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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All Atwitter About the Great Outdoors
With February being National Bird Feeding Month, now is the perfect time to think beyond your store window, look to the trees and open sky beyond, and focus on what could be an untapped or underestimated niche that could significantly boost your business’ bottom line: wild bird merchandise.
Consider that approximately three million American households purchase wild bird seed at least occasionally, contributing to a $6.3 billion market in the United States for wild bird feeders and seed, according to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry’s Research Foundation 2014 Benchmark Study. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 47 million Americans are bird watchers, representing about 15 percent of the population, which begs a serious question: If your store isn’t carrying these goods or at least looking closer at the latest offerings, why not?
While winter—a popular season for attracting and spotting species that congregate in the colder months—is an ideal time to promote these products, wild bird feeding and watching has become a year-round activity that can pay dividends from January through December. Manufacturers are continually rolling out innovative new products to cater to the increased demand for wild bird wares.
Bushy Tails, Be Gone
For instance, squirrel-proof feeders are currently hot items.
“Bird lovers want to attract birds to their backyards, but they get frustrated when squirrels dominate the feeder,” said Alyse Burman, co-owner of The Wildbird Shack, a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based retailer that specializes in wild bird products and has enjoyed brisk sales of squirrel-proof feeders. “A solution like the SquirrelBuster by Brome Bird Care is very popular because the squirrel’s weight forces the top of the feeder down, closing access to the seed ports.”
Other Feeder Leaders
Bird watchers who crave more transparency in their hobby (literally) can now select from a variety of see-through window feeders. Nature’s Hangout makes an acrylic model that hangs on the pane via all-weather suction cups, and the Birds-I-View Window Feeder from Nature Anywhere is a similar product that also boasts a feed ventilation system that prevents mold growth.
In the category of cool feeders, Perky-Pet may have the market cornered with its NO/NO Solar Lighthouse Finch Feeder. It is shaped like an actual lighthouse, glows in the dark and features an all-metal construction to deter squirrels.
Other runners up in the cool category include feeders from Rapps Retail and Droll Yankees. Rapps Retail’s soda bottle bird feeder kits, which allow economically- and ecologically-minded customers to recycle a plastic two-liter pop bottle. The bottle attaches to a plastic base, instantly creating a simple but effective hanging feeder. The compact new Cutest Chickadee Bird Feeder by Droll Yankees sports a half-dome transparent umbrella top that shields seed and songbirds alike with a rounded, simple design.
Eating Like a Bird
When it comes to seed, there’s more diversity across the market than ever before. Noteworthy examples include:
• Audubon Park’s new Songbird Selections with NurtriThrive, consisting of wild songbirds’ favorite seeds (coated with an oil-based, nutrient-rich topping that delivers essential vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids) without any filler seeds. The packaging is also innovative, courtesy of its easy-to-reseal closure that simplifies the pouring of seed into feeders and the use of a quad-seal bag that keeps the product looking rigid and upright.
• Lyric’s Fine Tunes 100% Edible No-Waste Wild Bird Mix, offering finely cut pieces for smoother flow into feeders, roasted peanuts (preferred by birds) instead of raw peanuts, hulled white proso millet and a grab-and-go handle for a more convenient carry and pour.
• Goldenfeast Wild Bird Food, specially formulated to appeal to a wide array of colorful songbirds, to be waste free and to be compatible with virtually all wild bird feeders.
Offering an in-house/private label feed can also be profitable. Burman’s store, for example, exclusively sells a Wildbird Chics’ Special Blend, starting at $16.50, containing premium seeds (including Nutrasaff safflower and hulled sunflower) and fruit, but not peanuts (due to peanut allergy concerns around children).
Capturing a Wild Segment
Ed Mills, co-founder/principal of Global Harvest Foods, Ltd., in Seattle, said retailers who successfully capture market share in the wild birds segment are focused on “good,” “better” and “best” programs that make it easy to trade the consumer up the continuum.
“Opening priced point products should look inexpensive, and premium products should look premium. Also, off-shelf quarter pallet and full pallet stackouts help drive the category at retail,” Mills said.
“The number one consumer complaint while shopping the wild bird food category is that consumers cannot tell what is what when they’re standing in front of the set at retail,” Mills said.
Consequently, he advises retailers to avoid packaging that blends into the offering.
“In other words, premium products in inexpensive packaging that makes it hard to decipher it from the lower price point items in the assortment,” he explained.
Lastly, to build customer interest in the segment, try hosting educational workshops and special events related to wild birds. Burman enlists a local expert to give in-store presentations on correct feeding practices and lead bird watchers on nature walks in the area. Additionally, consider stocking at least a minimal assortment of care guides and how-to books devoted to the topic of wild birds, including the recently published and highly acclaimed “Feeding Wild Birds in America” from Texas A&M University Press.
The Paper Chase
With so many new and improved habitats, foods and toys now on the market for small animals, it is easy to overlook the bottom of the cage. Like the foundation of a house, the substrate that lines the base is an essential component of the enclosure—serving as a ground zero where the pet will burrow, nest, sleep and perform most of its functions.
Thankfully, pet product manufacturers have devoted greater attention to this category in recent years. By infusing more colors, natural materials and scents into the merchandise, they’ve also given consumers increased incentive to invest in the new breed of bedding and litter products.
Where wood shavings and plain pellets used to rule, recycled paper products that boast environmentally smart ingredients are today’s substrate of choice, as evidenced by a plethora of bedding and litter brands that boast materials like shredded newspaper and eliminate dust, absorb moisture better and reduce odors.
Pleasing to the Eye and the Nose
“[Litter] products with a combination of textures and colors dominate the market today,” said Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Kordon LLC in Hayward, Calif. “The more colorful products appeal to pet parents of different ages and makes the bedding section more inviting.”
Indeed, eye-catching hues are in ample supply. Kaytee’s Soft Sorbent Colors bedding/litter, made from soft, highly absorbent wood fibers not suitable for paper production and available in pink, purple or green colors, livens up any cage and won’t stain the surroundings thanks to colorfast properties. Hagen’s Living World Fresh ‘N Comfy bedding, which contains baking soda for better odor control and absorbency, is offered in tan, blue or green. Vitakraft’s All Small Animals Fresh World Bedding, another paper-based litter with baking soda, comes in pink, purple and gray.
“Using these bedding products in a color-coordinated manner in live pet habitats creates an inviting display,” Morehouse adds. “For example, using purple bedding with a purple plastic house or coordinating blue bedding with blue feed dishes and water bottles will create an attractive themed cage.”
Pleasant-scented bedding/litter is also popular nowadays. One case in point is Kaytee’s Clean & Cozy Bedding. This product appeals to the nose with aromas like lavender, rose and summer storm. Kaytee’s Soft Granule Blend, offered in cinnamon, mint, orange, rose and lavender, includes genuine herbal ingredients like flower petals to create a soothing smell.
Reducing the Carbon Pawprint
Perhaps more than color or fragrance, eco-friendly features are what capture the consumer’s conscience as well as their pet store dollars. Biodegradable, nontoxic, natural and sustainable materials are heavily promoted on the packaging, as are green practices that tout the manufacturer’s commitment to ecology.
For example, Carefresh claims its Complete bedding product is the only small animal bedding made from scratch, using natural reclaimed paper fibers that absorb three times more liquid than wood shavings. And Green Dreamzz pet bedding by American Pet sources its substrate from recycled but unused phone book paper and derives its colors from edible vegetable inks.
Carefresh also recently introduced the first species-specific animal bedding products with its Custom line of bedding products featuring paper pieces that vary in size. Because gerbils and hamsters enjoy burrowing into their bedding, Custom Hamster and Gerbil bedding includes pieces that are 25 percent smaller and more conducive to burrowing. Custom Rabbit and Guinea Pig bedding, meanwhile, offers bigger pieces that are easier to pile and curl up into than typical shredded paper or wood shaving substrates.
While many pet retailers choose to carry inexpensive litter and offer bins of bedding material in bulk, which can appeal to a shopper’s value-minded sensibilities, do not refrain from stocking the premium stuff, suggests Samuel Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing for Healthy Pet, makers of Carefresh.
“Retailers shouldn’t assume that small animal owners only want the cheapest products on the market,” Cohen said. “These consumers love their small pets like children and actually want a product their pet is going to be comfortable with and that performs exceptionally well. Carrying pet specialty exclusive brands can help keep small animal consumers coming back to your store every month.”
It’s also a smart idea to offer a variety of reusable litter pans, which are particularly helpful for potty training small furry friends and reducing litter scatter. Super Pet makes the Long John Litter Pan, ideal for ferrets and rabbits; the Hi-Bac Litter Pan, designed especially for rabbits; and the Tall Corner Locking Litter Pan, which includes a quick release lock for secure attachment to any wire cage. Additionally, the Critter Ware Small Animal Critter Potty by Ware decreases the need for cage cleanings.
Fitter Litter for a Better Bottom Line
Whatever bedding and litter products you choose to merchandise, be sure to recommend the right products and materials for the right species. For example, when it comes to guinea pigs, which have no protective hair on the bottom of their feet, softer paper flakes or shreds should be recommended over paper bedding pellets.
Lastly, don’t keep your small animal bedding products a secret; show them off within your store and offer samples that your customers can take home.
“We always encourage displaying species-specific habitats and bedding into a section of the store so people can see the related products,” Cohen said. “Also, we recommend creating a dedicated area for essential care products displayed together in a store section or end cap to help make new pet ownership easy.”
Feather, Nail and Beak Boutique
Want to spiff up your bottom line and impress customers seeking avian assistance? Don’t overlook pet bird grooming services and products like baths, sprays and trimmers, which every bird owner needs but might not seek out without a little retailer encouragement.
Truth is, over time all feathers get dry and dirty, beaks and nails inevitably grow long, and molting can be uncomfortable. Without proper assistance from owners, birds can become sick, injured and stressed. Fortunately, a wider array of grooming products is available in 2016 than in years past, and retailers can capitalize on this merchandise variety while also offering valuable tips and suggestions to patrons.
At Omar’s Exotic Birds in San Diego, educating the customer on proper grooming maintenance is a top priority.
“We hand out a pamphlet that recommends important grooming steps to every person who buys a bird from us, and we reinforce those tips by suggesting how and when to groom and which products to consider,” said Crystal Finn, co-owner of Omar’s Exotic Birds’ San Diego location.
The store stocks at least five different bird bath brands, as well as an assortment of cuttlebones and pedicure perches—including its biggest seller in the grooming subcategory, Polly’s Tooty Fruity Bee Pollen edible perch, with a rough calcium texture that aids in trimming nails and beaks.
Melanie K. Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen (USA) Corp. in Mansfield, Mass., agrees with Omar’s approach.
“When pet retailers sell a bird, they should include a list of items for the new caretaker, including a product for bathing,” Allen said. “Pet retailers that offer bird grooming services can actually utilize this as an opportunity to make product recommendations for things like baths, sprays and more to customers.”
Finn and company have been providing in-house grooming services for nearly three years at low to no cost to consumers. A beak and nail trimming plus wing clipping rings up for as little as $8, and any bird purchased from the store is entitled to the same maintenance free of charge every two months for the lifespan of the animal.
“We even have a ‘Frequent Flyer’ loyalty program with a card that gets punched every time you purchase a grooming service,” Finn said. “After five punches, the next grooming visit is free.”
If you train your staff in proper trimming and handling techniques, in-house grooming services can be a decent profit builder that creates a steady base of satisfied repeat clientele.
“You need to convince customers that it can be more stressful and dangerous for them to trim the nails, beaks and wings themselves—it can lead to the bird being angry with them and, if they don’t clip carefully, can result in pain and bleeding to the bird,” Finn said.
Whether you plan to offer these services in-store or not, it is still smart to stock up on a mix of essential pedicure products. A plentiful diversity of trimmers exist—including JW Pet’s GripSoft Nail Trimmer, featuring a non-slip ergonomically built handle tailored for greater hand comfort. For a more precise, safer trim, grinders like Oster’s Pet Nail Grinder or Dremel’s 7300-PT Pet Grooming Kit fit the bill.
Offering a range of calcium-fortified cuttlebones and mineral blocks, which help trim beaks, is also suggested. Zoo Med’s Bird Banquet Mineral Block with Fruit rewards tweetys with a tasty treat as they condition their beaks, and eCOTRITION’s Beak Conditioner is made from natural lava stone, lasting longer than other conditioner products.
Likewise, stocking pedicure perches that keep nails in check can get customers’ attention. Sweet Feet and Beak makes a Safety Pumice Perch that is advertised as safer than a sand perch and provides a comfort grip for tender feet pads. Polly’s provides an assortment of colorful conditioning perches with varying surface areas, including Desert Sands (red) and Beach Sands (yellow).
Bath Math Adds Up
“For many birds, bathing of some kind is instinctual and necessary to maintain healthy feathers,” Allen said. “However, many bird caretakers often exclaim that their bird doesn’t like to take a bath. Then it becomes a matter of finding the right method. Some birds like to walk in a shallow bath, some prefer spray bottles or even a full-on shower, and some, when the moment strikes them, just lunge into their water dishes.”
To discourage the latter practice, encourage shoppers to look more closely at today’s avian bath choices, which are worth carrying for their practical benefits and eye-catching marketability. Cases in point: Penn Plax’s Rocket Ship Bathtub, shaped like a fun purple spacecraft; Hagen’s Vision Bird Bath, with a strikingly rounded blue design; JW’s Insight Bird Bath, an inside-the-cage solution shaped like a mini clawfoot tub; and Lixit’s Quick Lock Bird Bath, fashioned as a clear round bowl that twists onto a hanging pedestal.
Lastly, consider supplementing your grooming goods inventory with bath sprays, which can clean and beautify plumage, revitalize the skin underneath, open oil glands, resolve minor skin irritations and curb feather plucking.
Among the ample candidates in this space are Marshall Pet Products’ Avian Solution for Birds, Miracle Care Feather Glo Bird Bath Spray, Earth’s Balance Avian Solution, eCOTRITION Ultra Care Bird Bath Spray, and the recently introduced Rainforest Mist Bath Spray, available in Hawaiian hibiscus scent.
Think “Chinch” to Cinch Sales
Pet retailers often bank on shoppers falling in love at first sight with a cuddly animal on display. But to really cinch the sale, think “chinch”—as in chinchilla, an animal many customers fall in love with at first touch. That’s because these critters have some of the softest, densest fur in the entire animal kingdom that you just can’t resist petting. Not to mention their adorably oversized ears and bushy tails that also get lots of attention.
To put it briefly, these short-statured cousins to the guinea pig are the perfect breed to energize your small animal section, whether you choose to carry livestock, add chinchilla products to your inventory, or both.
Committing to Cuteness
“Chinchillas are unique and extraordinary animals that continue to grow in popularity as pets,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health in Murdock, Neb. “They’re highly energetic and athletic, and the average lifespan ranges from 10 to 15 years, making nutrition and care a priority for caring pet parents. A complete and thoughtfully designed chinchilla product offering is a great use of space and will most generally yield great returns.”
Kenn Bearman, owner of The Animal Store, a Lincolnwood, Ill.-based pet retailer that specializes in exotic species, has been successfully selling chinchillas and associated wares for nearly 24 years.
“Not many retailers carry chinchillas—maybe only a half dozen in the greater Chicagoland area—so many consumers seek us out and, if demand is currently strong, may have to go on a waiting list,” said Bearman, who gets his stock from experienced customers who breed the animals in their homes. “In the past five years, we get more calls and requests for chinchillas, so we continue to keep a strong inventory of products.”
Bearman also bundles together a chinchilla starter kit, retailing at $200, containing various essentials from different manufacturers: a wire cage, a glass water bottle, a hanging hay basket, a heavy weighted food bowl, recycled paper bedding, alfalfa pellets, timothy hay, a treat, wood chew and pumice stone.
“If you are going to commit to stocking chinchilla products, you’ve got to go all in,” said Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sun Seed, Inc., headquartered in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“Retailers need to ensure they carry all the essentials, including food, hay, dust bath and appropriate chew toys and materials,” Norsen said. “Having a complete section is important to serving these consumers.”
Must-Have Habitats and Accessories
Chinchillas can usually fit into cages designed for guinea pigs, ferrets and rats. However, they tend to perch high up, so taller cages are better—20 to 40 inches high is recommended by Bearman. The cage should also include shelves, ramps, and/or platforms to allow the chinchilla to climb high.
Major manufacturers who make enclosures designed specifically for chinchillas include Prevue Pet Products, which offers a rat/chinchilla wire cage that is 40 inches high by 31 inches long by 20.5 inches wide; Marshall’s Small Animal Starter Home; and Kaytee’s Complete Chinchilla Kit.
It is smart to merchandise a variety of toys, chews and accessories as well. Hagen Living World’s Teach ‘N Treat allows chinchillas to forage for treats via listening, observation and learning. Pets International’s Chew Toy Carrot Patch and Kaytee’s Perfect Chews aid in dental health. Super Pet’s Giant Silent Spinner 12 inch wheel offers whisper-quiet exercise. Lastly, Alfie Pet by Petoga Couture boasts a
A chinchilla’s primary diet comes in pellet form, typically composed of alfalfa or timothy hay. Popular examples include Manna’s Small World Complete Feed for Chinchillas, Mazuri’s Chinchilla Diet, Katyee’s Forti-Diet Chinchilla, and Purina Rabbit Chow Show Natural AdvantEdge Formula (safe and recommended for chinchillas, too).
“Chinchilla owners seek out premium diets more than other small animal consumers and look almost exclusively to pet specialty products,” said Norsen, who adds that Vitakraft Sun Seed recently launched an updated, all-natural premium Chinchilla Formula fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and DHA omega-3.
Chinchilla treats are also more abundant in this space in recent years, as evidenced by brand-name snacks like Vitakraft’s Chinchilla Crunch Stick, Super Pet’s Combo Chew Apple Wood & Crispy Puzzle (which combines a toy with a chew), and Supreme Petfoods’ Tiny Friends Farm Charlie Chinchilla Tasty Mix.
Catering to the Customer
One effective way to promote chinchilla products is by incorporating attention-grabbing trivia into merchandising efforts, such as the fact that “these animals have an average of 60 hairs per follicle,” Stock said. “Posting fun facts throughout the chinchilla shelf space is a cost-effective way to engage with customers and provide some education in the process.”
Consumer education is, in fact, crucial when it comes to chinchillas. For example, just like the adorably diminutive Gizmo from the “Gremlins” movies—who was also super soft and cuddly—experts recommend that patrons avoid getting these furballs wet, as their thick coats work like a sponge and retain water close to the skin, leading to fungus growth. Consequently, chinchillas should not be held for too long, as the oils and sweat from our skin can cause excess moisture to build up in the fur.
For these and other reasons, you may want to caution parents eager to buy chinchillas as pets for younger children, who will be tempted to overhandle and cuddle with their fluffy friends. It is also why you need to offer products like Oxbow’s Poof! Blue Cloud Chinchilla Dust Bath, containing 100 percent volcanic ash, which these animals roll around in to get themselves clean.
Lastly, if you have the floor and shelf space, Bearman advises that you “group chinchilla products together, which customers appreciate.”
Good things come in small packages, they say. That can certainly be true of hamsters, which are among the most adorable and attention-getting small animals a retailer can carry. With more diverse arrays of edibles, habitats and other miniature merchandise available nowadays—including tunnel-based toys, chewable challenges and ample accessories to make your head spin faster than an exercise wheel—it’s easy for patrons to get hooked on hamsters and the goods they require.
A Gateway To Greater Sales
Most retailers will tell you that hamsters are not a predetermined purchase or the go-to small pet segment for consumers. But with the right retail strategies, selling hamsters and associated supplies can result in plenty of happy repeat customers, said Daniel Infurna, assistant manager for Pratt’s Pets & Feed in Glendale, Arizona.
“Hamsters can be a great starter pet for families with younger children. We consider them to be transitional or segue pets in that they could be a good fit as a first pet for kids, who will eventually move up to rabbits, ferrets or other larger-sized small animals,” Infurna said. “In our store, hamsters are a spontaneous impulse purchase, typically a child sees one and falls in love at first sight. But we make better margins on the supplies and subsequent shopping visits for the hamster.”
Infurna’s operation carries a wide assortment of Syrian hamsters, including teddy bear, panda bear and black bear color varieties, as well as dwarf hamsters—charging $10 for each. He and his team offer popular bundled starter kits, composed of products from various manufacturers, that include a wire cage equipped with a water dropper, plastic dish, bedding and food, retailing collectively at $30 (a discount of approximately $10 when compared to components sold separately).
Stocking Up On Essentials
Retailers who want to entice shoppers with hamster offerings need to concentrate on beefing up SKUs in a few key staple categories, including diets, habitats, bedding and toys.
When it comes to foods, Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist for Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio, said manufacturers in recent years have rolled out more species-specific diets, including edibles for dwarf hamsters, as well as more natural foods.
“As consumers become more aware of the ingredients in the pet foods they purchase, they’re going to continue to demand foods and treats which are natural or have additional benefits,” Kniceley said.
In response to this demand, Vitakraft Sunseed created SunSations Natural Formula for Hamsters—which contains no artificial colors, preservatives or flavors added—and Vita Prima Dwarf Hamster food, specifically formulated for the unique needs of dwarf hamsters. Both food lines contain probiotics and DHA omega 3 fortification.
Other reliable brands include Kaytee’s Forti-Diet Crunch, which blends palatable pellets, extruded pieces and natural hay fortified with essential nutrients; Healthy Pet’s carefresh Complete Hamster & Gerbil Food, filled with crunchy pellets made from 10 real fruits and vegetables; and Living World’s Timothy Toppings, available in Fruit, Vegetables, or Flowers & Herbs varieties, a complementary food that blends crunchy and tasty natural edibles with Timothy hay.
Several major manufacturers provide hamster starter enclosures that many consumers gravitate toward, including Marshall Pet Products’ Small Animal Starter Home, Katyee’s Complete Hamster Kit and Habitrail’s Ovo Pad, which consists of a four-piece transparent plastic dome roof with two ventilated retractable dome doors for panoramic viewing.
Bedding options also abound. Two prominent products in the space are Oxbow’s Pure Comfort line, which boasts 100 percent never-printed paper bedding, and Healthy Pet’s Critter Care line, which includes Shavings Plus and Natural Paper Bedding, both made from natural wood fibers to absorb liquids quickly.
The category that often inspires the most excitement among shoppers is hamster toys, boasting more shapes, colors, materials and features than ever before. Super Pet excels here with its Combo Chews, which combine a toy and chew in one product, easily hung from its Ka-Bob refillable treat dispenser, and its Puzzle Playground, an expandable, connectable jungle gym with interlocking pieces. Habitrail continues to spur enthusiasm with its 3D Mazes, chewable interactive toys with pre-cut slots to hold food and treats in place. They are offered in various fun shapes, like a treehouse, dollhouse and truck.
Chew on These Retailing Tips
“Selling and merchandising hamster products has become easier as hamsters have grown in popularity as pets, but it remains a challenge to dedicate ample space to some of these products, including hamster nutrition and care products,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Murdock, Nebraska-based Oxbow Animal Health. “Real estate is often times limited for the small pet segment. But one way for retailers to embrace this challenge is by making special efforts to create a spotlight area for hamster products whenever feasible.”
That means placing a hamster habitat—filled with enticing fur balls—in a prominent area of the store, perhaps near checkout. This high-visibility placement gives customers the chance to see and interact with hamsters during their shopping experience and creates a great opportunity for staff to provide facts about hamsters, habitat set up tips and word-of-mouth product recommendations.
Experts agree that the key to growing this segment is educating customers about the benefits of owning and properly caring for hamsters.
“A knowledgeable sales staff can make all the difference when it comes to promoting small pets and small pet products,” Stock said, who recommends stocking a good variety of species-specific pet care guides, including a primer on hamster ownership.
To aid in your merchandising efforts, consider using signage or product recommendation clings near or on display cages. Offer incentives, such as a free bag of food with the purchase of a live hamster, and participate in manufacture promotions when available. One popular promotion includes Vitakraft Sunseed’s frequent buyer program, where customers can redeem one free bag of food for every 10 bags they buy.