’s Skyscraper Terrarium, which our customers like for its narrowness and height, making it a vertically flexible enclosure.”

The Skyscraper measures a slim but tall 18” x 18” x 36”, making it ideal for tree boas, tree pythons and arboreal lizards, and popular among retailers and customers alike who value extra shelf/counter space.

“Exo Terra’s Habisphere also makes for a great display in our store, working nicely as a showcase home for frogs and amphibians,” said Allen, noting that this glass terrarium product—designed especially for countertops or desktops—has a curved front window and a day/night light that provides a more user-friendly view of the setup and its occupants.

High-Tech Terrariums
Another new enclosure that aims to revolutionize the segment is the Biopod (sold at Biopod.com), billed as a “self-contained ecosystem that replicates real environments.” Ideal for dart, poison or medium/large tree frogs or medium-sized reptiles, the Grand size Biopod features integrated misters, an air injection system that perfectly balances oxygen and carbon dioxide, integrated heating, an LED light panel that replicates natural sunlight, and more. Plus, this microhabitat can be controlled and customized via a smartphone app.

Oneppo notes that a number of other notable new terrariums have hit the market in recent months that boast unique shapes, sizes and aesthetic features. One glowing example is Zoo Med’s ReptiBreeze LED Deluxe, an open-air screen habitat equipped with touch-activated LED lights that illuminate the interior via three different color settings: white, red, or white and red.

“Also popular today are terrarium kits, often replicating habitats such as desert or rainforest,” Oneppo said.

Zilla, for instance, offers basic and deluxe versions of both desert and tropical kits.

According to Oneppo, another trend in recent years has been species-specific cages, “which have been tailored to accommodate the most popular pet species, including aquatic turtles, snakes, leopard geckos, crested geckos and bearded dragons.”

Cases in point: Exo Terra’s Crested Gecko Habitat Kit, Zoo Med’s Reptibreeze IguanArium, the Turtle Tub Aquatic Habitat and the Reptihabitat Leopard Gecko Kit.

How to Win Friends and Influence Pet Owners
Want to sell more reptile cribs to the masses? Take them out of the box and give them the lived-in lizard look.

“The best way to merchandise is to have some terrariums set up in the store on display, especially some of the kits,” Oneppo said. “You don’t necessarily need to have reptiles in them, but sometimes just having them out of the box and set up on display helps to sell them.”

At Jungle Bob’s Reptile World, a pet retailer in Centereach, New York, owner Bob Smith does just that.

“We showcase new terrariums like Zoo Med’s Skyscraper by setting it up fully decorated,” Smith said. “We recently put a green tree python inside the Skyscraper and set up a basking spot right in the front of the cage, which turned out to be the perfect display, resulting in a quick sale of the entire set up.”

Allen also prefers displaying and using the habitats he carries.

“I display every enclosure we sell in our store because I know how important it is to keep these products visible to the customer and to show them what it looks like assembled out of the box,” Allen said.

But taking merchandise out for a test drive isn’t enough. Your staff should be passionate about herps and the homes they live in, too.

“When an employee gets excited about and talks about their own personal experience with products, it’s very powerful,” Oneppo added. “Customers pick up on this and realize they are not being fed a line just to make a sale and are therefore more inclined to purchase the product.”

Profiting from Pocket Pets

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. But a furry friend that fits in the palm of your hand can be worth even more to a retailer—especially if it’s a hamster or gerbil.

Undeniably cuddly, compact and cute, gerbils and hamsters are the crowd-pleasing pets that keep customers coming back. They’re inexpensive, easy to care for, and mom-approved (especially over mice and rats and higher-maintenance larger mammals like ferrets and rabbits). Plus, they benefit from a wealth of products available from manufacturers eager to cash in on their enduring popularity.

Big Opportunities Come in Small Packages
“These continue to make great first-time pets for many families—especially hamsters, which can live alone and bond closely with their owners, making them ideal for younger children who need to learn how to be responsible with pets,” said Laura Dow, sales representative for A&E Cage Co. “Gerbils, on the other hand, are more sociable, higher-energy and pair up well with another same-sex gerbil in the same enclosure, which makes them more appealing to older kids.”

Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health, agrees that these critters make greater starter pets for youngsters, but not exclusively.

“Fans of these species come in all ages, and they’re often just as passionate as a rabbit or guinea pig owner about the health and happiness of their pets,” Stock said. “With this passion comes a focus on quality and variety in relation to hamster and gerbil-specific products.”

While they’re diminutive in size, hamsters and gerbils have huge personalities and an appetite for adventure, further lending to their appeal, Stock added.

“These species love to burrow, climb, dig and generally explore, so products that support these activities continue to trend in popularity and demand,” he said. “Owners today are increasingly willing to spend a little more on quality foods and accessories.”

FurBall-Friendly Food
An abundance of edibles can be found in this pet segment, including species-tailored “complete” feeds that promote balanced nutrition, and which attract customers with clever packaging featuring images of hamsters and gerbils. Notable examples of gerbil/hamster diets include HealthyPet’s new carefresh complete Farmer’s Garden, featuring 10 real fruits and vegetables; Oxbow Essentials Hamster & Gerbil Food, offering a healthy blend of timothy hay, oats and barley; Small World Hamster & Gerbil Complete Feed; Kaytee’s separate Forti-Diet, Gourmet Recipe, and Supreme hamster and gerbil foods; Hartz Bonanza Hamster & Gerbil Diet; and numerous choices available from Vitakraft, such as Menu Vitamin Fortified Hamster Food, VitaSmart Hamster Formula, Vita Sunscription Hamster & Gerbil Diet, Sun Fun Hamster & Gerbil Formula, and VitaNature Natural Foraging Formula.

There is also no shortage of options when it comes to treats and toys. A&E Cage Co. recently rolled out a new Tropical Delight line of ring-shaped edibles available in dried fruit, nut or combo varieties. Prevue Pet boasts Hamsteroids Cosmic Chew Sticks and Hamsteroids fruit-flavored calcium nuggets, both designed to keep nails and teeth manicured.

The Chew Proof Terracotta Hideaway by Kaytee is composed of terracotta clay that serves as a cool resting place on hot days. And eCOTRITION makes the 3-in-1 Snak Shak Hamster and Gerbil Activity Log Pet Treat, a chewable hideaway with a golden honey taste.

A Roof Over Their Heads and a Bed to Sleep on
Enclosures come in a colorful array of sizes, shapes and materials, too. Among the newest offerings are Kaytee’s CritterTrail LED Habitat (winner of Global Pet Expo’s Best in Show award), which features LED-lit Bubble Plugs that illuminate the habitat without hurting the pet’s eyes; Penn-Plax’s Here & There & Everywhere Hamster Home and Traveler Cage, and its Rainforest Hamster Home; Hagen’s new Habitrail Twist, featuring a unique oblong-shaped plastic cage with wire framing, and its Habitrail Cristal, sporting a curvilinear white-and-orange design; and Marshall Pet Products’ Small Animal Starter Home, as well as its Folding Mansion, which folds flat for easy storage.

You can’t have a clean habitat without proper bedding. Fortunately, many brands offer substrate that’s far from subpar, including Living World’s Fresh ‘N Comfy bedding, Aspen Shavings, or Pine Shavings; Healthy Pet’s carefresh Custom natural paper bedding specially made for hamsters and gerbils; Vitakraft Sunseed Fresh World Bedding (offered in purple, gray or pink); and Oxbow’s Pure Comfort Small Animal Bedding made from soft, safe and 100 percent never-printed paper.

Convincing the Clientele
While selling and merchandizing hamster and gerbil products has become easier as these species have grown in popularity as pets, Stock says it remains difficult to dedicate ample space to nutrition and care products for these animals.

“One way for retailers to embrace this challenge is by making special efforts to create a ‘spotlight’ area for hamster and gerbil products whenever feasible,” he said.

Dow concurs.

“I would designate a particular area of your store to small animals and, within that space, create a hamster and gerbil center where like-minded items can be merchandised together,” she said.
That area should include all the essentials—from food, bedding and habitats to accessories and treats.

Partnering with local experts is another great way to promote hamster and gerbil goods.

“If there are rescue or adoption groups in your area, inquire about a chance to bring them in for special education and adoption events,” Stock suggested. “And if you have any resident hamster or gerbil experts on your staff, empower them to research additional opportunities and to help set up in-store events.”

Social media can also be a useful tool for connecting with hamster and gerbil enthusiasts in your area, many of whom may not be aware of your store’s offerings. Stock advises offering special promos around holidays, including species-specific holidays like World Hamster Day (April 12).

Additionally, try tapping into pop culture trends with your marketing. For example, create signage and social media messages stressing how much fun owning a hamster or gerbil is via a slogan like “Put down that Pokémon Go—Catch a real-world winner by owning a gerbil.”

As Mother Nature Intended

There is a reason people prefer the real thing to items like imitation crab meat, silk flowers and cubic zirconia: You simply can’t improve upon nature. If birds could talk, they’d tell you the same thing if you filled their dish with artificially flavored edibles loaded with fillers. It’s little wonder, then, that natural products are so popular today across several bird supply categories, including feed, toys and accessories, industrial professionals say.

Simple, Sustainable and Sellable
“The natural category is growing rapidly in the pet bird market due to an increase in consumer awareness of health benefits provided by natural foods,” said Stephanie Carbaugh, marketing and design assistant for F.M. Brown’s Sons, Inc. “Pet birds are recognized as important members of the family and, because of that, owners want to provide healthy food for their pets to keep them active and healthy. If stores provide natural food and treats, it encourages owners to shop there more often for those products.”

Caterina Novotny, Prevue Pet Products’ director of sales and marketing, agrees, noting that it’s usually easier to sell natural products that can tell a “natural” story by virtue of their unadulterated authenticity.

“Consumers have come to demand more natural foods and products for themselves, and this carries over to their pets,” Novotny said. “Thankfully, there is not an education hurdle to overcome; for those consumers who seek out natural items, they will naturally gravitate toward products that satisfy the health and nutritional needs of their winged companions.”

Better Choices to Put in the Bowl
The better-for-birdy movement is certainly in full flight in the feed and diet category, as evidenced by robust sales for products like Higgins Premium Pet Foods’ Sunburst Gourmet line, enriched with DHA, Omega fatty acids and digestive probiotics; Harrison’s Bird Foods’ diverse series of organic bird diets; ZuPreem’s FruitBlend with Natural Fruit Flavors; Lafeber’s Premium Daily Diet, containing natural ingredients such as ground non-GMO corn and soybean meal and flavored with natural sweeteners such as molasses; and Goldenfeast’s Premium Exotic Bird Food, which blends more than 50 natural ingredients in many of its formulations.

Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sunseed, Inc., says natural diets typically have a premium price point, but more consumers are willing to pay for the nutritionally advantageous benefits.

“The price gap is smaller than it used to be, which has led to more consumers moving from traditional to natural diets,” Norsen said. “They are also more readily available and no longer are niche items that were hard for the consumer to find. As such, the retailer should give these products prime space on the shelf to aid in visibility and improve sales.”

Vitakraft has tapped into the natural demand by continuing to expand its SunSations line—which now includes a Macaw formula with big chunks of fruit—and updating several products and line additions in 2016, such as the recent rollout of Sunseed Small Hookbill Safflower Formula, a mixed seed and pelleted diet that’s sunflower-free and nutritionally fortified; Oven Baked Crunchy Bites, available in real apple, real veggie, real carrot and real cran-orange; and Quiko Swingin’ Crunchy Donut with Egg, a tasty treat loaded with grains, seeds and eggs.

Indeed, bird treats don’t have to be guilty pleasures any longer, thanks to options like F.M. Brown’s new Tropical Carnival Natural line, which includes Mixed Coated Peanuts, Oat Spray Foraging Treats, Baked Crisp Treats, Orange Slices Treats, and Sweet Potato Yummies Treats. The company also recently introduced ZOO Vital Biscuits, which come in an assortment of ergonomic shapes, textures and densities to provide exercise while eating.

Non-edible Naturals
Owners are increasingly gravitating to cage trinkets and accessories free of plastics, artificial dyes and chemical coatings, choosing instead products with components sourced from nature.

Prevue Pet Products’ Naturals line of toys, for example, boasts sustainable materials in their natural state and original shapes, without dyes—from coconut shells, mangrove wood and banana stem rope to cotton rope, hevea wood and sisal fiber. The latter two materials are prevalent in the Naturals Rope Ladder, for instance.

Avian Naturals prides itself on safe and simple toys, including its Petite Pagoda, which features bamboo shreddings and seagrass rope, and its Shreddin Smore, layered with light and dark seagrass mats and soft pine foot pins. Planet Pleasures also makes a line of healthy toys, including its Nature Cluster, composed of cuttlebone, coconut shell husks and oyster shells; a Pineapple Foraging Toy, consisting of palm and sisal; and the Bird-E-Lier, constructed of corn cobs, talisay seeds and various soft woods that are artfully hand-strung together with sisal and knotted to a coconut shell.

Getting the Register to Ring, Naturally
As customers increasingly want the genuine article, manufacturers are more than eager to cater to their consumer inclinations for a purer product. The trick is how to ensure healthier sales of these wares.

“Having a section of your store dedicated to natural products that are fun and nutritious will draw attention to the ingredients in the food and what makes them natural,” said Carbaugh, who also suggests using signage and point-of-purchase displays to educate customers about ingredients.

Ferrets’ Merits

Don’t let their dimensions fool you. Weighing in at a lean four pounds (or under), the lanky-framed ferret may be relatively light in the hand, but they can be a real heavyweight at the cash register. That’s because it’s hard to ignore the ferret’s cuteness quotient, thanks to an irresistibly twee appearance and plush albino or sable fur that’s just begging to be touched.

Indeed, if you thought the ferret craze that began a few years back was just a fad, think again. This is a trend with legs—and a long thin tail—as demonstrated by the increasing influx of ferret-focused products that continue to hit the market, notably edibles.

Meal Zeal
Today, foods continue to be products dedicated specifically to ferrets with high protein content and fat to fuel their high energy needs, said Gail Shepard, director of marketing for ZuPreem in Shawnee, Kansas. ZuPreem makes the popular Premium Ferret Diet, which comes in no-corn and grain-free varieties.

“Ferrets are obligate carnivores and need good quality protein,” Shepard said. “Chicken and poultry are the primary resources. Because manufacturers are focusing on the specific nutritional needs for ferrets, these pets are living longer and seem to be healthier than previously.”

Angie Schmitt, brand manager for Kaytee in Chilton, Wisconsin, agrees that digestive balance continues to be emphasized in ferret nutrition products in 2016, but says it goes way beyond simply meeting recommended protein and fat requirements (typically 40-42 percent protein and 20 percent fat).

“Ferret parents are now looking to super premium diets that not only meet the basic nutritional needs of ferrets but also address their desire to safely incorporate flavor variety that is both grain and gluten free,” Schmitt said. “Ferrets love variety and now they can have it without having to eat the same base diet every day.”

Kaytee’s Revolving Menu diets, for example, are formulated to allow the safe introduction of flavor variety without unwanted digestive upset. Ferrets can rotate between two high protein meat-based formulas—Fortified Ferret Diet, with either real turkey or real chicken—for maximum flavor variety, Schmitt noted.

Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Wolcott, New York-headquartered Marshall Pet Products, said merchandise that’s healthy, organic and made in the USA are among the top ferret subcategory trends. To cater to these consumer inclinations, Marshall offers Select, a new premium ferret diet with fresh chicken, rich in omega-3s and amino acids.

Other daily formulas consumers clamor for include Mazuri Ferret Diet, an extruded, high energy, nutrient dense, palatable dry diet; and Vitakraft’s Vita Prima Sunscription Ferret Formula, a nutritionally fortified diet loaded with probiotics, DHA, omega-3s, vitamins A, D, E and calcium.

Ferrets Cannot Live on Daily Diets Alone
Owners love to reward their furry friends with tasty nibbles, which is why it pays to carry a healthy assortment of ferret treats. Notable SKUs in this space include Marshall’s Bandit line of ferret treats that are high in protein but low in sugar, available in banana, bacon, chicken, and peanut butter flavors; Kaytee’s Tropical Fruit & Yogurt Dips and its Fiesta Raisins, Rose Hips & Papaya Treat Jar; and N-Bone Ferret Chew Treats and Ferret Soft Treats available in chicken, bacon, or salmon from NPIC.

A wider array of ferret habitats are available today, too, from starter enclosures like Living World’s Ferret Habitat and A&E Cage Company’s Ferret Cage Kit to expansive domiciles for multiple ferrets, such as Prevue Pet Products’ four-level Feisty Ferret Home and Midwest Homes for Pets’ Ferret Nation Double Unit Cage—essentially two connected cages stacked together.

Few pet wares capture the shopper’s imagination like toys and play products, and when it comes to ferrets, there are plenty of these to choose from nowadays. Standout examples include Super Pet’s Hanging Sleeper Hammock, Midwest Homes for Pets’ hanging Cozy Cube, Marshall’s Ferret Octo-Play, Lixit’s Critter Space Pod, and Ware’s Three Story Ferret Condo.

The Right Space in the Right Place
Many pet stores today blend ferret products in with the small animal category, which creates merchandising and selection problems for consumers, some experts caution.

“While this seems logical at the store level, ferret owners are unique and so are the needs of their pets,” Shepard said. “Consolidating into the small animal section makes it harder to find ferret products on the shelf. This category also has a lot of accessories, treats and supplies unique to the category.”

Shepard recommends that, if you opt not to create a separate ferret section, “ensure that signage and POS materials are in place to direct ferret owners and to help them find the food and supplies they need.”

Often the strongest and most reliable method of promotion is the tried-and-true retailer testimonial.

“Telling your customers ‘we feed and recommend’ a certain product goes a long way,” Schmitt said. “Take time prior to implementation to educate store personnel on the features and benefits of the promoted or highlighted items so they can successfully educate your customers.”

Showcasing these items in your live ferret cages and habitat setup kits is a smart tactic, too.

“The simplest and easiest method for merchandising innovative new products is using them in your store with the animals,” Schmitt said. “Consumers see this as a standing endorsement from the store. If they see the store ferrets playing with a new toy or enjoying a new diet, it will spark their interest in obtaining the product.”

Attention, Shoppers
Juszczak believes that new ferret wares are best spotlighted by placing them in an end cap or feature section within your store.

“This will catch the potential buyer’s eye and also draw them to the section,” he said. “Brand new products should be strategically situated near the front door with carefully worded signs and short, easy to read messages.”

In general, ferret products should rotate around your store as new merchandise becomes available, Juszczak continued.

“Arranging the display by use rather than by category can increase sales in more than one category,” Juszczak said. “For instance, if the displayed items are ferret habitats, include other cage accessories such as bedding, feeding and litter items.”

The secret to effective merchandising of these products is to continue to be unpredictable, which keeps customers engaged.

“You want consumers to expect new items, new ideas, and specials—especially on everyday items,” Juszczak said. “Today’s customers are educated and know that quality comes from companies that have been around for a long time. Stocking high-quality products will keep them coming back.”

Bite-Sized Business Opportunities

Lacking pearly whites, birds may never have a “sweet tooth” like their human companions experience, but they do get a mean case of “treat beak” that can only be satiated by indulging in tasty snacks, delicious nibbles and between-meal yummies. And that’s where you come in, Mr. and Ms. Pet Retailer—when Polly needs a sweet fix, you fill in as the go-to candyman.

After all, daily diets are staples that bring shoppers back. But bird treats grow the basket and ensure that the customer leaves with a smile, which is why it pays to stock an ample supply of avian delicacies and scrumptious delights.

The good news is that most bird snacks today aren’t the guilty pleasure junk foods of yesteryear. Chances are they’re likely packed with nutrients and feel-good ingredients designed to both please the palate and promote health and well-being.

Wholesome and Profitable
Teri Applegate, certified avian specialist with Ceres, California-based Volkman Seed Factory, said consumers are brushing up on the health and welfare of their companion birds—thanks in large part to the Internet and social media—and are willing to spend more money on healthier treats today.

“As customers are becoming more educated about the needs of their birds, they are looking for organic and all-natural treats and foods,” Applegate said. “A great deal more thought and research is being given to choices in treats. And with the idea of enrichment catching on, treats that encourage natural behaviors such as foraging and chewing are becoming more popular, too.”

Sue Brown, vice president of sales and marketing for F.M. Brown’s in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, agrees that treats loaded with nutritious, nourishing and natural ingredients are hot.

“Bird owners are very selective about treats and want to make sure that they are giving their pets healthy options,” said Brown, whose company provides an all-natural line of Tropical Carnival treats that includes Natural Orange Slices, Baked Pretzels, Baked Crisp Treats, Natural Sweet Potato Yummies, Yogurt Yummies, Zoo-Vital Biscotti treats, Jumbo Foxtail Millet and its newest offering: Melody Mix, a tasty foraging blend for parakeets and canaries.

“Avian dietary needs are unique, and many treats nowadays offer a way to increase diversity in a way that is healthy and easy to feed,” said Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Case in point: Sunseed Grainola bars are handmade treats made from all-new recipes introduced last year, containing a mixture of grains, seeds, fruits and vegetables—including some with quinoa, mountain ash berries and pumpkin seed hearts.

Tremendous Treat Variety
Some of the healthiest edibles available today come from Goldenfeast’s Healthy Treat line, which offers Cranberries, rich in phytochemicals linked to reducing cancer and cardiovascular issues; Macadamias in the Shell; and Spirulina, a highly nutritious blue-green algae.

When it comes to treat sticks, Hagen has carved out a strong corner of the market, as evidenced by its Living World Sticks, available for cockatiels, budgies, canaries, finches and parrots, and offered in honey, fruit or vegetable flavors. Each is a crunchy triple-baked treat that contains high-quality seeds, grains and fruits and features a natural wood center that’s safe to chew. Hartz also offers a varied line of sticks under its Bonanza line, including orange citrus-flavored treats for parakeets and cockatiels, honey vanilla-flavored treats for parakeets, and peanut butter-flavored sticks for parrots.

Caitec’s kitchen serves up three popular flavors of Baked Birdie Munchies with all-natural ingredients: Cran-Blueberry, Veggie Delight and Tropi-Fruit Medley.

Yogurt-topped treats are prominently promoted by many manufacturers, including Kaytee, whose Fiesta line boasts blueberry-flavored Yogurt-Dipped Sunflower Seeds, mango-flavored Yogurt-Dipped Papaya and Yogurt-Dipped Treats, and strawberry/banana-flavored Yogurt-Dipped Treats.

Birds may be banned from movie theaters, but they can still have their popcorn—and eat it, too—thanks to Lafeber’s Popcorn Nutri-Berries Gourmet Treats for cockatiels or parrots, made with fresh popcorn and peanuts, and infused with a caramel flavor.

Appealing to Patrons
As retailers become increasingly pressured for space, “the bird department often gets fractured,” Norsen said. “Treats and accessories tend to be merchandised away from the diets, which dramatically decreases sales of these items.”

Instead, he said, treats, toys and accessories “should occupy the prime visual space with diets secondary but within the same space.”

Norsen also recommends placing treats on clip strips near avian diets and livestock, and adjacent to the register.

Applegate suggests bundling choice treats within cage starter kits.

“It’s a good way to encourage customers to try treats for their birds that they might otherwise overlook or be hesitant to try,” she said.

Applegate adds that offering a wide variety and consistent inventory of bird treats is important to keeping shoppers coming back.

Avian Amusements

What’s the surest cure for a bored bird? Something she can get her claws around, hook her beak into and stimulate her curiosity. A simple perch and mirror aren’t going to get it done; this tall task of providing a lasting pastime calls for a well-stocked product category that can be as fun to merchandise as it is rewarding at the register. We’re talking toys here—and plenty of them—to keep customers and their fine feathered friends happy.

Bird toys are indispensible products in a pet shop because they engage the shopper’s imagination with their bright colors, peculiar shapes, varied textures and materials and, depending on the item, relatively inexpensive price point as an accessory.

Thankfully, toy choices are plentiful today, with an infusion of more natural materials used in their construction, like natural fibers and ropes, java wood, loofah, rattan, leather and bamboo. The days of the plain plastic trinket fastened to a cage corner have progressed to an era where toys increasingly reward feathered pets with interesting noises, spinning movements and puzzle-like games.

Bird Baubles Evolve
“Birds are a lot like children—they want to be challenged,” said John Lance, owner of A&E Cage Company in Burlington, New Jersey. “Toys that were previously hung in a cage are now being used interactively by the bird and the owner, resulting in a stronger bond between owner and companion.”

As the industry learns more about the behaviors and needs of parrots and other birds, “toys are beginning to address those needs.”

“For example, the proverbial hanging blocks of wood are taking a backseat to toys that provide foraging opportunities,” Lance said, citing as an example his company’s Coco Monkey toy, featuring a coconut shell fashioned into a monkey mouth shape with cuttlebone and wood blocks to chew on. Owners can place treats in the mouth to offer birds an opportunity to forage.

“Birds want to have a job, so toys like acrylic wheels and shreddables in which to hide treats all address the innate desires and intelligence of these animals,” Lance said.

Melanie K. Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Massachusetts, said modern bird toys are built to serve a function beyond being a decorative distraction, be it exercise, foraging or something to chew and destroy.

“The most popular toys nowadays for bird owners are those that provide both a foraging activity as well as physical activity,” Allen said. “Pet birds are often challenged with obesity due to the rich diets pet owners offer combined with a lack of exercise, so an occupational therapy device like a well-designed toy is an essential component in keeping birds both physically and mentally happy.”

For a foraging toy to withstand the rigors of a merciless beak, it has to be built to last. Hence, many manufacturers employ tough materials like polycarbonate, used by Caitec in its Creative Foraging Systems Food Tumbler, an interactive treat holder that spins and provides changeable levels of difficulty. Sweet Feet & Beak, meanwhile, offers a Bullet Proof line of toys, such as the Treasure Chest, Shred Master and Chew Popper that benefit from virtually indestructible acrylic.

Marketing with Mother Nature
While perfected plastics are appreciated, Allen notes that consumers today are clamoring more for hand-crafted, non-toxic and environmentally friendly bird toys. Tapping into this trend, Hagen recently released its HARI Rustic Treasures toy line for parrots, a collection that boasts natural components like palm leaves, bamboo, oyster shell, corn husk, abaca and coconut. Products in the new series include a Woven Ball Foot Toy, Chopstick & Perch Foraging Tube, Silk Cascade preening toy and Foraging House.

Indeed, natural toys are more than a fad, said Ivan Fielman, vice president of National Accounts at Penn-Plax, Inc. in New York City.

“Everybody wants natural and replenishable ingredients these days—from straw to wicker hay to coconut—which is a big reason that sales for many of our toy products are going great, including our Natural Weave Kabob made from wooden beads and dried seagrass, which is soft and easy to climb on,” Fielman said.

Among other major players capitalizing on the nature-made trend are Prevue Pet Products, which recently debuted six new toys, notably the Octopus, wrought from colorful ropes, wood blocks, coconut shells and sisal fibers; Super Birds Creations, which rolled out 45 new creations for 2016, including the Rattler Ring, Balsa Peacock, Seagrass Tent and Knobby Bagel; and Birdy Boredom Busters, maker of Pretty as a Peacock, a hanging toy with colorful wood slats, funky beads, a cotton cord and a rubber ducky at the top.

More Play, Less Work
Retailers can’t rely on a simplistic “stock it and they will come” overconfidence. Toy SKUs have to be diversified, which means carrying a wide variety of brands, new offerings and species-specific products. What’s more, staff need to know how to hawk the right goods to the right owners to best benefit the bird and avoid injury or buyer’s remorse.

Terry Gao, president of Baltimore-based Caitec Corporation, said the most effective way to promote any products you want to sell is “to have store birds use these products in their cages.” Additionally, he said, “you should also categorize your toy products into different groups and use shelf talkers to help merchandise, which most manufacturers can provide.”

Lance recommends strategically placing new bird toys near the counter by your register.

“It is the impulse sale that never seems to fail,” Lance said. “And once that initial toy sale is made, retailers usually have a repeat sale they can count on.”

Credible Edibles

It’s been said that if you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime. That same adage can apply to the world of pet product retailing, particularly when it comes to small animal edibles. Give a customer a few choices on the shelf and you may rack up a sale that day, but entice that shopper with a wider variety of options and teach him how to choose the right products and you may be his food supplier of choice for the pet’s lifetime.

The Healthier Grub Club
Ask the experts and they’ll tell you that today’s consumer is seeking more nutritious fare for their furry companions as well as retailers that offer a diversity of everyday victuals.

Jim Gorrell, brand manager for Healthy Pet in Ferndale, Washington, said small animal owners are trending toward selecting small animal foods that contain real, natural ingredients and that promote health from the inside out.

“Over 70 percent of hamster, gerbil, rabbit and guinea pig owners feed their pets fruits and vegetables in addition to their daily food,” Gorrell said. “Additionally, nearly 20 percent of small animal owners who buy food in pet retail stores say that real ingredients are the number one attribute they look for when purchasing a food for their pet.”

Numerous brands have revamped their daily diets and formulas in recent years to infuse more natural, nutritionally fortified and organic ingredients and less processed components into their offerings, with more providing well-balanced “complete” foods for small- to medium-sized mammals.

A prime example is Carefresh and its Complete food line—available for mice and rats, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils, and guinea pigs and chinchillas—which taps into this naturally nutritious trend by providing 10 real vegetables and fruits and no artificial colors, flavors or shapes.

Other examples include Kaytee’s Supreme diets for rats and mice, rabbits, hamsters and gerbils, and guinea pigs; Small World’s Complete Feed, available for hamsters and gerbils, mice and rats, chinchillas, guinea pigs or rabbits; American Pet’s Diner Alffy Complete Pellets for guinea pigs or chinchillas, made primarily from alfalfa hay; Hartz’ Bonanza series, available for hamsters and gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs or ferrets; and F.M. Brown’s Sons’ Encore Premium daily diets for rabbits, ferrets, gerbils and hamsters, or guinea pigs.

“A high quality food provides vitamins and minerals not found in hay, making it an essential daily component in the diet of every small pet,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Murdock, Nebraska-headquartered Oxbow Animal Health, makers of specially formulated Organic Guinea Pig and Organic Rabbit daily diets as well as the Natural Science line of foods for adult rabbits and guinea pigs.

All About the Ingredients
Taking a closer look at new entries in the food category, Stock notes a recent focus on homogeneity and function.

“More small animal diets are marketing what’s under the hood—things like natural, fiber-rich ingredients, vitamins, and minerals—as opposed to curb appeal of the diets themselves,” Stock said. “Colorful pieces and mix ingredients are still common, but there’s been a continued trend toward uniformity and offering complete nutrition in every bite. As the lifespan of species such as rabbits and guinea pigs continues to increase, it’s only logical that owners are seeking out and demanding diets that promote the health and longevity of their beloved pets.”

Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio, said there is a current demand for pelleted-only foods for pet rabbits and guinea pigs.

“Today’s consumers are savvy and demand that pet health concerns be addressed in the foods they buy,” said Kniceley, noting that Vitakraft Sunseed addresses both concerns by offering its SunSations Natural line as well as its newly launched Vita Sunscription Pet Rabbit and Pet Guinea Pig Natural Timothy Diets with Added Vitamins and Minerals. “For these and other reasons, consumers want a complete line of natural diets as well as natural, Timothy hay-based pellets that are sugar- and molasses-free.”

In addition, shoppers are paying more attention to fiber content, which should be very high for a rabbit or guinea pig diet, notes Kniceley.

“Retailers should remind customers that, if they are feeding a product that has other non-fiber ingredients, such as fruits or other sugary items, pets will selectively eat those things first that taste the best,” she said.

Marketing Musts
If you want to increase owner appetites for critter cuisine, aim for a more enticing retail set and attention-getting merchandising tactics.

“We recommend promoting consumables together to help make it easier for retail consumers,” Gorrell said. “One strategy is to build an end cap with foods, bedding and hay that creates a one-stop destination and added convenience in selecting the highest quality.”

Stock agrees, noting that an end cap featuring hay, foods, treats, supplements and accessories provides an effective picture of what a pet’s daily diet should strive to include.

“Overall, foods perform very well in the visual context of what a complete diet and setup looks like,” Stock said.

Whether your strategy is an end cap or other special display, eye level placement of these products will help ensure better sales, according to Kniceley.

Another tactic, recommended by Gorrell, is to build a small animal habitat starter kit that includes small bags of bedding, food and hay with habitats at one low price to give first-time small animal owners everything they’ll need to get started.

Gorrell said retailers should also consider merchandising small animal food by brand instead of species.

“While it seems logical that consumers who have a gerbil will shop in a section dedicated to gerbils, a trusted brand is often more important to the consumer than price,” he said. “When merchandised by species, it is often harder for the consumer to find the brand they like.”

To amp up merchandising efforts, try stocking and suggesting foods that are exclusive to the pet specialty category, “which keeps your consumers coming back to your store to purchase food for their pet,” Gorrell added.

Lastly, remember that knowledge is power within your pet store.

“Take advantage of educational materials and training opportunities that manufacturers provide as a way to stand out and speak with a level of expertise about the important similarities and differences between diets on the shelf,” Stock said. “Also, face-to-face interactions with the customer are an advantage brick-and-mortar stores will always hold over online competition. Capitalize on this and always make it a goal to leave a positive, knowledgeable impression with the customers who make the decision to walk through your door.”

Food that Fits the Bill

Like plain old vanilla and chocolate, seeds and pellets once were pretty much the limit when it came to bird food offerings in bygone days. Fast forward to 2016, however, and it’s as evident as the vast array of colorful bags, boxes and bins that contain them that commercially prepared avian edibles have evolved, packed with greater flavor and nutrition and fashioned with different textures and healthier ingredients than ever before. And that’s got pet store owners—and their feathered friends—squawking their approval.

“Pet bird owners have become increasingly aware of the physical and mental benefits of complete avian diets as the primary source of calories in their companion birds,” said Jesse Fallon, M.S., D.V.M., veterinarian consultant with Caitec Corporation in Baltimore. “Manufacturers have catered to this increased demand from consumers by providing more complete diets as opposed to simple seed mixes.”

Indeed, many of today’s bird food brands boast complete diets, which have been demonstrated to reduce the risk of vitamin deficiencies, metabolic diseases and obesity in pet birds, resulting in a longer life expectancy and improved quality of life.

Healthy Sells

At Denise’s Parrot Place in Mercer Island, Washington, the popularity of complete diet foods is evident from strong sales of Harrison’s organic maximum nutritional formula as well as Goldenfeast’s Goldn’obles ring-shaped extruded complete nutrition formula—the store’s two biggest sellers.

“We have a loyal base of customers who trust our expertise and product referrals, and we continue to recommend these and other premium foods because we know they’re better for birds,” said Peter Gopping, manager for Denise’s Parrot Place, adding that shoppers don’t mind paying more for quality brands with better ingredients. “The modern customer is better researched and more well-versed, but they also rely on our educated staff.”

Denise’s also makes and bags its own complete diet blend, consisting of a healthy base of cooked beans and grains along with other carefully selected natural ingredients.

Variety that’s on the House

Offering an exclusive house brand of custom feed appears to be a growing trend that’s progressed beyond merely offering bulk bins of beak-friendly staples.

At Bill’s Birds in Davie, Florida, for example, owner William Kalichman has been carefully selecting, mingling and bagging a variety of custom mixes containing human grade nuts and dried fruits and veggies, including up to 100 different personalized blends for individual customers, mixed and packaged on the spot.

“Yes, we carry quality commercial products like ZuPreem Fruitblend pellets, but we pride ourselves on our custom mixes that eliminate the fillers found in many big brands and reduce waste,” Kalichman said, noting that his most in-demand in-store mixes are “Vita Parrot,” featuring bananas, papaya and pineapple; “No Waste Parrot,” loaded with sunflower and safflower seeds, peanuts and pellets; and “Small Parrot,” replete with coconuts, bananas, cracked corn and other goodies. “It’s a lot of work for us, but it’s worth it because we’ve established a niche as a specialty store offering one-of-a-kind, healthier bird foods. Plus, we cross-merchandise other bird products, leading to a bigger basket.”

Kalichman encourages fellow retailers to follow in his footsteps by offering custom mixes, so long as you’re committed to providing a large variety of clean, fresh, high-quality ingredients, which can be sourced from local suppliers you should vet carefully for the purpose of establishing strong, trusted relationships.

Better-for-the-Bird Brands

Custom house blends and private label foods can certainly help your register ring, but you don’t want to overlook profitable offerings by mainstream manufacturers, either, say the experts. Of course, a “one-size-fits-all” approach won’t work in this space, so it pays to have different subcategories of feed represented, including species-targeted brands (like Pretty Bird’s Species Specific line), premium/gourmet products and organic/nutritionally complete offerings.

If you want to stress the latter in particular, there’s a wealth of choices available today, notably: Volkman’s Avian Science Super series, available in 11 different species-appropriate blends; Mazuri’s Small Bird Diet or Parrot Diet; Vitakraft’s VitaSmart formulas for parakeets, cockatiels/lovebirds and parrots/conjures; and Harrison’s Adult Lifetime organic maintenance formulas. Scarlett offers the Nutra line, which features a blend of seeds, fruits and nutritious pellets for a range of bird species.

Many owners are willing to pay top price for better edibles, which is why words like “premium” and “gourmet” on the package often get attention and are worthy of joining your inventory if it’s a trustworthy product. Among them are Hagen’s Tropimix foods for cockatiels/lovebirds and small and large parrots, which is filled with exotic grains, Tropican granules or sticks, legumes, fruits and nuts; Prestige Premium budgie or finch food by Versele Laga, extruded pellets rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and frutco-oligosaccharides; F.M. Brown’s Sons Tropical Carnival ZOO-VITAL line of formulas containing whole grain rice instead of wheat, corn or soy; and Kaytee’s Gourmet Recipe, available for cockatiels, parakeets or parrots and containing a premium blend of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains.

Lastly, try to devote shelf space to at least a few foods offered in interesting sizes, shapes and treat configurations. Garden Goodness Avian Entrees by ZuPreem consist of variably shaped pellets with apples and carrots. Oven Fresh Bites by Caitec, the first line of baked parrot/bird food, offers oatmeal and sunflower meal textures and baked-in bits of nuts, fruits and vegetables. Lastly, Lafeber makes a tasty array of Fruit Delight Avi-Cakes for small and large birds bursting with dates, cranberries papaya, mango, pineapple and wholesome grains.

Active and Attractive

To keep from becoming couch potatoes, humans head to the gym. To keep their small animal companions from becoming cage potatoes, owners head to the pet store to seek out exercise wheels, tunnels and other fitness-focused accessories. And that’s where you come in.

“It’s important for retailers to encourage customers to interact with and provide stimulating activities for their small animal pets, especially before selling a live animal available within the store,” said Zoe Thoel, manager for Andy’s Pet Shop in San Jose, California, which functions as a pet rescue/adoption facility as well as a product retailer. “They need to be reminded that all pets need exercise to avoid health problems like diabetes and to prolong lifespan.”

While recommendations vary depending on species, many experts suggest that the best type of workout for wee ones is structured, scheduled and safe playtime outside the cage, ideally for a few hours a day when it comes to larger breeds like cavies, ferrets and rabbits. Aside from getting the blood moving, strengthening muscles and relieving boredom, designated playtime that includes brisk activity and interaction also nurtures a stronger bond between animal and keeper.

“Fortunately, more owners are now aware of the importance of physical activity for their pets and are asking questions and seeking out solutions,” Thoel said.

Shelf Talkers

Conveniently, this conversation with consumers about the need for furball speed and exertion can segue nicely into recommendations for related activity merchandise that you carry. Truth is, this doesn’t have to be a hard sell.

“These fitness and toy items can be relatively easy to merchandise and attract customers because they’re already fun and colorful,” adds Thoel, whose biggest seller in this segment is Kaytee’s Silent Spinner exercise wheel. Her store also moves its fair share of Kritter Krawler exercise balls by Lee’s and Flying Saucer wheels by Ware.

But lately at Andy’s Pet Shop, the hottest wares are edible toy treats from The Busy Bunny, including the Ton O’ Fun Bun Run cardboard triangular tunnel and Maze Haven, a customizable cardboard playhouse that can be fashioned into various sizes and configurations featuring cubby holes, pathways and hideouts. The latter, which Thoel and crew have incorporated into their live rabbit setups, has proven to be a big hit among store patrons.

Other edible accessories that keep animals animated, active and healthy include Habitrail’s OVO Maze add-on and Oxbow’s Timothy CLUB Bungalow, Hideout and Tunnel (the latter three made of timothy hay). Wicker, corn husks, sisal, wood and loofa are additional chewable materials commonly used in exercise toys today.

Accessor-ease

“Keeping small animals healthy and happy starts with their environment,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Murdock, Nebraska-headquartered Oxbow Animal Health. “While housing needs are unique for each species, every pet parent can set up their pet’s environment in a thoughtful, enriching way that encourages physical activity throughout the day. Outfitting this space with the right types of accessories is often the best way to do so.”

Getting mini critters to scuttle about swiftly is not only healthy for them—it’s downright entertaining for owners. That’s why a wide variety of get-in-shape toys are available in 2016, such as Super Pet’s Exercise Loop racetrack, Marshall Pet Products’ Turtle Tunnel and Super Thru-Way tunnel (both for ferrets), A&E Cage Co.’s Puzzle Tube, Fatpet’s Small Wheel Runner, and Prevue Pet Products’ newest creation, a 7-inch traditional exercise wheel with a powder-coated chrome silver finish. Toys that foster increased movement—from noisemakers to push-balls to treat holders—are also plentiful.

It’s also smart to stock ample accoutrement for outside the enclosure, particularly portable playpens like Living World’s Critter Playtime, Kaytee’s Pet-N-Playpen, Midwest Homes for Pets’ Exercise Pen and The Grrreat Wall flexible/customizable containment system.

Leashes and harnesses provide yet another smile-inducing opportunity for excitement and interactivity. Among the major players in this subcategory are Kaytee, offering the Comfort Harness Plus Stretchy Leash, which is available in small, medium, large and extra-large; Hagen, makers of the Living World Harness and Lead Set; and Ware, providing the Nylon Walk-N-Vest Pet Harness and Leash.

Draw Attention to Your Inventory

Many customers may be familiar with fitness and activity-type accessories, but Stock reminds store owners that many may not be.

“Take every opportunity to show these items in action—either through photos your staff can stage or in the habitats of animals in the store,” Stock said.

In addition, “educate your customers and be sure to match the correct-size product to the coordinating pet size,” said Mary Ann Loveland, associate brand manager of hard goods for Kaytee in Chilton, Wisconsin.

Lastly, explain to customers the importance of supervision on certain products like exercise balls or wheels, which Loveland points out shouldn’t be used in direct sunlight, on a table or near stairways.

Mammals off the Mainstream

From small things, big things one day come,” Bruce Springsteen famously sang. That advice should be music to the ears of savvy retailers who stand to benefit from the continued boom market for bitsy critters of the more exotic kind—hedgehogs, degus, short-tail possums, sugar gliders and prairie dogs included.

But be forewarned: While these miniature mammals can attract a lot of attention from goo-goo-eyed shoppers and kids seeking a fun and furry first companion, Uncle Sam can make it difficult to cater to this market. Every local municipality and state enforces its own limitations on ownership, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts inspections and requires retailers to be properly licensed to stock/sell certain exotic species.

Once you get past the red tape, however, the decision to sell live small exotics and their supplies can be a profitable one, according to experts.

Capitalizing on Compact Curiosities

“The four main exotics we sell are sugar gliders, degus, hedgehogs and chinchillas, and their related sales represent at least 20 percent of our animal sales,” said John Lebert, owner of Pets ’N Things in Saline, Michigan, who began carrying and in-house breeding these and other small exotic species 20 years ago. “They appeal to a wide variety of customers, including families with small children who are seeking a low-maintenance starter pet as well as more responsible young adults and single adults who desire a companion.”

Lebert said it takes time to build a small mammal exotic category in your store. It can be difficult to find a reputable local breeder and there’s a significant learning curve involved. It is probably best to start with one or two breeds and work your way up. He suggests dabbling first with degus and chinchillas, which can be easier to care for and often faster to sell.

“Unconventional exotics make up a relatively small percentage of small pets owned, but interest in these unique species continues to grow,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager with Murdock, Nebraska-based Oxbow Animal Health. “Also, finding products specifically designed and marketed for these less conventional species can be a challenge for some pet owners. But as the number of owners grows, the likelihood of new specialty products being developed increases.”

Lebert related to the lack-of-species-specific-merchandise challenge Stock spoke of.

“The major manufacturers don’t provide that many new products for these exotics, so we’ve turned to specialty suppliers like Exotic Nutrition to fill in the gaps,” Lebert said.

Nibbles in Bits

Meeting the nutritional needs of exotics starts with understanding their natural diets and finding high-quality products that closely mimic the edibles they would find in nature. Thankfully, more species-appropriate foods like pelleted complete diets are available today.

Vitakraft Sunseed offers a wide variety of these goods, including Vita Prima Sunscription Exotics Hedgehog Formula, VitaSmart Complete Nutrition Sugar Glider Food and Vita Exotics Degu Formula. Small World makes a Complete Feed for Chinchillas, Mazuri sells a range of insectivore diets for sugar gliders and hedgehogs, and Pretty Bird International sells its Sugar Glider Food.

“Hedgehogs in the wild are insectivores and, therefore, require a high percentage of protein and low fat in their diet,” said Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sun Seed in Bowling Green, Ohio. “Sugar gliders, on the other hand, require a carefully balanced diet of high protein and calcium and low phosphorus, while degus must have a diet moderately low in protein, fat and sugar yet high in fiber.”

Carefully tailored treats are more in abundance lately, too. Case in point: Oxbow’s Simple Rewards Lavender Chamomile Medley, ideal for degus; Vita Prima Wigglers & Berries Trail Mix Treat, perfect for hedgehogs; and F.M. Brown’s Fruit Bites Very Berry Harvest—a favorite among sugar gliders.

Proper Promotion for Peculiar Pets

Unconventional pets call for an unconventional approach when it comes to merchandising and promotion.

“Displaying and merchandising these products in a section specially designated for exotic pets is a great place to start,” Kniceley said. “However, retailers should avoid putting these products wherever there is low visibility, because if the shopper cannot see it, they won’t purchase it.”

It helps to make an extra effort to educate your potential customers about these specialized products.

“Social media is a great, free option for getting the word out about your new products in stock,” Stock said. “Also, work with local rescues in your area. By letting these groups know you carry specialty foods, you’ll be at the forefront of their minds if and when one of these animals comes into their care.”

Another way to get the word out about these wares is to host special educational events like seminars and workshops in your store with local exotics experts and trusted area veterinarians serving as guest speakers.

“These events are a great way to build customer loyalty and strengthen relationships with experts in your area,” Stock said. “As an added incentive, consider running a special on related products before and during this event.”

It’s Worth Crowing about Chickens

Your pet store may be hundreds of miles from the nearest farm and you might think that selling chicken feed will net you little more than, well, chicken feed. But backyard poultry can actually be a profitable growth category for well-prepared retailers who want to spread their wings beyond the confined coop of conformity and conventionality.

Truth is, you don’t need countrified customers to be successful in this niche. Plenty of metropolitan consumers have become owners of chickens, pigeons, ducks, turkeys and other urban poultry companions, and this trend that began several years ago doesn’t appear to be quacking up anytime soon—not when you consider the ownership perks. Urban chicken farmers, for example, when polled in 2014 by the Poultry Science Association, cited multiple benefits for keeping chickens, including: food (eggs) for home use (chosen by over 95 percent of respondents); gardening fertilizer/pest control (approximately 63 percent); and pets (over 57 percent).

“As poultry products have become more visible in pet stores, it has created a spark that gets people thinking about chickens as an option in their backyard—an option they may never have considered before,” said Byron Parker, vice president of Happy Hen Treats, headquartered in Boerne, Texas. “And whether they call them pets or not, owners are treating their backyard chickens like pets.”

Backyard Poultry Basics
Alan Stone, marketing manager for eFowl, a Denver-based online supplier of live poultry and related products, said many new owners are families who are raising backyard poultry for the first time. Hence, it’s smart to offer starter kits that bundle together all the initial essentials, including a brooder home, bedding, heat lamp, starter feed, feeder and waterer, vitamin supplements and a beginner’s book.

“Small chicken coops for two to five hens as well baby chick starter kits are becoming more popular,” Stone said. “Also, many families and schools are purchasing tabletop incubators that allow children and adults an opportunity to experience the incubating and hatching process before raising them to become backyard egg layers and members of the family.”

Additionally, Stone has observed a greater influx of chicken toys, including coop swings, treat balls, mini piñatas, and other goods aimed at entertaining fowl favorites.

Organic poultry goods are on owners’ radars, too. In response, Purina launched a new line of Organic Premium Poultry Feed earlier this year, featuring four new products formulated with zero genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, animal byproducts, fillers or added growth hormones. Organic nesting herbs, like the popular bagged variety offered by Happy Hen Treats that are designed to soothe and calm stressed chickens, are increasingly in demand as well.

“We’re also seeing a rise in smaller companies manufacturing urban poultry products,” said Stone, who cites as an example The Chicken Fountain in Davidson, North Carolina, makers of an automated poultry watering system with unique drip heads designed to make hydrating easier for owners and cleaner for the birds.

A newer product Stone carries and recommends is the Solar Nite Eyes Predator Protection System. It is a black rectangular box with solar-powered flashing high-intensity red lights that mimic the eyes of a nocturnal hunter—ideal for warding off nighttime predators hungry to feast on backyard fowl.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for new wares from the big companies in this space. Kaytee by Pets International recently threw its hat into the pen by rolling out a new line of urban poultry hard goods, including a chicken starter kit for chicks and hens; a chicken coop with a nesting box and enclosed run surrounded by durable metal mesh; a chicken pen with three large doors for easy access; a wire pen for baby chicks; medium and large feeders and waterers; a toy ball that dispenses mealworms or other edibles; and a hanging fruit and veggie basket.

Ware Manufacturing also offers a full line of chicken products, including a wide range of pens and hutches. One of the company’s newest offerings is the Backyard Charm Garden Hutch. It is a two level, house-shaped hutch with an area on top for growing potted herbs, flowers or other plants.

Jumping on the Poultry Bandwagon

Just as some manufacturers have entered the game in later innings, it’s never too late for pet store owners to enter this domain and capitalize on the urban poultry movement according to Jason Casto, director of hard goods for Kaytee-Pets International in Schaumburg, Illinois.

“Retailers can hatch into the new category by starting as simple as adding a four-foot wide gondola section or endcap showcasing poultry and chicken products,” said Casto, who recommends avoiding the mixing of too many different brands into what will likely be a small section.

Parker suggests grouping backyard fowl products together and clearly labeling these products and their uses via eye-catching signage.

“Don’t assume that customers have all the necessary knowledge to properly care for their new flock or that they know to look for poultry products in your store to begin with,” Parker said. “That’s why it’s best to place these products where customers can easily find them.”

Lastly, if you plan on carrying live baby chicks under your roof, be sure you have all the necessary supplies to care for them. They’re an awfully cute impulse buy for families, but mom and dad are going to expect you to be a one-stop-shop expert.

“If you don’t plan to sell baby chicks in your store, try to partner with a reputable hatchery you can refer your customers to,” Parker said.

Perches Worth the Purchase

Standing and walking all day in a pet store can certainly lead to retailer foot fatigue. But just imagine wrapping your bare feet around the same type of perch for 24 hours a day—that would be both painful and monotonous. Now ask yourself: How many different varieties of perches do you stock as well as use in your live cage displays? If you can count the number using less than a few toes, you owe it to your customers—and to the birds you sell—to expand your perch offerings.

The good news is that the modern perch won’t leave you in the lurch. There are more new products offered in eye-catching shapes, hues and beneficial materials than ever before. The bad news is that you’re probably going to have to promote this segment heavier than you anticipated, as many shoppers don’t give much thought to upgrading the simplistic sticks that come standard with their pet’s cage.

Yesterday’s boring (and foot-unfriendly) wood dowel perches are taking a back seat to modern perch products, which now are grouped into several main categories: sisal and cotton rope perches, some of which bend and provide softer surfaces and different sizes and shapes; natural wood perches derived from species like Java and manzanita; toy perches, such as wooden/rope ladders and perch swings; therapeutic perches that assist in trimming a bird’s beak and nails; and specialty perches, including window or shower types that can be suctioned to glass or tile.

Melanie K. Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass., said retailers should encourage pet owners to equip their cages with at least three different kinds of perches in an effort to provide safety, security and comfort to avian companions.

“One type should be perches from natural tree branches, meaning safe woods with no pesticides or chemical residuals,” Allen said. “Another should be perches with rope-type surfaces for comfort and to prevent pododermatitis (bumblefoot). The third are utility-type perches, such as a grooming perch.”

Bari Jasper, manager for Paterson Bird Store in Totowa, N.J., is partial to concrete perches.

“They’re popular in our store because they’re often best for keeping the nails trimmed and beaks sharpened. Concrete perches are more expensive than typical dowel perches, but consumers seem to be moving away from those,” Jasper said. “They also realize that birds’ feet need exercise, which is why grapewood and manzanita perches are also in demand—they provide a more natural feel for the bird.”

Branching Out

Manufacturers continue to invigorate this space with fun designs. Two newer examples include the Comfy Clam Flat Mineral Perch by Polly’s Pet Products, made from calcium sulfate and kelp and resembling a green or pink pastel-colored wide seashell that can be installed vertically or horizontally; and Prevue Pet Products’ Calypso Creations Hide and Seek Foraging Perch, a sturdy and eco-friendly bamboo perch that can be filled with treats, nesting materials or shreddable fibers and which boasts a tapered diameter to promote foot health. Kaytee offers a similar product: the Forage-N-Play Perch.

Twistable and customizable perches continue to capture consumer attention. Cases in point: Petmate’s JW Comfy Perch Cross and Booda’s Comfy Perch, both of which can be bent and curved into zig-zags, coils, loops and countless other shapes.

Shelf-style platform perches that mount in corners or cage sides are plentiful nowadays, too. Examples include A&E Cage Co.’s Corner Rest Shelf (shaped like a pie wedge), the horseshoe-shaped hardwood Skywalk by Oliver’s Garden Bird Toys, and Prevue Pet Products’ portable Patio Perches & Sun Decks.

Natural rope perches provide needed exercise-stimulating opportunities for birds. Hagen’s Living World Rustic Treasures Swinging Perch features self-sustaining abaca rope that is easy to grip, allowing birds to exercise feet and leg muscles while balancing on a perch that swings.

Get a Wing Up
To ramp up sales of perches and other afterthought bird accessories, consider providing new and existing bird owner customers with a checklist of products needed, Allen suggested.

“Also, all cages in your store should have a variety of perches in them,” Allen said. “This makes it a bit easier for customers to see how the perch is used and for a sales staff associate to reference a particular product when assisting a customer.”

Jasper said that while today’s shopper is better educated when it comes to staple products like bird food, they’re not necessarily up on the latest bird perch offerings and materials. This presents an important opportunity for retailers to educate patrons about the pros and cons of different perch products and suggest the right choice for the customer’s owned species.

“We hang our perches up versus putting them in bins,” Jasper said. “When hung up and displayed, customers can better see all the features of the product, like the natural nubs and textures, and it’s easier for us to explain the benefits of the product than digging through a pile.”

She uses a pegboard to hang and display her perches for sale and increase visibility and product differentiation.

But bird owners can’t be educated if your staff lacks the same know-how. Be sure to teach your crew the difference between perches and their various benefits, which products to recommend and how to properly place perches in cages.

“For example, the most common perch placed incorrectly is a grooming perch, sometimes used as the only perch or the highest one in the cage,” Allen said. “At night, birds instinctively roost at the highest level available, but a grooming perch’s surface is too rough for a bird to sit on for great lengths of time. Staff should know that the ideal spot for a grooming or utility perch is near the door, so that when the bird exits his cage to either climb out or step up onto a person’s hand, his toe nails will graze that perch.”

Thinking Outside the Bunny Box

“There’s no place like home,” Dorothy famously exclaims at the conclusion of “The Wizard of Oz.” It doesn’t take a wizard to come to the same conclusion about homes for huggable little animals, either. After all, the habitat is likely the single largest purchase a pet consumer will make beyond the initial cost of the animal. Hence, it makes sense to carry the right cages that promise a decent profit margin and a more satisfied customer.

Indeed, retailers have to be smart about what habitats they choose to stock, according to Kelly Williamson, manager for Austin, Texas-headquartered Gallery of Pets.

“Your goal is to move merchandise; you don’t want your SKUs sitting on the floor forever,” Williamson said. “In our store, small animal owners are typically not willing to pay as much for a cage as bird or reptile owners are. When it comes to a habitat, our shoppers usually won’t pay more than twice the cost of the animal. That means, for example, that if one of our rabbits sells for about $50, they’re willing to invest $100 to $125 for the cage.”

While bells, whistles and colorful new features are nice, “you can’t improve much on a product that has pretty much stayed the same for a long time,” Williamson said. “Our customers want a habitat that is cost-effective, durable, lightweight and easy to set up.”

Nevertheless, it’s essential to offer at least a small variety of habitats for sale in your store to interest and accommodate prospective first-time small animal owners, said Matt Thomas, general manager for Pet Kingdom, a San Diego-based pet retailer that primarily sells guinea pigs, mice, rats and their supplies.

With this in mind, Thomas’ store bundles two different kinds of small animal starter kits together: (1) a basic setup that includes a cage, bedding, water bottle, food bowl, cave/hideout and care booklet, retailing for $70 (versus approximately $90 if customers purchased the supplies separately); and (2) a premium starter package that includes all the former plus treats, toys and supplements, retailing for $125 (versus $150 for separately sold merchandise).

“The key lesson here is to offer value to your customers by bundling a starter cage with carefully selected accessories,” said Thomas.

Spotlight on the New and the Proven

One new cage designed to capture consumer attention this year is Kaytee’s CritterTrail LED Lighted Habitat, which was introduced at last month’s Global Pet Expo 2016. The rodent-friendly enclosure features two battery-operated LED-lighted Bubble Plugs (one for nighttime use, the other for anytime use) that allow owners to more easily view animals’ activities, plus a top-mounted water bottle, exercise wheel and food dish.

“The nighttime Bubble Plug is a red LED that won’t harm the pet’s natural nocturnal sight,” said Mary Ann Loveland, associate brand manager for Kaytee Hard Goods in Chilton, Wis. “Both Bubble Plugs have a fully protective lens cover to safely keep the animal away from the battery and light. This product provides retailers with a great way to engage customers with a new trend that will allow pet parents to interact with their pets.”

For shoppers with tight budgets and tight spaces, Prevue Pet Products recently rolled out two new no-frills small animal cages: the Carina for dwarf rabbits and guinea pigs, and the Bella for rabbits and guinea pigs. Each include an all-welded mesh top, large top-opening access door, deep base with an angled hay rack and snap-off mesh top for easy cleaning.

Convenience and portability are enclosure amenities still highly valued by consumers, which explains why products like Marshall Pet Products’ Folding Mansion for ferrets, MidWest Homes for Pets’ Wabbitat folding rabbit cage, Ware’s foldable Small Animal Playpen and Hagen’s Living World Small Pals Pen remain popular years after they were introduced.

Lastly, if you’re looking for the ideal in-store habitat in which to display your live stock of furry critters, consider a Heritage Quad Petting Zoo by Companion Habitats. This large enclosure boasts rounded glass corners, removable dividers and transparent lockable lids to produce a safe environment for patrons to interact with rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and other larger-sized small mammals.

Shelf-help Tips

Even if you don’t opt for a petting zoo pen on the premises, Thomas said it’s important to make cages displaying live animals accessible and accommodating to customers, especially smaller children who want to touch and hold small animals.

“Unpack your cage products,” Thomas said. “When you leave them in the retail packaging, shoppers only see the pictures on the box. They want to see what it looks like fully assembled and stocked with real world supplies. Customers want to see and touch a tangible product.”

It’s also vital to train employees carefully so that they know which habitats to recommend for a particular species.

“The cage should be appropriately sized and fit the customer’s budget,” Williamson said. “But if they’re interested in say, a larger terrarium than they may need, you should point that out and recommend the right product for their needs.”

Cage Appropriate

They are not likely to reinvent the wheel anytime soon—just as they are not likely to completely revamp the tried-and-true design behind most bird cages, which continue to come in conventional rectangular and/or curvilinear shapes.

But the good news for pet owners and retailers seeking more diversity in this space is that the humdrum bird box habitat has gone the way of the Dodo. Larger sizes, greater compatibility with fun and user-friendly accessories, attractive colors, textures and materials, and ease-of-cleaning amenities are among the features that manufacturers are including in their products in recent years.

Walk the Walk-in

Bigger—without being overwhelming—has been a focus lately, according to Mary Wyld, owner of Wyld’s Wingdom, a Norfolk, Va.-based pet bird supplies distributor. Wyld says that, when it comes to cages, bigger is better for most species.

“Indoor walk-in cages have traditionally been too large for many homes, but we are seeing smaller versions of walk-in cages, which afford the bird more room than the standard large cages,” Wyld said. “They can more easily be accommodated into the human living environment, and they prove to be great enhanced living arrangements for these intelligent creatures.”

For example, A&E Cage Company offers a medium-sized walk-in aviary (79 inches by 85 inches by 61 inches), Cages by Design makes a 5 by 7.5-foot Suncatcher Sectional Bird Aviary, and Cheek’s Custom Cages has a 4-foot hexagon-shaped model. Depending on your square footage, you may be able to fit these and other smaller walk-ins into your retail footprint.

Overnight Sensation

Another trend building greater momentum is providing two types of enclosures: regular-sized day cages and smaller cages for night-time sleeping. As parrot owners are probably aware, many parrot species that are single cage-dwelling pets often become cage-bound or territorial as they approach adulthood, viewing their sole habitat as a nesting site. Consequently, the instinct to protect takes over.

“The benefit of having a night cage is to help prevent hormonally driven attitudes that become challenging for owners,” said Melanie K. Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass. “This is especially noteworthy when spring arrives and our feathered companions often display new attitudes, like excessive screaming or aggressive behavior.”

A night/sleep cage should be a bit smaller than a traditional day cage, contain only food/water dishes and comfortable perches (no toys allowed) and offer the bird total security for a good night’s sleep.

“The day cage should be the place for all of the toys and enrichment foods and provide a versatile environment to ward off undesirable behavior associated with hormonal overdrive,” Allen added.

For instance, a good combo to recommend for a small conure could be Hagen’s Living World Sol Bird Cage (24.4 x 19.9 x 21.3 inches) as a day cage and Living World’s Volare Bird Cage (17.1 x 19.7 x 22 inches) as a sleep cage.

Playtime Heads to the Top

While it’s hardly a recent development, the movement to provide out-of-cage playtime remains hot, as evidenced by more cages and related products designed to increase exercise and exploration beyond the bars.

Case in point: Pets International-Kaytee offers a variety of activity centers—including the EZ Care Activity Center Playground—providing small to large species of birds with an exercise platform and a safe place to play outside the enclosure.

“These are win-win products,” said Jason Casto, director of Pets International-Kaytee, Schaumburg, Ill. “The birds win by having fun and healthy exercise and enrichment playtime outside of the cage, and retailers win because they have the opportunity to sell an additional play stand type product in addition to the cage.”

Additionally, cages with tops that provide open play areas or removable activity centers—such as YML’s Square Playtop Cage and A&E Cage Company’s brand new Open Victorian Top cage—continue to be popular.

Worth a Look

While major innovation in this segment is rare, new products that inspire “oohs” and “ahhs” continue to hit the market with some regularity. For example, Companion Habitats recently rolled out its fresh Signature line of cages, including its Island Viewer that is ideal for displaying multiple birds in your store with enhanced visibility via a 79-inch enclosure with transparent walls and a top-ventilated design.

Meanwhile, Prevue Pet recently announced two new noteworthy items. Its value-minded Copacabana Bird Cage is for smaller species, and sports a hexagonal shape and finial hook for hanging, all in a compact package available in blue, green, yellow, gray/brown or light blue. The elegant Dynasty Bird Cage has sturdy stainless steel construction, an embossed decorative design around the roof cap and base and an embellished finial.

Retailing Tips

Showcasing an assortment of aviary habitats throughout your bird section—including hanging types, models on floor casters, portable/traveling cages, activity centers, corner cages and indoor walk-ins—is a wise way to get customers’ attention and also merchandise your livestock for sale. Just remember to regularly:

• Rotate and reposition your stock and setups, giving needed emphasis to the newest products.

• Clean live cages thoroughly to demonstrate your compassion for the animals and attention to cleanliness.

• Encourage customers to interact with cage products and handle birds inside/outside your display cages, when this is appropriate.

The Tooth of the Matter

Annually celebrated as National Pet Dental Health Month, February may have come and gone. But calendar matters aside, it’s never too late to emphasize oral health to mini mammal owners. After all, teeth and gum health are constant concerns for all small pets, particularly those with incisors that grow incessantly like chinchillas, guinea pigs and rabbits.

Fortunately, an ample array of merchandise is available today that fills this niche and focuses on safeguarding those little pearly whites.

Naturally Healthy Teeth

Oxbow Animal Health’s communications manager, Lucas Stock, is based in Murdock, Nebraska. He said natural and healthy products are a higher priority on the menu today.

“The chew and dental product segment of the market has grown considerably in recent years and consequently, some retailers are now able to dedicate more real estate to these items, making them more visible and often easier to sell,” Stock said. “This growth has been driven in large part by a yearning among pet parents to provide the best quality of life possible for their pets. In particular, we’ve seen a growing demand for chews that provide not only enrichment but high quality nutrition and potential health benefits.”

Kathleen Kintz, digital marketing specialist with Plano, Texas-based NPIC, agrees that this niche is increasingly stressing “natural”—as in less processing, more organic ingredients and products geared toward small animals’ natural inclinations to chew.

“The newest chew products for ferrets, for example, combine the need to chew with other activities, such as digging or finding treats,” Kintz said. “The focus is more on what is good for your pet than ever before. Natural products that cater to their instincts can solve many of the problems that owners have.”

Indeed, pet teeth and gums are getting more attention among small pet owners in no small part because of consumer awareness about dental health in the dog and cat product categories.

“Manufacturers are merchandising these items with specific dental claims,” said Angie Schmitt, brand manager for Kaytee in Chilton, Wisconsin.

Products that contain fortified pieces designed to be more abrasive in order to mechanically wear down teeth and contain ingredients known to address tartar and bacteria are starting to gain traction in the market, too.

Case in point: Kaytee offers its Froti Diet Pro Health small animal food now enhanced with fortified pieces designed to promote dental health, as well as a wide assortment of fun chews and chew accessories for added enrichment and dental support. NPIC’s natural N-Bone Ferret Chew Treats (in chicken, bacon or salmon flavor) help remove plaque and tartar buildup while the animal chomps away.

Mouth Merriment

Chew and dental products that provide extra benefits beyond being good for the mouth can also be strong sellers.

“Value-added products like 100 percent woven hay chews and toys are oftentimes an easier sell,” Stock said, citing Oxbow’s Timothy Tunnel as an example. “In addition to encouraging play and mental enrichment, these items are fully edible and promote the consumption of hay—the ideal material for providing adequate dental wear and high-fiber nutrition.”

Chews fashioned in fun and colorful shapes are also prevalent in the market. Eye-catching examples include Ware’s Tea Time heart-shaped chew made of tea leaves, twigs and twine; Super Pet’s Play ‘n Chew Cubby Nest, which serves as a hideout, toy and chew in one; A&E Cage Company’s Corn Dogs toy, made from corn cob, loofah, sisal and coconut husk; Kaytee’s Combo Toy Crispy & Wood Hamburger loofah chew; Marshall Pet Products’ Bunny Chew Ring, consisting of natural woven grass; Super Pet’s Crispy Surprises, available in Veggie n’ Fun carrot shape or Fruit n’ Fun apple slice shape; and Kaytee’s Chew ‘n Cube natural wood toy, resembling a checker-colored, hollowed-out Rubik’s Cube.

Merchandising Tips to Chew On

Using in-store signage that conveys the importance of oral health and creating end caps festooned with foods, treats, hay, chews and toys that promote dental vitality can be a smart way to draw attention to the topic for customers and make it convenient for them to locate these products in one handy spot.

“This is really about education—making sure that retail associates and customers are both informed and understand the need for dental care with small animals,” Schmitt said.

That means also providing helpful dental health advice to patrons beyond product recommendations. For example, remind customers not to allow their small animals to chew on inappropriate objects like the metal bars of their cage, which can damage or break their teeth.

As is the case with most items, location is key when it comes to promoting and selling chew and dental products. Thankfully, these are typically small packages that can easily be positioned to stand out in the aisles.

“Clip strips are one great option to draw attention to chews and make them easily accessible,” Stock said. “Many of these items hang easily from peg boards.”

Additionally, to better merchandise your chew-worthy wares, don’t let them gather dust; take them out of the box and place them into the cages more often, Kintz suggested.

“Putting some interesting and fun toys in with your livestock can liven up both the display and the animals’ lives until they are adopted into a loving home,” she added.

Sponsors

Purchase Tickets for the PA Garden Expo
close
Subscribe To Pet Age
Sign up for the weekly e-newsletter, print magazine and more. Sign Up